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Plato’s Gorgias is an interesting if somewhat rambling dialogue in which several issues typical of Socratic inquiry are discussed. Because Socrates himself was concerned with discussion as a means of arriving at the truth, he naturally examined the claims of others to have a “vocal” way to it. The Sophists...

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Plato’s Gorgias is an interesting if somewhat rambling dialogue in which several issues typical of Socratic inquiry are discussed. Because Socrates himself was concerned with discussion as a means of arriving at the truth, he naturally examined the claims of others to have a “vocal” way to it. The Sophists were the itinerant teachers of ancient Greece, teaching their pupils to debate with others any side of an issue and to win the argument. Rhetoric was their art; by persuasion, they argued, one could control the state and gain wealth. Gorgias, one of the better-known Sophists, engages Socrates in discussion over the merits and meaning of rhetoric. The position he presents is not so arbitrary as some of the claims made by other Sophists, but it is nevertheless subjected to a scathing analysis by Socrates. Callicles, a rather ill-mannered member of the group, also joins in the debate. The larger question with which they are concerned is “What is the purpose of rhetoric, and, more generally, any kind of discussion?” Also discussed are justice, the role of punishment, and pleasure and pain as good and evil.

Rhetoric and Persuasion

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Socrates is concerned in the opening of the discussion with finding out exactly what rhetoric is as an art. It is concerned with persuasive discourse and aims at giving those who practice it power over others. The recipients of this art (persuasion) are those present in the law courts and assemblies of the land, and the subject matter is the just and the unjust. Supposedly, in teaching an art, the Sophists know their subject and inform others. Socrates next discusses learning and believing, which are intimately connected with teaching and studying. When one has learned, then one has knowledge; one cannot be mistaken. If one only believes, then one can be mistaken, for there is false as well as true belief. Both Socrates and Gorgias agree that one can persuade others without regard to belief or knowledge—rhetoric apparently has to do with persuading people to believe. However, although it is not brought up here, the Socratic method of dialectical discussion, rather than rhetoric, is the persuasion that leads to knowledge.

Gorgias holds that the rhetorician has a powerful tool by which people may gain much; they may sway anyone and accomplish anything. Rhetoricians should be just, however, and should not use their power for evil consequences, although having taught it to others, they are not responsible for their misuse of it. (This point is of dramatic interest because at his trial Socrates was held responsible for the activities of his pupil, Alcibiades.)

Socrates rejects the view that one can teach anything of which one is ignorant. If rhetoricians persuade only those who are ignorant (those who know need no persuading) and they, themselves, do not know—hence, are ignorant—then is this not a case of the ignorant attempting to teach the ignorant? Gorgias has already stated that rhetoricians discourse on justice, injustice, good, and evil, but if they are ignorant of these, then the same paradox holds. Gorgias has also stated that rhetoricians should not make bad use of their art, but he admits the possibility of their doing so. Also, under Socrates’ questioning, he concedes that if rhetoricians have knowledge of the just, then they are just; but if they are just, then they cannot be unjust. Practicing their art badly would be unjust. It appears to be inconsistent that rhetoricians could make bad use of their art unless one admits that they do not know their art. For it is a Socratic principle that one who knows, knows what to do and what not to do, whereas the ignorant know neither.

Socrates then questions whether it is proper to call rhetoric an art. He proceeds in the following manner. Both the body and soul may be considered under two headings: the body under gymnastic and medicine, the soul under legislative (wherein the art of politics is found) and justice. When these divisions function properly, individuals are sound in body and soul, and their highest good is approached; but there are sham divisions that bear a resemblance to the real ones but do not work for the best interests of individuals. They are, for the body, attiring, or dressing up, and cookery and, for the soul, sophistry and rhetoric. They are based on experience (belief or opinion) rather than on reason and make a pretense to knowledge.

When an objection is raised that those who can sway others (the rhetoricians) control the state and have real power, Socrates replies in a manner typical of him by distinguishing between the way people act and the way they ought to act. He argues that without knowledge, people cannot do as they will. People do things not for themselves but for some sake or purpose. In so doing, people do what they will. For Socrates, ultimately all that people will is done for the sake of the good. The good is a complicated concept in Plato’s philosophy. Although his explanation is not meant to be complete, it means, at least, that in willing, one acts so that the health and harmony of the body and soul are maintained. Now, if to do good is to do that which one wills, then one cannot will to do evil. This is another instance of the Socratic maxim that no person does wrong knowingly. However, it is held that the person who can kill with impunity is in an enviable position. Socrates replies to this claim by an analysis of punishment and injustice.


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Socrates holds that those who act because they know what they will are the happy people, for they are masters of themselves. Unjust people in ignorance know not what they will, so that seeking what they mistakenly believe is good (no person does wrong knowingly), they are wretched in their failure to be at one with themselves. Punishment is not primarily retributive but aims at the rehabilitation of unjust people to prevent them from doing that which is bad; hence, punishment aims at their eventual happiness, for the wicked when punished are less miserable than when they go unpunished. In this view, the individuals who do injustice are worse or more evil than those who suffer injustice, and certainly not to be envied. When properly administered, punishment is the medicine of the soul. If rhetoric has a use, it is to allow people to become aware of their own injustice and seek a proper cure for it; if they are not unjust, then they had no use for rhetoric.

It is here that Callicles enters the discussion. He accuses Socrates of intentionally turning the whole of life upside down and of telling those who listen to his prattling that they are doing exactly the opposite of that which they ought to do. Philosophy may be amusing when practiced by the young, who in so doing are looked upon as precocious by their elders, but in an adult it is unseemly, especially for one such as Socrates, who ought to be out earning a living instead of annoying his betters. The life that Callicles asserts is the normal one is that in which the stronger rule their inferiors by force, the better rule the worse, and the noble have more than the lowly. When this state occurs, natural justice prevails.

However, Socrates takes Callicles quite literally (and thus paves the way for a discussion with him, because to make his position precise, he has to modify his initial statement). Socrates points out that although the many are the superior or stronger, they hold that to do injustice is more disgraceful than to suffer it. Callicles modifies his point and claims that the stronger are the more excellent, not the mob; and they are also the wiser. Socrates counters that because those who practice an art are wiser with regard to it than those who do not, trained shoemakers or cobblers ought to receive more benefits than those inferior to them in these arts. In addition, Socrates points out that the wiser may also take less than those who do not know; for example, a wise dietitian may eat less food than the ignorant person. Knowledge does not always prescribe more but what is proper, and that may be more, less, or the same depending on what is needed. Again, Plato writes of the Socratic principle that wisdom is knowing what to do and what not to do.

Pleasure and Good

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Callicles rejects this argument and brings up yet another, although related, position. Wise people know how to satisfy themselves, to realize their wants; the happy life is to strive for the satisfaction of pleasure. Socrates counters that intemperate people who are never satisfied are like a leaky vessel that cannot be filled because it empties at a faster rate than it fills. Such people are the slaves of their wants; they cannot be satisfied and hence cannot be happy; it is the one who wants not who is happy. For Callicles, one who wants not is dead; it is the continual gratification of desires that leads to the full life. Socrates retorts that such an all-embracing statement permits one to draw odd conclusions. The man with a constant itch who spends his life in scratching must then be a happy man.

The point is that unless people distinguish kinds of pleasures and pains and pursue some while avoiding others, there is not much to be gained from the sort of view that Callicles offers. Furthermore, the view under examination appears to equate pleasure with good and pain with evil, whereas Socrates holds them distinct. He proceeds as follows: It will be granted that opposites cannot exist together at the same time and in the same place. Good and evil are opposites, yet it can be shown that pleasure and pain can be present in the same individual at the same time. In order to satisfy thirst, which is painful, an individual may drink water that tastes pleasant and, according to Socrates, experience pain and pleasure at the same time in the same place. If pleasure and pain were identifiable with good and evil, then the bad person would be as good or as bad as the good person, because they have about the same amount of pleasures and pains. Lastly, with regard to this idea, when people slake their thirst, both the pain and the pleasure go respectively, but when people purge evil from their souls and the good is with them, the good remains.

Callicles is now willing, as Socrates suggested earlier, to differentiate between pleasures, calling some good and others bad. However, this takes the discussion back to the view that it is not pleasure alone that determines how people act, but rather that people must know what to choose and what not to choose as pleasures before they may pursue them; knowledge is the key to action. This fact takes Socrates back to his earlier discussion concerning true arts, flattery, and sham. Rhetoric, as discussed by its proponents, appeals only, and indiscriminately, to the pleasure of the individual and not to the good; hence it can be classified as a sham. It is the harmony and order of the soul or the body that must be aimed for, not the gratification of passions. Harmony of the soul and body is the criterion by which one must judge their fitness; when present in the body it is called “health,” when in the soul, “law.” >From these spring the virtues of temperance and justice; the person who would practice the art of rhetoric should aim at bringing harmony to the citizenry. When people are sick, either physically or mentally, they seek the services of a doctor. When prescribing a cure, the physician may forbid the satisfaction of certain wants in order to improve the patient’s health.

Rhetoricians who aim at getting what they want and abusing their society are much like the tyrant discussed in Plato’s Politeia (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701). Intent on satisfying his every desire, a slave to his passions, not knowing how to control himself, the tyrant can get the best of no one, for he knows not what is best for himself. He who would lead others must first know how to lead himself. The art of rhetoric is no art at all. The art of ruling, on the other hand, is perhaps the most difficult and serious art of all; it calls for people who have had experience and who have demonstrated their ability, so that when entrusted with the rule of society it will be the good or benefit of the ruled that will be their primary objective. The benefit of an individual does not reside in a misdirected search for satisfaction but in that harmony of body and soul wherein lies health and law.


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Additional Reading

Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.

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