Topic for #69: Plato’s “Gorgias” on Rhetoric vs. Philosophy

Listen to the episode.

Back in ancient Athens, the big-name intellectuals were not the philosophers and proto-scientists we remember today, but the sophists, who taught people how to argue and make speeches in front of courts of law and groups of people. Plato (speaking as usual through his teacher Socrates) thought this to be a vastly overrated skill, because it's fundamentally bullshitting. If a rhetoritician (a sophist) and a doctor were both to go to the city council to argue who should be hired as the next city physician, who would win? Well, assuming that the council didn't know much about medicine, then the rhetoritician would win, even though he wouldn't really know what he was talking about.

In the Gorgias (written in 380 BC or so and considered a mid-period dialogue), Socrates takes on real-life sophist Gorgias and a couple others (Gorgias's student Polus, and then most at length, another rhetoritician, Callicles), arguing that rhetoric is morally worthless, that rhetoriticians don't need to know anything about virtue, and that by catering to their audience's prejudices and ignorance, they miss out on the opportunity to make the audience better people. Like the "chefs" at Hostess, they're only concerned with what tastes good to their customers, not what is actually good for them.

The conversation proceeds to a more general one about virtue, and Plato's notion that the good is unitary: if someone acts wickedly, than even if he seems all jolly about it, he's really miserable, in that his soul is out of balance: it's a crummy soul. Likewise, if you do act wickedly, it's much better to be punished for it and so repent than to get away with it. Socrates's interlocutors think this view laughable, and Callicles describes an alternative where the stronger rightly get more power that sounds a lot like Nietzsche's position.

This view of virtue should sound a lot like what was said in our earlier episode on The Republic. Another theme from the republic is the status of art more generally as compared to philosophy: this dialogue is not unusually read in aesthetics classes and formed the starting point of our discussion of avant garde art and Arthur Danto. Is art just about pleasing, or can it, like philosophy, be about telling the truth, even if in some more metaphorical sense? Ironically, it's now philosophy that's often accused of being useless, self-indulgent, and literary, while science is actually seeking after truth. Socrates, though, considered himself the only true statesman: the only one concerned with improving people, and so making them good citizens as well as enlightened souls.

Read it online or buy the translation we used.

Note that you'll be able to hear the entirety of the dialogue: we're nearly finished with an audiobook version of the dialogue featuring Mark as Socrates, Dylan as Callicles, and Seth as Gorgias; this will be released around the time of the episode. We're tentatively planning to release the first half in the regular podcast feed, i.e. free for everyone, and the second half on the Citizen site only, so folks will have to shell out the $5 to hear it. This will use both a better translation and be more pleasing to listen to than the audio currently available from LibriVox.


  1. Kyle H says

    What is the point of winning independently of truth or merit? Vehemence of expression, public cliche, platitudinous claptrap- all skills of sophistry and political speechwriters. Interesting to reflect that the ancient greeks were not immune to this. In fact, seemed to celebrate and refine it. Schopenhauer called it chicanery. ” It is a natural baseness of human nauture and vanity causing people to argue regardless of truth”. Entertaining read on the subject- “the art of always being right” Schopenhauer
    Perhaps it is not so silly to think as Socrates that the wicked would eventually self punish. Individuals with a conscience at least are more likely to be self punitive, by flagellation or via the concept of karmic justice.

  2. John J. Bonnice says

    Should’nt the idea of justice as ‘the rule of the stronger or more powerful’ play a role in this discussion since it is central to both dialogues?(Republic and Gorgias)

  3. Profile photo of Michael deCamp says

    When I was studying Plato (>40 years ago), the notion of “to know the good is to do the good” centered on around the differing Greek words Gnosis (γνῶσις ) and Techne (τέχνη or τέχνη ἐπιστήμη ). It was the latter, the “techne analogy” that Socrates used to when he talked of knowing the good; one knew how to do the good and in the knowing how was the doing.


  1. […] Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan kick this one off with some discussion of how we pick topics, and then stroll through the this very entertaining dialogue, which you can also hear us read in "Not Episode 69." We consider Plato's doctrine that knowledge inevitably leads to virtue and his insistence that goods can't contravene each other, so that pleasure over an injustice can't be good just because it's pleasurable, and acting justly must always be in our long-term interest, by definition. We wrap up by joining Socrates in dissing those that would dismiss philosophy as a waste of time. Get the book and read more about the topic. […]

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