Historical Background for Gorgias

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 Background for Gorgias

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 in the Historical Background essay 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.