GorgiasGorgias by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… for philosophy, Socrates, if pursued in moderation and at the proper age, is an elegant accomplishment, but too much philosophy is the ruin of human life.

Gorgias is easily one of Plato’s best stand-alone dialogues. Indeed, as others have mentioned, it often reads like a germinal version of the Republic, so closely does it track the same themes. A transitional dialogue, the early know-nothing Socrates of unanswered questions is already gone; instead we get Socrates espousing some of Plato’s key positions on truth and morality.

Socrates descends on a party of rhetoricians, seemingly determined to expose them. He questions Gorgias, a well-known teacher of rhetoric, in the attempt to pinpoint what, exactly, rhetoric consists of. We get the usual Socratic paradoxes: if we ought to be convinced by knowledgeable people—a doctor when it comes to medicine, an architect when it comes to buildings—how can somebody who lacks this knowledge teach the art of convincing?

Gorgias insists that rhetoric is used to accomplish justice. But is Gorgias an expert on justice? No. Are his pupils already just? Neither. And cannot rhetoric be used for unjust ends? Of course. This effectively trips up the old rhetorician. Gorgias’ energetic young pupil, Polus, steps up to defend the old master. He denies what Gorgias said about rhetoric being used to accomplish justice, and instead claims that it is used to gain power.

This brings Socrates to another one of his paradoxes: that powerful orators are actually to be pitied, since inflicting injustice is worse than suffering injustice. Though Polus laughs, Socrates trips him up just as they did his mentor, by getting him to assent to a seemingly unobjectionable proposition and then deducing from them surprising conclusions. (Socrates was not, you see, without his own rhetorical tricks.) Polus finds himself agreeing that tyrants are to be pitied.

At this, Callicles enters the fray, not a rhetorician but an Athenian gentleman and a man of affairs, who plays the same role that Thrasymachus plays in the Republic. He scorns philosophy and insults Socrates. All this highfalutin’ talk of justice and truth and such rubbish. Doesn’t Socrates know that what is right is a mere convention and justice is simply whatever the strong wish? Socrates then embarks on his usual procedure, trying to get Callicles to assent to a proposition that is incompatible with Callicles’ position. Callicles eventually gets confused and tired and gives up, allowing Socrates to finish with a grand speech and a Platonic myth about the judgment of souls.

To the modern reader very little in this dialogue will be convincing. Plato is no doubt right that rhetoric is, at best, neither bad nor good, but is akin to cosmetics or cooking rather than exercise or medicine—the art of pleasing rather than improving people. Yet since we have learned that we cannot trust people to be selfless, disinterested seekers after the truth—as Socrates repeatedly claims to be—we have decided that it’s best to let self-interested parties compete with all the tools at their disposal for their audience’s attention. Heaven knows this procedure is far from perfect and leaves us vulnerable to demagogues. But the world has proven depressingly bereft of pure souls like Socrates.

Also unconvincing is Plato’s moral stance—namely, that those who commit injustice are to be pitied rather than envied. He proves, of course, that the unjust are more deserving of punishment than the just; this was never in doubt. But he does not, and cannot, prove that the unjust are less happy—since a single jolly tyrant would refute his whole chain of reasoning. Indeed, by establishing a moral precept that is so independent of happiness, Socrates falls into the same plight as did Kant in his categorical imperative. This is a serious difficulty, since, if acting justly can easily lead to unhappiness, what is the motivation to do so? The only way out of this dilemma, as both thinkers seemed to realize, was to hypothesize an afterlife where everyone got their just desserts—the good their reward and the bad their castigation. Needless to say I do not find this solution compelling.

Yet you can disagree with all of Plato’s positions and still relish this dialogue. This is because, as usual, the most charming thing about Plato is that he is so much bigger than his conclusions. Though Socrates is Plato’s hero and mouthpiece, Plato also seems to be aware of Socrates’ (and his own) limitations. Callicles is not a mere strawman, but puts forward a truly consistent worldview; and Plato leaves it in doubt whether his own arguments prevailed. He even puts some good comebacks in Callicles’ mouth: “Yes, by the Gods, you are literally always talking of cobblers and fullers and cooks and doctors, as if this had to do with our argument.” By the Gods, he is!

(Cover photo by Jebulon; licensed under CC0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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