Its traditional subtitle is "On Rhetoric", but while this is an element throughout the dialogue, it scarcely even conveys what the dialogue does, since Plato in Gorgias starts with a simple question -- what craft or skill does the rhetorician or orator practice? -- and expands from there to take in the nature of justice, education, philosophy, and the good life. Olympiodorus, the great Neoplatonic pedagogue, tells us in his lectures on Gorgias that there were several different attempts to identify the point of the dialogue in ancient times. Some said it was about rhetoric; but Olympiodorus notes that this is to try to describe the whole by what is not even the most significant part. Others said that it was about justice, and Olympiodorus rejects this for the same reason, although considering it more accurate than the former proposal. Others said it was about the 'demiurge'; these took the concluding Myth of Last Judgment as the key point. But it suffers from a similar problem. Olympiodorus's own proposal is that the dialogue aims at establishing the ethical principles of good life in society (politiken eudaimonian, literally 'political happiness' or 'civic flourishing'). And like much of Olympiodorus's commentary on Plato's Gorgias, that is a very good suggestion, I think.
I teach Plato's Gorgias practically every term in my Introduction to Philosophy courses, so what I will do for the posts on the subject is to provide some of the resources I give my students to help them follow the structure of the work, combined with comments that seem relevant to me on my re-reading -- everytime I re-read the work I come upon something new, so despite using some of my ready-made materials, I will certainly learn something myself from reading it yet again.
You can read Gorgias online in English at Perseus Project or in French at Wikisource.
(in order of appearance)
Nothing is known about Callicles outside this dialogue, and he makes such a good anti-Socrates that some people have thought Plato simply made him up for the purpose. From the dialogue itself we learn that he is an Athenian aristocrat, probably quite wealth, and Gorgias's host in Athens.
Gorgias was one of the greatest orators and teachers of the day. He came from Leontini, in Sicily. His most famous work, which we only have in two different paraphrases, is On the Nonexistent, in which he argues that nothing exists, that if anything it existed it could not be known, and that if it could be known we could not communicate it. Also well-known is his Encomium of Helen of Troy. His Defense of Palamedes is thought by some to be partly in view in Plato's Apology, and his Epitaphios by others to be one of the targets of Plato's Menexenus. He first burst onto the Athenian scene as an ambassador from Leontini, which was a democratic city and an enemy of Syracuse, an ally of Sparta. The Syracusans were expanding their sphere of influence and Gorgias persuaded the Athenians to send twenty ships under the general Laches. Despite the fact that he is the main target of the dialogue, Plato treats him far more respectfully than he usually treats opponents of Socrates.
Polus of Arcagas was a student of Gorgias, also from Sicily. We know very little about him, but he is mentioned in Phaedrus and Theages and also in Aristotle's Metaphysics.
In addition, there is an anonymous audience referred to occasionally.
The Plot and The Thought
Callicles opens the dialogue by greeting Socrates, remarking that he's late, too late to have caught Gorgias's demonstration. Socrates remarks that it's because Chaerephon kept them loitering in the marketplace. Chaerephon says it's no problem; Gorgias is a friend of his, so he can arrange another presentation. Socrates says he'd be interested in a discussion about Gorgias' craft, and they meet up with Gorgias. Socrates urges Chaerephon to start out questioning Gorgias, but Polus jumps in and insists that he can do quite as well. So Chaerephon and Polus, the two students, begin the discussion. Pressed to explain what Gorgias does, Polus launches into a speech (448c):
Many among men are the crafts experientially devised by experience, Chaerephon. Yes, it is experience that causes our times to march along the way of craft, whereas inexperience causes them to march along the way of chance. Of these various crafts various men partake in various ways, the best men partaking of the best of them. Our Gorgias is indeed in this group; he partakes of the most admirable of the crafts.
Socrates complains to Gorgias that Polus doesn't seem to be answering the question, and this switches the dialogue from the students to the teachers. Gorgias's answer to the question is that his craft is rhetoric (or oratory) and that he is capable of making other people orators, too, and that rhetoric is a craft concerned with making speeches. Socrates points out that practically every craft is concerned with making speeches of some kind, and thus pressed Gorgias clarifies that oratory is concerned wholly with speeches, and that what rhetoric as a craft produces is "the ability to persuade by speeches judges in a law court, councillors in a council meeting, and assemblymen in an assembly or in any other political gathering that might take place" (453e) and that this is the "source of freedom for humankind itself and at the same time it is for each person the source of rule over others in one's own city" (452d). Pressed further, he says that the persuasion it teaches is concerned "with those matters that are just and unjust" (454b). Socrates distinguishes between two kinds of things we might call persuasion: one providing knowledge and one providing conviction without knowledge. Gorgias concedes that rhetoric produces conviction without knowledge.
Socrates remarks that this is a puzzling thing. If the city is meeting to discuss harbors or walls, it would surely rely on the advice of builders, rather than orators. But Gorgias points to the examples of Themistocles and Pericles; the famous dockyards and Long Walls of the Athenians were in fact built through the advice of these two masters of oratory, not through the advice of craftsmen, and even the craftsmen themselves are appointed by the city through the influence of orators like them.
Socrates remarks that Gorgias seems to attribute to oratory an almost magical power, and Gorgias launches into his big speech of the dialogue (456a-457c). It is worth reading in full, but it falls into two basic parts. In the first part, Gorgias affirms the power of rhetoric, saying "it encompasses and subordinates to itself just about everything that can be accomplished" (456a). Rhetoric gives the power to be more persuasive than a craftsman even about the craftsman's own craft -- an orator can persuade people to take treatments better than a doctor, and if he wanted to, he could persuade others to appoint him doctor rather than a real doctor. This leads to the second part, in which Gorgias argues that rhetoric should be used just like any other skill, justly, and that if students of rhetoric act unjustly, they should be blamed for it, not their teachers.
Socrates suggests that Gorgias is being inconsistent here, but he raises the idea very tactfully, and Gorgias says he'd be interested, but they need to make sure that the audience isn't tired after Gorgias's long demonstration. Chaerephon notes that the audience is very interested in hearing how the discussion will go, and there is nothing he himself would rather do. Callicles jumps in as well (it is a small point, but significant for the later course of the dialogue) and insists that as a matter of fact, he feels the same, and would be willing to listen to them "even if it's all day long" (458d).
The inconsistency Socrates identifies is this. Gorgias says that rhetoric persuades not by teaching but by providing conviction without knowledge, and he has said that the orator will be even more persuasive than the doctor. But an orator would not be more persuasive than a doctor among doctors, because they already understand the subject, so Gorgias must mean that the orator would be more persuasive than a doctor among people ignorant of medicine. And he has also said that rhetoric concerns matters of justice and injustice, or right and wrong. So this means either that the students of rhetoric are taught to persuade others about right and wrong without knowing what it is, or the students of rhetoric know what right and wrong is. Gorgias replies that if anyone came to him who did not know what justice and injustice were, Gorgias would teach it to him. But someone who really knows what right or wrong, or justice and injustice, are is a just person. So that would suggest that orators are necessarily just people. Gorgias, however, has already indicated that this is not so: oratory can be used unjustly.
People have occasionally tried to get Gorgias out of this dilemma by arguing it is not a strict inconsistency, but I think it is important to grasp that in the context of the narrative it places Gorgias in a position where no possible answer is satisfactory. Gorgias, selling his services as a teacher of rhetoric, has played up the power of rhetoric to persuade. But as a foreigner in Athens, he can't go around claiming that he is teaching the youth of Athens how to persuade others of what is right and wrong even if they have no idea what is really right and wrong; that would be a direct admission of corrupting the youth. At the same time, however, he cannot afford to take responsibility for the moral behavior of all his students. So Socrates has shut down the great Gorgias.
* The dialogue has echoes of Plato's Apology running throughout it. Socrates' mention that Chaerephon kept them out in the marketplace is almost certainly, given later points in the dialogue, an allusion to the famous story in which Chaerephon went to the Oracle of Delphi and asked whether Socrates was the wisest man in Greece. The Oracle replied that there was no man wiser in Greece. According Socrates in the Apology, he thought the god must have made a mistake, so he started asking experts questions in order to find someone wiser than himself; but over and over he found that these so-called experts did not actually know as much as they thought. In other words, Socrates' entire career consisted of Chaerephon keeping them late in the marketplace. And, as we will see, one of the purposes of the dialogue is to give a general account of what Socratic philosophy, and the career of Socrates, really means.
* One of the themes of the dialogue is education, and it seems clear that Plato is underlining this by starting the discussion not with the teachers themselves but with their students, so that we see something of what each teacher produces. Given that Socrates will effectively argue in the rest of the dialogue that the Gorgian approach to education in the long run ruins moral character and destroys societies, it's worth comparing the Gorgian approach to education with our own. They are remarkably similar in many ways.
* Polus's little speech about Gorgias's craft or skill (techne) being an experience (empeiria) will be used by Socrates in his later argument against Polus.
* The explicit introduction of the great statesmen Themistocles and Pericles will play a continuing, although secondary role in the argument, thus suggesting that one of the purposes of the dialogue is to criticize sharply the Athenian policies that led to the build-up of the Athenian empire and the Peloponnesian War. An implicit theme throughout the work is the relation between rhetoric and democracy. Gorgias explicitly claims that rhetoric is the source of democratic freedom -- but he also says that it gives the power to make other people, for all practical purposes, your slaves. One of the things Socrates will be doing is arguing that Gorgian rhetoric, while perhaps growing naturally in a democracy, is toxic to it. A very similar line of argument is also found in Plato's Republic.
* We've already had a very robust little dialogue, and Plato is just warming up. After Socrates outmaneuvers Gorgias, Polus jumps in and takes it to another level. Everything, and I mean everything, in the argument with Gorgias will be used in the rest of the dialogue, but it will be examined more and more powerfully. It's worth thinking about the structure of the dialogue. As I tell my students, don't assume that Plato does anything randomly. Socrates is arguing against Gorgias -- Gorgias is the title character, after all, and there's a sense in which he never stops arguing against Gorgias. But why does he then divide Gorgias' part among three different orators, Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles? Gorgias is not an Athenian citizen; he has no rights in the city and he must watch what he says. Perhaps even more importantly, he is very good at what he does, and is far too careful to say something stupid. In order to analyze what Gorgias is doing, you have to draw out the implications from someone who can be goaded into being less careful. Thus we have the young, impatient Polus picking up where Gorgias stops. But even Polus is not an Athenian citizen, and he, like Gorgias, is a teacher selling his services, so there are limits to what he can say. And thus we will come to Callicles, the man purporting to be without shame, who is an Athenian citizen, who does not depend on the teaching of rhetoric for a living, to bring us to the utmost implications of the Gorgian approach to rhetoric. And every step will take us into bigger and more important matters.
to be continued