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 embassy to seek protection for 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.)

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

"We arrived yesterday evening from the army at Potidaea, and I sought with delight, after an absence of some time, my usual conversations (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 Sophistical 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. He is no longer primarily a counterpuncher. Now he is much more 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 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).

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 that he just missed hearing Gorgias. Socrates says that 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-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).
Socrates 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 necessarily knowledge.

Given this understanding of rhetoric, it seems that ability in rhetoric cannot be the competency involved in living the good life. Rhetoric may be useful in satisfying desires, but it seems that it cannot be the competency involved in living the 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 jumps in the conversation (at 461b) to replace Gorgias. 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-c). "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-b).

"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).

Cf. Gorgias 500a, 500e-501c.
Socrates says, in reply, that rhetoric is not a "art" (τέχνην). He says that it is a kind of flattery and 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 (εἴδωλον) of a branch of politics. ... [A]s I put it, cookery is flattery disguised as medicine; and so is rhetoric to justice" (Gorgias 463c-d, 465b-c).

The use rhetorical persuasion the Sophists teach makes "experience," not "reason," the leader in the soul. This corrupts the soul. 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 not 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 (at 481b) once Polus is reduced to silence.

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. At this point, the conversation turns to what is good and what is bad.

 "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.
 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 Callicles to agree that what is good is not the same as what is pleasant and that it takes an expert to tell which pleasures are good. Since the life of rhetorical persuasion does not include this expertise, it seems to follow that a life in the love of wisdom is better.

The Good and Proper Order

If the argument is to be persuasive, it remains to explain what a life in the love of wisdom is.

Socrates' explanation of this life 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 in the dialogue, 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 (ἀρετῆς) ... 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.... 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 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, Callicles" (Gorgias 506d).

From the Gorgias to the Republic

Socrates does not explain how a human being comes to possess the proper "order" (κόσμος) 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 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 knows how to live. He acts wisely and thus arranges things in his life so that he is "happy" (εὐδαίμων).

At this point, then, Plato has supplied some detail but needs to do more to articulate what Socrates had in mind when (as Plato portrays him the early dialogues) he says

• Wisdom is necessary and sufficient for the virtues

The Gorgias associates the virtues of character with proper order in the soul, but there is still no clear explanation of what this order is and how a human being acquires it.

Plato gives the missing explanation in the Republic. In this dialogue Socrates abandons the intellectualist theory of the soul and of desire from 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, 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" in Galen. Three Treatises on the Nature of Science, xxiii-xxiv. Hackett Publishing Company, 1985).

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