20 - Virtue Meets its Match: Plato's Gorgias

Posted on 6 February 2011

Peter discusses one of Plato’s great dialogues on ethics, the Gorgias, in which Socrates compares rhetoric to pastry-making and squares off against the immoralist Callicles.


Further Reading

E.R. Dodds, Plato. Gorgias (Oxford: 1959).

T. Irwin (trans.), Plato. Gorgias (Oxford: 1979).



TD 11 April 2014

I just watched a BBC special on the "Men Who Made Us Fat" and the associations in the program sure reflect exactly what Socrates says in Gorgias -it seems the majority of Britain and America are diet hedonists with plenty of holes in their jars. What makes all these people fat? Perhaps they are all personal tyrants and unknowingly ignorant to the cause of their affliction since they didn't examine themselves or the suggestions of the "experts" carefully enough - eventually personifying the unhappy tyrant's life.

It's been 2500 years and we're still doing the same silly things? Personally I think many of Platos dialogues should be mandatory in final year public school and definitely in first and second year university. I didnt have any offered to me in either my science or business degree except as an elective and at the time I didnt even know what philosophy was. Shouldnt we heed Socrates in the Euthydemus and first make sure we are good before we're given the power to become a scientist, banker, politician or any citizen possessing any degree of power and the will to use it?

TD 19 April 2014


What word is missing below?

Oratory is to the ignorant demos as ___________ is to the enlightened minority.


Oratory is to emotion as ___________ is to reason.

Incidentally, I like when Socrates explains, at 453c, why he is constant questioning: "It is not you I'm after; it is to prevent our getting in the habit of second guessing and snatching each others statements away. It is to allow you to work out your assumption in any way you want to."

I don't know how it is in the UK but it seems in North America most have been trained to do exactly what Socrates advises against. Perhaps our educational system needs a little Socratizing so we can work our problems out with others dialectically?

Well, at Gorgias 464b, Socrates actually says that what fills in your blank is "politics". He draws the following analogy:

Politics is to oratory as in the body, medicine is to pastry cooking.

And he also says that what politics aims at (like medicine aims at health) is justice. One could connect that to the Republic obviously, since the philosopher-kings are aiming to instill justice in the city. Obviously there is an interesting question about how the "political art" that Socrates is describing here relates to philosophy as a whole; but it seems to be part of philosophy, I would say, namely the part relevant to the running of a city.

I agree. So today we likely have two kinds of politicians: orators and statesman

Can we say the orators are there partly to help the community and partly to help themselves while the statesman is there just to help society?

Peter Adamson 22 April 2014

In reply to by TD

But perhaps we are going too fast. I think Plato, and definitely Aristotle (and then later Farabi etc) would stress that the successful statesman (or stateswoman!) needs to make their views persuasive to their people. So the leader will need some capacity for oratory as well. I think Gorgias in this dialogue actually makes a good point, when he says that rhetorical prowess can be used for both good and bad ends. If we think of great leaders we admire, we will probably find that they are almost always good rhetoricians. Abe Lincoln leaps to mind.

Given that the average person is likely more motivated through emotion instead of reason, there is no question oratory skill is required of the statesman who is wise and educated in The Good. I tend to disagree with Plato when he seems to insist on the expulsion of the poets in The Republic - although later he does allow the poets educated and wise in The Good to remain.

To me an orator is synonymous with a poet; hence, you would never be able to run the Republic without the poet/orator, especially considering that the bulk of the population is made of bronze with a sever paucity in facultative reasoning - based on the tripartite soul.

TD 4 May 2014

In the Gorgias Socrates implies the following:

There are people who learn and are convinced
There are people who learn and are not convinced.
There are people who don't learn and are convinced.
There are people who don't learn and are not convinced.

Later his says

Flattery consists of: cosmetics, pastry baking, sophistry, and oratory/rhetoric.
............ consists of: gymnastic, medicine, legislation, and Justice.

So gymnastics is to cosmetics as medicine is to pastry baking as legislation is to sophistry as justice is to oratory.

Now how can all the above be reconciled.
What is the rational measure that separates cosmetic from gymnastic or pastry baking from medicine or sophistry from legislation or oratory from justice

Dorna 11 July 2014

I've been re-listening to the podcasts, and around the time I got to this lecture my partner started reading the book "To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others" by Daniel Pink. I find it very similar to what sophists did, teaching how to be persuasive on any subject. In other words, how to "win friends and influence people."

This sound like manipulation to me. Why is it called "selling" if we are only talking about effective communication? Why call it "influencing" people when we only mean to demonstrate or prove the truth to them? What is the difference between a doctor communicating effectively the medical procedure and "selling" it? Are we using the same word for the same action now, or does selling have to be manipulative, at least a little? Does it have to do with uncertain cases, that you can't actually prove something? Or the seller has to personally benefit from the sale? I find it disturbing that phrases like "everyone works in sales now" have become mainstream in the US (in my circles at least), and I don't understand them properly yet.

I'm reading Gorgias now and I hope socrates will give some answers.

Yes, that's a good set of questions to have in mind when reading the Gorgias (in fact as you might be referring to, the character Gorgias gives the example of needing rhetoric rather than the art of medicine to persuade a patient to take the right drugs). This question of the difference between merely persuading and manipulating is a very interesting one. Persuasion seems to fall somewhere on a continuuum between putting someone in a perfect position to make the right judgment (e.g. by giving them the facts that are relevant) on the one hand, and on the other hand just convincing them to believe things by any means necessary (e.g. lying). Persuasion, I think, often means getting someone to see something in a certain light or from a certain point of view, and is compatible with there being equally good cases to be made for another position. But that doesn't make it intrinsically bad! In fact we all need to do it all the time. ("Dad, you should lend me the car because...") Aristotle's Rhetoric is a great text for all these issues too by the way.

Dorna 14 July 2014

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Very interesting! So the action of persuasion lies in the continuum between informing and lying as you suggested, can we also say the purpose of it is to get the person to perform an action that is between what is best for them and what is best for the persuader? Or is the purpose irrelevant?

I will read Aristotle's Rhetoric next, thanks for the suggestion!

That's an interesting question. It often seems in Plato that he is interested in precisely your question, i.e. is there something ethically "loaded" about trying to achieve mere persuasion rather than knowledge? But in Aristotle, I think there is a clearer divide between the epistemic nature of rhetoric (i.e. what sort of belief does it induce, and how?) and the purpose of rhetoric. Already in Plato himself some characters, notably Gorgias, describe rhetoric as a tool that can be bent to a wide variety of purposes, both good and bad. I would tend to think of it that way too, personally - there's no reason I can see why someone couldn't use rhetoric to persuade someone else to do what was good for them but bad for the speaker. Imagine for instance that the speaker has some moral code that requires them to sacrifice their own interests to the greater good, but needs to convince someone else to aid them in that goal.

TD 14 July 2014

In reply to by Peter Adamson

I have just read Aristotle's Rhetoric recently. I found it great in terms of teaching how to construct a speech or sales pitch to different kinds of groups; however, the moral/platonic side of me was uncomfortable about the techniques. My issue relates to allowing an amoral person access to these powerful skills Aristotle espouses. This is why I side with Plato in that first a person must be taught virtue and what the good is before ever being allowed access to powerful things like Rhetoric or obtain degrees in Law, Science, Creative Writing, etc.

Robert 17 September 2016

I find it rather ironic that Socrates is employing the leaky jar allegory to make a point when it so perfectly describes himself.

He gulps down countless empty calories of conversation and is constantly suffering from a perplexing withdrawal syndrome.
His addiction is so far out of control that Socrates even resorts to his own brand of street mugging - anything for another fix.
Meanwhile he berates everyone for having a sealed jar because all convictions contained within are rotten.

Talk about the empty vessel calling the jar leaky!

(Also, thanks for the podcast. It is so delicious and nutritious that it might even have quelled Socrates' thirst for a while.)


Peter Adamson 17 September 2016

In reply to by Robert

Yes, he's a relentless fellow isn't he? Actually I think he would pretty much agree with your characterization of him: he's just as needy as the hedonist, but what he is after is knowledge. Part of the jar analogy is that it's possible to have sealed, intact jars, which don't require refilling - this is someone who is content with something stable and of enduring value, which is of course knowledge/wisdom/virtue. Since Socrates doesn't have that, by his own admission (he knows only that he knows nothing) he is on a quest to fill his jars, as it were. The difference is that unlike the hedonist, once Socrates fills up his jar it will stay filled.

Which isn't to deny that he must have been a terrifically annoying fellow citizen.

Glad you enjoy the podcast!

:hearts: Socrates 10 June 2017

I have a question about Plato: do you think that scholars give him too much credit?

After listening to the Partially Examined Life perform the first half of Gorgias, I was inspired to get the book from the library. In the scholarly notes it was said that one of the things that makes the dialogues so great is the personal dimension. We get a sense of the dialogues being a real drama, involving real people with a lot of status and face and pride and personal enmity and jibes and cliques and factions and ego on dispaly. Just like a squabble on an internet forum. I loved it when Callicles had a pop at Socrates for basically being useless. However, having read a few more dialogues, I haven't seen much of this personal drama other than in the first half of the Gorgias. Much of the time it's "yes Socrates", "of course Socrates" and "no doubt Socrates".

Then there's the claim that Plato is often being ironic. When Socrates describes himself as a midwife to other people's ideas, that's a self-aware in-joke about the fact that so many of Socrates' interlocuters are reduced to "yes Socrates", "of course Socrates" and "no doubt Socrates". Instead of being an ironic, self-aware in-joke, is another explanation that Plato was blind to the limitations of his own writing?

Finally, in the notes, scholars will often identify flaws in Socrates' logic. He didn't address this possible explanation or he missed crucial steps in going from here to there. That's  sometimes brushed aside as Plato deliberately using flawed logic as a teaching device for his students. The idea being that his students were intended to identfy those mistakes. Again, an alternative explanation is simply that Plato wasn't aware of these logical flaws. If Plato had written a treatise, those flaws probably wouldn't be brushed aside as teaching devices.

I've only read a few dialogues, perhaps not all that thoroughly. So I ask this with respect to you and your colleagues, while openly acknowledging I don't really know what I'm posting about: is Plato given too much credit? I feel like there might be a self-selecting bias at work. The people most likely to write books, scholarly commentaries and introductions to Plato are those people who esteem him most, meaning they may have a rose tinted view of his work. I can see the rich vein of ideas in his writing, I swoon for the character of Socrates and the frequent foreshadowing of his death is very effective dramatically, but it still seems to me that at times the scholars are too generous.

Peter Adamson 11 June 2017

In reply to by :hearts: Socrates

You're certainly right that not all dialogues are masterpieces of dramatic representation. For instance his greatest dialogue, the Republic, gives you that in the first book but not so much in the remaining nine. And some of his greatest dialogues, like the Timaeus, lack that dimension almost entirely. I think a better way of seeing this is to say that dramatic skill was one of his many gifts as a philosopher and writer, but he doesn't always choose to deploy it - depending on his objectives and perhaps also the stage of his career since the earlier dialogues are more dramatic in nature.

I do think he deserves all the credit, and not chiefly because of the dramatic aspect (however brilliant that aspect is). It is really because he is the pioneer in nearly every major part of philosophy. For instance the Theaetetus is the first great work of epistemology, the Phaedo the first great work on the soul's relation to body, the Republic the first and perhaps still greatest work on political philosophy. Hence the old saying about the rest of the history of philosophy being footnotes to Plato. Basically, philosophy in the sense we now use the word was invented by Plato and not only that, but he often gives not just one but several nuanced accounts on a given philosophical topic, e.g. on the nature of soul, or of metaphysical reality.

I also think the thing about flaws in the arguments is overblown: the supposed flaws are often the result of an ungenerous reading or failing to think about which implicit premises may be involved, there are very few if any outright "mistakes" in the dialogues and people who say they are are usually approaching the text superficially in my opinion.

Finally there is just the density of the dialogues: they are like Shakespeare or Dante in that you can linger over every page for hours, in say a reading seminar (as I have done for probably hundreds or thousands of hours in my life) and see more and more things in the text, from wordplay to innovative argumentation to allusions to other aspects of Greek culture. There is a lot you would miss on the first, or even the seventh, reading of one of his dialogues and the study of his works can really reward a lifetime of effort.

But then I would say all that, wouldn't I?

I agree, the people who come up with a philosophical idea first, should get credit for that. In reading seminars, I would guess that each new group of people would bring something new to each reading, based on the uniqueness of its individuals interacting with the text. However, if your experience is that Plato leads to richer discussions than with other authors, that speaks well for him.

You mention Shakespeare. He wasn't always held in the esteem he is today. Not forgotten, but probably not winning any polls as the millenium's greatest Briton. You likely know more about that story than I do, but his greatness isn't an obvious, objective fact as plain as the full moon in the night sky. Tolstoy and Voltaire didn't care for him. He might be venerated today for reasons other than his greatness. Everyone else says so. He's on the school curriculum. In a certain circle it marks someone out as educated, cultured and sophisticated. It's fair to ask if that veneration is justified. I wonder how many people sincerely find his comedies funny? Just as his stock has waxed, in two hundred years time, it might have waned.

There could be an element of self-presentation involved. Presenting oneself as the kind of person who likes Shakespeare. It could be I'm doing the same thing. Presenting myself as the kind of person who will challenge Plato's reputation. I feel like I'm just calling it as I find it, but it's easy for me to deceive myself. In the case of you and your colleagues, if you've all spent over a thousand hours discussing Plato and still find him fascinating, you really do find him fascinating. It may be your interested in the historical aspects of his work - who came first? who influenced who? what does he reveal about his wider culture? - which interests me a little less.

As it happens, I'm more onboard with Shakespeare than Plato. It's amazing how much of Hamlet I remember from school. As I was interested in Caliban and colonialism I read The Tempest. It was tough going, perhaps because it's in a foreign language and the accompanying notes were a little formal. I didn't see much in it. Then I caught a podcast about it and was persuaded to think differently. It pointed out some new things, some things I noticed but hadn't connected together and gave some new perspectives on it. That shows the benefits of teaching and teachers. I've probably encountered a lot more about Plato than I have about Shakespeare and I like to feel I have an open mind, but with Plato I haven't been persuaded into seeing him the way most other people seem to.

Thx for the reply and the podcasts.

Jules 30 June 2019

Wonderful podcast, thank you. The link to Doyle's papers doesn't seem to be active anymore.

Peter Adamson 1 July 2019

In reply to by Jules

Thanks very much for letting me know, I deleted the broken link.

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