The Gorgias, A Dialogue of War and Battle

The Gorgias, a dialogue of “war and battle,” has been called the natural introduction to the Republic. Why is this the case?

The Gorgias shows us a unique drama – a pupil of a foreign rhetorician versus a pupil of an Athenian philosopher. It is a dialogue in battle, perhaps the dialogue in battle, as Callicles’s opening words suggest. It is a contest between which teacher is better and therefore produces a more just pupil. The fight begins, but neither side is swayed one way or the other, therefore the dialogue concludes and the fight never ceases. It should be noted that the Gorgias is not the only dialogue devoted to the question of rhetoric. There is also the Phaedrus. However the Gorgias dialogue is unique. The Gorgias is dedicated to a kind of forensic rhetoric, that is, rhetoric concerning just and unjust speeches, or the kind of rhetoric employed in courtrooms, and the Phaedrus is dedicated to rhetoric pertaining to erotic speeches. The Phaedrus is also concerned with “love rhetoric” for the purposes of teaching, and caring for the pupils. Rhetoric, however, is the art of mere persuasion, in contradistinction to teaching and instruction. The Gorgias, however, concerns the battle between persuasion and teaching, a practice which is focused on making men just, and justice is the all-comprehensive virtue.

The dialogue proceeds as follows. Socrates arrives at a home in Athens with his friend and follower Chaerephon who has held him up in the agora. The distinguished guest is Gorgias, a foreign rhetorician from Sicily with his follower Polus. As in the case of the Republic, Socrates begins by engaging foreigners, or metics, like Gorgias and Polus, and then he proceeds to the native Athenians, primarily Callicles, where ultimately the more interesting dialogue occurs. This distinction is important. Foreigners must be careful about what they say, while natives can speak more freely. Callicles is the fifth and final member of the dialogue, a native Athenian. The Gorgias is a performed dialogue, unlike the Protagoras or the Republic, so we are not given a context by the narrator as to the timeframe for when it may have occurred. Based on the conversation, we know that Socrates and Chaerephon have been held up in the marketplace, and have just missed a marvelous performance from Gorgias, who is now exhausted from speaking. They decide that the two followers will engage in dialectic, as Chaerephon asks Polus what kind of craft he practices. When this fails, Socrates confronts Gorgias.

Gorgias’s art is of speeches, but Socrates notes that his art isn’t about all speeches, as in the case of speeches for sick people encouraging them to become healthy, or arithmetic or geometry. So what is the telos of the art of rhetoric? Gorgias reveals his true purpose at 452E -the role of the rhetorician is to persuade, and therefore to make one a slave to speeches. The objective is to control others, which is fundamentally a political endeavor. It concerns persuasion which is either just or unjust, as of those in law courts. Rhetoric is not concerned with the truth, rather it merely concerns someone who speaks persuasively, rather than those who teach so that others may learn. It is not unlike the definition of justice proclaimed by Polemarchus, that is, what is just is to the benefit of the giver, rather than the receiver. To Gorgias, rhetoric is a kind of box of tricks used to compel people one way or another.

Secondly, Gorgias claims that his art instructs others to become rhetoricians. Therefore, in order for him to teach rhetoricians, they must have knowledge of the just and the unjust. The ungraceful Polus also supports Gorgias in these claims, and much like Thrasymachus, he turns the conversation against Socrates. The rebuke of rhetoric is delivered to Gorgias through the exchange between Polus and Socrates. Socrates claims that rhetoric is a kind of “pandering”. He rebukes both Polus and Gorgias using “punishing” phrases for their art. The art of punishment is key to the dialogue. Unjust men do not respond to speeches, rather they only respond to punishment in the hopes that either they may be cured, or other unjust men may see the punishment be afraid of committing unjust deeds. While Gorgias and Polus are comfortable to sit on the sidelines of politics, a younger and more fiery rhetorician, Callicles, is more devoted to politics, and may employ the art of rhetoric for tyrannic ends. Callicles is the true danger with regard to the art of rhetoric. Socrates says there are two kinds of arts: each pertaining to soul and body. Politics, pertaining to the soul, is lawmaking and is like gymnastic training, while justice is like doctoring. Rhetoric is like pandering in the way that cooking tasty food is to doctoring. It does not heal or cure the people, rather it does the opposite, delivering to them only what they want to hear. According to Plato, there are some criminals who are incapable of being cured, or as modern man might call it, some criminals are incapable of being “susceptible to rehabilitation”.

Now let us pause. In the first part of the dialogue, Gorgias was challenged to defend the power of his rhetorical skill, and both he and his follower, Polus, are “shamed” into submission from their feeble responses, depending mainly on the applause of the demos. Gorgias is made speechless by Socrates’s rhetoric. Polus is made silent, but perhaps persuaded. During the Polus section, Socrates reveals that rhetoric is mere flattery, on par with cosmetics, and it is powerless if power is the ability for a man to have control over himself and know what is good for himself. In the next part, Socrates will reveal the failure of his rhetoric to an unconvinced Callicles. Part two of the dialogue begins when Chaerephon redeploys Socrates’s words and beckons that Callicles, who think Socrates is not being serious, “ask the man himself” (481B). Callicles accuses Socrates of being a demagogue. Recall, that Callicles utters the first words of the dialogue, playfully accusing Socrates of cowardice. Callicles, for all we know, may be a fictional character. In the second part of the dialogue, he continues his accusation of Socrates. He claims that Socrates deliberately tries to obfuscate the issue. If the question is of whether something is beautiful by nature, Socrates proceeds by convention, if something is beautiful by convention, Socrates proceeds by nature. In this way his interlocutors can never win. Callicles is a man in love with the demos, the people. His charge against Socrates is that his soul and his actions are not just, and, perhaps most powerfully, he defends rhetoric on the merits of its manliness.

Callicles cites Pindar and notes that the “just thing by nature” is that the superior man should rule over the inferior, the better should rule the worse. Callicles tacitly agrees with Thrasymachus. The greater person is the smarter and more manly person, the superior person. Callicles’s claims must not rule over themselves, however, and should instead tend to their desires, as the democrat is wont to do. Together, they investigate the ends of the rhetorical craft of great men: Pericles, Themistocles, Cimon and Miltades. Ultimately, it is determine by what Socrates and Callicles agree on that none of these men of Athens (Pericles, Themistocles, Cimon and Miltades) were good in political affairs, to which Callicles warns Socrates that he had better watch what he says or else he will surely be judged and put to death. Socrates disregards Callicles and notes that it would be an unworthy person putting a worthy person to death, and Socrates believes himself to be the only one concerned with political things in Athens, since he is the one who is looking to the good of the city, not merely making pleasing and pandering speeches as the sophists and the rhetoricians do. He believes himself to be a true doctor, not a doctor merely preparing tasty food to give to sick people. The end of punishment is the betterment of society as a whole. The contest between Callicles and Socrates is between the philosophic life and the political life, and the question of whether the just life is the same as the pleasant life, as Callicles claims. In their confrontation, which may be read as a kind of parallel between Glaucon’s conversation with Socrates in the Republic, Socrates and Callicles represent different types of rhetoric: there is a noble rhetoric which leads people to virtue; and there is also a frivolous form of rhetoric which is relative and useless as it encourages people to pursue base pleasures. There is also a lowly or base form of rhetoric which is concerned with self-preservation.

Recall, for a moment, the problematic nature of justice in the Republic. Justice means two different things at the same time: giving to each what is good for his soul, and the pursuit of the common good. Thus the parallel between city and man, which is not entirely harmonious. One must consider what is good for the individual, as well as what is good for society. Socrates employs a kind of punishment, a rhetorical punishment, of three rhetoricians for their transgressions against the city. In this way, Socrates is the true defender of the city. Socrates finds at least some value in rhetoric, as a tool to punish the unjust, in an effort to restore mental health. However, ultimately, rhetoric cannot bridge the gap between philosophy and the city. The problem of the Republic is that rhetoric must be made omnipotent, and at the same time subordinate to the rule of philosophy, to persuade the people of the noble lie and regulate the unjust speeches of the poets and so on. This subordination is an impossibility. Like the Republic, the Gorgias abstracts from eros, though we see eros rehabilitated in the Symposium in the form of poetry and in the Phaedrus in the form of erotic rhetoric, as mentioned above, though much more visibly in the Phaedrus. Plato offers a certain preference for rhetoric over and against poetry in the Gorgias.

Socrates concludes with a speech, a myth, or perhaps what Callicles would consider a myth. It should be noted that Socrates tends to reiterate a myth (he never creates one out of his own imagination) as a response to the needs of the particular soul-type with whom he is conversing. It is intended to be a remedy, though we can assume Callicles may not be persuaded. A summary of the myth is as follows: during the early reign of Zeus he develops a new way for souls to be judged after death. Too many souls are going to the Isles of the Blessed without proper judgement. Therefore, Zeus commands that all souls strip naked along with the judges and he puts two of his sons from Asia in charge of judging, Minos (to have the elder and final judgement) and Rhadamanthus (to judge those from Asia) and one from Europe, Aeacus (to judge those from Europe). Those souls who have lived a just and noble life go to the Isles of the Blessed and the others go to Tartarus. Socrates uses this story as a defense of punishment. Those who are punished become better for it, and punishment serves as a benefit to those who see it so they become afraid and profit in the long run, as is the objective of “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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