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

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...

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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...

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Pleasure and Good

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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


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