Rhetoric and the Good Life

Gorgias, by Plato.

This post written by:

Grace Cooper, Arrah Cho, Emma Casey, Lucas Costa

Gorgias is a dialogue between Callicles, Socrates, Chaerephon, Gorgias and Polus. This piece takes place when Gorgias, a famous speaker in Greece, finishes speaking. Callicles says that Gorgias will answer any question Socrates poses as that is what his art is based in. Gorgias himself claims that it has been a long time since someone asked him a new question by stating, “… I was saying as much only just now; and I may add, that many years have elapsed since anyone has asked me a new one,” (Gorgias), sounding as though he is happily inviting the questioning by Socrates that soon followed. Gorgias answers Socrates’ questions attempting to elicit a clear definition of rhetoric with short and brief answers; however, within these questions Socrates and Gorgias begin talking about moral lessons. They both agree that rhetoricians, or people who are experts at persuasion, do not convey moral lessons to the people who follow or listen to them. Any teacher just teaches what they are supposed to in the hopes that their students will go out  into the world and do good rather than injustice with their newfound knowledge. “What is that which, as you say, is the greatest good of man, and of which you are the creator,” (Gorgias). Socrates goes on to say that rhetoricians and tyrants are similar in some ways. One being that they both operate in ways that are best for them. They also seek “justice”, and are most content and satisfied when this “justice” is served in the sense of punishment. “I was thinking at the time, when I heard you saying so, that rhetoric, which is always discoursing about justice, could not possibly be an unjust thing,” (Gorgias). Socrates goes on to say how carrying the guilt of harming someone is “soul destroying” and that “ … the unjust or doer of unjust actions is miserable in any case,-more miserable, however, if he be not punished and does not meet with retribution, and less miserable if he be punished and meets with retribution at the hands of gods and men,” (Gorgias), explaining that those who commit injustice and remain unpunished are the most miserable individuals. With these premises, Socrates decides that, logically, rhetoric is useless and Polus is unable to argue. On this topic of justice, Callicles steps in with the harshest critique of Socrates and gives his own views on the concepts of justice, power, and rhetoric. The two debate their views on each of these concepts which eventually leads to Socrates discussing the importance of virtue in life and death and the question of how one should live their life. 

The Nature of Rhetoric

The discourse initially stems from Socrates requesting the eponymous rhetoric Gorgias to define the true nature of rhetoric. In spite of this deceptively simple question leading to ruminations on the broader concepts of power and justice, the conversation regularly circles back to the core question of “what is rhetoric”. As Socrates and his verbal combatants make progress in developing a defined solution from their debates, they further delineate the respective practice of rhetoricians from that of philosophers through their conclusions and methods of argumentation.

As rhetoricians attempt to persuade the beliefs of an ignorant audience through flowery speeches of minimal substance, philosophers engage in thoughtful back-and-forth discourse, or dialectic, to uncover indisputable truths. Socrates highlights this fundamental difference when he critiques Polus’ initial answer as rhetoric, stating that “when Chaerephon asked you what was the art which Gorgias knows, you praised it as if you were answering someone who found fault with it, but you never said what the art was,” (Gorgias). The truths one should be seeking, according to Socrates, exist as ideas that are indefinite, prevailing regardless of any circumstance, while beliefs are ever-changing due to the lack of permanence in the world. Because the chief concern of rhetoric is winning an argument through employing the illusion of knowledge to appease a crowd, it is eventually concluded to be a part of flattery instead of an actual art; its purpose as well as methods are diametrically opposed to the values of Socrates, who considers knowledge as virtue and the means to attaining true happiness. Although Gorgias attempts to claim that rhetoricians bear knowledge of subjects regarding justice and injustice, Socrates finds many contradictions within his argumentation; from the declaration that rhetoricians are incapable of committing injustice in spite of contending earlier that students in the profession had the ability to use it unjustly, Socrates asserts this proclamation to be false.

As Gorgias struggles to argue against this relentless deconstruction of his “art”, his student, Polus, takes his place and questions Socrates to retaliate on behalf of the rhetoricians. Through this line of inquiry, it is further inculcated that rhetoric is not an art, but an experience meant to create a feeling, or pleasure, rather than good in the soul. Socrates’ examination into the arts regarding the body and soul also refutes Gorgias’ former claim that rhetoric is a method of mobilizing the knowledge of justice and injustice to a greater extent by juxtaposing these two as discrete concepts rather than one facilitating the other. Justice is the true form of art attending to the good of the soul while rhetoric exists as the false form of art based on its goals to produce the feeling of good; therefore, Socrates concludes the practice to be an experience rather than an art. Overall, rhetoric is determined to be a false art that projects an image of knowledge to produce belief rather than the discovery of truth, which conflicts with Socrates’ views on how one ought to live.

Power & Happiness

            The art of rhetoric and rhetoricians flows into Socrates’s perspective on power due to the main focal point of rhetoric being to persuade an audience.  Typically power is viewed as one existing in a ruling state over others; however, Socrates disputes this concept with the belief that power and the idea of pleasure go hand in hand because power comes from being able to act on one’s will.  He argues that rhetoricians and tyrants actually have the least power because they have to make decisions based on the best interests of others or the state, which does not always allow them to act upon their own will.  Of course, like most things involving the concept of pleasure, everything is good in moderation.  Socrates gives the example of a leaky jar.  If a jar has a leak in it then it will never become full or satisfied no matter how much water is poured into the jar.  This is a metaphor for power because someone uses their power to act on their own will to benefit themselves may become power hungry.  Instead of acting on their power and being satisfied they will ultimately become powerless to their need for power.  This reminded me of the Fall of Icarus.  When someone has the power to act on their own desires they often become indulgent and greedy and ultimately lose their control to their desires.  This is why Socrates distinguishes the difference between pleasure and good because although something is pleasurable it may not be good or just.

Justice and the Good

In this dialogue, more than I would say in any other of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates takes on a very provocative role in attacking rhetoric and sophistry. He begins his attack by reducing rhetoric to the same level as cookery, by explaining that it is a small part of the more general concept of flattery or imitation. The chief problem Socrates probes is the manner in which a rhetorician claims to be able to teach anyone to speak of anything without actually knowing anything themselves. This is imitation, just as cooking produces the imitation of the good feeling one gets from being in good health.

Socrates’ description of rhetoric as flattery is important because he argues one should always avoid flattery in order to be good and just. The dialogue arrives at a discussion of justice after Polus claims that even if rhetoric is just flattery, those who wield it have great power. Socrates of course disagrees with this as we’ve discussed, and they eventually turn to the question of how the despot may act. Socrates argues that just because he is a despot does nto rescue him from the consequences of acting unjustly even if he goes unpunished. This is the introduction of the first paradox that Polus finds ridiculous – that it is worse for a man to do than to suffer evil. The foundation for this paradox is the concept that there are actions that benefit the soul and these are good and actions that do harm to the soul and these are evil. Justice is the fairest of the actions that benefit the soul. Following from this is the second apparent paradox – that it is better to suffer the consequences of acting unjustly than to suffer no consequences at all. Socrates argues this because he believes the second best thing to being a just man is being an unjust man reformed to be just.

Now rhetoric can be used for good. Socrates gives the example of a criminal who turns himself in and then uses rhetoric to clearly explain his crime and intentions so that he can endure whatever necessary penalty. Callicles argues that this is not the way the world works and is in general very skeptical of Socrates’ conception of the good and justice’s role in it. He firmly believes that might makes right and this circles back to Socrates’ arguments against the gentlemen’s view of power. Ultimately Socrates’ argument is based on the separation of pleasure from true good and that true good can only be achieved through acting justly.


  • Grace Cooper
    • Grace Cooper is a senior undergraduate student at Virginia Tech. She is majoring in political science with a concentration in legal studies. She plans to go to law school.
  • Arrah Cho
    • Arrah Cho is a junior political science major at Virginia Tech. Along with political science, she is interested in legal studies and philosophy. 
  • Emma Casey
    • Emma Casey is a senior undergraduate student at Virginia Tech. She studies political science and is minoring in sociology and business leadership.
  • Lucas Costa
    • Lucas Costa is a senior Finance and Philosophy major at Virginia Tech. He is originally from Brazil and grew up in Oregon and northern Virginia.

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