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Part of the series on:
The Dialogues of Plato
Early dialogues:
ApologyCharmidesCrito
EuthyphroFirst Alcibiades
Hippias MajorHippias Minor
IonLachesLysis
Transitional & middle dialogues:
CratylusEuthydemusGorgias
MenexenusMenoPhaedo
ProtagorasSymposium
Later middle dialogues:
The RepublicPhaedrus
ParmenidesTheaetetus
Late dialogues:
TimaeusCritias
The SophistThe Statesman
PhilebusLaws
Of doubtful authenticity:
ClitophonEpinomis
EpistlesHipparchus
MinosRival Lovers
Second AlcibiadesTheages

Gorgias is an important dialogue in which Plato sets the rhetorician, whose specialty is persuasion, in opposition to the philosopher, whose specialty is dissuasion, or refutation. The art of persuasion was necessary for political and legal advantage in classical Athens, and rhetoricians promoted themselves as teachers of this fundamental skill. Sophists, or rhetoricians, as they called themselves, charged high fees and strutted about the city like roosters. Some, like Gorgias, were foreigners attracted to Athens because of its reputation for intellectual and cultural sophistication. Socrates' specialty, refutation, is really nothing more than the logical inverse of persuasion. Both persuasion and refutation are opposed to instruction, which concerns the actual facts of the matter.

The set-up

The dialogue begins just after Gorgias has given a public display of his skill. Callicles says that Gorgias is a guest in his home, and has agreed to a private audience with Socrates and his friend Chaerephon. The dialog is a twin to the Protagoras, which has a similar set up. In the Protagoras, Socrates is brought by a disciple to the home of Callias, who is hosting the visiting Protagoras. Socrates gets Gorgias to agree to his cross-examination style of conversation, peppers him with questions, and praises him for his brevity. Gorgias boasts that no one has asked him a new question in a long time, and when Socrates asks, assures him that he is just as capable of brevity as of long-windedness (449c). In this part of the exchange, Plato seems to be needling the rhetoricians for their arrogance and tendency to brag on and bore people.


Physical and intellectual combat compared

Gorgias admits under Socrates' cross-examination that while rhetoricians give people the power of words, they are not instructors of morality. Gorgias does not deny that his students might use their skills for immoral purposes (such as persuading the assembly to make an unwise decision, or to let a guilty man go free), but he says the teacher cannot be held responsible for this. He makes an argument from analogy: Gorgias says that if a man who went to wrestling school started punching out his parents or friends, you would not send his drill instructor into exile (456d-457c). He says that just as the trainer teaches his craft (techne) in good faith, and hopes that his student will use his physical powers wisely, the rhetorician has the same trust, that his students will not abuse their power.

Socrates worries that Gorgias may be more interested in verbal victory than in genuine investigation of the subject. In one of the most memorable claims in the dialogs, Socrates says that he is one of those people who is actually happy to be refuted if he is wrong. He says that in fact, he would rather be refuted than to refute someone else because, he adds somewhat selfishly, it is better to be delivered from harm oneself than to deliver someone else from harm. Gorgias, whose profession is persuasion, readily agrees that he is also this sort of man, who would rather be refuted than refute another. Gorgias has only one misgiving: he fears that the present company may have something better to do than listen to two men try to outdo each other in being wrong (458b-c). The company protests that they are anxious to witness this new version of intellectual combat.


The debate about rhetoric

Socrates gets Gorgias to agree that the rhetorician is actually more convincing in front of an ignorant audience than an expert, because mastery of the tools of persuasion gives a man more firepower than mere facts. Gorgias accepts this criticism as flattery and asserts that it is an advantage of his profession that a man can trump the specialists without bothering to learn anything of substance (459c). Socrates calls rhetoric a form of "flattery", and compares it to "cookery" and "beautification". He says that rhetoric is to government what cooking is to medicine, and what nicely draped clothes are to gymnastics. All of these things are glitter on the surface, an impersonation of what is really good (464c-465d).


The pitiful tyrant

Socrates then advances one of the most surprising claims in the dialogs: that tyrants are actually the least powerful people in the world. Lumping tyrants and rhetoricians into a single category, Socrates says that both of them, when they kill people, or banish them, or confiscate their property, think they are doing what is in their own best interest, but are actually pitiable. The thesis that Socrates sets up for refutation is this: that the wicked man is unhappy, but that the unhappiest man of all is the wicked one who does not meet with justice, rebuke, and punishment(472e). Polus, who has stepped into the conversation at this point, laughs at Socrates. Socrates asks him if he thinks laughing is a legitimate form of refutation (473e). Polus throws a question back at him. He asks Socrates if putting forth views that no one would accept is not a refutation in itself. Socrates says that if Polus cannot see how to refute him, Socrates will show him how.

Socrates says that it is far worse to inflict evil than to be the innocent victim of it (475e). He illustrates by dramatic example, saying that tyrants are the most wretched people on earth. He says, in still another tri-partite comparison, that poverty is to material possessions what sickness is to the body, and both of these may be compared to evildoing in the soul (477c). Money-making, medicine, and justice are the respective cures (478a,b). Socrates says that just penalties discipline people, make them more just, and cure them of their evil ways (478d). He says that wrongdoing is second among evils, but wrongdoing and getting away with it is the first and greatest of evils (479d). It follows from this, he says, that if a man does not want to have a festering and incurable tumor growing in his soul, he needs to hurry himself to a judge upon realizing that he has done something wrong. Socrates adds that the rhetorician should accuse himself first, and then do his family and friends the favor of accusing them, so great is the curative power of justice (480c-e).

Socrates does not shy from the logical corollary of his thesis: he says that if your enemy has done something awful, you should contrive every means to see that he does not come before the judicial system. Because you want his soul to rot and fester, you should make sure he keeps and squanders his ill-gotten gains, and lives as long as possible in his wicked state. Polus and Callicles are both astounded at Socrates' position and wonder if he is just kidding (481b). Callicles observes that if Socrates is correct, people have life upside down, and are everywhere doing the opposite of what they should be doing. Socrates say he is in love with Alcibiades and philosophy, and cannot stop his beloveds from saying what is on their minds.


Callicles rants against philosophy

Callicles accuses Socrates of carrying on like a demagogue. He argues that suffering wrong is worse than doing it, that there is nothing good about being a victim. He argues (as Glaucon does in the Gyges story in the Republic) that wrongdoing is only by convention shameful, and it is not wrong by nature. Then, he attacks Socrates for wasting time in frivolous philosophy. Callicles goes on an anti-philosophy rant, saying there is no harm in young people engaging in useless banter, but that it is unattractive in older men. He tells Socrates that he is disgraceful, and that if anyone should seize him and carry him off to prison, he would be helpless to defend himself. He says, in a portentous reference to the Apology, that Socrates would reel and gape in front of a jury, and end up being put to death (486a,b). Socrates is not offended by this, and tells Callicles that his extraordinary frankness proves that he is well-disposed towards him (487d).

Callicles then returns to his defense nature's own justice, where the strong exercise their advantages over the weak. He says that the natural man has large appetites and the means to satisfy them, and that only a weakling praises temperance and justice (483b, 492a-c). Socrates counters that such a man is like a leaky jar, insatiable and unhappy (494a). He returns to his previous position, that an undisciplined man is unhappy and should be restrained and subjected to justice (505b).


Socrates debates with himself

Callicles becomes disgusted at the intellectual stalemate, and invites Socrates to carry on by himself, asking and answering his own questions (505d). Socrates agrees to this, saying that he will finish the discussion by himself since Callicles has lost interest. He requests that his audience, including Callicles, listen to what he says and kindly break in on him if he says something that sounds false. If his opponent (whom he will be speaking for himself) makes a point, he agrees to concede to it (506a-c). Socrates proceeds with a monologue, and reiterates that he was not kidding about the best use of rhetoric, that it is best used against ones own self. A man who has done something wrong is wretched, but a man who gets away with it is even worse off (509b).


Philosophy is a bitter draught

Socrates says that he aims at what is best, not at what is pleasant, and that he alone understands the technique of politics. He says that he enjoins people to take the bitter draughts, and compels them to hunger and thirst, while most politicians flatter the people with sweetmeats. He says that his trial will be like a dessert chef before a jury of children condemning a man who wants to starve and choke them (521e). He says that such a pandering prosecutor will no doubt succeed in getting him sentenced to death, and he will be helpless to stop it. Socrates says that all that matters is his own purity of soul; he has maintained this, and it is the only thing that is really within his power (522d).


Naked Judgement Day

Socrates ends the dialogue by telling Callicles, Polus, and Gorgias a story that they will regard as a myth, but which he regards as true (523a). He says that in the old days, Cronos judged men just before they died, and divided them into two categories. He sent good and righteous men to the Isles of the Blessed, and godless, unrighteous men to the prison of vengeance and punishment called Tartarus. Socrates says that these cases were judged badly because the men were judged while they were alive and with their clothes on, and the judges were fooled by appearances. He says that Zeus fixed the problem by arranging for people to be dead, and stripped naked. The judge had to be naked too, so he could scan the souls of men without distractions.

Socrates says that he has heard this myth, believes it, and infers from it that death is the separation of body and soul. He says that each retains after death the qualities it had in life, so that a fat, long-haired man will have a fat, long-haired corpse. If he was a scoundrel, he will bear the scars of his beatings. Socrates adds that when the judge lays hold of some potentate, he will find that his soul bears the scars of his perjuries and crimes, because these will be branded on his soul (524b-525a)).

Socrates says that some people are benefited by the pain and agony of their own punishments (525b), and by watching others suffer excruciating torture, but others have misdeeds that go beyond the cure. Socrates adds that Homer will bear him out on this one. He says Homer pictures kings suffering eternally in Hades, but not the ordinary scoundrel, like Thersites. Socrates tells Callicles that this might sound like nonsense to him, an old wives' tale, but warns him that when he is up before the judge on his own judgment day, he will reel and gape just like Socrates is currently doing. Socrates finishes up by saying his ideas could be justly despised if anyone could come up with a better idea, but unfortunately, no one has.





Translations

Plato: Gorgias on Wikisource (Benjamin Jowett translation, 1870)

Walter Rangeley Maitland Lamb, 1927: full text

References

Vickers, Michael (1994). "Alcibiades and Critias in the Gorgias: Plato's 'fine satire'". Dialogues d'Histoire Ancienne 20/2: 85-112.

Footnotes

  • 1 Plato, Gorgias, [505e]: "So that, in Epicharmus's phrase, 'what two men spake erewhile' I may prove I can manage single-handed". [1]



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