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.