Gorgias by Plato (trans. Donald J. Zeyl)

“I’m referring to the ability to persuade by speeches judges in a law court, councillors in a council meeting, and assemblymen in an assembly or in any other political gathering that might take place. In point of fact, with this ability you’ll have the doctor for your slave, and the physical trainer, too. As for this financial expert of yours, he’ll turn out to be making more money for somebody else instead of himself; for you, in fact, if you’ve got the ability to speak and to persuade the crowds.”

In this famous dialogue that served as a test run for The Republic, the reader witnesses Socrates shift from the defensive posture of earlier dialogues to an aggressive attack on Sophistry. Like the Protagoras, Socrates attempts to prove the superiority of philosophy in comparison to the cheap tricks of rhetoric.

The dialogue opens with Socrates arriving late for a banquet where the sophist Gorgias was giving a speech. A politician named Callicles greets Socrates. With him is Polus, a dim-witted student of Gorgias, and Chaerophon, a student of Socrates.

Socrates is interested in questioning Gorgias about the nature of oratory because he has seen how influential this new method of teaching is among the youths and politicians. During his speeches, Gorgias promises to answer any questions his audience asks about any topic in the world.

As a preliminary to the great debate that will follow, the two students of the great masters go at each other. Chaerephon attempts to ask questions of Polus about the nature of rhetoric; he wants to know what craft Gorgias is knowledgeable in, and what would be the correct title to call someone who teaches this craft. Polus gives an ornate response about how their craft is the most admirable of all the crafts, but never answers the actual question. In this introductory debate, Plato sets the tone of the conflict by pitting the two methods of dialectic and rhetoric against each other. Any time someone turns to long speeches in the dialogue, it usually is a way of avoiding the answers to tough questions.

Socrates and Gorgias take over at this point. Gorgias defines himself as an orator and calls his craft oratory. Gorgias claims that oratory is knowledge about how to make speeches. Socrates questions whether the orator is concerned with all forms of speeches like explaining how sick people should be treated in order to get well, which are clearly the domain of doctors and the craft of medicine. He extends this line of reasoning by pointing out that all crafts are concerned with speech-making in their own specialized areas.  Gorgias tries to slip out of this by claiming that the reason these other crafts are not oratory is because they still consist of mostly working with your hands rather than speech-making. Socrates scrutinizes this claim by breaking down certain concrete disciplines like math and sculpting, showing that certain disciplines require more hands-on work than speeches, while other disciplines approach their craft with words. By establishing this, Plato shows that many disciplines share the methods of oratory in how they deliver knowledge to pupils, and that Gorgias still has not explained with what area of knowledge oratory concerns itself.

Gorgias continues to avoid defining it, until finally he claims that oratory allows you to manipulate others for your own personal gain. Ironically, Gorgias paints oratory in a particularly bad light in this instance; oratory is the knowledge of how to manipulate others through words. It is the craft of persuasion.

Gorgias notes that oratory can convince a person with no knowledge to appoint himself over a person with real knowledge of a subject. The specific example he uses is a doctor. This claim demonstrates the full corrupting power of sophistry: when you go into surgery you probably do not want a fake doctor performing the procedure, but rhetoric’s primary purpose is allow the charlatans who have no knowledge to put themselves in positions of power.

One lecture I listened to compares Gorgias to Darth Vader. When Gorgias says,

“Oh yes, Socrates, if only you knew all of it, that it encompasses and subordinates to itself just about everything that can be accomplished.”

I can not help when reading this but hear Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker, “if only you knew the power of the Darkside.” In fact that might be a good way to frame this entire debate, Socrates’ philosophy is the light-side of the force, espousing truth and justice, while Gorgias’ sophistry is the darkside. One teaches a true understanding of justice, the other gives the illusion of it and perverts it.

At this point, Polus, the student reenters the fray, thinking he can best Socrates, even though his master pretty much just got schooled by him. In reverse of a typical Socratic dialogue, we now have the sophist asking questions and Socrates answering them. Socrates claims that he does not think oratory is a craft at all, but rather a knack. He compares it to pastry-baking whose counterpart would be medicine. Pastry-bakers will try to convince you that the sweets they produce is good for you, that they know better than doctors, even as the sugary foods slowly fatten you up and rot your body. Oratory has the same effect on the soul.

Socrates  noted earlier in the dialogue that learning and convincing are not the same thing. Convictions, by which I think he means beliefs or opinions, can be true or false. Real knowledge for Socrates can never be true or false; it is knowledge by the very fact that it is the truth. Oratory produces the persuasion that comes from being convinced, not the persuasion that comes from genuine learning, of what is just and unjust.

The student of Gorgias goes on to claim that the life of a tyrant is enviable because they can do whatever they want without repercussion and, therefore, must be happy. Rhetoric gives one the power to do what one pleases — even to engage in injustice. Socrates disproves this notion by showing that tyrants do not do what they truly want or what is best for themselves. In relation to this argument, Polus also suggests that it is worse to suffer injustice than to commit injustice, thus implying that you might as well be on the living at the top of the power food chain than living at the bottom. Socrates responds to this argument by showing the opposite is true; it is in fact better to suffer violence than to commit it. He points out that it is more shameful to commit a violent act against another human being than to be the one who suffered from it.

Polus’ defense of tyranny and unlimited power to do evil reaches its peak in the dialogue quoted below. I have never seen Socrates take to task anyone like he does Polus.

Polus: As if you wouldn’t be envious whenever you’d see anyone putting to death some person he saw fit, or confiscating his property or tying him up!
Socrates: Justly, you mean, or unjustly?
Polus: Whichever way he does it, isn’t he to be envied either way?
Socrates: Hush, Polus.
Polus: What for?
Socrates: Because you’re not supposed to envy the unenviable or the miserable. You’re supposed to pity them.

Socrates says you are supposed to pity the unenviable or the miserable, yet he is not just claiming it, but showing us this idea in action. Socrates’ response to Polus’ belief that tyrants should be envied is to pity him for believing such a terrible thing. Polus only proves Socrates’ point about the corrupting nature of rhetoric.

Earlier in the dialogue, Gorgias goes on an impassioned defense of his art, noting that if a boxer abuses his training and starts beating up people in the streets, you do not exile or blame their trainer for the bad apples. Socrates turns this argument around on Gorgias; if oratory trains young men in the way of justice as Gorgias claims, and many of them are still engaging in unjust acts nonetheless, then surely oratory is not very good at what it claims to teach. The irony, which Plato excels at, is that Polus himself is a shining example of how oratory degrades the soul; he is made worse by Gorgias’ teaching.

Last up is Callicles the politician; we had the teacher, pupil, and now the practical application of oratory. Callicles thinks Socrates a child for still engaging in philosophy. Much of this part of the dialogue is spent recapitulating the earlier points made in the dialogue. In particular, Socrates shows that the most celebrated Athenian politicians of the past and present are prime examples of what he has been criticizing thus far. Callicles responses are hilarious; he gets frustrated with Socrates, and seems to constantly be rolling his eyes as he grudgingly goes along with the dialectic. Many parts of this section foreshadow the events of the Apology.

Like The Republic, this dialogue closes with a myth about the survival of the soul after death in which Socrates claims that at death the soul appears in the underworld naked, stripped of body and identity before mythological judges who will then proceed to assess its quality based its virtue and wickedness. Plato reminds us once again that philosophy’s main purpose is to prepare us for death


2 thoughts on “Gorgias by Plato (trans. Donald J. Zeyl)

  1. This is a great dialogue and your commentary is excellent. I am impressed by the difference of Socrates approach in this dialogue compared to opthers like the Meno where he raises questions that flummox Meno but do not bring the reader closer to an answer. How much of the change here and later in The Republic is due to the influence of Plato’s own thoughts?

    • I always understood the differences to be a product of Plato finally breaking from just reporting what Socrates said or did and using him as a mouthpiece for his own philosophical system.

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