Book review : Gorgias - A Timeless Classic by Plato
Summary of “Gorgias”: Gorgias is a work dedicated to the art of speaking well, constructed in the form of a discussion. Plato presents rhetoric as a technique for persuasion and a source of power. It can unfortunately be used poorly, in the manner of the sophists. They use it for their personal interest and without any ethical consideration. True philosophers, on the other hand, use the art of speech while respecting the rules of ethics.
By Plato (428–348 BC), 2018
Note: This chronicle is a guest article written by Baudouin le Roux, from the blog Développer son leadership
Chronicle and summary of “Gorgias” by Plato:
Five characters contribute to the discussion: 1. Socrates, Plato’s old master, who represents the ideas of the author. 2. Chaerephon, a friend and pupil of Socrates. 3. Gorgias, one of the most famous sophists in all of ancient Greece. 4. Polus, a pupil of Gorgias. 5. Callicles, a character invented by Plato. He is a politician who spends time with the sophists to benefit from their tactics of persuasion.
1. Setting up the confrontation
Socrates visits Callicles, in the company of his friend Chaerephon. Callicles has invited the famous Gorgias to visit, so that he can hold a conference. Gorgias has earned a reputation as a great speaker. He is a sophist, well known for having an answer to everything. He is never at a loss, no matter what the question.
The sophists hate Socrates. He regularly condemns their immoral ideas and presents them as charlatans. This public conference is a form of provocation. Callicles dreams of making Socrates look ridiculous. Unfortunately for him, Socrates arrives just at the end of the conference…
This is not a problem for Socrates. If he is going to meet Gorgias, he would prefer a one-on-one conversation instead of listening passively to his conference. He invites his friend Chaerephon to launch the discussion. Chaerephon refuses, not knowing what to say, and feeling a confrontation on the horizon. Socrates therefore takes the floor and asks Gorgias to introduce himself to begin. At this moment, Polus, another sophist and a pupil of Gorgias, sees the opportunity to make a name for himself. He suddenly interjects, undertaking to answer instead of Gorgias, who must surely be tired after giving a conference.
2. What is rhetoric? The students joust.
Seeing Polus take the initiative, Chaerephon is emboldened and questions the young sophist. Since his master Gorgias claims to be a Master, perhaps Polus could explain what is a master? What art does he specialise in?
Polus seems surprised. He did not expect such a direct question. Taken by surprise, he launches into a series of big pompous sentences and finally declares: “The art that my master teaches is… the most beautiful of all the arts.” This assertion does add anything in particular and succeeds only in annoying Socrates, who takes the stage. He turns to young Polus, accusing him of not answering the question and not getting to the point. This is to hide the fact that he cannot offer a precise definition of his master’s profession. He was not asked to describe it, but to define it!
Socrates takes the opportunity to highlight this first difference between the school of sophists (that of Gorgias, Polus and Callicles) and his own school (that of the Philosophers). Sophists know how to express themselves well, but it is all a show. You can listen to them for hours, and learn nothing at the end.
3. What is rhetoric? The masters joust.
Cut to the quick, Gorgias asks Polus to step aside, so that he can face Socrates in a duel. Chaerephon also withdraws. The debate is now between Socrates and Gorgias. They promise to answer all the questions asked, as concisely as possible, without making a big speech.
Gorgias takes the lead: So Socrates wanted a definition of his profession? No problem: He is simply a speaker, and a good speaker at that. He teaches the art of speaking well, called rhetoric. Does that satisfy him?
“Very well”, answers Socrates. “But what is rhetoric, and what is it used for?”
“Rhetoric is an art, the purpose of which is to make speeches in public, especially political speeches. Indeed, rhetoric is an art which gives the power to persuade crowds, to convince the public, which is very useful in politics”.
For Socrates, this definition is true, but insufficient. Rhetoric does not have a monopoly on persuasion. Other subjects, such as science, and in particular mathematics, have this power. They govern reasoning, and when the proof finally comes, we are convinced of the result, all the more so because it is scientific, objective. Does rhetoric have this scientific nature? Does it belong to the same family, the same genre? Can we say that it is a form of science?
Not really, according to Socrates. Rhetoric, which deals with speech, is useful in a debate about ideas, which are often subjective. However, responds Gorgias, debates about ideas most often seek to know what is just and unjust. It is the case in the courts, where speeches trying to untangle truth from lies, to ensure that justice is done. It is also the case in Assemblies and Parliaments. Speeches are used to debate the laws, to try to set them as fairly as possible. Perhaps, replies Socrates, but in all cases, even if the opposing camps eventually agree to a solution, nobody can be sure that this solution is unquestionably the fairest and the best.
We come to the following conclusion: rhetoric, which is the art of speaking well, produces belief, but not certainty. It cannot therefore be taught under the same title as science. Gorgias will have to provide a new, more accurate definition. A new definition that takes the following questions into account: how do we call upon a speaker, who needs him, and why?
4. Rhetoric: an art of power, a weapon of influence
Gorgias accepts the challenge and responds point by point to the different questions.
- When do we call upon a speaker? When we need to persuade other people, so that our thinking dominates theirs.
- Who needs him? All those who wish to influence others, especially politicians.
- Why do we need him? To have power over others, quite simply!
Rhetoric is a very powerful psychological weapon, with universal, almost divine power. Will not the man who is a good speaker find success always and everywhere? He will find success even over others who are more competent than he? Therefore, rhetoric is the art of dominating others by the force of speech. It is an art of combat.
Just like all the other combat arts, Gorgias goes on, it should be used in a legitimate manner. If somebody uses it to commit injustices, it is not the fault of the master of rhetoric. He is simply teaching an art that should and must be used wisely and well. Should certain pupils make unjust use of it, it is their responsibility.
Shocked by Gorgias’s line of argument, Socrates decides to interrupt. Firstly, he does not like the way in which the sophist takes no responsibility for misuse of rhetoric. It is too easy to train people to manipulate others (for money, by the way…), and to later refuse to take any responsibility.
Socrates is also surprised at the reasoning of the logic. If a simple orator can persuade the public against the opinion of someone who knows better, then the public is not capable of recognising the one with genuine knowledge. Therefore, it is not really due to the talents of the orator, but due to the public, which has poor knowledge of the subject.
In addition to this, Gorgias began by saying that the role of the orator should be to debate, in order to find the fairest possible solutions. A good orator should therefore be a just man, a man who cares about justice, and most especially, not a manipulator! He should not make unjust use of his art.
Annoyed at his first defeat, Polus take advantage of the attack by Socrates against Gorgias to swiftly intervene on behalf of his master.
5. Rhetoric: the art of speaking well or organised fraud?
Polus does not want to find himself trapped like the first time, so he invites Socrates to give his own definition of rhetoric. “To begin”, replies Socrates, “it is not really an art, in the noble sense of the term”. For Socrates, an art must be a force for good. Therefore, a technique that serves to do wrong is not an art but a corruption of genuine art. It is misuse that drives it away from what it is made for, and it loses all its nobility. Rather than designating this misuse under the name of art, Socrates prefers to reduce it to “know-how”, a basic technique. And because rhetoric can easily serve immoral causes, Socrates mercilessly places it into this category.
But what is the art of which rhetoric is the corruption? According to Socrates, we should first remember that rhetoric is about “good speech”, the talent of an orator. This talent of “good speech” is useful in a debate about ideas in order to improve justice. Bus as we have seen, rhetoric does not often place itself at the service of justice. On the contrary, it betrays it, corrupts it, deviates it. In conclusion, this art that rhetoric deforms is quite simply the judicial art: rhetoric is therefore a perversion of justice.
Here Socrates allows himself a little comparison. For him, rhetoric is like cooking, or adornment or sophism, because they are all in the same business — flattery.
Gorgias interrupts Socrates: what does he mean by that? We are getting off topic! If his adversary has an explanation, they he should offer it quickly. We might well think that he is going too far!
Socrates does not back down. He explains: men have a body and a soul (or mind), which each has its own needs in order to remain in good condition. To maintain this good condition, there are different sorts of art. Gymnastics and medicine for the body, the legal and judicial arts for the mind. Flatterers have invented four perverted techniques to counterfeit the genuine arts. Gymnastics has turned into adornment, legislation into sophism, medicine into cooking and justice into rhetoric. This kind of know-how is pleasant and pleasurable, but excess will always damage health. According to Socrates, rhetoric is therefore a form of flattery, used by manipulating orators.
6. What power for the orator?
Bored by Socrates’s argument, Polus pounces on it, saying that after all, we still need to know what exactly the power of the orator is. Polus thinks that the orator has absolute power. All he needs to do is talk for crowds to follow him. Therefore, whatever happens, the orator is the most powerful political figure. And the happiest! Rhetoric is therefore a noble art, because it can make people happy!
Socrates objects that power is not a good thing for someone who is mistaken about what is good. The man who acts for his own pleasure and for his own personal interest, generally ends up making mistakes, and will one day end up paying for them. He is therefore not happy in the long term. Polus admits that men are often wrong about what is supposed to make them happy, and sometimes desire things that will end up making them unhappy.
Furthermore, while looking for these things and driven by their desires, they sometimes end up committing injustices and behave in a dishonest manner. It is not that they especially want to cause injustices. But they think that this will allow them to reach their ends more easily. But at the end of the day, once they reach their objective, they know that they have acted badly and their conscience will reproach them for their actions, spoiling the pleasure.
Genuine power therefore belongs to the man who, as he wants to be happy, manages to attain happiness by doing good. In contrast, the man who allows himself to behave in an immoral way in order to be happy will never be truly happy. He does not get what he really wanted and he finds himself powerless to obtain it. Being all-powerful and doing what you want are therefore two different things. Socrates goes even further:
“I do not want to commit an injustice or suffer one. But if I had to choose between the two, I would prefer to suffer the injustice, because I would not have done anything wrong. My conscience will be free.”
Polus, who appeared to agree up to now, finds this last statement all very well, but somewhat unrealistic. As proof, he takes the example of the tyrant Archelaus: this tyrant ran his city with an iron hand. He made his own laws and reigned through fear. Many people thought he was happy because he had everything he wanted, even if he behaved in an unjust manner!
However, Socrates refuses this argument. As far as he is concerned, the happiness of Archelaus is just a supposition. Many people thought he was happy, but that does not mean that he was happy. The number of reports in favour of an opinion does not make this opinion true. What is really required is a sincere statement from Archelaus.
“Also,” states Socrates, “it is impossible that a man can behave in an unjust manner every day and be truly happy.” Remorse and his conscience must surely eat away at him inside, even if he tries to stifle them. The man who commits an injustice would do better to repent his fault. This will release him from his injustice and his remorse. Despite appearances, there is much reason to suspect that Archelaus is not happy! “.
Shaken by these arguments, Polus retires from the discussion.
7. What if the orator accepted the fact that he supports the law of the strongest?
For the first time in the evening, Callicles decided to intervene in the discussion. This politician, who is aiming for election, is disturbed by Socrates’s ideas, which are very different from his. If Socrates is right, this changes the meaning of life and his own vision of politics… He opens up to Socrates, who confirms his position, and goes even further. Taking the case of Callicles, he criticizes him for being versatile, unlike Socrates who seeks to lead a righteous life. As his priority objective is to win the vote of the Athenians, Callicles changes his mind in relation to whatever idea is in fashion. In contrast, the prime objective of Socrates is goodness. Therefore, he holds to a straight and consistent line.
Upset, Callicles violently criticizes Socrates and his obsession with seeking contradictions in others.
“In reality,” he says, “Socrates is a poor speaker, who is always changing his point of view. When his interlocutor invokes the natural law, he opposes human law. When the same interlocutor invokes the human law, he opposes natural law. It’s too easy! In any case, the only truth in matters of natural law is that the strong dominate the weak. This is the only law of nature, the only order of things, and the only law worthy of being considered fair.”
Carried away by his anger, Callicles pursues his line of reasoning:
“Obviously, human laws, instituted by the weak, prevent the strong from exercising their natural superiority. They believe that equality is fair and that inequality is unfair. It is weak reasoning, invented by the philosophers! To fully understand that the law of the strongest is the best, we should stop practising philosophy! This subject can at best serve as a hobby when one is young, but it makes you lose your sense of reality. It is of no purpose when you have to defend yourself from physical aggression. If you want to be a man, you must know how to stop wasting your time with philosophy”.
Callicles concludes by calling Socrates weak and useless. He would do better to be silent for good.
8. And the strongest is…
Remaining calm, Socrates responds with a question: what is a higher being? What makes someone strong? Is it physical strength? Not really, one can lose one’s strength, if only with age, and physical strength alone is not enough. Is it our intelligence? Not really, either. Intelligence is not always recognised and intelligence alone is not enough. The one with the greatest will, then? No, it remains dependent on circumstances and willingness alone… is not enough!
For Socrates, the strongest man is the man who has genuine authority, legitimate authority, based on righteousness. This authority is first an authority over oneself. It is the ability to have control over oneself and one’s passions. It is a characteristic of the wise. Who can claim to lead others if he cannot lead himself?
Aggressive as always, Callicles answers that this ideal of wisdom is hypocritical. According to him, on the contrary, true life consists of pursuing ones passions to the maximum. Those who do not do this cannot be happy. They are deprive, frustrate. Can a frustrated man be happy? The answer is clearly no!
Immediately, Socrates retorts that on the contrary, wisdom and frustration cannot be related. Desire is insatiable, and it is idealistic to place one’s happiness in enjoyment. He who seeks to satisfy his passions is condemned to be frustrated for life.
To escape this, it is important to make a distinction between pleasures. “Pleasure” is not always synonymous with “good”, just as suffering is not always synonymous with “bad”. For example, an athlete who suffers does so to be better. The patient who adheres to a diet does so for his health. The student who applies himself to his studies does so to gain knowledge, etc. What is “good” is what is done for the better, and it is done in a rightful and fair manner. It is possible to distinguish between two kinds of life: the life inspired by philosophy, of people who seek to do good; and the life inspired by egotism, of a good number of orators and political figures, who are exclusively looking for their personal pleasure. The former are truly strong, the others are truly weak.
What is happening in Athens is a good example: if rhetoric were a genuine art, and not a low technique that consists of pandering to the audience, its objective would be the common good. Therefore, it would follow an order and ethical provisions that favour the common good. This is not the case in Athens. We can see that speakers (the sophists) and politicians (such as Callicles) promote their own interests to the detriment of the common good.
9. The art of speaking well or the art of living well?
Exasperated by what he has just heard, Callicles refuses to continue the discussion, on the pretext that Socrates is gratuitously violent. Socrates continues the discussion alone. Pleasures are not bad, but you must know how to make them orderly. Do not seek bad pleasures, or commit any injustice with a view to enjoyment.
Socrates then explains that the sky, the earth and humans belong to the same set, and that the cosmos works because it obeys laws (physical, chemical, natural). The order that prevails is the fruit of these laws. When we deviate from the laws of this balance, disorder reigns. The same applies to an individual man: If he has an orderly life (this does not exclude pleasure, within reason), he can be sure that his life is good. We can say that he is a “wise” man.
Returning to the theme of justice, Socrates reminds the listeners that unless insane, nobody wants to deliberately commit an injustice just for the pleasure of it. When an injustice is committed, it is always with a view to getting something else. This method is not that of a good politician, it is that of tyrants, which deep down makes them very unhappy. What really counts in life is what you are worth, not what you know how to do. Being able to speak well is useful, being able to live well is better!
This should especially be the case in politics. Those who are competent should wield power. By aiming for good, they will make their citizens better, and happier. No politician has succeeded in this in Athens, even those who did great things for the city: Pericles, Cimon, Themistocles, Miltiades. They were talented speakers, who built good things. We can say that they were good servants of the State. But if they did not make people better, they were not good politicians.
10. Living well means living a responsible life, one that considers consequences
To conclude, and to encourage people to live in a good and ethical way, Socrates asks them to imagine what could happen after death. He uses the opportunity to tell a vivid tale of what happens after death, in the form of a mythical narrative. In the time of Kronos, the living judged other living beings who, knowing the day of their death, brought forth many false witnesses in their favour. This distorted the sentence pronounced by the judges.
To fix this, Zeus decided to remove all knowledge of the fatal moment, and placed the judgement after death. Separated from the body, the soul stood naked beneath the gaze of its judges. The judges themselves belonged to the Kingdom of the dead. Quite often, the soul of the powerful went to Tartarus (the equivalent of Hell), while that of good men to the islands of the Blessed (the equivalent of Paradise). The kind of life that we choose on earth must therefore take into account what will happen after death.
Book critique of “Gorgias” by Plato:
This book has many qualities, tempered by a few shadowy areas. The book as a whole is very attractive.
Just to dispel any misunderstanding, let us remember that while Plato’s book is dedicated to the art of speaking well, it is not to explain that art, but to study its intrinsic value. Therefore, a large portion of the dialogue is devoted to criticising rhetoric, such as practised by the sophists and politicians of Athens. Plato, who speaks through Socrates, condemns their methods as immoral. The goal of the sophists and politicians, according to him, is to seduce their audience in order to manipulate them all the better.
This condemnation is commendable, and its merit is that it tackles subjects that few authors would dare to address. These include the relationship between seduction and morality, the place of speech in public life, the influence that the spoken word can have and the limits to this power. Plato in particular brings up the use that we can make of speech and the ethical problems that can arise. He brings it all together with high considerations about good and happiness. In other words, the content of this book is very rich… It is not for nothing that it counts among the great classics of philosophy.
But this is also one of its limits.
In trying to express things as deeply as possible, Plato is obliged to write very dense dialogues that require a great deal of concentration when reading… and rereading, as some of the passages make for brain-tickling reading! You should not read “Gorgias” like a novel. Although it is relatively short, it is a book that requires time and patience.
The style of the work may be off-putting too: “Gorgias” was originally written in ancient Greek. The translators of the various editions made it a point of honour to transcribe the text as faithfully as possible. This makes the style quite specific, and not very intuitive. This is a formal detail, but it becomes very important for readers who are like a comfortable read. The more impatient among them will almost certainly not enjoy it. There is a solution: Choose an edition with notes. There are several very good explanatory ones.
But let’s return to the heart of the matter. “Gorgias” is a magnificent analysis of the art of oratory (or rhetoric). A tool at the service of ideas. Its power has been well demonstrated, both through the positions taken by Socrates as well as those defended by his enemies. The goal is not to find out whether the art of rhetoric is useful of not, but to know what use to make of it. Do we have the right to use this tool however we want?
Plato’s position, defended by Socrates, is clear.
Charlatans used the art of rhetoric as a weapon. Incapable of reasoning righteously, they resort to techniques and figures of speech designed to impress the listener. This is in order to persuade others that they are right. At the opposite of this, according to Plato, genuine philosophers resort to logic. Their ideas are not the fruit of an impression, but of a solid argument. In short: He who practices the art of speech is a liar, who deludes the crowds in order to hide his own lies. The philosopher is a mentor, who teaches the crowds in order to enlighten them with his intelligence.
Behind this criticism, Plato defends an ideal of a just life that respects the moral order of things. He is opposed to the concept of the Sophists, who deny the existence of a natural order, and therefore the rules. For them, there is no real justice, and even less morality. All that counts is the law of the strongest, and bad luck to those who are weak and poor. Plato explains that we facilitate happiness and freedom by controlling our passions. The Sophists express a desire for perpetual gratification, regardless of the consequences. It is of no matter if their desires dominate them.
History would prove Plato to be right. After having Socrates assassinated, the sophists held increasingly greater influence over politicians, and inspired many tyrants. The meaning of the words of Socrates, “It is better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice”, even though they were taken up by Aristotle after Plato, was lost for a long time. It was not until the arrival of Christianity that it would find its new defenders.
However, and despite all the admiration that the theses of Plato inspire, it must be admitted that he went a little too far in his criticism of rhetoric. In his time, orators were almost all on the side of the Sophists and unscrupulous politicians. Plato ended up hating this art (he didn’t even consider it to be an art). He thought that it was used only by liars and manipulators for immoral ends.
But that’s not the case!
It is true that charlatans can use it as their favourite weapon, but let us not forget that the art of rhetoric is a technique. As such, it is neutral. Like all weapons, its morality depends on the person who uses it, and what he or she does with it. Blinded by the misuse he witnessed, Plato pours scorn upon an art that his own master Socrates mastered! The difference of course was that Socrates defended an ideal of justice, and the purpose of his speeches was the pursuit of this ideal. It is possible to use the techniques of rhetoric to honest ends, thankfully.
However this may be, one of the merits of “Gorgias” is that it addresses one of the major problems in the western world. Does the road to happiness consist of giving free rein to your passions or of controlling them in a reasonable way to attain peace of the soul and to allow justice to reign? All the thinkers since Plato have taken a position in relation to this question, coming down on one side or the other.
For my part, I chose the side of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Albeit with a few restrictions, in particular about the morality of the art of rhetoric. “Gorgias” as a book is not easy, but it gave me a lot. It strengthened my ideal of a just life by offering rational arguments to something that is sometimes no more than an intuition.
It helped convince me to not systematically give in to my desires.
Gorgias taught me to deprive myself from time to time, in order to retain control over my desires. When I look around me, I see a lot of unsatisfied people, even when they have more than me. Unfortunately, they are unable to find satisfaction because they are slaves to their passions. They always need more or they need to satisfy a new desire. This is a vicious circle, one that will only end in death.
Finally, this book gave me courage. It is not easy to fight against one’s desires, especially when you are a foodie like me! But when I see Socrates and Plato defend these ideas, at a time when they were clearly not very fashionable, when it was dangerous to support them, that I can respect. When you see the place of these thinkers in posterity, the influence that they exercised upon entire civilisations, I am encouraged to imitate them.
Which side will you choose?
- Plato offers a very clear definition of rhetoric as a “weapon at the service of ideas” and produces a majestic analysis.
- The misuse that he denounces is still very topical today and he studies it with a great deal of finesse.
- Plato is not satisfied just to condemn poor use. He offers good solutions, through the ideal of a just life. He also shows how those who misuse rhetoric do not really gain from it. It is quite the opposite, despite appearances.
- The entire text is in the form of a dialogue. This makes it easier to expose each point of view and makes the overall work livelier.
- The content is extremely dense.
- The style does not lend itself to fluid reading as it is translated from ancient Greek.
- Plato is so eager to denounce the bad side of rhetoric that he forgets to look at the good side. It can certainly be a dangerous tool when the wrong people use it, but it is a beneficial tool when used wisely.
- The dialogue gives pride of place to well-structured arguments, but it goes astray sometimes in the last part, which is deliberately fantastical. “To live by thinking about what happens after death” is interesting and poses some real questions in terms of accountability. However, basing this idea on a made-up story is probably not the best way to defend it.
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