The Gorgias has always held a special place in my heart, in part I think because, when I first began teaching it, it seemed to me to speak so directly to the illusions and confusions of the Nixon/Kennedy presidential race of 1960. [Why that is will become clearer a bit later in this mini-tutorial.] I freely confess that I have, all my life, been beguiled by the beauty and brilliance of Plato's arguments, both here and elsewhere, in the Republic, for example, even though my political convictions are in many ways the polar opposites of his. But then, I strongly believe that the ability to recognize the quality of arguments opposed to one's own is a measure of true philosophical wisdom.
The dialogue opens with a characteristic Socratic jibe intended to deflate an opponent. A small group around Socrates have missed a public speech by Gorgias, and Callicles promises to get Gorgias to "declaim" for them privately. "A good idea, Callicles," says Socrates. "But do you suppose he would be willing just to talk with us? What I really want is to learn from him the power of his art, and what it is that he professes to teach." And so we are off. Socrates suggests that one of their company, Chaerephon, question Gorgias, and when Chaerephon wants to know what he shall ask, Socrates replies, "Who he is."
There follows a rather leisurely introduction to Plato's theory of definition, as well as a first introduction to the very important notion of a techne, or "art," as it is usually translated, which will play a central role as the dialogue unfolds. Although this is getting way ahead of ourselves, this might be a good time to say a few words about this important subject.
It was commonplace in the Athens of that time to refer to various organized practices, such as ship-building, sheep-herding, shoemaking, and so forth, as "technes,". Plato seizes on this familiar idea and extends it to what might be called the art, or techne, of living. A techne, or art [or "technique," although in English that conveys a somewhat different meaning] is, according to Plato, differentiated or identified by three things: First, the object on which it operates -- leather and such in the case of cobbling, sheep in the case of shepherding, and so forth; Second, the body of organized rational knowledge that the artist, or purveyor of the techne, employs in practicing the art; and Third, the goal or end at which the techne aims. True arts [I shall henceforth use this somewhat inadequate translation in order to avoid having to keep repeating the Greek] always aim at the good of the object on which they work. Thus medicine aims at the health of the body; farming aims at the raising of edible foods; ship-building aims at the making of sea-worthy vessels. Furthermore, the nature of this good is a part of the knowledge that defines the art; it is not extrinsic to it or separable from it.
When Socrates tells Chaerephon to ask Gorgias "who he is," he really means, "Get him to tell us the art he practices, and once he has named it, see whether he can give us a definition of it that identifies the object on which it works, the body of rational knowledge on which it draws, and the end at which it aims." Implicitly, as we very quickly learn, Socrates is asking Gorgias to give a justification of his life -- an Apology, as that word once was used in English. And of course, always present in Plato's mind, and he hopes in the mind of his reader, is the Apology Socrates gave of his own life when called upon to defend himself at the trial that resulted in his execution. The jesting tone of so much of the Platonic dialogues always carries this deadly serious undertone.
The interchange with Gorgias is brief, lasting only for about a sixth, or a bit more, of the dialogue as a whole. It very quickly becomes apparent that Gorgias is quite incapable of providing an adequate definition of rhetoric, the activity that he says he practices and teaches to his students. The first answer, provided by Gorgias' disciple Polus [who then will become the second of the three interlocutors,] is a total non-starter. "Various are the arts of which various men variously partake; but the best partake of the best. Gorgias here is of this company, and so has a share in the noblest of the arts." [You may begin to see why I find resonances between this dialogue and contemporary American politics.] Well, that says it is a good thing, but doesn't tell us what it is. Gorgias now steps in to take his pupil's place, and names his art: rhetoric. [I am forced to pass over some really funny bits of dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias, in which Socrates, with a delicious irony, shows Gorgias to be a bag of wind.]
What class of objects does the rhetorician deal with?, asks Socrates. Words, says Gorgias. But many arts deal with words, so Gorgias must attempt to narrow things down. Rhetoric is the art that deals with words about words. After several more pages of back and forth, devoted principally to allowing Plato to lay out his [then quite new] theory of definition, Socrates finally extracts from Gorgias the claim that the art he practices and claims to be able to teach to others, namely rhetoric, is the art of persuasion called for "in law courts and other public gatherings .. it deals with justice and injustice."
Now we are getting down to it. Very quickly, Socrates leads Gorgias to agree that there is some persuasion that leads to mere belief [doxa] and some persuasion that leads to knowledge [episteme]. And Gorgias readily acknowledges that his art, rhetoric, is the art of using words about matters of justice and injustice in the law courts and other public gatherings for the purpose of producing mere belief.
Along about now, the alert student will begin to object that Plato is setting up a straw man, that surely no one in Gorgias' position would admit that his art produces mere belief instead of knowledge! Why on earth would Gorgias allow himself to be led down what looks like a dialectical dead end? Plato's reasons are complex, being both literary and expositional and also psychological [as I tried to suggest a bit earlier.] First of all, Plato has a rather complex philosophical story to tell, and he cannot tell it all in the first few pages. He needs, as it were, to creep up on it, starting at the most superficial level, clearing away some relatively elementary misunderstandings and confusions, and only later in the dialogue putting in the mouths of his interlocutors the powerful arguments against which Socrates must be called on to do battle. Only when we get to the third of the three opponents, Callicles, will Plato pull out all the stops and allow Callicles to mount a really dangerous attack against Socrates.
But there is another reason for Plato's choice that is, to me, much more interesting. Gorgias happily agrees that his "art" produces only belief, not knowledge, because it is part of Gorgias' boast and claim to fame that he can make a better argument for a military strategy than a general, a better argument for a construction project than an architect. With some transparently ironic exclamations concerning that apparent power of rhetoric, Socrates sucks Gorgias into delivering a boastful speech about the power of his "art." But now the discussion takes a curious turn. Here is an extract from Gorgias' long speech, in which this new idea is introduced:
" The rhetorician is capable of speaking against everyone else and on any subject you please in such a way that he can win over vast multitudes to anything, in a word, that he may desire. But the fact that he can rob doctors, or any other craftsmen, of the credit due them, is no reason why he should do so: he must use his skill justly, exactly as one should use physical prowess. And if a man learns rhetoric, and then does injustice through the power of his art, we shall not be right, in my opinion, in detesting and banishing the teacher. For while the teacher imparted instruction to be used rightly, the pupil made a contrary use of it. Therefore it is only right to detest the misuser and banish and kill him, not his teacher."
Plato, of course, will eventually argue that one cannot in this fashion separate the skill of a true "craftsman" from the proper use of the craft, for a part of the definition and nature of the craft is the good of that on which it operates. Later on, in a truly comical passage, Socrates will elaborate a theory of true and false arts, and mock rhetoric as one of the false arts.
But something else is going on here, which is, in an interesting way, a reflection of Plato's deeply conservative turn of mind. In Plato's view, Gorgias [and Cephalus in the Republic, who plays exactly the same role] is a fundamentally decent man who would not himself use his skill for immoral purposes. Plato respects this in Gorgias, and hence does not seek to have Socrates annihilate him. But Plato thinks that Gorgias is, unbeknownst to himself, a dangerous man, because lacking any genuine knowledge of a true art -- lacking, that is to say, a philosophical grasp of the relationship between the techniques that he has perfected and the appropriate purposes to which they should be put -- he will train his pupils and then be aghast at the immoral uses to which they put his techniques. He will thus have failed as a teacher, even though his pupils may flourish, grow wealthy and powerful, and even, in the end, escape punishment for their misdeeds. Polus steps in to defend his teacher, believing that Gorgias has affably given away too much in the argument, And in Polus, we see the evidence of Plato's fear that the pupils of a Gorgias, lacking his fundamental decency, will be truly dangerous to Athens.