Plato’s Gorgias

Names and Bios

  • Erik Wrightson

I am a senior in my last semester as a Physics major with minors in Mathematics and Political Science. I value having a clear understanding of the logical frameworks in Philosophy, Politics, and Sciences that have led us to the modern world. I am particularly interested in how one may make an argument to have found a “truth” and how humanity’s ability to argue for how we know what we know has evolved over time.

  • Clare Calhoun 

I am a sophomore majoring in Political Science and minoring in Spanish. As someone concerned with the politics of national security, this class provides the structure for the concepts and arguments which have framed global politics. 

  • Cole Mccommons

I am a sophomore majoring in Political Science with a minor in Army leadership. I enjoy reading and analyzing political discussions. I am interested in how these arguments and dialogues correlate to modern discussions.

  • Jack Williams

I am a Sophomore and I’m a Political Science and PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) double major. I am interested in how arguments and dialogues create a clear understanding of what people want from the world. From that I hope to learn how all of these wants fit together, if it is even possible, so that we can create a world where people are all capable of grasping their desires instead of being forced into complacency.

Gorgias: The Continued Search for the Good and Just

Plato’s Gorgias sees Socrates and company talking about how they have just missed a great exhibition of the skills of a man named Gorgias. They hear that this man asserts that he will endeavor to answer truthfully and fully any question put to him. Always looking to be proven wrong, Socrates hopes this man may have some path to truth that he does not. In hopes (although somewhat sarcastically) of finding  someone who could explain what is good and just in the world, Socrates goes off to the home of Callicles who is currently housing the orator, Gogias. As Socrates seeks to begin a dialogue with Gorgias, a man named Polus eagerly seeks to bring the questioning of Socrates upon himself by saying, “you may make trial of me too, for I think that Gorgias, …, is tired” (448d). After a bit of questioning from Chaerephon, Socrates butts in with an observation that Polus is a good speaker but does not answer questions directly (a trend that only further shows its truth the more Polus speaks) and because of this Socrates seeks conversation with Gorgias who he came there to speak with.

The Establishment of Gorgias and Rhetoric

Gorgias purports to be an expert in what he sees as the art of rhetoric and creating rhetoricians. Socrates seeks to ensure that each of them is operating on the same logical grounds in order to uncover some truths, so he asks that Gorgias fully define the art he practices. Socrates even offers a bit of a complement to Gorgias that for a rhetorician he is very capable of giving short and succinct answers to Socrates’s inquiries. This can be seen as to slightly tip Socrates’s hand in his personal view of rhetoric as a disingenuous tool of sophistry, however he attempts to remove himself by allowing Gorgias to agree to the establishing premises of rhetoric.

Gorgias initially attempts to state that rhetoric concerns itself with words of “the greatest, Socrates, and the best of human things” (451f). After Socrates cuts through the ambiguity of Gorgias’s rhetorical arguments, the two men arrive at the conclusion that rhetoric is a manner of discourse that concerns itself with its chief end of persuasion. They then cover that rhetoric is not only the art of persuasion as many arts do this to one extent or another, but rhetoric is one that has their chief concern in persuasion and not directly with truths. This is further shown in Gorgias argument, “If you have the power of uttering this word, you will have the physician as your slave, and the trainer as your slave, and the money-maker of whom you talk will be found to gather treasures, not for himself, but for you” (452e). This essentially states that the rhetorician must be great to possess the power of making free men his slaves. However, this goes against the core of Socrates’s beliefs in that it is always better to suffer injustice than commit it. How could a man make others his slave and be truly happy with himself and believe that he understands how to have a just and good life?

Once this footing of what Gorgias reports to be the art of persuasion is established, Gorgias is sure to lay what he sees as a protection to the arguments that some men do wickedness with the art of rhetoric in saying, “I should rather say that those who make a bad use of the art are to blame” (457a). This then becomes a bit of a focus in Socrates’s line of questioning.

Caption: Gorgias would argue that Johnnie Cochran is at fault for utilizing the best of man’s arts to make his case in court through an incoherent rambling that confuses the jury of the truth but achieve’s Cochran’s desired result.

The Great Flaw of the “Art” of Rhetoric

Socrates then seeks to find what Gorgias would do with a man that does not know just from unjust who is seeking to learn rhetoric from him. Gorgias of course says that he must teach the man this difference and that it is the duty of a good rhetorician to know such facts. As someone who through each of our readings has been consumed for this search for the just and the unjust, Socrates is happy to learn that apparently these rhetoricians know the answer to his pursuits, but he then comments on the fact that Gorgias said that only a man who misuses rhetoric is to blame for wrongdoing and not his teachers, but if his teachers knew just from unjust then there should be no way for the man to not know. This is the basis of the inconsistency present in Gorgias’s argument that rhetoric is the best of arts. Socrates hopes to further explore this before the young Polus seeks to save the sinking ship of Gorgias’s stance as Gorgias seems to be at least momentarily wise to accept the logic behind Socrates’s statements. In Socrates’s view, men who make free men slaves cannot partake in the good life, let alone try to act as the most noble of arts. This directly mirrors the case covered in  Sophist and shows that these rhetoricians are nothing more than sophists in the guise of a noble liar.

Socrates is left disappointed by the failure of Gorgias to be a man who fully knows just from the unjust as his search would finally be over. However, this initial dialogue with Gorgias is just the beginning of Plato’s work as it establishes the premises with rhetoric which Socrates takes issue. Rhetoric is therefore looking like a field that may seem to have the just and unjust worked out, but may in fact be as farcical and admonishable from that endeavor that a field can get. The further exploration and frankly tearing apart of the notions of Polus lead to further insight.

In the above clip, the entire scenario should shed some light onto the more complete outlook that Socrates has on rhetoric. Mr. Lawyerstein in particular is a rhetorician in bad faith just like Gorgias warned could exist. However, the prosecutor and judge both partake in rhetorical arguments that bring the focus of the jury away from the truth and everyone is worse off for it as Mr. Lawyerstein gloats over beating the truth.

Socrates And Polus: The True Form Of Rhetoric

Moving on to the discussion between Polus and Socrates on the matter of rhetoric, it is seen that Polus is of the notion that rhetoric is an art and that Socrates should have to answer the question that he pushes on to Gorgias. This question has to do with whether rhetoricians are teaching the difference between just and unjust as stated prior, but Socrates takes issue with the idea that rhetoric is an art at all. In fact he thinks that it is just an experience, or a flattery, that deceives people into thinking they are achieving something higher than they are actually getting. Socrates’ analogy for this includes a comparison between cookery and medicine as cookery pretends to give a higher good to the body while medicine actually knows what is best for the body. In the same manner, rhetoric is disguised and trying to play itself off as justice.

Socrates then talks about the role that the body and the soul play in making decisions, and how if the body were solely in charge of making decisions then it would be the flattery goods like cookery and astiring described earlier would be the goods that most people choose over true goods. The reason that people would choose these is because much like sophistry they are deceptive in their appeal, they may seem just as good if not better than true goods like medicine or gymnastics, but in reality they are not as good when considering the needs of both the body and the soul.  

This discussion draws out what seems like one of the main goals of this text, which is to say that it is better to suffer injustice than to be the one enacting injustice. This is where the two switch from discussing the idea of whether or not that rhetoricians have a great power to what Socrates believes is the greatest evil, injustice, and how this compares to suffering injustice.

It is clear this notion frustrates Polus as he then moves on to what seem like personal opinions having to do with the standing of rhetoricians in other states, and whether or not they have great power. Polus believes that this power is derived from the fact that they can do whatever they will and they act as tyrants do, killing and despoiling whoever they want. Socrates disagrees with the idea that they have power at all, and suggests that tyrants as well as rhetoricians do not have great power because, as Polus puts it, power is a great good. 

To explain his point, Socrates goes through whether or not people can do the things they will, or if it is for the sake of which they willed to do it. After agreeing that things are done for the sake of what they willed to do and allotting indifferent actions for the sake of good, they discuss that if people do things that they think will benefit them, but doesn’t actually, then it would result in them not doing what is good according to Polus. If we only will the things that are good, then by Polus’s own logic killing or taking from someone because you think it is in your best interest and it not actually being good for you would mean that you did not will it as we can only will things that are good. In addition, great power, which has already been established to be good cannot be obtained if the things we do are in fact not good. This proves what Socrates was alluding to, which is that rhetoricians as well as tyrants do not have any power because they do only what they think will be good for them but in actuality is not. 

Once Socrates is done disproving the idea that rhetoricians have power in states Polus continues to push the idea that they do and even makes the claim that Socrates would be jealous of said tyrants for being able to kill whoever they pleased as long as it seemed good in a state. Socrates is unhappy with Polus for thinking someone who unjustly kills deserves to be envied. This feeling makes sense as it once again contradicts the stance both Gorgias and Polus take in that rhetoricians understand the difference between just and unjust.

If this stance is to be taken into account in regard to what Polus has just said then there is no way  that a rhetorician would ever be capable of killing unjustly because they know that it is unjust. In addition to this they would never be able to will themselves to do it as it was previously established that things done for the sake of evil cannot be willed.  

Injustice and the Soul

In the following parts of the dialogue, Socrates enters into a debate with Polus on where the two stand in regard to divisions in the things we take part in. Acts as mundane as going for a walk or something extraordinary as murder are all defined by the purpose behind them. Some acts are done in the nature of the good, some in the nature of evil, and others which fall in the neutral. The justification behind these arguments is important as it becomes the framework for the ideas surrounding injustice and one’s soul. 

Socrates begins the discussion of injustice with Polus by asking whether he believes a man who is unjust and doing injustice to be capable of happiness. Polus maintains that the man who is unjust can be happy, even if he does not meet retribution or punishment. Socrates differs in that idea and puts forth the main point of his discussion with Polus, that doing an injustice and being unjust is the worst possible evil when one is not disciplined. 

This discussion between Polus and Socrates begins earlier in the dialogue as the two argue over the notion of rhetoric as an art or an experience. Socrates believes rhetoric to be a sort of  experience in producing delight and gratification. Within this discussion he explains the body and the soul being separate,  where politics attends to the soul and art attends to the body. In creating the two divisions he includes the idea of rhetoric as a flattery because it cannot attend to the soul and only to the appearance of the body or soul. In Socrates’ statement that he considers doing an injustice to be worse than suffering an injustice he also proposes that this requires treatment and not the flattery of rhetoric as it affects the soul(469a-479e). This brings back the previous discussion between Polus and Socrates of the retribution or punishment of an unjust person. While Polus thought the unjust person would remain happy without punishment, Socrates found it to be necessary for a person to be penalized. Following the idea that behaving unjustly is the worst evil, then a person who receives punishment for their action will be better off. This punishment is given through the actions of the state which helps the unjust in realizing their greater purpose. Those whose actions are not disciplined by the state are tyrants which are ruled by their own desires. Tyrants work outside the boundaries of justice to achieve their objectives by manipulating others. 

A good life vs a pleasant life

Socrates and Callicles discuss life and what it means to live a good life. Socrates and Callicles begin their discussion of good as the two argue over what makes people happy in life. Socrates believes that a man needs to seek knowledge. Callicles discusses that a servant can never be happy because they never truly put their wants first. Callicles argues that happiness is obtained through achieving their desires. Socrates then questions this thought, “Then those who want nothing are not truly said to be happy?”(492d). Callicles disagrees with Socrates statement and Socrates further argues that good is not the same as pleasant. Therefore Socrates believes that a good life is different from a pleasant life. Socrates starts the dialogue by asking if a man can have good and evil fortune at the same time. Callicles agrees with this statement that a man can not have good fortune and evil at the same time. Socrates further states that there is pleasure in drinking but pain while thirsty. Socrates found that drinking while thirsty is pleasant and that pain might occur during pleasure. Socrates states that, “Then pleasure is not the same as good fortune, or pain the same as evil fortune, and therefore the good is not the same as the pleasant” (497a). Socrates continues that a foolish man is evil while a brave man is good. Both men obtain pleasure throughout their life. This brings back Socrates’ argument that good and pleasure exist differently, because both men feel pleasure. This comes back to their original discussion on what a good life is. Socrates believes that to live a good life is “to practise justice and every virtue in life and death (527c).