Note: Plato did not divide Gorgias into sections. Instead, the text exists as a continuous dialogue which breaks only at its end. For the purposes of this study guide, therefore, artificial divisions have been made that correspond to each discussion of a different topic. Thus, a section concludes when the subject in focus shifts. Because page numbers may vary between various editions of the text, passages are notated by reference to the Stephanus page numbers (from a complete medieval edition of Plato's works). As this is the standard system by which to cite Plato, most editions include such notation in their margins.
Gorgias opens with Socrates, Callicles, and Chaerephon discussing the rhetorician Gorgias. Apparently Socrates has just missed a display put on by Gorgias—an exhibition that consisted at least partly of Gorgias's answering of questions put forth to him. Socrates wishes to test this claim somewhat, and seeks the famous Sophist in order "to learn from him what is the scope of his art and just what he professes and teaches." Gorgias essentially maintains that he possesses the ability to answer accurately and convincingly any possible question posed to him, and Socrates intends to test this declaration.
Gorgias does not provide a response that satisfies Socrates. When Gorgias first replies that rhetoric is a science of words, Socrates points out that it is not (for example) a science of words about health. Gorgias next maintains that rhetoric deals exclusively with words to the exclusion of any non-verbal ("manual") focus. This claim is countered by Socrates's assertion that arts such as mathematics are entirely non-verbal, and yet do not fall within the realm of rhetoric. In a display of great patience, Socrates then goes on to inquire again about the specific subject matter of rhetoric.
Unable to elude vagueness, Gorgias replies that rhetoric focuses on "the greatest and noblest of human affairs" and he immediately meets with opposition in the form of Socrates's claim that many believe their own skills and trade to be the most noble of all practices. Moreover, Gorgias quickly concedes this point. After much detailed deliberation, Socrates and Gorgias finally agree that "rhetoric is a creator of persuasion, and that all its activity is concerned with this, and this is its sum and substance."
First, one should note the immediacy of the scene presented at the commencement of this dialogue. The conversation informally sets right into motion, with no discussion of prior events or motivating cause. This is a normal, everyday discussion begun concurrently with the reader's focusing in on the text (a device typical of Plato's earlier Socratic writings). Several aspects of setting and tone quickly help to emphasize the intimate and casual nature and setting of the conversation to which the reader fast becomes witness. References to "the end of a feast," "[loitering] in the marketplace," and "friend[s]" all serve to highlight the fact that what follows takes place in a specific time and place on a normal day—namely, Athens, contemporary to Socrates and Plato on any given day among this group of colleagues. This will figure in crucially to certain factors below explored, as soon will become clear.
Second, this portion of conversation subtly emphasizes a major problem of rhetoric while presenting a prototypical model of Socratic dialogue. To start, Socrates's line of questioning slowly elucidates the mysterious and rather hollow nature of rhetoric. For, though Gorgias claims the ability to answer any question asked of him, he fails to deliver on this promise. He does indeed respond to each inquiry directed towards him, often by means of one-word answers. However, his declarations do not inspire confidence, since each one receives immediate refutation in a fashion that even he finds convincing. This in turn explains why no two of Gorgias's replies are the same, though the nature of Socrates's inquiries does not shift significantly. Consequently, it seems reasonable to conclude that Gorgias does not have a consistent answer. This lack exemplifies a general problem with rhetoric, a conflict that is itself Socrates's target in his debunking of this practice: it is the skill of oration, rather than the accumulation of knowledge. In other words (and as Socrates begins to expose), rhetoric may consist of skillful speech, but it requires no truth in order to be performed. It is the pursuit of the image of knowledge rather than of knowledge itself.