The Gorgias, like the Protagoras, is named after an important figure in the new sophistical movement that had become popular in Athens.

The Gorgias, however, unlike the Protagoras, is much more tightly focused on the question of whether ability in rhetorical persuasion is the key to the good life. Moreover, in the Gorgias, Plato uses the character Socrates in a way that marks an important departure from his practice in the early dialogues. In the Gorgias, Socrates breaks from his role as a questioner. In contrast to his practice in earlier dialogues, he is no longer primarily a counterpuncher. Now he is much more ready to say what he thinks and to argue for his views.

In the Gorgias, Socrates leaves no doubt that he thinks his life in the love of wisdom is the best way to live. He argues that the life the orators teach is blind, that it ignores "wisdom and truth and the best state of [the] soul," and that it endows a human being with the ability to ruin his life because he allows him to satisfy whatever desires he happens to possess.

"For you see, Callicles, our discussion is about this, and there is nothing even a man of little intelligence (νοῦν) would take more seriously: the issue of how to live one's life. The life you are recommending involves the manly activities of addressing the assembled people, rhetorical training (ῥητορικὴν), and the kind of political involvement you and your sort are engaged in. But the question is whether this is the correct way to live, or whether my life in the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφίᾳ) is better" (Gorgias 500c; cf. Republic I.344d-e).


Expertise, Reason, and Experience

Socrates' interlocutors in the Gorgias are Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. He takes them on in turns.

The dialogue opens with Callicles telling Socrates that he just missed hearing Gorgias giving a performance. Socrates says that he is not interested in seeing that, but that he would like "to find out from the man what is the function of his art, and what it is that he professes and teaches" (Gorigas 447c).


1. Gorgias

Socrates asks Gorgias what "art" (τέχνη) rhetoric is.

Gorgias has considerable trouble both understanding and answering the question, but eventually he says that rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Socrates distinguishes two sorts of persuasion, and Gorgias says that rhetoric produces the kind that results in belief but not necessarily knowledge.

 "I think now, Gorgias, you have come very near to showing us the art of rhetoric as you conceive it, and if I at all take your meaning, you say that rhetoric is a producer of persuasion (πειθοῦς δημιουργός ἐστιν ἡ ῥητορική), and has therein its whole business and main consummation. Or can you tell us of any other function it can have beyond that of effecting persuasion in the minds of an audience?
 None at all, Socrates; your definition seems to me satisfactory; that is the main substance of the art" (Gorgias 452e-453a).

 "Now which kind of persuasion is it that rhetoric creates in law courts or any public meeting on matters of right and wrong? The kind from which we get belief without knowledge, or that from which we get knowledge?
Obviously, I presume, Socrates, that from which we get belief.
Thus rhetoric, it seems, is a producer of persuasion for belief, not for instruction in the matter of right and wrong.
 Yes, Socrates" (Gorgias 454e-455a).

Given this understanding of rhetoric, it is clear that ability in rhetoric cannot be the competency involved in living a good life. Rhetoric may be useful in satisfying desires, but it cannot be the competency involved in living a good life because it lacks the resources to distinguish desires that should be satisfied from those that should not be satisfied.

Rather than further defend the importance of rhetoric, Gorgias drops out of the conversation.


2. Polus

Polus jumps in the conversation (at 461b) to replace Gorgias. Socrates restricts Polus to the question and answer method but allows him either to ask or put the questions. Polus decides to ask them and tries to turn the tables on Socrates by forcing him to say what he thinks rhetoric is.

 "So answer me this, Socrates: since you think that Gorgias is at a loss about rhetoric, what is your own account of it?
Are you asking what art (τέχνην) I call it?
 Yes.
 None at all, I consider, Polus, if you would have the honest truth" (Gorgias 462b).

Socrates says that rhetoric is not a "art" (τέχνην) but is a kind of flattery and a matter of "experience" (ἐμπειρία). Skill in rhetorical persuasion is not an instance of "reason." Rhetoric does not have its basis in knowledge. It is "experience"--a matter of routine and memory for producing pleasure and gratification.

 "But what do you consider rhetoric to be?
 A thing which you say—in the treatise which I read of late—'made art.'
 What thing do you mean?
 I mean a certain habitude (ἐμπειρίαν).
 Then do you take rhetoric to be experience (ἐμπειρία)?
 I do.
 Experience of what?
 Of producing a kind of gratification and pleasure" (Gorgias 462b-c).

"It seems that, at the end of the fifth and in the course of the fourth century, some authors had taken the view that certain important bodies of technical knowledge or expertise were mere matters of experience and that perhaps all knowledge was of this kind. Plato in the Gorgias makes Socrates criticize Polus' claim that rhetoric is the highest of all human arts, the master discipline, by arguing that rhetoric, at least as Gorgias and Polus conceive of it, is merely a matter of experience and knack or practice (τριβη) and not an art (τεχνη). But there is good reason to believe that Polus himself did in fact hold the view that rhetorical knowledge is a matter of experience (Ar. Met 981a4), and it is certainly no accident that two terms Plato here uses to discredit Gorgianic rhetoric, namely εμπειρια 'experience' and τριβη 'knack' or 'practice,' are both terms later Empiricists used in a positive sense." (Michael Frede, "Introduction" in Galen. Three Treatises on the Nature of Science, xxiii-xxiv.)

By acting in terms of "experience," a human being can harm himself by forming habits that cannot be easily broken. Even if he were somehow to know what is desirable in the circumstances at hand, he might be unable to act on this knowledge because he has become habituated to the "gratification and pleasure" and is now compelled to act in this way.

"It seems to me to be a pursuit that is not a matter of art, but belongs a soul with the courage of its conjectures (ψυχῆς δὲ στοχαστικῆς καὶ ἀνδρείας) that has a natural bent for clever dealing with mankind, and I sum up its substance in the name flattery. This practice, as I view it, has many branches, and one of them is cookery; which appears indeed to be an art but, by my account of it, is not an art but experience and routine (ἐμπειρία καὶ τριβή). I call rhetoric another branch of it, as also personal adornment and sophistry" (Gorgias 463a-b).

"Rhetoric, by my account, is a semblance (εἴδωλον) of a branch of politics" (Gorgias 463c-d).

"Flattery, is what I call it, and I say that this sort of thing is a disgrace, Polus—for here I address you—because it aims at the pleasant and ignores the best (τοῦ ἡδέος στοχάζεται ἄνευ τοῦ βελτίστου); and I say it is not an art (τέχνην), but a habitude (ἐμπειρίαν), since it has no account to give of the real nature of the things it applies, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them. I refuse to give the name of art to anything that is irrational (ἄλογον)" (Gorgias 464e-465a).

"[A]s I put it, cookery is flattery disguised as medicine; and so is rhetoric to justice (δικαιοσύνην)" (Gorgias 465b-c).

"There are physicians (ἰατροί), we say, and others are their assistants, but we call the latter also physicians. These, whether they be free-born or slaves, acquire their art (τέχνην) under the direction of their masters, by observation and practice (ἐμπειρίαν) and not by the study of nature—which is the way in which the free-born doctors have learnt the art themselves and in which they instruct their own disciples. ... [Each of these assistants] prescribes what he deems right (δόξαντα) from experience (ἐμπειρίας), just as though he had exact knowledge" (Laws IV.720a-c). "[I]f any of the doctors who practice medicine by purely empirical methods (ἐμπειρίαις), devoid of theory (ἄνευ λόγου), were to come upon a free-born doctor conversing with a free-born patient, and using arguments, much as a philosopher (φιλοσοφεῖν) would, dealing with the course of the ailment from its origin and surveying the natural constitution of the human body,--he would at once break out into a roar of laughter...., 'You fool,' he would say, 'you are not treating your patient, but schooling him, as though what he wanted was to be made, not healthy but a physician'" (Laws IX.857c-d).


3. Callicles

Callicles jumps into the conversation (at 481b) once Polus is reduced to silence and no longer able to defend the importance of rhetoric.

The discussion initially is about whether justice is always good. Socrates had forced Polus to agree that is. Callicles (in a long speech) rejects Socrates' argument and argues that justice is only good by convention. Socrates, in turn, asks Callicles questions that force him to abandon his view about justice. In so doing, the conversation turns to the good.

Socrates forces Callicles to agree that the good is not the same as the pleasant and it takes an expert to tell which pleasures are good.

 "Because, you know, Polus and I, if you recollect, decided [at 468c] that everything we do should be for the sake of what is good. Do you agree with us in this view—that the good is the end of all our actions, and it is for its sake that all other things should be done, and not it for theirs? Do you add your vote to ours, and make a third?
 I do.
 Then it is for the sake of what is good that we should do everything, including what is pleasant, not the good for the sake of the pleasant.
 Certainly.
 Now is it in every man's power to pick out which sort of pleasant things are good and which bad, or is professional skill (τεχνικοῦ) required in each case?
 Professional skill.
 Then let us recall those former points I was putting to Polus and Gorgias (at 464a). I said, if you remember, that there were certain industries, some of which extend only to pleasure, procuring that and no more, and ignorant of better and worse; while others know what is good and what bad. And I placed among those that are concerned with pleasure the habitude, not art (ἐμπειρίαν ἀλλὰ οὐ τέχνην).... Callicles, do not on your part indulge in jesting with me, or give me random answers against your conviction, or again, take what I say as though I were jesting. For you see, Callicles, our discussion is about this, and there is nothing even a man of little intelligence (νοῦν) would take more seriously: the issue of how to live one's life. The life you are recommending involves the manly activities of addressing the assembled people, rhetorical training, and the kind of political involvement you and your sort are engaged in. But the question is whether this is the correct way to live, or whether my life in the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφίᾳ) is better and what makes the difference between these two" (Gorgias 499e- 500c).

Rhetoric is concerned with pleasure, not the good. It is flattery.

"Then try and come to a definite agreement with me on what I was saying to our friends here, and see if you now find that what I then said was true. I was saying, I think, that cookery seems to me not an art (τέχνη) but a habitude (ἐμπειρία).... [I]n respect of the pleasure to which her whole ministration is given, [it] goes to work there in an utterly inartistic manner (ἀτέχνως), without having investigated at all either the nature or the cause of pleasure, and altogether irrationally (ἀλόγως)--with no thought, one may say, of differentiation, relying on routine and habitude (τριβῇ καὶ ἐμπειρίᾳ) for merely preserving a memory of what is wont to result; and that is how she is enabled to provide her pleasures. ... [Now there are occupations] having to do with the soul; some artistic, with forethought for what is to the soul's best advantage, and others making light of this, but again, as in the former case, considering merely the soul's pleasure and how it may be contrived for her, neither inquiring which of the pleasures is a better or a worse one, nor caring for aught but mere gratification, whether for better or worse. For I, Callicles, hold that there are such, and for my part I call this sort of thing flattery, whether in relation to the body or to the soul or to anything else, whenever anyone ministers to its pleasure without regard for the better and the worse (Gorgias 500e-501c).

A thing is good, according to Socrates, just in case it has the proper order. For human beings, who are psychological beings, the proper order is a certain organization of the soul. Socrates does not specify this organization in detail, but the suggestion is that "reason," as opposed to "experience," is dominant in the properly organized soul.

"[B]oth we and everything else that is good, are good by the advent of some virtue (ἀρετῆς) ... But surely the virtue of each thing, whether of an implement or of a body, or again of a soul or any live creature, does not arrive most properly by accident, but by an order or rightness or art that is apportioned to each. ... Hence it is a certain order (κόσμος) proper to each existent thing that by its advent in each makes it good. ... So then a soul which has its own proper order is better than one which is unordered. ... And the orderly one is temperate (σώφρων). ... So the temperate soul is good. ... And further, the temperate man will do what is fitting (προσήκοντα) as regards both gods and men. ... And again, when he does what is fitting as regards men, his actions will be just, and [when he does what is fitting] as regards the gods, [his actions will be] pious. ... And surely he must be brave also. ... [I]t follows of strict necessity, Callicles, that the sensible man, as shown in our exposition, being just and brave and pious, is the perfection of a good man, and that the good man does well and fairly whatever he does and that he who does well is blessed and happy (μακάριόν τε καὶ εὐδαίμονα), while the wicked man or evil-doer is wretched. And this must be the man who is in an opposite case to the temperate,—the licentious man whom you were commending" (Gorgias 506e-507c).

"[I]t is by the possession of justice and temperance that the happy are happy and by that of vice the wretched are wretched; or if this is true, we must investigate its consequences. Those former results, Callicles, must all follow, on which you asked me if I was speaking in earnest when I said that a man must accuse himself or his son or his comrade if he do any wrong, and that this is what rhetoric must be used for; and what you supposed Polus to be conceding from shame is after all true—that to do wrong is worse, in the same degree as it is baser, than to suffer it, and that whoever means to be the right sort of rhetorician must really be just and well-informed of the ways of justice, which again Polus said that Gorgias was only shamed into admitting" (Gorgias 508a-c).

"There are physicians (ἰατροί), we say, and others are their assistants, but we call the latter also physicians. These, whether they be free-born or slaves, acquire their art (τέχνην) under the direction of their masters, by observation and practice (ἐμπειρίαν) and not by the study of nature—which is the way in which the free-born doctors have learnt the art themselves and in which they instruct their own disciples. ... [Each of these assistants] prescribes what he deems right (δόξαντα) from experience (ἐμπειρίας), just as though he had exact knowledge" (Laws IV.720a-c). "[I]f any of the doctors who practice medicine by purely empirical methods (ἐμπειρίαις), devoid of theory (ἄνευ λόγου), were to come upon a free-born doctor conversing with a free-born patient, and using arguments, much as a philosopher (φιλοσοφεῖν) would, dealing with the course of the ailment from its origin and surveying the natural constitution of the human body,--he would at once break out into a roar of laughter...., 'You fool,' he would say, 'you are not treating your patient, but schooling him, as though what he wanted was to be made, not healthy but a physician'" (Laws IX.857c-d).


The Transition to the Middle Dialogues

It remains unclear how a human being comes to possess the proper "order" (κόσμος) in his soul, whatever exactly this order is.

The suggestion is that when a human being has the proper order in his soul, he recognizes and chooses what is good in the circumstances he encounters. In a soul with the proper order, "reason" is in control, not "experience." In "reason," there is knowledge of what is good and what is bad. A human being with this knowledge makes his life as good as possible.

Plato's intentions are difficult to know, since he does neither appear in the dialogues as a character nor elsewhere explains his intentions in the dialogues, but it is natural to see the Republic as providing some of the detail missing from the Gorigas. In the Republic, Plato has Socrates abandon the intellectualist theory of the soul that the character seemed to presuppose in the Protagoras in favor of the Tripartite Theory of the Soul. In the Tripartite Theory, the "order" among the three parts of the soul has consequences for whether a human being lives a good life.






Perseus Digital Library:
Plato's, Gorgias
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἐμπειρία, empeiria, noun, "experience,"
κόσμος, kosmos, noun, "order,"
τέχνη, technē, noun, "art"