THE POWER OF RHETORIC

Socrates against 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, when he was almost forty years old, he had been posted at the battle of Potidaea as a hoplite or footsolder (Symposium 219e). A long siege reduced Potidaeans to cannibalism before they surrendered (History of the Peloponnesian War II.70). The army returned to Athens in 429 BCE. On the way home, it suffered heavy losses including all of its generals in battle near Spartolus (History of the Peloponnesian War II.79). In this battle, Socrates distinguished himself for valor. Alcibiades was wounded and would have died, but Socrates saved both his life and his armor (Symposium 220d). Alcibiades goes on to praise Socrates in the battle of Delium in 424 in under Laches (who whom Socrates dicusses courage in the Laches).

"We arrived yesterday evening with the army from Potidaea, and I sought with delight, after an absence of some time, my customary way of life. Accordingly I went into the wrestling-school of Taureas [a professional trainer], 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 the love of wisdom (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 associated with the Sophists and the new education that had become fashionable in 5th century BCE Athens.

Socrates, in the Gorgias, breaks from his role as a questioner. He still sometimes plays this role in the dialogue, but he also sometimes says what he thinks and argues for his views. This suggests that the Gorgias is a late early dialogue and that we are getting close to the middle dialogues.

A Life in the Love of Wisdom is Better

In the Gorgias, the question is about which life is better. The orators think it is their life of using rhetorical persuasion. Socrates thinks that it is his life in the love of wisdom.

"For you see, Callicles, our discussion is about this, and there is nothing even a man of little intelligence 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).

Socrates argues that rhetorical persuasion is blind. It allows the orator to get what he happens to desire, but it does not provide "wisdom and truth and the best state of the soul."

Socrates Refutes Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles

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

The dialogue opens with Callicles telling Socrates that 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 (ἡ δύναμις τῆς τέχνης), and what he professes and teaches" (Gorigas 447c).

This is what we should expect. To know whether life in rhetoric Gorgias and the orators sell is the good life, it is necessary to know what competency skill in rhetoric provides.

Gorgias (447a-461b)

Socrates in his role as questioner does not say but seems to think that Gorgias takes himself to teach his students to live the good life. This understanding of the orators comes out in the course of the dialogue. Socrates tells Gorgias that "no bad for a man is as great as false belief about the things we are discussing right now" (Gorgias 458a). He tells Polus that "the matters in dispute between us are not at all insignificant ones" because they are about "recognizing or failing to recognize who is happy and who is not" (Gorgias 472c). He tells Callicles that he should not "jest" with him because their discussion is about "what course of life is best" (Gorgias 500c).

"It appears even now that the just are happier from what has already been said. But all the same we must examine it more carefully. For it is no ordinary matter that we are discussing, but the way we ought to live" (Republic I.352d).
First Gorgias says that the practice he teaches is concerned with "the greatest of human concerns and the best" (Gorgias 451d). Socrates points out that lots of people say that they provide the "greatest good for mankind" and that to make progress, Gorgias should say what this "greatest good" is that he takes himself to possess and teach his students (Gorgias 452a, 452d). In reply, Gorgias says that what he teaches "is the source of freedom for mankind itself and at the same time it is for each person the source of rule over others in one’s own city" (Gorgias 452d).

Gorgias, it seems, thinks that what he teaches is the power to live the good life.

Living the good life is a matter of exercising a certain "power" (δύναμις). The power is to have the freedom to control things so that the life one lives is the life it benefits human beings most to live. Gorgias thinks that this freedom and control is what someone has when he "rules over others," and he thinks someone has this ability and thus this control over his life if he has the "ability to persuade with speeches" (Gorgias 452e) that Gorgias himself teaches. This is what Polus has in mind when he tries to get Socrates to agree that orators "have the greatest power (μέγιστον δύνανται) in their cities" (Gorgias 466b). The same is true for Callicles when he tells Socrates that "a man cannot be happy if he is enslaved to anyone at all" (Gorgias 491e).

  If someone asked you, is there a false and a true conviction (πίστις ψευδὴς καὶ ἀληθής), you would say so I am sure.
  Yes.
  Is there a true and a false knowledge (ἐπιστήμη)?
  Not at all.
  So it is clear that they are not the same.
  But surely both those who have learned and those who are convinced have come to be persuaded?
  That is right.
  Would you like us to posit two types of persuasion, one providing conviction without knowledge, the other providing knowledge?
  Yes I would.
  Now which kind of persuasion is it that rhetoric creates in law courts or any public meeting on matters of right and wrong? The one that results in being convinced without knowledge or the one that results in knowledge?
  It is 0bvious, surely, Socrates, the one that results in conviction.
ἐπιστήμη Thus rhetoric, it seems, is a producer of persuasion for belief, not for instruction in the matter of right and wrong.
  Yes, Socrates" (Gorgias 454d).
Socrates gets Gorgias to agree that rhetoric produces the kind that results in belief but not knowledge. The orator is not trying to teach those he persuades. He is trying to get them to believe something as part of an effort on his part to get something he himself wants.

This raises the possibility that Gorgias's students sometimes uses the power he teachers them for bad ends. Gorgias seems to think this is possible but says that the teacher is not to blame if his students use his teaching to bring about bad ends (Gorgias 456d).

Socrates thinks this cannot be right if Gorgias gives his students the power to live the good life. To force him into contradiction, Socrates gets him to admit that if his students do not know what is just, he teaches them as part of what he teaches (Gorgias 459c) and that someone with knowledge of justice is just (Gorgias 460b) and hence does not act for bad ends.

When Socrates points out the contradiction, Gorgias does not reply (Gorgias 460e). The reader, though, is left to conclude that he should withdraw his assertion that he teach is students what is just if they do not already know it and should admit that oratory is not the power to live the good life because it does not include knowledge of what is good and what is bad.

Polus (461b-481b)

  "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, if you would have the honest truth" (Gorgias 462b).
Polus jumps into the argument to take his turn with Socrates when sees that Gorgias has contradicted himself (Gorgias 461b). Socrates restricts him to the question and answer method but allows him to ask or answer the questions. Polus decides to ask the questions and tries to turn the tables on Socrates by forcing him to say what he thinks rhetoric is.


  "But what, Socrates, 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 knack (ἐμπειρίαν).
  Then do you take rhetoric to be a knack?
  I do.
  A knack for 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 given to make guesses (στοχαστικῆς), that is bold, and 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 a knack and routine (ἐμπειρία καὶ τριβή). I call rhetoric another branch of it..." (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 guesses (στοχάζεται) at the pleasant and ignores the best; and I say it is not an art (τέχνην), but a knack (ἐμπειρίαν), since it has no account to give of the nature of whatever things it applies by which it applies them, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them. I refuse to give the name of art to anything that is without such an account" (Gorgias 464e).

"For indeed, if the soul were not in command of the body, but the latter had charge of itself, and so cookery and medicine were not surveyed and distinguished by the soul, but the body itself were the judge, forming its own estimate of them by the gratifications they gave it, we should have a fine instance of what Anaxagoras described, my dear Polus,—for you are versed in these matters: everything would be jumbled together, without distinction as between medicinal and healthful and tasty concoctions" (Gorgias 465c).

"I was saying, I think, Callicles, that cookery seems to me not an art but experience, unlike medicine, which, I argued, is an art. It has investigated the nature of the object it serves the cause of what it does, and has some account to give of each of these things. The other, the one concerned with pleasure, to which the whole of its service is entirely devoted, proceeds toward its object quite inexpertly, without having investigated at all either the nature of pleasure or its cause. It does so altogether irrationally--with no discrimination, relying on routine and experience (τριβῇ καὶ ἐμπειρίᾳ) for merely preserving a memory of what customarily happens; and that is how it supplies its pleasures" (Gorgias 500e).
So now Socrates plays the role of respondent and Polus plays the role of questioner.

Socrates, in his new role, says that rhetoric is not an "art" (τέχνην). He says it is a "knack," that it is a practice or "routine" the orator has picked up in "experience" through observation and memory, that it produces "gratification and pleasure," and that it is a kind of "flattery."

This is a little puzzling.

Gorgias said that "rhetoric is a producer of persuasion" (Gorgias 452e), and this seems right. So what does Socrates mean when it says that it is a producer of "gratification and pleasure"?

There seem to be three main possibilities. On the first, the orator's ultimate aim is his own "gratification and pleasure." He uses speeches to persuade someone to believe something as part of an effort to get and avoid what he himself desires. On the second, he takes advantage of the tendency in people to make their decisions in terms of "gratification and pleasure" in order to persuade them to believe something. On the third, the orator does both.

Polus takes offense at the suggestion that orators are flatters. He asks Socrates whether he thinks that oratory gives the orator "great power" (Gorgias 466b). Polus himself thinks that orators do have this power because they can, "like tyrants, put to death anyone they want and confiscate the property and banish from their cities anyone they see fit" (Gorgias 466c).

Socrates now returns to his role as questioner.

Socrates asks Polus whether doing what one sees fit and doing what is good coincide (Gorgias 467a). Socrates thinks, and takes Polus to think too, that for them to coincide, it must be true that "acting as one sees fit coincides with acting beneficially" (Gorgias 470a). Polus's reason for thinking that these two do coincide comes from popular opinion. He thinks it is commmon knowledge that the tyrant Archelaus (Gorgias 470d) and the King of Persia (Gorgias 479e) are happy and that what makes them happy is their ability to do what they see fit.

Socrates agrees that sometimes it is better to do the things tyrants do, and he asks Polus where he "draws the line" (Gorgias 470b). Polus tells him to answer the question himself. Socrates says that we should do what is most beneficial and thus what contributes most to the goodness of our life and that we do this when we act "justly" and fail to do it when we act "unjustly" (Gorgias 470c).

In saying this, Socrates highlights the central issue in the argument.

The good life is the life it most benefits us to live. What is not immediately clear, though, is what benefits us. The orators think it is doing what one sees fit. So because they think that they have the power to use speeches to do what they see fit, they think that oratory is the power to live the good life. Socrates disagrees. Oratory may be the power to do what one sees fit. He does not deny that, but he thinks that doing what one sees fit is not the same as doing what is beneficial.

Polus is convinced that Socrates is wrong, but he cannot defend his view in questioning. Socrates gets him to see, or at least not to deny, that his own beliefs commit him to two counterexamples: doing rather than suffering wrong and avoiding paying what is due (Gorgias 474b). In these examples, Socrates argues that someone does what he sees fit but not what benefits him.

Callicles (481b-527e)

Callicles jumps into the conversation (Gorgias 481b) now that Socrates has refuted Polus.

Callicles thinks he sees the trick Socrates uses to make Polus contradict himself. He thinks that Socrates trades on what acting justly is. There is what "custom" (νόμος) says it is, and there is what it really is. This is what "nature" (φύσις) says it is (Gorgias 482e).

It is true, Callicles thinks, that doing what one sees fit is better if doing this is acting justly, but this way of stating the point can make it appear that sometimes doing what one sees fit is not acting justly. This is how it appears if the examples one has in mind are those "custom" provides, but Callicles insists that   "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?
  Yes, Socrates, I say that" (Gorgias 492d).
doing what one sees fit is what acting justly is. He thinks that we should live this way and that a good man has the virtue to do so. He does not let the “contracts of men that go against nature” prevent him from doing what he sees fit (Gorgias 492c).

In questioning, Socrates forces Callicles to see that he has reason to abandon this conception of what acting justly is because it is inconsistent with other things he believes. Socrates points out that Callicles must accept that certain lives that are commonly thought to be bad are in fact good. Callicles has to think that pleasure is good, no matter what the pleasure (Gorgias 494e).

Callicles at first tries to accept that pleasure is the good, but Socrates eventually makes him see that he does not accept this (Gorgias 499c).
  "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.
  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" (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 500a).

Socrates thinks that what this expert knows is crucial for living the good life.

We think that some lives are good and that others are not. The good ones benefit the person living the life. The bad ones do not. So we cannot say that doing whatever one sees fit is the good life because in some instances doing this is beneficial and in some instances it is not. Socrates, in his conversation with Polus, "draws the line" by saying that doing what we see fit benefits us in the instances in which we are acting justly. Polus rejects this because he thinks that acting justly is acting in accordance with the customs in the city about what is and is not just.

Callicles does not make this mistake, but he does not "draw a line" at all. He thinks that doing whatever one sees fit is acting justly, where acting justly is not acting in accordance with custom but is acting in accordance with what is just or right. This, though, makes it easy for Socrates to force him into contradiction because he also thinks that some lives are bad.

Socrates thinks that agrees that acting justly is not the same as acting in accordance with the customs in the city. Callicles is right about this, but Socrates thinks that he is wrong about what acting justly is. It is not doing what one sees fit. It is doing what is beneficial.

Since the use of rhetoric to persuade does not include this knowledge, it follows that competency in rhetoric is not the same as the competency involved in living the good life.

This leaves the question of whether the love of wisdom provides the competency (Gorgias 500c).

The Good and Proper Order

To answer this question, it is necessary to know what life the good life is.

To say what this life is, Socrates needs to say more than simply that when someone acts justly, he does what is beneficial and thus what contributes to the goodness of his life. Saying this leaves open what is and is not acting justly in particular circumstances. Socrates does not think it is acting in conformance with the laws and customs that happen to be in enforce in a city, but this does not tell us what particular acts are just and thus what life the good life is.

This is a now familar problem, but the Gorgias hints at a more specific answer.

Socrates 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, is that "reason" is the dominant power in the properly ordered soul and that a human being whose soul has this proper 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 organization or correctness or art (τάξει καὶ ὀρθότητι καὶ τέχνῃ). 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 a soul which has its own proper order is better than one that does not have this order. ... And the one with the proper order 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, then, that the temperate man, as shown in our exposition, being just and brave and pious, is the perfection of a good man (ἀγαθὸν ἄνδρα εἶναι τελέως), and that the good man does well and beautifully whatever he does and that he who [in this way] 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 Phaedo and the Republic

Socrates' explanation of the "blessed and happy" life in terms of the proper order of the soul is brief and not very clear, but it suggests a new way to think about his view that

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

In the Gorgias, Plato makes Socrates suggest that

• virtue comes to the soul when it receives its proper order

So now it seems that Plato is working with and considering the idea that the soul has parts.

Plato explains this idea 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. The soul now is not only reason, as the historical Socrates seemed to think. In the Republic, reason is one of three parts of the soul. There is a proper order for these three parts of the soul, and Plato makes Socrates describe in great detail the process whose aim is to instill this proper order and thus virtue into the soul.

The emphasis on the need of "organization or correctness or art" for the soul to receive its proper order also suggests that left on its own the soul acquires some improper order that the love of wisdom must correct. We will see the beginning of this idea in the Phaedo.




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" "If arithmetic and the sciences of measurement and weighing were taken away from all arts, what was left of any of them would be, so to speak, pretty worthless. It would be to conjecture and to drill the perceptions by practice (τριβῇ) and experience (ἐμπειρίᾳ), with the additional use of the powers of guessing, which are commonly called arts and acquire their efficacy by practice and toil" (Philebus 55e-56a).

"There are physicians, 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 under the direction of their masters, by observation and trail 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 from experience (ἐμπειρίας), just as though he had exact knowledge, and with the assurance of the stubborn..." (Plato, Laws IV.720a). Cf. Laws IX.857c.



"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. Hackett Publishing Company, 1985).





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