- Gorgias by Plato


After Socrates was judged and condemned Plato left Athens in disgust. He travelled round the Mediterranean and met up with the Pythagoras cult in the south of modern Italy. He knew of the sophists and Gorgias born in Sicily in 483 B.C. and who later became one of the founders of sophism and an itinerant teacher of rhetoric. This was a movement that put the philosophical emphasis on applying rhetoric in civic and political life. The sophists claimed that their method could teach any thesis and its antithesis. They also maintained that they could strengthen weak arguments. This was very attractive for those entering politics.

Oratory was popular in Athens which had schools for training the elite on how to persuade others using rhetoric. Plato expressed a notable criticism in Gorgias (circa 380 B.C.) on the use of oratory to gain political power in the fledgling Athenian democracy. He called the sophist teachings rhetoric while they called it logos.


Gorgias has just given a talk and Socrates, Polus and a politician, Callicles, are discussing it. Socrates wasn't at the lecture and wants to speak to Gorgias personally. This is arranged.

Socrates' aim is to ask Gorgias about his craft of oratory and how he practises it. He replies that rhetoric deals with what is just and unjust. When Socrates pushes him to explain the difference between imparting knowledge and persuading Gorgias responds that orators don't teach about justice, they persuade. In short, speakers don't need to be experts in their subjects they just have to appear to be.

Gorgias goes on to argue that orators are not to be blamed for their students misusing rhetoric. Socrates inquires if someone who has learned what is just would necessarily become a just person. Gorgias replies that that is not inevitable. Socrates then says to Gorgias that he is inconsistent. He argues that if oratory concerns itself with what is just then a practitioner would not use his skills unjustly.

Polus then interrupts to say that Socrates is being rude wanting to learn about the craft of oratory. Socrates disagrees that rhetoric is a craft and reasons that it is merely an ability to satisfy others. He adds that it a type of flattery for the audience. He thinks that medicine and justice are crafts but adulation pretends to benefit people but only gives them momentary pleasure. On the contrary a craft seeks to comprehend its subject and so offer them longterm gains.

When Polus is invited to reply he argues that rhetoricians are respected because they hold most power in the city, like tyrants. Socrates contends that tyrants don't do what they want since what we desire is what is good. He argues that we do things for a greater good, that our behaviours are always motivated by a positive intention. Polus concedes that this is true.

Socrates then adduces that an unjust person cannot be happy if he does not face the consequences of his misdemeanor. Justice cleans the soul of the corruption caused by unjust actions. That person is happier than the one who evades just punishment. Oratory, he says, is of no use if it does not move the unjust to accept discipline.

Now Callicles intervenes to accuse Socrates of flattering his audience. He also argues against Socrates' conception of justice. Claims of 'injustice', he asserts, are simply the weak trying to unfairly curtail the strong. He advises Socrates to stop philosophising and engage in public life, that way he would learn that it is natural for the 'superior' to rule over the 'inferior'. Socrates counters even if this were true it is more important that they rule over their own appetites. Callicles disagrees completely arguing that the good life means being able to do whatever you please without restraint.

Socrates wants to demonstrate to Callicles that a life with order is preferable to a disorderly one. He distinguishes between the good and the pleasant by explaining that a pleasant experience doesn't mean the person is acting well. It is more important to discriminate between benefit and harm: some pleasures cause harm; some pain is beneficial. It needs a craftsman to differentiate between good and bad pleasures. The discussion is actually about how it is best to live: as a philosopher or a politician?

Callicles and Socrates agree that some rhetorical flattery applies to both the soul and the body and that orators aim to please their audiences to promote self-interest. Socrates suggests that a good orator would consider the nature of a well-ordered soul when giving a discourse, just as a doctor does with the body.

On the topic of committing and suffering injustice Callicles states that political power is the best way to protect yourself against injustice. He suggests using oratory to avoid political dangers as a means to a long life. Socrates' counter argument is that living according to goodness is more important than preserving your life. He adds that if politics is to make good citizens then politicians must focus not on flattery but on treating people's souls with what is best for them.

Callicles retorts that Socrates would fare badly in court because people don't want to hear that the philosopher's harsh words are beneficial for them. Socrates agrees but says he only fears facing the final judgement in Hades with a corrupt soul. The philosopher encourages his interlocutor to do the same.

At the end Socrates summarises his arguments. He insists that it is known that performing an injustice is worse than suffering it, that being good is more important than appearing good, that flattery is bad and discipline good, that oratory should be used to support justice. Happiness in this life and the afterlife is found in the path of philosophy not power and rhetoric.


The book is structured according to the method of Socratic dialogue: question, response and counter. Here Plato places Socrates as interlocutor of three sophists: Gorgias, Polus and Callicles.

The definition of rhetoric is ‘The art or study of using language effectively and persuasively’. However Gorgias was not very persuasive when talking about his subject. He answers in short sentences and receives more convincing counter arguments from Socrates. Gorgias argues that rhetoric is one art of discourse but the other arts which depend on words are not rhetoric. The counter question is where does the difference lie?

The student of oratory, Polus, answers by speechifying which does not persuade Socrates. Polus equivalates rhetoric and power which he believes is good but Socrates argues that rhetoricians have no power. As the philosopher says: "Polus has been taught how to make a capital speech”

In his dialogue Callicles does not use questions or logic to support his views. Although he make valid points he tends to affirm and cites others, like Homer, to prove his points. He tries to undermine the philosophical method itself and its focus on words. However he becomes personal when he attacks any adult who continues interest in it, like Socrates. This reference ad hominem disqualifies him as a Socratic conversationalist. 

Plato rejects the idea of rhetoric as an art so he used the Socratic art of open dialogue to demonstrate to the sophists that rhetoric was an experience, not a craft. Socrates maintains his method of dialogue. He uses speeches as a way of extending his ideas rather than direct affirmation. He doesn't use rhetoric to convince like the others but is still able to persuade two out of the three interlocutors.



Plato viewed sophistry as false rhetoric because its goal was to install a belief not convey knowledge. It was a danger to the democratic system because the orators could persuade Athenians to believe what they wanted.

It worked through flattering the audience so that they overlooked illogical nonsequiturs, anecdotal evidence and controversial premises. Plato's goal in writing Gorgias was to demonstrate that rhetoric was an efficient manipulation of the masses but did not instruct them.

The lasting effect of Plato's book is that appearance is superficial but philosophy can arrive at the core of things. Through neoplatonism Christianity prolonged this distinction: the soul as the essence compared to the pleasures of the world. Similarly Kant also contrasted his abstract idealism with Locke and Hume's matter of fact empiricism.


For Plato true art or craft is a skill whose goal offers some sort of good for the artist and to the recipients of the art. The example given is medicine whose art improves patients' health and also the doctor's skills. Socrates distinguishes between pleasant, feeling good, and real good. Rhetoric only creates a pleasant sensation of good in the listeners through flattery. It does no real good and that is the core of a virtuous life. The philosopher states that his contemporary citizens have been led to confound pleasure with virtue. This means that they they have adopted erroneous views on politics, justice and power where they equate the pleasant with the good. Denouncing the confusion of art with flattery is one of Plato's methods of defining how to live a virtuous existence.


Both Polus and Callicles define power as ruling over others and obtaining what you want. Socrates argues that those in power, even tyrants, must often act for the benefit of the city against their own interests. Real power is thus something other than self-satisfaction and controlling others. Those rulers who only serve their own desires are destined to become addicted to gratification and so ruled by vice not virtue. He describes this sort of tyrant as like a "leaky jar".

Socrates argues that real power is control of your own body and soul: the self-discipline to act with justice, to live virtuously and have no addictive needs. This constitutes Plato's reflection on Socrates' trial and condemnation. The philosopher was accused of corrupting youth through falsities and convicted when he refused to admit acting wrongly. Plato's aim is to demonstrate that his teacher died upholding true power and virtue faced with weak judges moved by false power.


Self-discipline is crucial to attaining virtue, according to Socrates. Leading a virtuous life is the path to many other key factors in a civilised society like justice and power. Personal power comes from gradually tempering needs into nothing, justice is attained by balancing power sharing and virtue is the harmonising of body and soul in fitness, justice and goodness. The main arguments in the dialogues are resolved through a reference to self-control. This basic human activity of temperance fits well with the Athenian cultural aspiration to harmony which they expressed in their architecture, sculpture and philosophy.


Virtue is the central theme of Gorgias and of Plato's philosophy. In the dialogue it is not defined by itself but its nature becomes clear through references to other qualities. Virtue appears as a composite of the other basic themes such as self-control, justice and power, all related to goodness. The virtuous life is the result of practising these behaviours which are summarised in the abstraction Socrates calls virtue. 

The problem of how to live a good life was crucial giving that both Plato and his teacher were trying to resolve how to live together in the polis. The Athenians found an initial answer in democracy, a bottom up method of sharing power, instead of tyranny, the top down system. However the civic virtues discussed in Gorgias which enable us to live in a civilised society are questions that we are still pondering today in Western societies

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