Personal Background

The child of wealthy and well-connected Athenian parents, Plato (427–327 B.C.E.) was both Socrates's student and Aristotle's teacher. Though seemingly destined to become a politician by means of his inherited high social status, Plato ultimately shunned the political life. Two historical events traditionally are believed to explain this rebellion: the assumption of power in Athens by a corrupt and wealthy group of citizens following the Peloponnesian War (431–404), and the trial, conviction, and execution of Socrates by this same government in 399. These events demarcate the end of Athenian civilization's golden age. In addition, they caused Plato first to call into question and then to reject the principles and legitimacy of his own government and of any government based upon supposed claims to power and justice. Though he may have even served as a soldier in the war, Plato turned his back on his state's authority when they clashed with his morals.

Plato instead chose to focus his efforts in the realm of philosophy, assuming a lifelong quest to formalize the verbal Socratic method and findings of philosophical inquiry as well as to further develop his own treatment of the investigations his mentor Socrates began. His writings, which often take the form of a hypothetical dialogue between Socrates and some of his contemporaries, include studies of ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, justice, politics, and virtue. For reasons that will become clear below, it should be noted that many among Plato's most famous writings focus on the subject of ethics. Works such as Euthyphro,Apology,Crito, and Phaedo (together comprising The Trial and Death of Socrates) and The Republic take up a bold stance against evil, greed and corruption of authority as well as espouse strong new views of virtue and justice based upon principles of reason and truth. The nature of these formulations alone served as a significant attack upon the then ruling class of wealthy and base leaders. Moreover, Plato's intentional decision often to voice such views through the mouthpiece of Socrates instills these texts with an even more passionate tone, all the more so given Socrates's recent execution. These tumultuous events must have made an indelible impact upon Plato at that time, as is evidenced by the subject and style of several of his seminal works.

In 385, Plato founded the Academy, an institution devoted to the study of philosophy and mathematics, as well as to the education of a ruling class of 'philosopher-kings' (see e.g. The Republic). Through an intense application of analytic reason to human life and thought, students of the academy aimed at a pure and formal understanding of truth. Operational for approximately nine hundred years, the Academy exists as an ancestor of the modern university. Due to his role in the initial establishment of formal higher education, and to the vast span, impact, and relevance of his body of thought—which strongly continue to this day—many hold Plato to be the father of Western thought.

Historical Context

The situation within Greek (particularly Athenian) society leading up to Plato's writing of the Gorgias relates directly to the nature and content of the dialogue. Though classical Greece supposedly represents the epitome of a proper and successful democracy, by the time Plato completed the work this balanced status of Athenian government had changed considerably. With the end of the Peloponnesian War came a new political authority consisting of a group of wealthy, corrupt, and opportunistic citizens more interested in their own prosperity than their society's well being. Had there occurred a smooth transition into power, the very nature of this new tainted government still would have represented a significant cause of concern for any proponent of justice and virtue (as were both Socrates and Plato). To make matters worse, however, the shift was anything but tranquil. Rather, it took place at the conclusion of multiple decades of battle and intense civil strife, with Athens fast losing hold of its trademark justice and democracy. Some believe Plato himself fought in this war as a soldier, a fact which if true would only increase his personal stake in the issues Athens faced.

Even more reprehensible (and personal), this same government tried and executed Socrates on grounds of the very corruption and treason for which the rulers themselves were guilty. The accused philosopher did not attempt to escape or plead for mercy, but rather stated his case and welcomed his death as the virtuous end of a good and just life. Such a pattern of events and their murderous conclusion must have been devastating for Plato, who was extremely close to his mentor in terms of both philosophy and affection. In fact, Plato would spend much of his lifetime attempting to define notions like power, justice, truth, and virtue, at least partly in order to reconcile Socrates's virtuous life with his death at the hands of greed and corruption. This state of affairs, when combined with Socrates's own intense interest in morality, helps explain Plato's continued attempts to define an objective ethical standard. In light of the dialogue's close proximity to these historical events, Plato's treatment in Gorgias of such issues as politics, power, justice, and virtue reaches an intense level of relevancy and urgency. The dialogue therefore embodies a philosophy of reform necessary if virtue is to survive the dark circumstances of the age.

Philosophical Context

Plato's writings traditionally fall into three categories. The early, or Socratic, dialogues take the form of conversational inquiry based upon a detailed series of questions and answers, the discussion and resolution of which permit movement by (hypothetical) consensus through any range of philosophical subjects. In these Socratic writings, Plato attempts to capture the essence of his teacher's method and insights. For this reason, these texts (which include Gorgias) tend to focus on ethics, as did Socrates. With time Plato begins to move away from an exclusively Socratic style, most likely because he so successfully accomplishes his earlier goal of accurately commemorating Socrates's teachings. The middle works (e.g. The Republic) therefore contain a more complex, more uniquely Platonic topic and tone, though Socrates's influence remains fairly clear. Rather than considering strictly ethical matters, Plato starts to question other philosophical aspects such as metaphysics and epistemology in these later texts as well. Though maintaining the purity of inquiry and pursuit of truth and reason resplendent within the prior texts, the middle writings begin to apply the traditional approach to a wider array of subjects and questions. This complexity and diversity achieves a climax in the late dialogues, most of which are quite intricate and particular. One should note, however, that despite this ultimate breadth and specificity of Platonic philosophy, the early Socratic themes of ethics and virtue remain important to Plato throughout his career.

Despite these conventional categories, no single Platonic text should be studied in complete isolation from the others. Quite the opposite, his writings form a sort of continuous spectrum of information, in which the topics of each individual piece gain added clarity and value when compared with the treatment of similar topics in other manuscripts, even if the conclusions are different. This is the case at least partly because whereas each individual text exists as a study of certain aspects of life, the entire body of writings present a more holistic picture of life in general through the vehicle of each individual portion combined with all others. It therefore should come as no surprise to discover threads of discourse and insight that bind together disparate products of Plato's life-long philosophical inquiry. One such unifying theme, and arguably the most critical among them, lies within his investigation of virtue. Plato repeatedly attempted the establishment of an objective morality throughout his lifetime, returning again and again to the topic. Consequently, his multiple inquiries into the nature of proper existence combine to create a holistic picture of the ethics of virtue.

In a certain sense Gorgias epitomizes Plato's exploration of the general nature of good living, since its insights arise from a specific, conversational consideration of what makes a good leader, a good act, a good body and a good soul. The general definition evolves from the more specific topics, just as the general themes of Platonic philosophy evolve from its more specific texts. Indeed, the dialogue is somewhat atypical: the standard professions of ignorance (a Socratic trademark) virtually do not appear, and Socrates's tone resounds with an uncharacteristic confidence in his conclusions. Given the tight relation between the key historical events (calamity, corruption, injustice) mentioned above and the text's topics of power, justice, and virtue, though, this certainty can be considered necessary for the survival of morality. For, without a reform in Athenian values, Plato's society will degrade into utter corruption. In other words, despite its unusual confidence and urgency (aspects of the direct relevance of its topic to its time), the subject of Gorgias nonetheless constitutes an investigation of virtue. As such it remains indicative of the early dialogues, as well as of Plato's entire philosophical pursuit.