Gorgias Summary

Plato

Gorgias

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Gorgias Summary

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Gorgias is a Socratic dialogue where the meaning and social role of rhetoric, justice, and philosophy is debated by a group of men.As were all Socratic dialogues, Gorgias was written by Plato (428 – 347 BCE) who wrote down (likely with some embellishment) the insights, anecdotes, and many questions of his famous teacher Socrates (470 – 399 BCE).

In the fifth century BCE,Gorgias (483 – 375 BCE) is the most famous speaker in Greece. The dialogue begins just as Gorgias is finishing a speech. Callicles, a young politician, is hosting the famous speaker along with Socrates and his friend Chaerephon. Once Gorgias completes his speech, Socrates rigorously interrogates him. Gorgias’s responses are brief and pointed.

Gorgias agrees with Socrates that rhetoricians do not necessarily convey moral lessons. He claims that all an instructor can do, whether one teaches wrestling or philosophy, is impart technique then hope the student uses the technique for the social good.

Socrates’s words on rhetoric are sharp. In the beginning, Socrates says that rhetoric is more about flattering your audience than communicating anything of value. What rhetoricians have to offer people is surface adornment, as useful to the soul as makeup or pastries. He says the rhetoricians can pose as experts, especially to an ignorant crowd, even when they have nothing substantial to share, a point to which Gorgias agrees.

Socrates asserts that rhetoricians and tyrants are one and the same: they are guided by what suit them best. He also makes the initially odd claim that they are really not happy unless they meet justice, often in the form of rebuke or punishment. Polus, another man seated at the table who has been quiet up to this point, laughs. Socrates then proves why this is the case: it hurts more to inflict evil rather than be of a pure mind and be the victim of evil. To Socrates, carrying the guilt of harming another person is soul-destroying. He goes so far as to say that if you encounter an enemy, you should do everything in your power to defer his justice in a criminal court; it is better to let him privately suffer.

The third part of the dialogue is also the longest. It is primarily between Socrates and Callicles.

They devote themselves exclusively to their respective fields, Socrates to philosophy and Callicles to politics. Callicles loves the city he has, while Socrates loves the pursuit of what he cannot hope to attain in full: knowledge.

Callicles posits that suffering is actually just suffering; it has no redeeming quality and should be avoided. He differentiates between man-made laws and the state of nature. Unlike Gorgias and Polus, he is not as intimidated by Socrates, and makes the ad hominem comment that old men (i.e. Socrates) shouldnot banter at a table of young men – it is not attractive.

Surprisingly, Socrates thanks him for his candor. Socrates echoes what he said toward Gorgias: he enjoys being refuted and shown where his thinking is (perhaps) wrong.

Callicles continues that according to nature, a stronger being has the right to take from a weaker being; he claims only the weak men want man-made laws.Socrates counters by insisting that nature itself says that to do injustice is against the state of nature and will only inflict pain on the doer of evil. Callicles doesnot know how to continue the dialogue – both of their points seem valid – so he tells Socrates to question and answer himself until they gain some clarity on the matter.

Socrates agrees, but only if Callicles and all of his guests will interrupt him should they feel anything he says to be false. In the following rhetorical monologue, Socrates maintains that a man who does harm to another mostly does harm to himself.

Socrates says that a real politician does what is good for the state, not what the crowd immediately wants to hear. He adds that if he ever is brought to trial, as Callicles half-jokingly suggested earlier he should be, he would be helpless before a prosecutor who would flatter the jury and, regardless of his actual actions, paint him as a criminal. Socrates says that the only thing he can control is the goodness of his soul.

He relates a myth to illustrate his views on justice. In the myth, the original Greek god, Cronos, judged men just before they died. Based on their works on earth, good people were sent to the Isles of Blessed, while men who spent their life dolling out punishment and seeking revenge were sent to Tartarus. This system didnot prove fair because the jurors could be confused by the men’s appearance, skill with language, and fine clothing. Zeus fixed this issue by having souls judged only once they were dead and stripped naked. This way, a soul’s final judgment would be based onone’s actions, not one’s ability to present one’s actions in a flattering light. Socrates not only believes this myth to be true, but also believes that the evil deeds one performs while on earth manifest on one’s physical body in the afterlife.

Socrates invites other interpretations of the myth, but all are silent in response to him. Some critics have interpreted the silence of the table as acceptance of Socrates’ proof. Others say the guests were simply tired of him talking or that Plato wanted to make him seem more admired than he actually was. Others emphasis that silencing an opponent is not the same as winning an argument through logical proofs.

The dialogue concludes with Socrates stating that philosophy should guide politics and rhetoric; it is simply superior. Callicles disagrees that this would ever happen, and Socrates admits that, though more reasonable than most social formations, it is indeed unlikely.