Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.