Historical Rhetorics/Plato's Relationship to Rhetoric/Plato, ''Gorgias''

Distinguishing Philosophy from Rhetoric


As with the opening of the Apology, Gorgias opens drawing an important distinction between philosophy and rhetoric. In this case, it is a distinction between discussion and persuasion--the former deals with Truth, the latter with presentation (understood as either innocent entertainment or malicious duplicity as the dialogue unfolds).

In short, the Gorgias dialogue is Plato's most thorough and damning attack against rhetoric. Socrates matches wits against three different interlocutors: Gorgias (a mere performative caricature of the actual historic figure as drawn by scholars such as Bruce McComiskey or Scott Consigny), Polus (a young impudent student of Plato's fictional Gorgias who only shows the ineptitude of his master's teaching) and Callus (a proto-Nietzschean figure meant to terrify Plato's audience by showing how the intellect, if not disciplined by the Good becomes merely a self-directed pursuit of power).

What Does Rhetoric Produce?


As in the Sophist dialogue, one line of argumentation against rhetoric concerns its object--what it is that oratory claims to produce. In his exchange with Gorgias, Socrates argues that oratory cannot claim to produce anything True, nor can it claim to produce anything unique. It is, like poetry and aesthetics in Book X of the Republic, a mere imitation of a replication (in other words, 4 times removed from Truth).

Gorgias' description of oratory's power sounds quite nefarious:

I'm referring to the ability to persuade by speeches judges in a law court, councillors in a council meeting, and assemblymen in an assembly or in any other political gathering that might take place. In point of fact, with this ability you'll have the doctor for your slave, and the physical trainer, too. As for this financial expert of yours, he'll turn out to be making more money for somebody else instead of himself; for you, in fact, if you've got the ability to speak and persuade the crowd.

I've always thought that the malicious undertone of that passage sounds more like Callicles than Gorgias.

Around 453, Socrates denies that persuasion is itself a thing. The implication is that oratory, if it is a craft of any kind, is a kind of mystical sorcery--one of which any good person should approach with skepticism and trepidation. This characterization becomes clear in his closing exchange with Gorgias; Socrates remarks that oratory "seems to be something supernatural in scope" (456), to which Gorgias enthusiastically responds:

Oh yes, Socrates, if only you knew all of it, that it encompasses and subordinates to itself just about everything that can be accomplished. [relates a tale in which he convinced a sick person to accept a treatment that a doctor could not convince him to try]. One should, however, use oratory like any other competitive skill, Socrates. In other cases, too, one ought not to use a competitive skill against any and everybody, just because he has learned boxing [...] so as to make himself be superior to his friends as well as his enemies. That's no reason to strike, stab, or kill one's own friends! [...] The orator has the ability to speak against everyone on every subject, so as in gathering to be more persuasive, in short, about anything he likes, but the fact that he has the ability to rob doctors or other craftsmen of their reputations doesn't dive him any more of a reason to do it. He should use oratory justly, as he would any competitive skill. And I suppose that if a person who has become an orator goes on with this ability and this craft to commit wrongdoing, we shouldn't hate his teacher and exile him from our cities. For while the teacher imparted it to be used justly, the pupil is making the opposite use of it. So it's a misuser whom it's just to hate and exile or put to death, not the teacher. (456b-457c)

Plato's Gorgias here offers a pretty standard sophistic defense of rhetoric, one that contains two major strands:

  1. First, he acknowledges that, while rhetoric isn't any one thing nor does it constitute everything, that there is an element of rhetoric in everything. Nothing transcends rhetoric because nothing transcends human language or expression. Even when we try to capture things that potentially transcend human B/being(s), we are bound to the confines of language and thought--think of the ineffability of God in Hebrew (a name that cannot be pronounced). In opposition to this, remember that the crux of Aristotle's metaphysic (and hence, western civilization) centers on ontology--naming, de-termining, categorization, and hierarchy (putting everything in its proper place, the elimination of mystery, etc).
  2. Second, he deploys the metaphor of rhetoric as a weapon, capable of good or evil. We will return to this metaphor throughout the course--specifically when we get to Quintilian and Richard Lanham's explication of the "Q Question." But the potential dangers of oratory, stressed by Gorgias in this passage and others, testify to the persistence of the questions considering rhetoric's potential for harm. Because philosophy is the art of self-mastery, and rhetoric the art seeking to master others, rhetoric looks quite bad from a Socrates' perspective.

Socrates dismantling of Gorgias follows along two lines of argument. First, Socrates undermines the idea that oratory (rhetoric) lacks any kind of epistemic foundation; it isn't build on a knowledge:

Oratory doesn't need to have any knowledge of the state of their subject matters; it only needs to have discovered some device to produce persuasion in order to make itself appearto those who don't have knowledge that it knows more than those who actually have it.

Thus, lacking actual knowledge, oratory is simply a form of manipulation, an empty performance aimed at rather empty heads. This is perhaps the most (in)famous passage from the dialogue, Socrates' comparison of rhetoric to pastry-baking:

Well then, Gorgias, I think there's a practice that's not craftlike, but one that a mind given to making hunches takes to, a mind that's bold and naturally clever at dealing with people. I call it flattery, basically. I think that this practice has many other parts as well, and pastry baking, too, is one of them. This part seems to be a craft, but in my account of it is isn't a craft but a knack and a routine. I call oratory a part of this, too, along with cosmetics and sophistry. (463a-463b)

I'm saying that this pair of subjects there are two crafts. The one for the soul I call politics, the one for the body, though it is one, I can't give you a name offhand, but while the care of the body is a single craft, I'm saying it has two parts: gymnastics and medicine. And in politics, the counterpart of gymnastics is legislation, and the part that corresponds to medicine is justice. Each member of these pairs has features in common with the other, medicine with gymnastics and justice with legislation, because they are concerned with the same thing. they do, however, differ in some ways from each other. These, then, are the four parts, and they always provide care, in the one case for the body, in the other for the soul, with a view to what's best. Now flattery takes notice of them, and -- I won't say by knowing, but only by guessing --divides itself into four, masks itself with each of the parts, and then pretends to be the characters of the masks. It takes no thought at all of whatever is best; with the lure of what's most pleasant at the moment, it sniffs out folly and hoodwinks it, so that it gives the impression of being most deserving. Pastry baking has put on the mask of medicine, and pretends to know the foods that are best for the body, so that if a pastry baker and a doctor had to compete in front of children, or in front of men just as foolish as children, to determine which of the two, the doctor or the pastry baker, had expert knowledge of good food and bad, the doctor would die of starvation. I call this flattery, and I say that such a thing is shameful. [...] And I say that it isn't a craft [art, techne], but a knack, because it has no account of the nature of things it applies by which it applies them, so that it's unable to state the cause of each thing. And I refuse to call anything that lacks such an account a craft. [...] (464b-465a)

[...] what cosmetics is to gymnastics, pastry baking is to medicine; or rather, like this: what cosmetics is to gymnastics, sophistry is to legislation, and what pastry baking is to medicine, oratory is to justice. (465c-d)

You've now heard what I say oratory is. It's the counterpoint in the soul to pastry baking, its counterpart in the body. (465e)

Whipping the Young Colt


A number of scholars have noted that Socrates does come off as much more of a jerk in the Gorgias than in other dialogues. I would argue that this is true of any time that he is distinguishing philosophy from rhetoric. This is because Socrates usually rests on the claim that he knows nothing (as he does in the Apology). But, especially in the Gorgias, Socrates is resting on a different claim--that his access to divine Truth (physis) knows that rhetoric is baseless, vile, and worthy of disdain. This makes him far less sympathetic a figure than in other dialogues. The epitomy of this Socrates surfaces in his debates with the "young colt," Polus. Of course, Polus is a selfish brat who deserves the whipping he receives. But Socrates seems to enjoy it just a bit too much (something, he warns, that is a danger of oratorical training for the law courts--a dedication to winning rather than to truth).

A number of scholars have also noted the hyperbole with which Gorgias speaks in this dialogue; chances are he would not have foolishly made such claims in real life (see especially McComiskey for a discussion of how this Gorgias acts as Plato's puppet and how his responses in the dialogue contradict the majority of the philosophy in his extant texts). For instance, the real Gorgias would likely have disputed the distinction between "true" learning and "false" conviction (see 454d-455). Or 458e, where Gorgias proposes that he can teach everyone oratory. Or 459 where Gorgias accepts Socrates' proposition that

Oratory doesn't need to have any knowledge of the state of their subject matters; it only needs to make itself appear to those who don't have knowledge that it knows more than those who actually do have it. (459c)

Obviously, where he anything like the master arguer framed by history, Gorgias would be unlikely to accept such ridiculous grounds. Reacting to Gorgias' exchange with Socrates, a sophist would point out that Socrates relies on what we might refer to as an Enlightenment conception of human beings (i.e., human beings as rational actors) or that he relies on a source of certain knowledge beyond human construction.

As with the Apology, we see an aversion to respecting pathos as a component of human conduct. Socrates' model of personal and political governance does not accept fear of change, stubbornness, or skepticism (see Jim Corder, "Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love"). People do not always listen to the doctor or the trainer. Often, they have to be convinced to take action; changing someone's mind does not necessarily mean changing their behavior. Described by Socrates, politics is not different than arithmetic; hence why at 481b Socrates declares that, to the just, oratory has no usefulness. But Socrates' flattening of teaching and persuading (453e) doesn't hold in real life. Taking his example at 459--that the orator is only persuasive on medicine to a group of lay people, but not to a group of doctors, Socrates assumes that everyone could know everything--or that everyone is automatically willing to accept the advice of experts. Human experience suggests otherwise. Socrates, divorced as he is from civic life, doesn't need to know anything--in fact he takes pride in his lack of knowing. Plato, however, is in quite a different position (as author of the Republic). Plato's articulation of the philosopher king claims to know many, many things. Martha Nussbaum, in Cultivating Humanity, asks one of philosophical history's most enduring and critical questions: is it possible to be a political Socrates? Or is it inevitable that politics will transform a "gadfly-ish" Socrates into a (phallogocentric, totalitarian--my terms, not Nussbaum's) Plato? We will revisit this question later in the course when we examine Plato's Timaeus.

Against the Crowd


Recently, Bruno Latour has focused attention on Socrates' exchange with Callicles at near the Gorgias' conclusion. According to Latour, this scene warrants attention because it reveals that Socrates and Callicles, whatever the extent of their disagreements, agree on one thing: that both the philosopher and the orator set themselves against the crowd. Latour argues (and I agree with him) that this version of Callicles is both likely closer to the historic Gorgias and still an intentional misreading of Gorgias. These are point to which we will return later in the course.

Callicles argues that the real purpose of a scholar doesn't concern philosophy (in terms that echoes Aristophanes' mockery of Socrates in The Clouds, written in 419 B.C.E). Philosophy is a childish exercise, perhaps with its uses for training the mind, but does not fit a grown man who needs to navigate the forum. The orator strives to gain power in accordance with natural law and not, as Polus would have it, personal gain. Certainly, Callicles warns at several spots of Socrates' potential death--most notably at 521b-522.

Over the course of the Gorgias's concluding "dialogue," Socrates grows increasingly more irritated and frought, as Callicles refuses to really engage or even listen to Socrates' sprawling arguments. In the end, Socrates produces what Latour terms "a crepuscular tale"--one in which he promises that those who do not accept the Rule of Reason in this word will be judged, harshly, in the next. I believe that Plato sets up Socrates to fail in this dialogue--to give the very kind of "long speech" at its conclusion against which he rails in its introduction. Plato's rhetorical argument to his peers seems to be--if you do not accept Reason as a master, then look at the kind of master you invite--a "flatterer" who cares for nothing more than his own power. The Specter of Callicles.

Thinking the Dialogue in terms of a Grid


My graduate professor, Richard Johnson-Sheehan, conceptualized this dialogue in terms of a grid. I don't remember the exact parameters of how he set up his grid, but mine goes like this:

Social Construction/ Human Law Divine Nature
Truth Gorgias "Oratory helps to construct and maintain justice" Socrates "Justice transcends human institutions; oratory obscures the path to Truth"
Power Polus "Oratory manipulates human institutions for personal gain" Callicles "oratory marshalls power. Power is the only truth."

Gorgias believes that justice is an admirable goal, and one regulated by human proceedings (hence his emphasis above on the law courts and assemblies). Polus, on the other hand, believe in using such proceedings for personal gain. There is very little to admire in Polus' self-centered, machiavellian practice. Socrates believes that Truth is a transcendental manner--that Truth can be approached through philosophy, and that, ultimately, and individual must conduct themselves according to divine law. As will be addressed further below, for Socrates the afterlife involves a judgement as to whether an individual took more than they needed. Punishments await the greedy.

Callicles, as a proto-Nietzschean, disavows any sense of divine propriety, nor will he be enslaved by an force--mortal or divine. For Callicles, natural law does not speak to balance and permanence (as it does for Socrates), but rather it simply announces and respects power. What is naturally (note--naturally, not socially as it is for Polus) right is for the strong to be strong, and to not bow their heads to the weak, or, as Socrates would have it, convince themselves that accepting weakness is the ultimate, True, righteous strength. Hence why Socrates identifies Callicles as his strongest opponent, because Callicles refuses to admit the one distinction upon which all of Socrates' dialectical arguments with the other interlocutors rests: that there are transcendental truths to which oratory has no access. For Callicles the only such truth is power, by all available means. Callicles recognizes that his power isn't absolute--it is regulated by how much sway he has over the assembly. But, in opposition to Socrates' transcendental account of justice measured in terms of self-control, Callicles imagines justice as measured in terms in one's potential to fulfill the appetites and command the masses (see 484c-e).

In terms of oratory, Callicles introduces an important concept at 491a--one that it is very easy to miss. Responding to Socrates' queries on the superior man, Callicles explains:

I've been saying it all along. First of all, by he ones who are superior I don't mean cobblers or cooks, but those who are intelligent about the affairs of the city, about the way it's to be well managed. And not only the intelligent, but also brave, competent to accomplish whatever they have in mind, without slackening off because of softness of spirit. (491b)

It is this bravery, more than anything else, that Socrates and Callicles appear to have in common. Socrates' philosophy requires bravery to speak against the multitude. But, he also exhibits a fair amount of cowardice, from a Calliclean perspective, in not engaging the multitude to "get things done."

Deconstructing Socrates?


My favorite line of this dialogue is offered by Gorgias, in response to Socrates' plea to conduct the dialogue as a discussion, rather than as long speeches: "there are some answers, Socrates, that must be given by way of long speeches" (449c). At the dialogue's conclusion it is an exasperated Socrates who ends up giving a long speech--one that dismisses oratory on the grounds that Socrates cares only for judgement in the next world, at the mercy of the divine logos, as opposed to any court or assembly in the human world. Of course, the bitterly ironic echoes of the Apology are intentional. Socrates' transcendentalism in on full display here:

Death, I think, is actually nothing but the separation of two things from each other, the soul and the body. So, after they've separated, each of them stays in a condition not much worse than what it was in when the person was alive. [...] All that's in the soul is evident after it has been stripped naked of the body, both things that are natural to it and things that have happened to it [...] So when they arrive before their judge--the people from Asia before Rhadamanthus--Rhadamanthus brings them to a halt and studies each person's soul without knowing whose it is. [...] And he saw that the soul was full of distortion and ugliness due to license and luxury, arrogance and incontinence in its actions. And when he had seen it, he dismissed this soul in dishonor straight to the guardhouse, where it went to await suffering its appropriate fate. (524b-525)

There are a number of things we could remark on--but I would stress how Socrates' falls on a long speech only once his dialectical proofs fail to work on Callicles, who likely views such transcendental accounts "as an old wives' tale" (527) (note, too, that Callicles gives up any pretense to dialectic at 505d--this is another weakness of both philosophy and rhetoric, how do you get oppositional parties to agree to debate? McComiskey and Consigny's rival accounts of Gorgias will address this question). Furthermore, Socrates' speech operates on pathos as much as logos--for while it is a standard Pascal's wager, it deploys quite a number of fear-invoking images. However, at the conclusion of this dialogue, Socrates is unable to prove Callicles is wrong as Callicles is unable to prove that Socrates is wrong. Hence, when confronting two doctors offering contradictory advice, how do we choose which doctor is right?