Plato’s “Gorgias”

Plato

428 – 348 B.C.E. perhaps

Plato and Isocrates were two teachers that were operating their own schools at approximately the same time, and thus are often studied in tandem during classes on classic Greek rhetorical theory. However, the two had vastly different approaches and should really be thought of as rivals. Whereas Isocrates was more interested in the active parts of teaching and practical skills, Plato was much more interested in the broader theoretical and philosophical questions. Plato, unlike Isocrates, firmly believed in the existence of one single objective Truth. For him, there was such a thing as an absolute truth, and thus it was the job of philosophers to find and understand this truth. For Plato, rhetoric was only useful insofar as it was a means for philosophers to communicate that absolute truth to those who were unable to understand it. Pretty elitist, if you ask me. At any rate, Plato really didn’t see much use for rhetoric whereas for Isocrates it was the central thing of utmost importance.

Gorgias

~380 B.C.E. or so

As I’ve discussed previously, and will almost certainly discuss many more times before the end of the semester, I am a complete foreigner when it comes to classic rhetorical theory. Other than Dr. Prasch’s Rhetorical Criticism class (SPCM 612), I have never taken any courses that specifically emphasize rhetoric and its theories. Therefore, I find myself having to really work to “dumb things down” in my notes so that I’m able to understand it. I suspect that this tendency will also be reflected in my journal entries. For instance, I feel that it is important for me to preface my discussion of Plato’s Gorgias with a reminder that is almost certainly mind-numbingly trivial for someone more experienced in rhetoric. Yes, Gorgias was another key player in the classical Greek era of rhetorical theory. He was one of the sophists, and taught his students the skills and techniques of oratory. But Gorgias was also the name of a dialogue that Plato wrote. So when discussing classical Greek rhetorical theory, it is important to use precise language and terminology to be clear whether you’re talking about Gorgias the person or Gorgias the dialogue. Yikes.

Plato’s Gorgias is effectively the written transcript of a conversation that he and many other sophists had over dinner. Though the dialogue is titled Gorgias, Gorgias is in fact only one of the many participants. The dinner (and thus this dialogue) took place at Callicles’ home. Gorgias was crashing at Callicles’ couch at the time, but that’s still a huge snub that the dialogue is called Gorgias and not Callicles. Anyhow, the characters or people involved in the dialogue are Plato, Callicles, Gorgias, Socrates, Polus, and Chaerephon.

During the dialogue, the players touch on a large number of themes, of which rhetoric is but one. While they do have a lengthy conversation on what exactly rhetoric is (a discussion which seems to remain unsettled even in 2019), they also talk more generally about what it means for something to be an “art,” consider questions of ethics and morality, as well as consider the very nature of truth itself. Many of these topics overlap and bleed into one another. In the discussion of rhetoric, there is also some consideration of whether it is mere trickery, or if it can actually be used to convey truth. In other words, can rhetoric alone be a moral undertaking? Or must it be paired with something else (such as philosophy) in order to not be trickery?

Plato’s Gorgias is worth studying even in the 21st century because the questions and issues that were being considered are still somewhat unresolved. Perhaps they are by nature actually unanswerable questions. Perhaps we will never be able to fully understand the nature of truth, so it’s worth studying some of the earliest people to ask such questions. Kennedy explains that “[t]he dialogue leaves the reader with a sense of the gap between philosophy and the everyday world. The philosophical issues of the Gorgias are resumed and more thoroughly discussed in the Republic, Phaedrus, and later dialogues.”[1] Put another way, whether or not you subscribe to Plato’s view of the world, you really need to be able to understand it in order to make sense of later rhetorical theory as well. I suppose then, by extension, it also helps to better understand and study practical techniques and methods as well.

This question of the utility of studying theory is one that has been raised by many of my SPCM 200 students. During my classes, I have experienced challenges and pushing back against the need to ask broad, open-ended, and theoretical questions. For instance during the unit on informative speaking, we have a discussion on objectivity versus subjectivity, and what it means for a speaker to convey information as if it were truth. Indeed, our new textbook teaches students that it is never possible for a someone to be wholly objective when speaking.[2] This is much more of an Isocratean view rather than a Platonic view on the nature of truth. But the reality is that most SPCM 200 students could not care less about such broad questions about the nature of truth, objectivity, or subjectivity. All they really care about really is the practical, or the everyway world. I think this is tension between theory and practicality is one that permeates all of the readings that we have discussed thus far in class, and likely will continue to arise. I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that at CSU most students in SPCM 200 are required to be their (often against their first choices) whereas students of Plato (or even Isocrates) were specifically going out of their way to enroll in their schools.

Plato’s Gorgias is certainly a lengthy dialogue, so there is hardly a shortage of potential passages that are interesting and could spark significant discussion. Here, I focus on just three sections that particularly piqued my interest. Thankfully, Plato is long deceased and his work is unquestionably within the public domain. This is great because it means that the text is readily accessible, but less that ideal in that not every version has page numbering and section numbering available. Thus my section numbers here are only approximate.

First, around section 448-450, there is a conversation about what word we should use to describe Gorgias’ actual profession:

[Soc.] … Or rather, Gorgias, let me turn to you, and ask the same question what are we to call you, and what is the art which you profess?
[Gor.] Rhetoric, Socrates, is my art
[Soc.] Then I am to call you a rhetorician?
[Gor.] Yes Socrates, and a good one too, if you would call me that which, in Homeric language, ‘I boast myself to be.’[3]

I’ll be honest, I am both satisfied and frustrated to see that there always has been debate and disagreement over what rhetoric really is, and what it actually is that “rhetoricians” do. As an outsider to this field, it has been like pulling teeth to get a definition from anyone as to what rhetoric really is. But Plato’s Gorgias demonstrates that this question is hardly a new one, and that even in the classical Greek era it was being questioned.

This obsession with labels and with defining different disciplines still existed even in 380 B.C.E., and for me it is sometimes such an unimportant distinction that still consumes us in 2019. In our department, the “Rhetoric and Civic Engagement” area of study is more emphasized by the department’s curriculum (both graduate and undergraduate levels), leaving “Relating and Organizing” and “Media and Visual Culture” to the wayside. And it is not uncommon for graduate students to ask one another to declare their loyalty to one of these foci. And if you claim to be a “rhetoric student” then God forbid you ever do anything that might be construed as media studies! This is the impression that I have had throughout my time here in the department, at least. And honestly it’s just comical. Why does it matter so much what label we want to put on our own work? What value is there in “naming” our profession? Why can’t we just let the work we produce speak for itself? But at the same time, I am cognizant of the fact that this tendency to label and distinguish disciplines and subdisciplines is not unique to CSU. When I was at the SCMS conference in Seattle this year, I was party to multiple conversations where some so-called “film scholars” and so-called “media studies scholars” were trying to articulate some difference between the work that they were doing. I think that these types of conversations, whether at SCMS in 2019 or at Callicles’ home in 380 B.C.E. do a disservice to everyone involved in scholarship. It can lead to odd situations where scholars are talking past one another, and curtails the potential for inter- and cross-disciplinary work. The University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC), my alma mater, is an example to jumps to my mind. In Allen Hall, you would have a classroom with Advertising and Public Relations students learning the best way to communicate a message to a particular audience. And just down the hall you would have media studies students learning Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model and discussing the inequity of power that advertisers and public relations representatives have to influence the thinking of others.[4] In the same building, you had students learning both the benefits and the evils of such a practice, but rarely had opportunities for all of those people to be within the same room and have a conversation. Because the school was so concerned with compartmentalizing its scholarship and maintaining different professional labels, significant opportunities were cut off. Thus, when reading the beginning of Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates’ questioning of Gorgias’ profession evoked many similar feelings.

In a later section, Polus interjects into Socrates and Plato and their conversation about what “rhetoric” and “rhetorician” really mean. Polus asks Socrates about the nature of rhetoric, and whether or not it can be considered an art:

[Pol.] I’ll do the asking. So answer me this, Socrates! Since you think Gorgias is at a loss about rhetoric, what do you say it is?
[Soc.] Are you asking what sort of an art I say it is?
[Pol.] I am.
[Soc.] Well, to tell you the honest truth, Polus, it doesn’t seem to me to be any sort of art.[5]

Socrates goes on to explain that some arts serve the body, and others serve the soul. I’m sure that in the original Greek writing, his way of articulating it was much clearer. However, given that I cannot read Greek, I found myself turning to George Kennedy’s explanation of Gorgias in order to fully understand this section.[6] For Socrates, there are two categories of arts – those that work on the should (politics) and those that affect the body. Each of these is further divided in two—whether it establishes a good condition of soul/body or if it corrects a deficiency. For Socrates, the four arts are:

  • Legislation – establishes the correct conditions in the state
  • Justice – punishment for violating law, corrects faults
  • Gymnastics – establishes healthy body conditions
  • Medicine – corrects unhealthy body conditions

And for Socrates, there is a form of flattery that is “opposite” to each of these arts. It pretends to be an art, or at least seems like an art, but upon further inspection does not actually deliver what it promises:

  • sophistic — establishes pleasant, but false principles
  • rhetoric — tries to correct departure from the norms
  • cosmetics — false impression of healthiness
  • cookery (gourmet) — makes food taste better, but doesn’t correct illness.

This section, then, is incredibly useful for articulating how Plato thought of rhetoric. For him it could not possibly be an art, but was mere flattery. This nicely coincides with his worldview on the nature of absolute truth. If rhetoric was only useful for conveying truth (which was discovered by philosophy), on its own it could have very little value.

On a similar note, toward the end of the dialogue, Callicles begins to question Socrates on what the value of any of this broad theories on flattery versus art actually are. After Chaerephon asks Callicles how series Socrates really is, Callicles asks the questions himself:

By the gods, and I will. Tell me, Socrates, are you in earnest, or only in jest? For if you are in earnest, and what you say is true, is not the whole of human life turned upside down; and are we not doing, as would appear, in everything the opposite of what we ought to be doing?[7]

I really appreciated the moment when Callicles asked this question. I was not so much a fan of Socrates’ long-winded and lengthy response, but the mere fact that we were at least questioning the value of the theory was really satisfying for me. I’ll be entirely honest, I simply am not that interested in all the minute details of each specific rhetorical theory, especially when it comes to the super old stuff from the classical Greek era. For me, it’s only worth studying if it has some value for describing actual lived experiences of actual people. I understood this point of Callicles asking the question as the big “So what?” moment. It’s effectively a reality check on the debate that was playing out between Socrates and Gorgias, as well as between Socrates and everyone else. While there is certainly disagreement between each of the men in this dialogue, Callicles was one of the only moments I saw any of them taking a step back and “zooming out from theory-land” and asking why any of this matters. I think that in all of our discussions of rhetorical theory, this is an incredibly important practice.

Effectively, Callicles is saying that it’s difficult to take Socrates all that seriously because countless people are able to go about their day to day lives and function just fine even without having access to his broad theories on rhetoric, philosophy, and how the world works. Again, theories are really only useful if they have some applicability to the actual lived experiences of actual people. This is true for all scholarship; we must resist the urge to lock ourselves in our ivory tower and do academic work for the sake of academic work. It is absolutely imperative that our work makes some difference in the “real” world and for “real” people. And the reality is that for the overwhelming majority of its history, the field of rhetoric and communication studies broadly has really only served a select group of people—namely white men. The field(s) has/have not adequately spoken to and about the real experiences of women, people of color, and other marginalized identities.[8] Given the current controversy and debate unfolding within the National Communication Association, I believe it is high time for this field to have another “Callicles moment.”[9] So what? Who is our work actually serving, and who is being left out? How can we do better scholarship to better speak to the lived experiences of all people?


[1] Kennedy, Comparative Rhetoric, 36.

[2] Thomas Dunn, Public Speaking Now, n.d.

[3] Plato, Gorgias, trans. W. C. Helmbold (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1952), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015005079481.

[4] Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, “A Propaganda Model,” in Media and Cultural Studies: Key WOrks, ed. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner, Second Edition (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 1988), 204–31.

[5] Plato, Gorgias, sec. 462.

[6] Kennedy, Comparative Rhetoric.

[7] Plato, Gorgias, sec 481.

[8] Paula Chakravartty et al., “#CommunicationSoWhite,” Journal of Communication 68, no. 2 (April 1, 2018): 254–66, https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqy003.

[9] “Distinguished Scholars,” National Communication Association, June 12, 2019, https://www.natcom.org/distinguished-scholars.

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