Whip Scars on the Naked Soul:

Myth and Elenchos in Plato's Gorgias

Stripped of his regal robes and all the trappings of his worldly power, the soul of the Great King cowers naked before Rhadamanthys, who looks down upon the crippled wretch before him, disfigured like the basest slave by the marks of the whip and covered with festering sores. Many scholars (most importantly Annas, "Plato's Myths of Judgement," Phronesis, Vol. XXVII 1982, pp. 119-143) have interpreted this horrific image of the judgement of the soul from Plato's Gorgias as a threat of hell-fire designed to convince the skeptical Callicles that justice pays 'in the end.' Socrates' myth, however, does not supply a missing part of the argument for a just life by threatening afterlife retribution. Rather, the graphic images of the judgement illustrate the process of the Socratic elenchos as a way of judging how to live a just life in this world. Plato carefully tailors the details of the myth to correspond to the arguments in the discussions. Understanding these correspondences not only sheds light on the details of the elenchos and the other topics of the arguments, but it provides a better comprehension of the role of the myth within Plato's dialogue.

In the Gorgias, Socrates explicitly discusses his elenctic methods in contrast with those of his rhetorical interlocutors (cp. studies by Vlastos, Kahn, etal.). The myth provides an illustration of this contrast, and the vivid picture of the soul stripped naked and revealing all its deformities and scars to the expert eye of the judge is an image of the Socratic elenchos. Two elements in particular, the nakedness of the soul and the traces of ill-health visible to the judge, correspond to the description of the Socratic elenchos. According to the myth, the soul is no longer judged before death in a court like the Athenian court that condemned Socrates, but it is stripped of its body at death and faces unprepared a single expert judge, bereft of its marks of status and its crowds of supporting witnesses. Like the afterlife judgement, the Socratic elenchos examines a single person, stripped of all other witnesses and without the benefit of any marks of status or oratorical preparation.

To link the elenchos with the scars on the soul in the myth, Plato uses a medical metaphor. The tyrant's soul bears the marks of disease, the festering wounds of injustices committed and never corrected, while the philosopher's soul is in good health. Although the tyrant may appear to flourish, the expert examination of the judge reveals his true state and prescribes the appropriate treatment. This afterlife punishment (kolasis) may be painful, but only such correction (kolasis) can heal the wounded soul. The elenchos too is a painful treatment, and Socrates' interlocutors squirm like little children when they are forced to take their medicine. Socrates warns Callicles that if he does not accept the treatment of the elenchos, he will go through life out of harmony with himself, without the proper balance and order that constitutes health, not just for the individual but for the cosmos. If he does not take the medicine his elenctic examination has prescribed, the errors of his life will fester and scar. The final myth in the Gorgias, therefore, is not an appeal to retribution in the next life that supplies the deficiencies of justice in this life, but an illustration of the effects of living an unexamined life. When the souls of his interlocutors are exposed to the judgement of the Socratic elenchos, the festering wounds caused by their ways of life are laid bare.