Shame, Badness, and Socrates’ Theory of Punishment in Plato’s Gorgias

In the midst of battle in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Orleans tells Bourbon that his forces could overcome the English if order could be restored and Bourbon replies, “The devil take order now! I’ll to the throng. Let life be short, else shame will be too long.” His impatience for restoring the order necessary for victory came from a compelling feature of the human condition, even that which follows us post-mortem: shame. It is this same feature – the capacity for personal and social shame – that does the heavy lifting in Socrates’ famous argument with Polus in the Gorgias suggesting that it is better to suffer a harm than to inflict one, and in the case having committed a transgression, it is better to be punished than not to be punished. It is the force with which shame impacts us and shapes who we are in some base way that takes a common-sense notion that suffering a harm is worse that inflicting one if not for the sheer avoidance of pain, inconvenience, or some other consequence and turns it on its head. Once shame is introduced into the analysis, especially given our own histories and predilection to avoid dis-pleasurable things for which shame sits near the top of a long list, it quite quickly reverses the course of our natural inclinations and sends them back to the argument needed to justify such dispositions.

The Argument

The section of the Gorgias in which Socrates presents his position regarding the hierarchy of suffering or inflicting harm follows a discussion about whether or not those acts that make us happy are the good acts an should be followed. Polus, Socrates’ interlocutor on this issue, argues for a sort of hedonism – that which make us happy is beneficial and therefore the good. When on the subject of rulers, Polus suggests that the ruler should be envied for the ability to use their power to do as they wish but is shocked when Socrates brings in a notion of justice asking Polus, “…the one who puts someone to death unjustly is [miserable], my friend, and he’s to be pitied besides. But the one who does so justly isn’t to be envied” (469b). Polus is surprised by Socrates unwillingness to admit that he, like (assuming) everyone else, would surely love to have the power of a tyrant and to be free to take whatever action he so desired, including execution, excommunication, and expropriation of others.

After showing that anyone with the means to assert their own authority, usually by some weapon such as a dagger, could do so to decide that a random citizen is to be killed or thieved. Polus disagrees with this and says that is not what having great power is, rather it is using your sovereign authority in a manner that, though based on one’s will, is for the benefit the population, though it may include execution, excommunication, and expropriation. Socrates attempts to get Polus to make an argument as to when those things are good and when they are bad, Polus instead argues that Socrates is ignoring a truth evident to all, that even unjust tyrants are happy so long as they go unpunished.  Socrates infuriates Polus when he rejects this common wisdom, claiming that unless Socrates knows whether the tyrant knows justice, he cannot claim that the tyrant is happy, but if the tyrant is unjust (as was the example of Archelaus that Polus uses), he is necessarily unhappy. Polus simply cannot see why until Socrates gives him the philosophical one-two punch.

SOCRATES: So that you’ll know, answer me as though this were my first question to you. Which do you think is worse, Polus, doing what’s unjust or suffering it?
POLUS: I think suffering it is.
SOCRATES: You do? Which do you think is more shameful, doing what’s unjust or suffering it? Tell me.
POLUS: Doing it. (474c)

While Polus agrees that it is more shameful to commit an injustice he remains unconvinced that makes it worse.  However, Socrates strikes back, arguing that shame overcomes either badness or pain, or both.  Obviously the person who commits an injustice undergoes less pain than the person suffering one, committing an injustice cannot surpass in pain or both pain and badness. He makes this by analogy to admirability. “Whenever one of two admirable things is more admirable than the other, it is so because it surpasses the other either in one of these, pleasure or benefit, or in both,” (475b) and therefore, “…whenever one of two shameful things is more shameful than the other, it will be so because it surpasses the other either in pain or in badness” (Id).
Socrates then justifies his conclusion: causing harm does not cause more pain than the sufferer experiences, and since there is agreement that shame is worse than pain, that only leaves badness. Socrates does not provide a clear argument for why inflicting pain surpasses suffering it in badness. Instead, Socrates and Polus simply agree to this point:

SOCRATES: So, if [inflicting harm] doesn’t surpass it in pain, it couldn’t at this point surpass it in both.
POLUS: Apparently not.
SOCRATES: This leaves it surpassing it only in the other thing.
SOCRATES: In badness.
POLUS: Evidently.
SOCRATES: So, because it surpasses it in badness, doing what’s unjust
would be worse than suffering it.
POLUS: That’s clear. (475c)

Therefore, given the choice between the two, we should choose to suffer rather than commit an injustice.

After this agreement, and Polus’ apparent acceptance of this unjustified conclusion that inflicting pain does surpass suffering it in badness, Socrates uses a different form of argument to make his case that enduring punishment is preferable to going unpunished. Assuming that a punishment is justly enacted, thereby being a demand to make reparations for a committed transgression in the right way, suffering it is not even a bad, but a good. In just punishment, the sentence is not determined and demanded for mere retribution or isolation, but rather for rehabilitation or reparation. This is not a rehabilitation or reparation for society per se, but rather for the person who committed the transgression, though that will naturally affect the city. Doing an unjust act represents a corruption (or badness) of soul, something deeply ingrained and fundamental to the guilty person. It may be analogized to a disease demanding a cure. A just punishment is the cure. Punishment serves to realign the soul by making due with the badness it carries and if the punishment is taken in stride and accepted by the guilty. Only then will reparations to the soul bepossible: without it, in the person who escapes punishment, there is no chance for rehabilitation and so the soul remains corrupted.

Through this form of argument, we get tacit agreement between Socrates and Polus.

SOCRATES: Now wasn’t this the point in dispute between us, my friend? You considered Archelaus happy, a man who committed the gravest crimes without paying what was due, whereas I took the opposite view, that whoever avoids paying his due for his wrongdoing, whether he’s Archelaus or any other man, is and deserves to be miserable beyond all other men, and that one who does what’s unjust is always more miserable than the one who suffers it, and the one who avoids paying what’s due always more miserable than the one who does pay it. Weren’t these the things I said?
SOCRATES: Hasn’t it been proved that what was said is true?
POLUS: Apparently. (479e)

So while Polus does allow Socrates to feel as though he had convinced him, the answer “apparently” seems to indicate that Polus is more interested in following Socrates’ reasoning than actually agreeing with it. The question remains whether he has good reason to remain unconvinced.

The Issue of Greater Badness in Inflicting Harm

The disagreement embodied in the dialogue between Socrates and Polus is one that still rages today. In the age of post-modernist constructionism and moral relativism, the notion that actually submitting oneself for punishment seems simply illogical, and Polus’ position against Socrates reflects this seemingly natural conclusion. It seems obvious to those envisioning what harms punishment may include that suffering such punishment will surely be bad for the person who suffers it. It is rather straightforward that the pain, aguish, loneliness, and indeed shame that accompany almost any punishment make the desire to avoid those consequences as natural as any human tendency to avoid pain and seek pleasure.

The value of Socrates argument is to turn this common sense notion on its head. To do this, Socrates must contend with the commonplace notion of pain avoidance. To do this he adds in the relation that doing harm and suffering it have effects beyond merely the physicality of pain by its relationship to the virtuousness of one’s soul. Making the case that inflicting a harm as opposed to suffering just punishment detracts from the ability for ones soul to retain or even seek virtue is the mechanism that Socrates employs to all but bait and switches Polus into considering the effect of these acts not merely on our person, but on our being. However, there is a flaw in his attempt to make this argument lock tight.
The failure of Socrates’ argument, at least as it relates to inflicting harm compared to causing it, is the notion of “badness”. In making the analogy to admirability, Socrates posits that what is most shameful is what surpasses others in pain, or badness or both (475c). But since it is obvious to Socrates and Polus that causing harm does not produce in the person causing the harm more pain, that leave only badness. Yet, rather than asking whether inflicting harm surpasses suffering it in badness, and the discussion surrounding whether this claim is indeed valid, Socrates and Polus simply agree that causing it surpasses suffering it in badness. The natural question arises: why?

Indeed the assertion of this principle and the lack of explanation as to the justification of the conclusion leave more questions than answers. Presumably, Socrates means badness of the soul when he refers to badness that, unlike pain, is not an immediate sensation, but a manifestation of the action in the person. Therefore, Socrates may argue that causing harm, especially if we assume it is unjust harm (harm done for no good reason, in the wrong way, at the wrong time, etc.), has the converse effect on the soul as submitting to just punishment does – it all but disallows the perpetrator from being just or good.

Therefore, if doing the harm prohibits the person causing it from knowing and pursuing virtue, then it may reasonably be referred to as “bad”. Since suffering an unjust harm does not have a similar effect on the soul of the punished (in theory it should have no effect on the attainment and seeking of virtue) and causing it would have such an effect, and we call that effect “bad”, then doing acts which would constitute unjust infliction of harm would surpass suffering it in “badness.” Though one may pull this from the pages and somewhat between the lines, Socrates may still be correct, but fails to adequately make his point without extra work by the reader. Perhaps this is an example of Plato’s (and Socrates) insistence that philosophy cannot be written and instead comes from interaction – in this case, with the failure of Socrates to sufficiently lay out his position to Polus.

The Issue of Just Punishment

A second issue with Socrates argument that suffering (just) punishment is better than not doing so. This is a different form of argument than the comparative of inflicting or suffering harm, rather it explores the existential dichotomy of submitting to or avoiding (just) punishment. Introducing the idea, Socrates claims that submitting to (just) punishment is good as it acts as payment for the wrong committed, thereby allowing the person being punished to pay their just due. Crucial to this notion is the form and intent of the punishment, in order to evaluate whether such a form and intent is indeed just. While related to the argument, this is not the central issues between Polus and Socrates regarding punishment as both agree that the kind of punishment Socrates suggests is one that the guilty ought to submit to because it is just. But how would we know?

If we are to evaluate the justness of a form of punishment, especially the form of punishment in Ancient Athens, we must have some notion of what those punishments were. Unfortunately, Socrates and Polus give only a glimpse of the forms of punishment used in their time: put on the rack, castrated, and has his eyes burned out, subjected to a host of other abuses of all sorts, and then made to witness his wife and children undergo the same. Granted, these are punishments for the plotting tyrant, so may be some of the harshest based on the severity of the crime. The other punishments in Athens included limited loss of political rights, total disfranchisement, exile from the city (which could be amplified with the confiscation of property and/or the razing of the convict’s house), and death (which could be amplified with the confiscation of property and/or the razing of the convict’s house and/or a refusal of burial). In short, the punishments were rather harsh compared to the standards of the 21 century.

Indeed, under modern notion of human rights, set forth in international agreements and covenants, these punishments are categorically unjust, if not outrightly prohibited. The use of stocks would be humiliating and degrading treatment, loss of political rights can only happen in the most severe crimes, exile is considered cruel and unusual, destruction of property also violates international norms, and capital punishment is either outlawed or seldom used in a majority of nations around the globe. Clearly, the world has come to understand that the forms of punishment used in Ancient Greece, with Athens being the most lenient of the Greek City-States, are beyond the pale and therefore arguably unjust per se.

Modern theories of punishment, though, do incorporate the basic thrust of Socrates’ argument. At present, there are four main justifications of punishment – retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. Two of these theories, retribution and rehabilitation, appear to be in line with what Socrates proposes. Retribution is usually understood in the formulation from Exodus 21:24 as an “eye for an eye, or a tooth for tooth…”. Essentially, in order for a punishment to be fitting, it has to, in some way, match the crime. Socrates may not agree with the Mosaic notion of perfect equality (literally doing to the guilty what they had done) but that in order for the punishment to be considered just, and aid in repairing the soul corrupted by the commission of the act, it must have a relation or some comparative link to the crime; otherwise how could it be just if justice is understood in punishment to be that which is most calculated to repair the damaged soul?

Rehabilitation is the closest modern theory of punishment to Socrates’. The purpose of punishment under this theory, compared to adjusting the calculation of other would-be criminals (deterrence) or to ensure that the criminal is unable to commit the same act again (incapacitation), rehabilitation seeks to identify the underlying cause of the person’s transgression. This is almost exactly what Socrates argues, that the purpose of (just) punishment is to repair the soul. In modern parlance, this translates into healing the person’s physiological, psychological, economic, social, emotional, and indeed moral well-being. The main difference between Socrates notion and the modern notion of rehabilitative justice is simply what needs healing. A modern reader could understand, despite Socrates’ attempts elsewhere to make an argument for the existence of a soul, that what he means by that – at least for the purposes of justifying submitting to punishment – is simply the totality of the person’s personality, including both tangible biological brain states as well as their corresponding more ephemeral emotional responses.


Socrates’ discussion with Polus regarding the comparative righteousness of inflicting or suffering harm and whether or not to submit to punishment, is actually quite progressive, even in modern times. While it seems that, for a number of reasons, the notions of punishment either as a mere shaming of the perpetrator, or as a deterrent to others, or to protect society remain popular. Luckily, modern scientific inquiry into psychology, sociology, and medicine has yielded considerable work on the positive and adverse effects of certain forms of punishment. In this research, there is growing consensus that if the goal is to remove individuals from the cycle of criminality, imprisonment, and state intervention into their lives, then we must accept the basic premise of Socrates argument – doing something bad does indeed hurt us on some fundamental level and that submitting to rehabilitative punishment may be the key to the personal (though not the social) ills which lead individuals to commit crimes at all.

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