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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.

Rhetoric and Persuasion

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 2,589 words.)