Plato’s Dialogues: Gorgias

We’ve spent a lot of time in the dialogues talking to and about Sophists, but Socrates has an awfully hard time figuring out exactly what a Sophist is and what they teach. In Protagoras, Socrates’ friend Hippocrates wants to take lessons from Protagoras, but when questioned can’t quite explain what he expects to learn, and Protagoras doesn’t really give a straight answer. In Greater Hippias, we’re able to gather from the greatest Sophist of them all (in his own estimation) that they are primarily concerned with public speaking. So, though Protagoras and Hippias do say that they teach a number of subjects, including moral instruction, their speciality is rhetoric.

For most of us that would be good enough, but of course, we’re hanging out with Socrates, and there’s no way “rhetoric” is an adequate answer here. What, exactly, is rhetoric? In Gorgias, we’re going to try to get at the truth of this, with not one, not two, but three interlocutors. First, we have the Sophist Gorgias (his friends called him “Gorgeous”), who I rather like. He may be a capital-S “Sophist,” but he’s not a small-s sophist. He’s quicker than Hippias in catching on to what Socrates wants to know from him, is more agreeable than Protagoras, and for the most part keeps his answers straightforward. Unfortunately, he has a couple of his groupies with him. One is Polus, who, when Socrates first asks what sort of art Gorgias would say he practices, gives a non-answer for him, blathering for a minute about how there are many arts and that Gorgias practices the greatest of them, without actually saying what that art is. Polus isn’t too grating, though, and is willing to concede defeat at some point. He’s a prince of a guy compared to the last interlocutor, Callicles, who, well, is a bit of a jerk, never conceding a point and getting pissy when it becomes clear that he’s totally outgunned by Socrates.

To the work itself, though. We begin with some of the runaround typical to Socratic dialogues. What is rhetoric? The art of using words, in particular to persuade others. Don’t other arts, like mathematics and medicine, also use words? Yes, but they use them only incidentally, and persuade people primarily through facts. In the parlance of a later age, we might say that words are accidental and not essential to mathematics and medicine, or only incidental to them.

Now, Socrates clearly has a low opinion of rhetoric. Isn’t it better, both in terms of utility and ethically, to persuade with facts? Gorgias, therefore, though he has at Socrates’ request kept his answers short throughout most of the dialogue, speaks at length about the power of rhetoric, and defends it against Socrates’ concerns regarding its abuse.

Ah, if only you knew, Socrates, and realised that rhetoric includes practically all other faculties under her control. And I will give you good proof of this. I have often, along with my brother and with other physicians, visited one of their patients who refused to drink his medicine or submit to the surgeon’s knife or cautery, and when the doctor was unable to persuade them, I did so, by no other art but rhetoric. And I claim too that, if a rhetorician and a doctor visited any city you like to name and they had to contend in argument before the Assembly or any other gathering as to which of the two should be chosen as doctor, the doctor would be nowhere, but the man who could speak would be chosen, if he so wished. […] Such then is the scope and character of rhetoric, but it should be used, Socrates, like every other competitive art. We must not employ other competitive arts against one and all merely because we have learned boxing or mixed fighting or weapon combat, so that we are stronger than our friends and foes; we must not, I say, for this reason strike our friends or wound or kill them. No indeed, and if a man who is physically sound has attended the wrestling school and has become a good boxer, then strikes his father or mother or any others of his kinsmen or friends, we must not for this reason detest or banish from our cities the physical trainers or drill instructors. For they imparted this instruction for just employment against enemies or wrongdoers, in self-defence not aggression, but such people perversely employ their strength and skill in the wrong way.

That sound reasonable to me, but our man Socrates, of course, remains unsatisfied. He responds first by clarifying that, though he’d like to cross-examine Gorgias, it’s not because of any animosity but only because he is always eager to be corrected of his own errors, and hopes that Gorgias thinks the same way. The Sophist is happy to continue the discussion, but asks the peanut gallery if they’d like them to continue. That they are, so let’s continue also.

The conversation with Gorgias continues for a little while, but eventually Polus starts getting impatient watching all this back-and-forth and jumps in. At Socrates’ invitation, Polus takes over the role of interlocutor and begins questioning Socrates, in an unusual example of him answering rather than asking the questions, though even here it’s soon apparent that he’s still effectively in control of the discussion.

In any case, Polus puts the question to Socrates what art he holds rhetoric to be, to which he gives the surprising answer, “To tell you the truth, Polus, no art at all.” Rather, “I call it a kind of routine. […] One that produces gratification and pleasure,” similar to cookery. If he hadn’t offended the audience enough at that point, he adds that “rhetoric is part of an activity that is not very reputable.”

Now, one criticism I’ve seen of Socrates is that he’s always tearing down other men’s opinions, but never offers one of his own. In Gorgias, though, that’s not true at all – he spends much of this dialogue explicitly arguing in favour of his own position that rhetoric is not an art, but flattery, and harmful.

A large part of his argument here to Gorgias and Polus takes the form of an analogy. “There exists,” Socrates says, “both in body and in soul, a condition which creates an impression of good health in each case, though it is false.” For the body, the arts that help us attain true health are medicine and gymnastics, each of which is mirrored by a form of flattery, respectively, cookery and beautification (meaning, I take it, fine clothes, makeup, and jewellery). Both are pleasant and attractive to the ignorant, but create the appearance of health and wholesomeness while, in reality, providing no such thing but mere entertainment at best, or deceitfully hiding the truth of poor health at worst. Similarly, rhetoric can move an audience, but does not actually provide wisdom or any sort of spiritual or political health.

I think Socrates provides here the clearest explanation of why he, and other like-minded philosophers, are so suspicious of clever talk. Rhetoric does not appeal to our higher natures, with plain speech, reason, ethics, and facts, though it may use these things incidentally. Rather, it dresses up a case like a supermarket that pre-seasons its worst meats, to mask their low quality and sell them to an unsuspecting shopper. Even if the rhetorician is selling a good case, we shouldn’t need that additional seasoning, so to speak; as our old friend Hiero the Tyrant says of those who always desire strongly flavoured meals, “for an appetite to crave that kind of food it would have to be effete and debilitated, don’t you think?”

On first reading this, I thought that Socrates may be overstating his case. After all, as an admirer of literature and fine writing in general, I love authors who revel in wordsmithing, with their literary touches and flourishes. After further reflection, though, I think that even in literature plain, honest speech is preferable to mere style. Consider, for example, one of the most famous poems in our language, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my out-cast state
And trouble deaf heav’n with my bootless cries,
And look upon my self and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’t,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising)
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate,
For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

It has style, certainly, but every line has a purpose and conveys some idea. The Bard isn’t just trying to overwhelm you with spectacle. This applies even to didactic poetry, like Alexander Pope’s “A Little Learning,” which I discussed recently. At a glance it appears a bit wordy, and what purpose does the verse actually serve? Couldn’t he have conveyed his idea at least as well in prose?

I suspect not. It may have been as clear, but the reason we remember Pope’s advice at all is because it is set in verse. “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” Socrates probably would not have been terribly impressed; we may remember in Protagoras he was rather critical of the didactic use of poetry, even from a poet of Simonides’ fame and excellence. Nonetheless, I do part from Socrates on this point.

One thing I’m unsure of is how much Socrates expects from common people. Very few can engage an idea directly, for any of several different reasons. Perhaps we don’t have the time, or the opportunity, or maybe biases we aren’t necessarily even aware of get in the way, or maybe we simply lack the intelligence. Plato himself is one of a handful of authors who I can tell is far more intelligent and educated than I am, so I occasionally wonder if I am following these dialogues as he intended.

I should note that rhetoric rarely helps matters, but there are a few exceptions. If I may bring in contemporary matters, writer Mencius Moldbug’s verbose prose is effective precisely because it is not direct, because if he gave the game away too soon then much of his audience would recognise his opinions as thought crimes and mentally shut him out. Here, rhetoric is not only an aid to helping a reader arrive at truth, but necessary for it. Pope’s poem above may be another example.

One workaround is for the dull, the partisan, and poor students generally not to engage in philosophy at all. However, as much as we may urge such people not to taste the Pierian Spring, there’s also no way to stop them. The best we can do is keep them out of important public positions and thereby ensure that they remain merely nuisances to their friends and family, and not public liabilities. What of ourselves, though? It’s difficult to make an unbiased assessment of one’s own intellectual ability. We tend either to arrogance and think of ourselves too highly, or to be overly aware of our faults and fall victim to impostor syndrome if we take on a major project. I suppose one answer is to find a good teacher, but the difficulties attendant on that I’ve already talked about when discussing Protagoras.


Now, believe it or not, this dialogue is currently less than half over. Still to be discussed are why tyrants and orators are unhappy, why a punished criminal is happier than one who remains uncaught, and whether rhetoricians improve their audience. Most of it, though, is an exercise in frustration, because it’s mostly between Socrates and the intractable Callicles, who begins his part of the dialogue hostile and, when he finds himself unable to refute Socrates, absolutely refuses to give straight answers to any of Socrates’ questions. I think, though, that this question of rhetoric is the most interesting and relevant part of the work, so I will leave it here and encourage you to read the dialogue for yourself. Next up, we’ll revisit our friend Hippias, of Greater Hippias fame, in the Lesser Hippias.

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