20 - Virtue Meets its Match: Plato's Gorgias

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.

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Further Reading: 

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

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

Several papers on the Gorgias by J. Doyle at Bristol.


TD's picture

3/4 of UK and North America have holes in their jars

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's picture

Oratory is......


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?

Peter Adamson's picture

Filling in the blank

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.

TD's picture


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's picture

Orators and statesmen

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.

TD's picture

The need for Orators educated in The Good indeed

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's picture

Anyone reconcile these

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's picture

So relevant ...

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.

Peter Adamson's picture


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's picture

Purpose of persuasion

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!

Peter Adamson's picture

Purpose of persuasion

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's picture


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.