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.