Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles

The dramatic date of the Gorgias is uncertain. Socrates says that "last year, when I was elected a member of the Council...(Gorgias 473e). This places it in 405 BCE, but Callicles says "the great Pericles, who has died recently... (Gorgias 503c). This places the conversation about two decades earlier. Pericles died in 429 BCE in the plague.

Gorgias, who was born in Leontini, a Greek colony in Sicily, was in Athens in 427 BCE. His fellow citizens sent him there as part of an embassy to seek protection from Syracuse (Hippias Major 282b, Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War III.86. Cf. Diodorus Siculus, Libary XII.53).

Diodorus Siculus is a first century BCE Greek historian.

The plague struck in 430 BCE, when Athens under siege by Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. In the next three years, it wiped out upward to a third of the population. Thucydides (historian and Athenian general) gives an eye-witness account (History of the Peloponnesian War II.47.)

Socrates was not in Athens when the plauge struck. In 432 BCE, he had been posted at the battle of Potidaea as a hoplite (Symposium 291e). The army returned in 429 BCE.

"We arrived yesterday evening from the army at Potidaea, and I sought with delight, after an absence of some time, my customary way of life (συνήθεις διατριβάς). Accordingly I went into the wrestling-school of Taureas, opposite the Queen's shrine, and there I came upon quite a number of people.... When [they heard enough about the battle], I in my turn began to inquire about affairs at home, how philosophy (φιλοσοφίας) was doing at present, and whether any of the rising young men had distinguished themselves for wisdom or beauty or both. " (Charmides 153a, 153d).)
The Gorgias, like the Protagoras, is named after an important figure in the new Sophistic movement that had become popular in 5th century BCE 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 and happiness. Moreover, unlike in the Protagoras, Socrates breaks from his role as a questioner. No longer is he primarily a counterpuncher. Now he is ready to say what he thinks and to argue for his views.

A Life in the Love of Wisdom is Better

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 of rhetorical persuasion 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 it gives him an ability 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, 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 it is my life in the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφίᾳ), and what the difference between them is" (Gorgias 500c; cf. Republic I.344d).

The Argument for the Love of Wisdom

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

The dialogue opens with Callicles telling Socrates he just missed hearing Gorgias. Socrates says he does not want a "display," but that he would like "to find out from the man the power of his art, and what he professes and teaches" (Gorigas 447c).


  "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).

  "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).
So Scrates asks Gorgias what "art" (τέχνη) rhetoric is.

Gorgias has considerable trouble understanding and answering, 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 knowledge.

Given this understanding of rhetoric, it seems 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 defend the importance of rhetoric, Gorgias drops out of the conversation.


  "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?
  None at all, I consider, if you would have the honest truth" (Gorgias 462b).
Polus replaces Gorgias in the conversation (Gorgias 461b). Socrates restricts Polus to the question and answer method but allows him to ask or answer the questions. Polus decides to ask and tries to turn the tables on Socrates by forcing him to say what he thinks rhetoric is.

  "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). It seems to me to be a pursuit that is not a matter of art, but belongs to 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).

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).

Cf. Gorgias 500a, 500e-501c.
Socrates replies that rhetoric is not an "art" (τέχνην). He says it is a kind of flattery acquired in "experience" (ἐμπειρία). According to this understanding, the practice in rhetorical persuasion the Sophists teach their students is not an exercise of "reason." This practice does not have its basis in knowledge. It is acquired in routine and memory of what produces pleasure and gratification, and the Sophists take money to pass on this routine to their students.

"Rhetoric, by my account, is a semblance of a branch of politics. ... [A]s I put it, cookery is flattery disguised as medicine; and so is rhetoric to justice" (Gorgias 463c, 465b).

The use rhetorical persuasion corrupts the soul because it makes "experience," not "reason," the "leader and ruler." It helps the students harm themselves because it helps them form habits that cannot be easily broken. Even if they were to happen to know what is desirable in the circumstances, they might be unable to act on this knowledge because they are compelled to act in ways that result in the "gratification and pleasure" that comes from satisfying desires.


Callicles jumps into the conversation (Gorgias 481b) once Socrates refutes Polus.

The discussion initially is about whether justice is better than injustice. Socrates had forced Polus to agree that justice is better (Gorgias 479e). Callicles, in a long speech, argues that justice is only good by convention and that not controlling one's desires but letting them grow and satisfying them is the activity in which happiness consists (Gorgias 483a, 491e).

  "Now tell me, Callicles, do you say the desires are not to be chastened if a man would be such as he ought to be, but he should let them be as great as possible and provide them with satisfaction from some source or other, and this is virtue (ἀρετήν)?
  Yes, Socrates, I say that" (Gorgias 492d).

In questioning, Socrates forces Callicles to see that he has reason to abandon this conception of virtue because it is inconsistent with other things he believes (Gorgias 486d, 495a).

Socrates next turns to whether what is good is the same as what is pleasant (Gorgias 495d, 499c). Callicles thinks it is, but
  "Polus and I, if you recollect, decided [Gorgias 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.
  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" (Gorgias 499e).
Socrates forces him to agree that good is not the same as pleasant and that it takes an expert to tell which pleasures are good (Gorgias 497a, 499e).

Since the use of rhetoric to persuade does not include this expertise, it follows that rhetoric does not have the importance and value Polus had claimed for it (Gorgias 448c).

This leaves the question of whether a life in the love of wisdom is better (Gorgias 500c).

The Good and Proper Order

To know whether a life in the love of wisdom is better than a life of rhetorical persuasion of the sort Polus and Callicles advocate, it is necessary to know what a good life is.

Socrates' explanation, unfortunately, is not very clear. He says that a thing is good just in case it has the proper order and that for human beings the proper order is a certain organization of the soul, but he does not specify this order in detail. The suggestion, though, given the earlier discussion, is that "reason" (as opposed to "experience") is dominant in the properly ordered soul and that a human being whose soul has this order is "blessed and happy."

  "[W]e and everything that is good, are good by the presence of some virtue? In my view, it must be so Callicles. And 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. Is that so?
  I agree.
  Hence it is a certain order (κόσμος) proper to each thing that by its possession 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. ... So the temperate soul is good. ... And further, the temperate man will do what is fitting 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 temperate 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 beautifully whatever he does and that he who does well is blessed and happy (μακάριόν τε καὶ εὐδαίμονα), while the wicked man who does badly is wretched. And this must be the man who is in an opposite case to the temperate,—the licentious man whom you were commending, Callicles" (Gorgias 506d).

From the Gorgias to the Republic

Socrates does not explain how a human being comes to possess the proper "order" in his soul, whatever exactly this order is, but the suggestion is that once a human being has this order in his soul, he recognizes and acts for the sake of what is good in the circumstances. 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 knows what to do. Further, because his soul has the proper order, he acts on the basis of this knowledge he "does well whatever he does." In this way, because he "does well," he is "blessed and happy."

This explanation of the "blessed and happy" life in terms of the proper order of the soul suggests a new way to think about the Socratic view that

• living a good life is a matter of having a certain competency in living
• the competency consists in controlling oneself so that one lives a good life
• someone controls himself in this way just in case his soul has virtue

In the Gorgias, Socrates argues that

• the soul has virtue just in case it has the proper order

This suggests that knowledge of what is good and bad is not sufficient for a good life. In addition, it seems that for a good life the soul must have its proper order.

It remains to explain what this proper order is and how a human being acquires it.

Plato gives this explanation in the Republic. In this dialogue, Socrates abandons the intellectualist theory of the soul and of desire in the Protagoras. In the place of this theory, he argues for (what commentators call) the Tripartite Theory of the Soul. In the Republic, the soul has three parts. Further, there is a proper order for these parts and thus for the soul.

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"

"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, and with the assurance of the stubborn..." (Plato, Laws IV.720a). 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 [(Gorgias 448c)], 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 [Aristotle, Metaphysics] 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," xxiii-xxiv. Galen. Three Treatises on the Nature of Science, ix-xxxiv).

move on go back