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NOTE: There are no breaks in Gorgias as Plato wrote it. These notes on the text were made later, with sections beginning or breaking off where a new theme or topic is introduced or dropped. Sections in this guide are demarcated according to the Stephanus numbers (the page numbers from the complete works of Plato edited by Henri Estienne—"Stephanus"—in Latin) published in 1578). For Plato's works, the Stephanus numbers are the standard page references, and most editions of Plato's work contain the Stephanus numbers along the 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.
As will be emphasized below, this same confusion of true knowledge with the false impression of knowledge serves as a fundamental model of the same conflations of truth and good with deceptive appearances of these virtues. Eventually Plato goes on to define mistaken attributions of the status of knowledge to belief, of art to mere flattery, of pleasant to the good, of temperance as undesirable, of justice as power and virtue as the law of authority. All of these conflations were operating at the time of (and were significant causes leading up to) the conviction and death of Plato's teacher, Socrates. This becomes a major aspect of the Gorgias' momentum, and it is foreshadowed early on in this section of the dialogue.
The pattern of progression through this section's topic also epitomizes Socrates's method of dialogue. He asks specific questions at every turn, and refuses to proceed without a consensus about whichever point is under examination. In this manner, Socrates becomes able to focus entirely on the issue of immediate investigation, since without an agreement on each prior point the discussion would not have reached the point being considered. Furthermore, by voicing agreement or dissention at crucial points in the flow of the debate, and by asking significant questions in pertinent places throughout the dialogue (all, importantly, through the mouths of the various characters therein portrayed), Plato becomes able to smoothly and effectively move his discussion exactly where he wants to take it. And this end is achieved without Socrates sounding dictatorial, pre-fabricated and manipulative in the statement of unopposed claims. Rather, the same points are made more eloquently and with the tone of consensus among many people engaged in conversation rather than by decree from one person.
This is the very nature of dialogue: discovery and progress through the resolution of competing points of view. Without such multiple participation and progress through consensus, there could be no dialogue. And, the cat-and-mouse game of question-and-answer here between Socrates and Gorgias exemplifies this Socratic method. Whereas rhetoric is unilateral and persuasive, dialogue is adaptable and true.