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Gorgias

Plato

480a–487e

469a–479e

488e–499e

Summary

Socrates continues by questioning what use, if any, exists for the practice of rhetoric. Still addressing Polus for now, Socrates maintains that this routine is only helpful for a man who intends to do wrong, since its only possible operation is that of persuasion by verbal trickery and a false appeal to the pleasant in order to deceive about what is good in any specific set of circumstances. For, rhetoric does not aim at truth, nor does it target virtue.

Socrates goes on to make several extreme claims regarding retribution for wrongful acts, claims that apparently follow from his discussion of justice with Callicles. These statements include notions of desiring that one's enemy escape punishment for evil acts in order that they may suffer the most, or more specifically that an enemy who steals a large sum of money from somewhere endures the harshest retribution if allowed to keep the money, never confronted by demands for its return. Such propositions once again rely upon earlier arguments made regarding the ability of punishment to relieve those punished of some of the shame and corruption of their soul which results from committing wrong, as well as the fact that lack of punishment for such wrongdoing fails to rid its possessor's soul of that evil for which they should be punished in order for it to be removed.

An angry Callicles replies, frustrated with what he sees as Socrates's own verbal deception—that of "a true mob orator." Callicles feels Socrates utilizes dialogue to set traps, twist meanings, and ascribe significance to people's words where they themselves did not intend such meaning. Furthermore, Callicles argues that Socrates searches for the good by means of human convention as opposed to the more accurate teacher, nature. Callicles ultimately declares the pursuit of philosophy through adulthood to be disgraceful, and he says that Socrates's wild use of other people's words ludicrous and embarrassing.

Socrates's position remains unthreatened by Callicles's aggression. Furthermore, Socrates's fellow Athenian further undercuts the strength of his own view through the outpouring of this anger. This is so since, while Socrates maintains a consistent method and perspective throughout the argument, even with his supposed verbal trickery (which conversely takes root in logic), Callicles (and the other interlocutors) jump wildly between opinions in near-violent reaction to Socrates rather than because of their own beliefs.

Undaunted by the barrage of insults, Socrates intimates to Callicles that if any one individual is qualified to help examine a soul for good and evil with Socrates it is Callicles, since he possesses the three crucial qualities: knowledge, good will, and frankness (unlike Gorgias and Polus). Socrates also suggests that any agreement between Callicles and himself will be equivalent to truth, due to their joint possession of these key qualities.

Analysis

Socrates's assertion that rhetoric is only suited to those who wish to do wrong goes against Socrates's claim that one should take every precaution not to do wrong, since the infliction of such evil necessitates either punishment for the actions or the actor's soul stewing in unpunished evil, either of which alternatives consists in great suffering for the actor who undergoes the process described (and, of the two, we already know committing wrong without receiving punishment to be worse).

Callicles's fierce attack on philosophy comprises most of this section, thereby rendering it quite unlike other parts of the dialogue. Not only does he take aim at the very nature of philosophical inquiry and its marked focus on words—a focus that itself provides the potential for myriad forms of verbal trickery—but Callicles also issues some quite harsh statements of his own against any man such as Socrates who continues the pursuit of philosophy as a primary focus into adulthood. In some sense, it seems he voices an attempt to invalidate the entire method of philosophical inquiry when he declares his views against the adult philosopher Socrates to be a disgrace. This alone explains the harsh and personal tone uncharacteristic of the personages in a typical Platonic dialogue. This style comes as somewhat surprising.

The simplest manner in which to understand this part of Plato's writing comes hand in hand with the dominant attitude of the times against pure philosophy. To say the least, the Athenian political and cultural climate towards philosophy in the time of Plato was a not congenial one. If one should become tempted to question this fact, a consideration of the circumstances surrounding Socrates's execution serves as ample proof of the intense Athenian distaste for Socratic philosophy. Keep in mind Socrates's teachings in life were similar in nature to those of Socrates as portrayed by Plato in Gorgias (among other writings). The work was written because of Socrates's existence and demise and in order to record his ideas, thus what Socrates says in the dialogue should be taken to represent what Socrates did say in real life. Plato meant it that way.

These are the views for which Socrates was convicted, on charges of corruption and treason, then executed for these convictions (see The Trial and Death of Socrates). The same government and people killed Plato's teacher for the same philosophical views expressed by Socrates here in the dialogue, not fifteen years prior. This was hardly a climate of open-mindedness to philosophers, or at least not to Socrates. In other words, at the very least Athens's ruling elite despised philosophy and ethics so strongly they gladly put to death philosophy's most important figure, despite the obvious virtue and purity of his teachings.

Any climate in which such a wrongful sentence could be handed down and carried out must have been an intensely vicious one, or else the death of such a gentle and moral teacher as Socrates could not have taken place without an uproar. By including here such a harsh barrage on the "disgrace" of Socrates's lifetime of philosophical study—made all the more potentially damaging by its origination in the mouth of a friend—Plato vividly reenacts the hostility of the times for all to see and remember, in theory so that it will never again occur. Furthermore, Socrates's refusal in Gorgias to be affected by such an attack mirrors the real Socrates's unwillingness to alter his beliefs and practices, even in the face of imminent death. He simply continues examining this life and practicing virtue until he has exited the world. In this way, then, Plato's Socratic dialogues embody an uproar that never took place in reaction to such great wrongdoing.

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