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Friday, February 24, 2012


With this post, I launch what will be a mini-tutorial on Plato's dialogue, the Gorgias.  I shall be using the rather old Helmbold translation, but for those of you who choose to follow along with other translations, I shall identify passages by the pagination in the standard 1578 Greek edition by Stephanus that virtually all translators incorporate into their texts one way or another.  [The Stephanus edition apparently is laid out with four pages to a sheet, so that each page is divided into A, B, C, and D, but the Helmbold, unlike many translations, does not include these subdivisions, so I shall simply cite the page.  The Gorgias, for example, runs from Stephanus 447 to Stephanus 527.]

The English scholar A. E. Taylor identifies the Gorgias as a relatively early dialogue, written no more than six to ten years after the death of Socrates in 399 B. C., which is to say when the intense emotions engendered by his execution were still very fresh in Plato's mind, and Socrates himself was well-remembered by the initial audience for the dialogue.  The dating of the Platonic dialogues is a rather arcane sub-specialty, relying both on textual evidences [such as whether the principal character is Socrates] and also details of the Greek.  I am completely clueless about these matters, and rely implicitly on the consensus gentium.

The structure of the Gorgias is startling similar to that of Book I of the much longer and better known Republic.  In both texts, there are three interlocutors with whom Socrates engages, and in each case the first respondent is an older man who is quite incapable of offering genuinely challenging arguments to Socrates;  the second respondent is a young man who is, in some sense, a disciple [or, in the case of the Republic a son] of the initial speaker;  and the third and most important opponent is an excitable, hot-headed, but genuinely brilliant speaker into whose mouth Plato places very strong and important arguments.  The Gorgias, like many of Plato's dialogues, concludes with a myth of the afterlife.

As with most of the dialogues, the ostensible subject of the Gorgias is the proper definition of a word -- in this case "rhetoric" -- but of course, much, much more is going on than mere definition.  We shall get to the arguments in a moment, but first I want to say a few words about a quite remarkable and literarily brilliant aspect of the dialogue that makes it, in my judgment, one of the greatest works in the western philosophical tradition.  Plato has a philosophical theory about how to formulate a correct definition;  he has an elaborate and quite well worked out political theory about the nature of the just state;  he has an extremely sensitive and insightful psychological theory about the sort of person who is likely to embrace a certain philosophical position; and he integrates these perfectly in the text by making each of Socrates' interlocutors, and Socrates himself, embody and exemplify, as well as state and argue for, the position that he represents in the dialogue.

I do not think there is another philosophical author in the entire tradition who achieves this level of seamless integration of theory and personality in a dialogue.  Each character reveals himself by his speech to be precisely the sort of person he should be, given the position he chooses to defend.  I alert you to this now, just in case you are reading the dialogue as I blog about it, so that you can watch Plato accomplish this lovely bit of literary legerdemain.  The centerpiece of the dialogue is of course Socrates, whose self-restraint, composure, and ironic stance are precisely the personality traits that one would have if one had truly achieved the level of philosophical insight that Plato believes Socrates to have embodied.

Several bits of background information before we turn to the text.  First, of course, is the fate of Socrates, which is in the future of the dramatic time of the dialogue, but was in the recent past relative to the date of composition.  You will recall [and this is not meant rhetorically -- I assume that all of you do in fact already know] that after the fall of the rule of the so-called Thirty Tyrants, a group of wealthy Athenian families that included Plato's family, and with whom Socrates was allied, a general amnesty was declared, which made it impossible for the new democratic government to prosecute Socrates for his association with the previous regime.  Trumped up charges of impiety were brought against Socrates [the subject of the very first dialogue Plato wrote, the Euthyphro], Socrates was tried, found guilty [despite his impassioned and immortal speech, reproduced in The Apology], and once the sacred ship had returned from Delos, was forced to drink the poisoned hemlock, which killed him [see the Phaedo for a literary rendering of Socrates' last night.]  Plato was a disciple of Socrates, a young man of perhaps twenty-five at the time of Socrates' trial and death, and it is not too strong to say that it scarred him and shaped him for life.  Everyone reading the Gorgias when it was first written would have known all about these events, and -- Athens being a relatively small city -- might well have known not only Socrates but also some of the other characters who show up in the dialogues, including the famous orator Gorgias himself.

Second, a word about the so-called sophists.  There were no state-run formal educational institutions in Plato's time, and wealthy families hired tutors to educate their sons [not their daughters, needless to say.]  What is more, a man from a wealthy and prominent family was expected to participate personally in the public discourse of his city, and also to defend himself in the courts of law if the occasion arose.  A number of itinerant teachers filled this need, of whom Gorgias was one of the most prominent.  Gorgias actually claimed to be able to speak persuasively on any subject that might be proposed, be it justice, or beauty, or the best way to sail a ship or cultivate a field of grain.  As we shall see, Plato has a good deal of not so innocent fun with the pompous and self-important Gorgias.

One final note before we turn to the text.  Students of philosophy quite naturally take Plato to heart, and we all reflexively identify Socrates as the good guy in the dialogues and opponents like Gorgias, or later Callicles, as the bad guys.  This is true even now, when professors of philosophy are more likely to be liberal than conservative in their political leanings.  But Plato was a profoundly, powerfully conservative political thinker, who had suspicion, not to say contempt, for democracy.  In the Athens of his day, it was the itinerant teachers like Gorgias, the "sophists" so called, who were the liberals.  A great classicist of an earlier generation, Eric Havelock, argued this thesis in his book, The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics.

Tomorrow, the text.


heydave said...

Just a quick aside: I'm reading you, just not posting much!

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Socrates was, if I recall correctly, charged with (i) not accepting the state recognized divinities, (ii) inventing his own divinities, and (iii) corrupting the youth. The standards that he sought in his definitions were new deities; he rejected state recognized divinities in favor of definitions; and insofar as he encouraged the youth to judge on the basis of definition embodied standards, instead of pedestal perched divinities, or worse yet, instead of standards that resulted from majority rule, he corrupted the youth. So, guilty all around? Don't you think?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

of for sure. No one has ever doubted that he was guilty of the charges as defined. But the general view is that his trial ended by convicting the state!

Bill said...

This was always one of my favorite dialogues. Thanks for all your tutorials, but most especially for this one.