38 pages 1 hour read



Nonfiction | Book | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


The Gorgias is a philosophical dialogue composed by Plato in the early fourth century BCE, probably in the early 380s. Set within the cultural and historical background of classical Athens, the Gorgias takes the form of a debate between Socrates and the orators Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. The dialogue explores questions about The Nature and Social Function of Oratory, The Meaning of Right and Wrong, and The Purpose of Art, offering valuable insights into Athenian social and political life in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

This study guide uses the revised 2004 Penguin Classics edition of the dialogue translated by Walter Hamilton and Chris Emlyn-Jones.


The dialogue is set in a building where the famous orator Gorgias has been lecturing, and begins with Socrates’s arrival. After a brief introduction in which Callicles, an aspiring politician who has been hosting Gorgias, greets Socrates and his companion Chaerephon, Socrates explains that he wishes to have a dialogue with Gorgias. Socrates asks Gorgias about the exact nature of his art (techne), namely, oratory. Gorgias claims that orators teach their pupils the art of persuasion, specifically persuasion about what is right and what is wrong.

Socrates develops a key distinction between knowledge (episteme), which must be true, and opinion (doxa), which can be true or false. Gorgias makes the misstep of defining oratory as persuasion based on opinion rather than knowledge, claiming grandiosely that the orator has the ability to convince a mass audience even without having expert knowledge about a particular subject but that he must not make wrong use of this ability.

Socrates exploits this misstep to question whether Gorgias’s orator or his audience can have any real knowledge of right and wrong. He builds up to the idea that somebody who has knowledge (not just opinion) of right and wrong will never wish to do wrong. He further understands this to means that if an orator does have knowledge about right and wrong, as Gorgias claims he does, then it would be impossible for him to make wrong use of his art, as Gorgias had earlier said he might do. Socrates thus exposes an inconsistency in Gorgias’s definition of oratory.

Polus interrupts, claiming that Socrates is arguing unfairly. Socrates invites Polus to take Gorgias’s place. Polus asks Socrates for his definition of oratory, and Socrates responds by classifying oratory as a “knack” (empeiria) rather than as a true “art,” on the grounds that is not grounded in any firm knowledge or rational theory. Polus, without conceding the validity of Socrates’s assessment of oratory, states that orators at least have power. Socrates responds by noting that there is a difference between doing what is best and doing what one wants, arguing that orators, who do not have any knowledge of right and wrong, cannot do what is really best (which requires knowledge) and thus are not truly powerful (Socrates compares orators to tyrants in their irrational exercise of power).

As the discussion between Socrates and Polus goes on, Socrates reveals that behind his arguments lies the belief that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Polus cites the example of the “happy wrongdoer” as an obvious refutation of Socrates’s stance, but Socrates explains his view that the happy wrongdoer is not truly happy (eudaimon) at all on the grounds that honor and goodness are preconditions to true happiness.

After a brief interlude in which Socrates makes a distinction between proofs based on conventional agreement and proofs based on rational argumentation, Socrates further develops his paradoxical ideas about happiness by asserting that a wrongdoer is even more miserable if he does not suffer punishment for his wrongdoing. Though Polus cites various extreme examples to dismiss this proposition, Socrates is able to make Polus concede that though it may be better to do wrong than to suffer wrong, it is also more shameful. From there, it must follow that the reason doing wrong is more shameful than suffering wrong is because it is more harmful (it is certainly not more painful).

Having refuted Polus, Socrates returns to his earlier proposition that it is worse to escape punishment for wrongdoing than to be punished. If, as Socrates claims, an object experiences an action according to how the agent acts, then if somebody punishes justly, it follows that one who is punished suffers justly. And to experience what is just is “fine” (kalon), meaning that one who is punished justly experiences something fine. The reason a just punishment is fine, Socrates further argues, is because it is useful. Here, Socrates introduces the soul (psyche) into the discussion, asserting that the worst evil that exists is evil that is done to the soul, and that escaping punishment for wrongdoing is like poison for the soul, while being punished is like medicine. From this it follows, Socrates goes on, that there is no better way to hurt one’s enemies than to help them escape punishment for their misdeeds.

At this point, Callicles interrupts, unconvinced by Socrates’s apparent refutation of Polus. Callicles argues that convention or human law (nomos) is mere invention, and that by nature (physis) the strong ought to rule over the weak. Callicles, at Socrates’s pressing, defines the “stronger” as those who are possessed of superior intelligence and courage. The discussion then turns to the idea of happiness, with Socrates suggesting that happiness is the product of “moderation” (sophrosyne) while Callicles maintains that it is the product of “pleasure” (hedone). Socrates uses a series of arguments to draw from Callicles the admission that some pleasures are better than others (one should not indulge one’s basest sexual impulses, for example). From this it follows, as Socrates and Callicles agree, that an expert is needed to judge how to achieve the best pleasures. Applying this idea to the city-state more broadly, Socrates argues that an ideal politician should not pander to the base desires of the masses but rather advise them on what is best for their souls.

Unwilling to concede that restraint and moderation are in fact important—a conclusion that has now become unavoidable—Callicles tells Socrates to continue developing his ideas on his own: He will no longer take an active part in the conversation. In the longer speeches that follow, Socrates expounds his views on the nature of “excellence” or “virtue” (arete), arguing that justice, bravery, and the like are universal and dictated by natural law. Socrates then expounds at length about the knowledge of virtue that one must have to avoid doing or suffering wrong, explaining how it is essential for an aspiring politician to acquire such knowledge. In a way, this makes Socrates the only Athenian to practice the true political art, since only he pushes the Athenians to better themselves—even though it makes him unpopular.

Socrates concludes with an account (logos) of how each person is judged by the gods after they die, with the just being rewarded for their good actions while the unjust are punished for their wickedness. Due to this, Socrates declares, everybody should go through life practicing righteousness and virtue.

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