Thoughts On The Gorgias

In the Gorgias dialogue, Socrates travels with his friend and follower, Chaerephon, to the house of Callicles, whose name means “famed for visible excellence”. At Callicles’s house a distinguished guest and self-proclaimed rhetorician from Sicily named Gorgias resides, along with his follower, Polus. Callicles, the host, is important to the dialogue because he is also a close follower of Gorgias and he speaks the first words of the dialogue: “In war and battle…” (447A). War and battle, as stated elsewhere in Plato’s Republic, exemplifies the city in motion, rather than at rest. How is the theme of rhetoric connected to war and battle?

Underlying the setting of the Gorgias is the set-up of a tense confrontation between Gorgias and Socrates, rhetoric and philosophy. It begins as Gorgias has already given a beautiful demonstration to Callicles. Prior to arriving, Socrates and Chaerephon were held up in the marketplace and ‘missed the feast’ so to speak. Chaerephon, not Socrates, claims they have arrived to listen to Gorgias. Socrates, however, corrects Chaerephon to see if Gorgias might be interested in having a conversation with them. Socrates wants to discover what power Gorgias believes belongs to his art (rhetoric) and what it teaches.

The confrontation begins when Chaerephon tries to engage in a dialectic with Polus, Gorgias’s follower, and Socrates interrupts when it becomes clear that Polus is not responding genuinely. Therefore, Gorgias claims he is skilled in the art of rhetoric and they discuss what the art of rhetoric is in contradistinction from the other arts, such as being a doctor. Gorgias claims that rhetoric is concerned with the greatest of human concerns, the power to persuade multitudes (452E). Socrates refutes this claim by pointing out that other arts also persuade, and therefore Gorgias makes the claim that rhetoric is concerned with persuasion for the just and the unjust (political). Rhetoric, to Gorgias, has to be used like other skilled combat. Socrates requests that Gorgias embrace a conversation, rather than a debate. A new beginning starts.

The next portion begins with a question by Socrate regarding Gorgias’s claim to be able to make other people rhetoricians. He presses Gorgias to distinguish between teaching and persuading. Socrates presses him further on the question of whether or not a student needs to know the just and the unjust in order to become a rhetorician. The exchange with Gorgias concludes when Socrates gets Gorgias to admit that a rhetorician must sometimes speak unjustly, and Polus interrupts. Polus says he will interrogate Socrates in the same way. Socrates says rhetoric is a kind of experience of gratification or pleasure, not beautiful, and belongs to the soul of someone who is good at guessing, brave, and clever by nature at dealing with people. He says it isn’t an art at all, but is rather a kind of pandering and is a matter of repetition and experience. It is shameful and a part of politics. He connects sophistry with rhetoric, alluding to his other dialogue on sophism, the Protagoras.

The remainder of the dialogue (approximately 70 pages) includes a demonstration, by Socrates, that Gorgias’s followers do not believe in justice. Polus has an exchange with Socrates in which he tries to defend tyranny -Polus would prefer to be a tyrant if offered the option. Similarly, Callicles prefers injustice to justice and he refuses to converse, from Socrates. He proceeds with Socrates, even as Socrates closes the dialogue with a myth. Appropriately, Callicles maintains his disposition “in war and battle…”.

For this reading I used the Joe Sachs translation as featured in the Focus Philosophical Library in conjunction with Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

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