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 it about two decades earlier. Pericles died in 429 BCE in the plague that took Athens.

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. See also Diodorus Siculus (a first century BCE Greek historian), Library XII.53).

The plague struck in 430 BCE, when Athens under siege by Sparta in 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 footsoldier (Symposium 219e). A long siege reduced the 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 the loss of 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 in the battle and would have been killed, but Socrates saved both his life and his armor (Symposium 220d). Alcibiades also praises Socrates for his valor in the battle of Delium in 424 under Laches (a general with whom Socrates discusses 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. 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 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.

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

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 (φιλοσοφία), and what the difference between them is" (Gorgias 500c).

Socrates argues that rhetorical persuasion is blind. It may allow 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

In the Gorgias, Socrates' interlocutors are Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. He takes them in turn.

The dialogue opens with Callicles telling Socrates he just missed hearing Gorgias. Socrates counters that he does not want a "display" but wants "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 from Socrates.

To know whether the life in rhetoric Gorgias and the orators sell is the good life, it is necessary to know what power skill in rhetoric gives to someone who possesses it.

Gorgias (447a-461b)

Socrates stresses the importance of true beliefs about the good life. He 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 not trivial but is about "what course of life is best" (Gorgias 500c).

This idea in the Gorgias also appears in the Republic. "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).
Gorgias's answer to Socrates' question takes some time to come out.

He first says that the power of rhetoric 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 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).

This string of answers confusingly straddles two views about the relation of rhetoric to "greatest of human concerns." The concern itself is to live the good life.

On one reading of Gorgias’s answers, rhetoric is a power to do what is most beneficial given that one in fact knows what this good is. The good life is the most beneficial life, and rhetoric enables someone to enlist others in the city to help secure what is beneficial.

On another reading of Gorgias's answers, there is no such proviso. Exercising the power of rhetoric simply is living the good life. The "power to persuade by speeches" (Gorgias 452e) provides is a power to "rule over others," and the life of ruling over others is the most beneficial life because a life of acting as one sees fit is the most beneficial life to live.

The first may be what Gorgias really believes, but the second increasingly becomes the focus.



  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 obvious, surely, Socrates, the one that results in conviction.
  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 of persuasion that results in belief but not knowledge. The rhetor is not trying to teach those in whom he produces belief. He is trying to get his targets (those whom he is trying to persuade) to believe something as part of an effort to get something from them that he himself wants. Gorgias brags that rhetoric is so powerful that it gives the rhetor the ability to make others his slaves (Gorgias 452e).

This raises the possibility that Gorgias's students sometimes uses rhetoric for bad ends.

Gorgias thinks that the teacher of rhetoric is not to blame if this happens (Gorgias 456d).

This suggests that Gorgias is thinking of the view of the power of rhetoric in the first reading but does not distinguish it from the second because he thinks that what is good is what everyone ordinarily thinks it is. He tells Socrates that if a student happens not to know what is good and what is bad, he teaches him as part of teaching him rhetoric (Gorgias 459c).

Socrates takes this as an opportunity to force Gorgias into contradiction.

He gets him to admit that someone who has this knowledge he says he teaches will always acts rightly (Gorgias 460b) and hence will never act for bad ends.

When Socrates points out the contradiction, Gorgias does not reply (Gorgias 460e).

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 truth" (Gorgias 462b).
Polus jumps in to take his turn now that Gorgias has contradicted himself (Gorgias 461b).

Polus endorses the second reading of Gorgias's answer to Socrates. He believes that the good life is the life of acting as one sees fit and that rhetoric is the power to live this life

Socrates restricts Polus to dialectic, not speeches, but allows him to ask or answer the questions.

Polus decides to ask the questions and tries to turn the tables on Socrates.

He asks Socrates what the power of rhetoric is.


  "But what, Socrates, do you consider rhetoric to be?
  A thing which you say—in the treatise I read—'made art.'
  What thing do you mean?
  I mean a certain experience.
  Then do you take rhetoric to be experience?
  I do.
  Experience for what?
  Producing gratification and pleasure" (Gorgias 462b).

"Rhetoric seems to me to be a pursuit that is not an art, but belongs to a soul given to make guesses, 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 experience and routine (ἐμπειρία καὶ τριβή). I call rhetoric another branch of it" (Gorgias 463a).

"Flattery, is what I call it, and I say that it is a disgrace, Polus—for here I address you—because it guesses at the pleasant and ignores the best. It is not an art, but experience, 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 without such an account" (Gorgias 464e).

"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 [a Presocratic and rough contemporary with Socrates] 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, 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 for merely preserving a memory of what customarily happens; and that is how it supplies its pleasures" (Gorgias 500e).
Socrates is now in the role of the respondent in the dialectic.

He tells Polus that rhetoric is not an "art" (τέχνη). He says 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 confusing to understand.

When Socrates says that rhetoric is a matter of "experience," he is saying that rhetoric is something the orator learns by noticing what different speeches cause people to do.

His talk about "gratification and pleasure" is more puzzling.

Gorgias had said in his conversation with Socrates that "rhetoric is a producer of persuasion" (Gorgias 452e), and this indeed seems to be what it aims to produce. So what does Socrates mean when it says that it is a producer of "gratification and pleasure"?

There are 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 something he himself desires. On the second, in order to make someone believe what he wants him to believe, he takes advantage of the tendency in people to believe what gives them "gratification and pleasure." On the third, the orator does both.

Plato seems to have Socrates characterize rhetoric this way because he is thinking of the conception of rhetoric the historical Gorgias promoted. In one of his speeches, he had said that "incantations ... by means of speeches are bringers of pleasure and removers of pain” and that the "incantation, when it is conjoined with the opinion of the soul, beguiles it, persuades it" (Helen 10). This characterization sounds enough like what Socrates says that Polus does not object when Socrates tells him that rhetoric is a producer of "gratification and pleasure."

Instead, what bothers Polus is Socrates' claim that orators are flatters.

Polus thinks that rhetoric is "great power" (Gorgias 466b). He thinks that because they can persuade to satisfy their desires, 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 common knowledge that the tyrant Archelaus (Gorgias 470d) and the King of Persia (Gorgias 479e) are happy and that what makes them happy is that they do whatever 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" to distinguish when it is better and when it is not (Gorgias 470b).

This question unsettles Polus enough that he tells Socrates to answer it himself.

Socrates says that it is better to do these things when we act "rightly" in doing them and that it is not better to do them when we act "wrongly" in doing them (Gorgias 470c).

The good life is the life it most benefits us to live, but it is not immediately clear what benefits us most. 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 rhetoric is the power to live the good life. They think that rhetoric gives us the power that had previously only been available to rulers such as the tyrant Archelaus and the King of Persia.

In his reply to Polus, Socrates departs from this view of the power of rhetoric.

He allows that rhetoric may be the power to do what one sees fit, but he denies is the suggestion in Gorgias's view of the power of rhetori, now even clearer in Polus, that doing what one sees fit is the same as the same as doing what is beneficial.

Polus is convinced that Socrates is wrong, but he cannot defend his view in questioning.

Socrates gets Polus to see, or at least not to deny, that his own beliefs commit him to two counterexamples to what he has said. Socrates forces him to the conclusions that someone who thinks it fit to do rather than suffer wrong does worse and that the same is true of someone who thinks it is fit to avoid rather than to pay what is due (Gorgias 474b). Given these counterexamples, it is not true that "acting as one sees fit coincides with acting beneficially."

Callicles (481b-527e)

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

Callicles thinks that Socrates trades on what acting rightly is.

Callicles agrees with Socrates that the most beneficial life is the life of acting rightly, but he thinks that there is what "custom" (νόμος) says acting rightly is and that there is what acting rightly really is. This is what "nature" (φύσις) says it is (Gorgias 482e).

Callicles thinks that if we are thinking about acting rightly from the point of view of "custom," we will think that it is not the same as doing what one sees fit. Callicles insists, though, 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).
"nature" says what acting rightly really is and that "nature" says that it is doing what one sees fit. He believes this is how we should live. We should do what we see fit, and the good man has the virtue to do this. He does not let the “contracts of men that [determine custom and] go against nature” prevent him from doing what he sees fit (Gorgias 492c).

Socrates forces Callicles into contradiction, but the argument is a little hard to follow.

Socrates points out that Callicles must think that someone who thinks it fit to pursue base pleasures lives the good life. He is acting as he sees fit, So, according to what Callicles believes about what is beneficial, this person must be living the most beneficial life (Gorgias 494e).

Callicles at first tries to accept this result by accepting that pleasure is the good, but Socrates eventually makes him see that this is inconsistent with other beliefs he does not want to abandon (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).
He admits that pleasure is not the good, that it takes an expert to tell which pleasures are good (Gorgias 500a), this cements his loss to Socrates in the dialectic.

Since the use of rhetoric to persuade does not include this knowledge about pleasure, power in rhetoric is not the same as the competency involved in living the good life.

Now the question is whether the love of wisdom provides this 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 that the most beneficial life is the life of acting rightly. Saying only this much leaves open what is and is not acting rightly in particular circumstances. Socrates does not think acting right is the same as 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 right and thus what life the good and most beneficial life is.

This is a now familiar problem, but the Gorgias hints at the beginning of a solution.

Socrates says that something 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. He does not specify this order in detail, but he suggests that it requires "reason" to be the dominant power and that a human being whose soul has the 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. 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 exercising 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
• no one is born with this competency and thus with 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 desire in the Protagoras. In the place of this theory, he argues for a tripartite theory of the soul. Now the soul 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.

We will see this idea in the Phaedo, which is the subject of the next lecture.




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 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 senses 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).

"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 trial 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 to the physicians] prescribes what he deems right from experience, just as though he had exact knowledge, and with the assurance of the stubborn..." (Plato, Laws IV.720a).

See also Laws IX.857c.




"[A]t 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 [(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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