What I’m Reading: Gorgias

Every year for the past several years, I’ve tried to read one of Plato’s dialogues or a similar work from or about ancient Greece. Well, it’s December, so my ancient Greek work for 2020 is slipping in just under the wire! In this case, it’s Gorgias, a Platonic dialogue where Socrates (always the hero in Plato’s dialogues) debates the nature of oratory with two leading orators in ancient Athens, Gorgias and Polus. This evolves into a discussion of what makes for a life of excellence with a young nobleman, Callicles, who is also present.

First, let me get out of the way the question that I tend to get asked when people see me reading Plato, which is usually something along the lines of, “Isn’t that really hard to read?” And the answer is no, not at all. They’re just dialogues, meaning conversations among Socrates and his companions. They flow pretty easily, actually, and often have a fair amount of humor. I think a high school student in an advanced English class, for example, could read and understand Gorgias without much problem. The one exception so far is actually one of the works I read in 2019, Timaeus (it was paired with Critias in a book, so I read both), which had a lot of geometry and long, obscure explanations of what Plato sees as the material basis for the universe. Now that was tough reading! But this year, we’re back to the usual easy-going Platonic style.

Still, Gorgias is different from the other Plato works I have read, in that it’s more adversarial, with Socrates engaged in a competitive argument with rivals, rather than a conversation with friends. The dialogue opens with Socrates and a friend arriving at a gymnasium or other public place, where a crowd has gathered to hear the famous sophist Gorgias and his assistant, Polus, give fancy show-speeches. Callicles is there as well because Gorgias and Polus are staying with him during their time in Athens. Socrates doesn’t want to hear a show-speech, but he does propose engaging in his typical style of Platonic dialogue, where a series of questions leads to the truth about some matter. Gorgias agrees to this.

After some discussion, Socrates learns that Gorgias professes to practice the trade of oratory, which is the art of persuading people in a large assembly, and knowing the difference between right and wrong. Further questioning leads Gorgias to admit that, in fact, an orator can convince a crowd of a conclusion whether or not that conclusion is truthful, and whether or not the orator himself even knows the truth of a matter. So it seems that oratory is not a trade that is useful for finding the truth at all.

At this point Polus interrupts, dissatisfied with the way Gorgias has been arguing and accuses Socrates of catching Gorgias in a verbal trap, rather than actually proving anything about the nature of oratory. He sees the flaw in Gorgias’s argument as agreeing that oratory has anything to do with right or wrong. Polus claims oratory exists only to persuade a crowd of one’s argument, and moreover, that is fine, for it gives one power to do reward your friends and punish your enemies. The most successful orators would thus become tyrants, and do whatever they want, which would be to their own happiness. Socrates posits in return that a tyrant does not do what he wants, but only what he thinks he wants, and in reality, a tyrant is the most miserable person on earth. At first, this assertion is almost shocking, but Socrates demonstrates through a variety of means that it is worse by far to do wrong, than to have wrong done to you, so a tyrant must be miserable.

He apparently has won the debate over Polus as well, but now Callicles breaks in and, like Polus before him, accusing Socrates of using mere verbal tricks. He thinks Socrates’ assertion is ridiculous, and it’s self-evident that a tyrant is happy. Moreover, he thinks Socrates is foolish for living the life of a philosopher, rather than using his intelligence in public life, where he might win wealth and power for his friends in politics or law. Through a fairly elaborate argument, Socrates repudiates this view, arguing that the soul can be healthy or unhealthy like the body, and that a tyrant who indulges his appetites is treating his soul rather like a gluttonous person who eats too much. This may satisfy him in the short term, but he becomes ever unhealthier and more miserable the longer he keeps it up. Only a person who lives with moderation, whether in his physical appetites (body) or in his appetites concerned with power and influence (soul), can be truly healthy and happy.

This is where Plato’s dialogue takes an unusual turn, for Callicles appears defeated, but he refuses to admit that Socrates has got the better of him. In fact, he becomes rather sulky, sometimes insulting Socrates and at other times refusing to engage at all, forcing Socrates to give long speeches, which is what Socrates had wanted to avoid in the first place. Socrates takes the opportunity, however, to expound on what he sees as an ideal politician–not merely an orator, out to pander to the public to win power for his own side, like most politicians, but a statesmen, whose speaking skills and leadership actually improve the people he is governing, thus producing a state where the greatest number of people are able to live happy lives of moderation.

Socrates believes that such a statesman would be almost impossible in a democracy, although he doesn’t discuss where we might find such a statesman or what exactly he would act like (that awaits his later dialogue, The Republic). Socrates finishes up with a little speech about the afterlife, with his view of how the various Greek myths fit together. At first, this seems like an odd digression, but as he continues, he expounds his belief that after death, the soul will be judged and only those who have done good in their lives will be rewarded, and it becomes apparent that this speech is complementary to the earlier discussion view of how one can best achieve happiness in one’s life.

All in all, I found this to be one of my favorite of Plato’s dialogues. The themes were interesting, and the way the interlocutors were verbal opponents rather than friends gave the whole thing more of an edge. I’m not sure the arguments are as tight as in some of Plato’s other dialogues, but they are more impassioned. I’m always a little unsure how to recommend these. But if you think you might like to read a work of Plato, this would be a great place to start–not too difficult, and pretty interesting.

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