Some Thoughts on Gorgias

In Plato’s Gorgias we’ve received one of those Socratic dialogues that feels more like a conversation with friends than a treatise. This is a dialogue where Socrates distinguishes his philosophical method from the Sophist’s oratory, yet Socrates himself winds up giving longer speeches and his interlocutors frequently call him out for his own inconsistencies and perceived conversational offenses. After one such episode Socrates will reply that such frank remarks are like the stones on which gold is tested for its purity, he wishing his souls to be made of gold and requiring a sharp friend to smash his rock on Socrates’ gold. In another humorous episode (humorous to me anyways) Socrates tires out his bold and inquisitive friend Callicles to the point where Socrates himself will play both roles in the dialectic and reply to himself with the typical responses “yes I do think that is necessarily so” and “of course it is Socrates.” Socrates even suggests one time that they end the discussion since there seems to be no one left willing to carry on until the dialogue’s namesake in Gorgias speaks up. Socrates continues, pleading Callicles to listen and also interrupt him if he is ever off the mark. This is one dialogue that is not one-sided, it’s flow shifting with multiple contestants from Gorgias to Polus to Callicles. The order here is maintained by Socrates who must constantly reaffirm that his quest is not to win an argument but to find the truth, to search after what is good and just in a spirit of collaborative conversation rather than victory or defeat.

Around 506 Socrates has tired out his friends with his prodding mind and goes on to summarize the dialogue from the beginning. We do not do things for the sake of pleasure but for the good, the good being the goal and the pleasant sometimes leading us astray into excess. A well-ordered soul is required for achieving the good and this order comes from practicing self-control or self-discipline. Socrates goes on in his summary:

“Yes, Callicles, wise men claim that partnership and friendship, orderliness, self-control, and justice hold together heaven and earth, and gods and men, and that is why they call this universe a world order, my friend, and not an undisciplined world-disorder. I believe that you do not pay attention to these facts, even though you are a wise man in these matters. You’ve failed to notice that proportionate equality has great power among both gods and men, and you suppose that you ought to practice getting the greater share. That’s because you neglect geometry.”

This is quite a dense passage we get here. The virtues Socrates champions here don’t just lead to wisdom and benevolence but hold the entire world together. Part of this world order consists in maintaining “proportionate equality” which can be achieved by attending to geometry – the measuring of the earth. A just proportion of equality among citizens keeps the world in good order and, therefore, a city/country that is out of proportion or running away with inequality is sure to be met with chaos or “world-disorder.”

It reminds me of a tale from Michael Serres in The Natural Contract of the ancient Egyptian method of redistributing property after the flooding of the Nile. This is the geometrical method that administers would use to justly divide the land between property holders after it was unclear where the borders lie in the wake of a natural disaster. Serres writes of Plato’s appropriation of this method of measuring the earth and redistributing property as the great geometrical wisdom passed down to the Greeks from the Egyptians. This plays out at the beginning of Plato’s Timaeus.

So we have a kind of mirroring with a cosmic, well-ordered world and a good self-disciplined soul – call it a ‘world soul’ or a ‘city with a soul’ if you like. The path towards a city in good order begins with the soul of the city and its leaders. Detecting the goodness of the city leaders, and which standards we are to judge them by (plus cultivate the youth with to become such leaders) are the topics that Socrates and his interlocutors speak of throughout the dialogue. Socrates persuaded the group to follow this path though this is not where they begin.

Socrates arrives at the meeting to hear Gorgias give a speech but his ulterior motive is to find out what he is, what his craft is, what’s he doing? (or, more playfully, what’s he made of?). Gorgias is an orator and teaches the youth how to give speeches that he believes leads to the greatest good: persuasion of the crowds. Teaching this power is providing his students with the power to assert themselves over others and the source of this power is persuasion, as it wins others over to your side and establishes the basis for your rule. These speeches given in assemblies are meant to persuade juries and therefore take part in matters of justice. So Gorgias believes that in teaching his students the art of oratory they will exert influence across the courts and subsequently the greater body-politic by gaining great renown in matters of justice. As ‘influencers’ they subordinate other craftsmen through their powers of persuasion. After all, Gorgias says, a doctor, though holding great knowledge on health might not be able to persuade their patients to swallow the bitter medicine that will give them greater health. One needs the power of an orator (one could very well substitute any craft that obtains the power of persuasion and makes one an ‘influencer’) to gain the advantage of the situation and this power effectively gives one the access to rule over others: a just rule since won in the battles of the court.

Socrates will have none of this as his method differs. His strategy is one that does not partake in winning battles but collectively discovers the right and true path through friendly discussion. Despite the fact that his interlocutors seek to defeat him and chaff when he has supposedly ‘beaten’ them, convincing them to agree with him through their own words, Socrates must constantly reiterate that he is not after the advantage over others but something else. Moreover, what makes the Gorgias such a delightful read is that Socrates is demonstrating this strategy in the course of the conversation itself – the etiquette and manner of Socrates own conduct. The very form that the dialogue(s) at play in the Gorgias show Socrates’ attempt to get the other participants to quest after the common truth and justice amidst hostility. One could argue that this is merely another strategy of persuasion that digs deeper into his opponents and forces a conversion in their entire life’s work, doing more damage than another speech ever could. But we have to recognize a difference in attitude that plays out in conversation – the distinction in style, sophistry and philosophy. Judging between the two is by no means easy because the effect of Socrates style is, among other things, to invite death at the cost of foregoing the antagonistic strategy of oratory. Oratory gives one power and, as his interlocutors remind him, to discourage power-seeking leaves one vulnerable to their machinations – a point Socrates admits and must incorporate into his method or life.

Gorgias will go on to describe oratory as a skill that one should hone and teach to students in order for them to become better competitors. Once they gain the skill but begin to misuse it, the blame for such wicked behavior should not fall upon the teacher but the user:

“He should use oratory justly, as he would any competitive skill. And I suppose that if a person who has become an orator goes on with this ability and this craft to commit wrongdoing, we shouldn’t hate his teacher and exile him from our cities. For while the teacher imparted it to be used justly, the pupil is making the opposite use of it. So it’s the misuser whom it’s just to hate and exile or put to death, not the teacher.” [457c]

Mr. Miyagi would disagree. Socrates will reply in a manner that calls attention to the conversation as it is ongoing and especially later on when other interlocutors join in.

“Gorgias, I take it that you, like me, have experienced many discussions and that you’ve observed this sort of thing happen about them: it’s not easy for the participants to to define jointly what they’re undertaking to discuss, and so, having learned and taught each other, to conclude their session. Instead if they’re disputing some point and one maintains that the other isn’t right or isn’t clear, they get irritated, each thinking the other is speaking out of spite. They become eager to win instead of investigating the subject under discussion. In fact, in the end some have a most shameful parting of ways…” [457d]

Socrates wants to have a different discussion entirely and he must drag his friends along with him by resorting to a definition of justice that they can all agree on. To those trained in oratory this will seem like a play for a win against others because that is they have been taught is the best (or at least the best path to glory). For Socrates this is to spread corruption throughout the city, for it instills “spite” and “irritation” among the participants and turns citizens against each other in their bid for power. In a state where individuals compete by giving speeches designed to flatter the masses and gain their support, conflict, animosity, and “shameful parting of ways” is the result. Socrates must then demonstrate his patience through his own style of argument that infects the conversation by having his own participants in a local/non-public setting come to a joint conclusion that is universal in design, universal, that is, because it will bring all of those participating into agreement by their own will. A logical conversation is one where the battles of reputation and influence can be set aside and the fear or shame of defeat can be cast aside for the sake of a common understanding. Whether this can be done in public, in front of large crowds and bestowing status and authority is another matter.

Socrates proceeds to reason with Gorgias: must an orator know what is just before he teaches it? If an orator is like other craftsmen then we know that as they have knowledge of medicine, ship-building, or baking so an orator must have knowledge of justice. Craftsmanship professions that produces beneficial objects are Socrates’ favorite examples to compare orators with. Without a reliable product to specify, they are forced to provide intangibles (though doctors produce ‘health’). Can an orator produce justice but sometimes err and “use oratory unjustly”? If justice were a product then we could check the work of the craftsmen-orator and observe his utility. But Socrates means to catch his friends in a contradiction and takes for granted that professions are a solid thing that produce reliable products. Since it’s unclear if the orator knows what is just before he gives his speech or if he sometimes errs Socrates can force Gorgias into the position of being the source of justice (a craftsman of justice) while he sometimes errs. Gorgias will then be stuck in a circular justification of teaching himself justice when he himself was lacking justice just a moment earlier.

Again Socrates will have none of this. His demand is for the production of justice on par with a carpenter building a house with a solid foundation or a ‘factory of justice’ if you will. This ‘factory of justice’ will be staffed with craftsmen who are responsible for the creation of their product, you might call it a ‘school.’ Socrates always takes his examples from commonplace professions where we know what to call someone and their craft is plain for all to see.

When Polus enters the arena we get something like exhibit A. He catches Socrates at his game of forcing his friends (opponents?) into a contradiction and bursts into the scene, charging him with instilling a sense of shame in Gorgias to his “delight.” Socrates welcomes the young one with:

“Most admirable Polus, it’s not for nothing that we get ourselves companions and sons. It’s so that, when we ourselves have grown older and stumble, you younger men might be in hand to straighten our lives up again, both in what we do and what we say. And if Gorgias and I are stumbling now in what we say – well, you’re on hand, straighten us up again. That’s only right. And if you think we were wrong to agree on it, I’m certainly willing to retract any of our agreements you like, provided that you’re careful about just one thing…

That you curb your long style of speech, Polus, the style you tried using at first.”

Why must he curb his speeches? After all, Polus might have the freedom of speech to be as long-winded as he likes but Socrates also has the freedom to get up and leave. So there is some power in the listener here that could be exerted, a kind of non-violent threat that persuades the participant to become short and logical so that one can bend them to their will. But Socrates will give in to Polus’s demand for Socrates to answer his own questions and state his own definition of oratory: it’s basically a form of flattery, telling the listeners what they want to hear, and quite uncraftsmanlike. Doctors and gymnasts can teach the care of the body but an orator cannot teach the soul to prepare for a life in politics. We cannot trust the body to govern itself either because it would be led astray into pleasant sensations and eventually excess. For Socrates it is the soul that must govern and take care of the body to keep health from getting mixed up with gratification.

Then we come back to power. One would think orators could at least be granted power for holding sway over others but Socrates doesn’t believe that even an absolute tyrant holds power. He does so by inserting goodness into the definition of power:

“… Don’t they have the greatest power in the city?

Socrates: No, not of by ‘having power’ you mean something that is good for the one who has the power.” [466b]

He will then make a further distinction by saying that these craftless orators and tyrants only free to do what they “see fit” rather than what they really “want.”Anything we do in fact is only done for the sake of some good (health, justice, etc).

“Isn’t it just the same in all cases, in fact? If a person does anything for the sake of something, he doesn’t want this thing that he’s doing, but the thing for the sake of which he’s doing it?

Polus: Yes.

Socrates: Now is there anything that isn’t either good, or bad, or, what is between these, neither good nor bad?

Polus: There can’t be Socrates.” [467e]

So in establishing agreement in the course of conversation that there is good or bad and nothing in between, he can convince those to insert an end to all action that is at once a universal goal and a judgement. Power looses out as an end in-itself and the good takes its place. By this reasoning, kings and tyrants can never be happy, nor the flatterers and social climbers, for justice eludes them. This robs the actor of autonomy over his own intent, he either does what he doesn’t really want to do or he doesn’t truly have that power. Since power and the good are intertwined in this way (power is only a means to an end and the end must be valued positively or negatively) those who do whatever they see fit do not actually hold power and cannot be happy. If we were to be sympathetic towards Socrates we could say that a tyrant will get his punishment somewhere down the line, even if he gets to keep his power for the moment, that disrupting the just ordering of the world will have repercussions that will fling back upon him eventually – as tragedies attempt to show dramatically. Or we could divorce power from the ends/means and good/bad dichotomies and laugh at Socrates.

Polus actually does laugh at Socrates. When arguing that an unpunished tyrant would be more miserable than the one he torturers to death unjustly, Polus’s laughter only prompts Socrates to remind everyone how bad he is at conducting democratic processes. He couldn’t figure out how to call for a vote and the assembly made a laugh-stock out of him. This only contributes to his image of ineptitude and disregard for democratic majorities or, more charitably, the opinions of the crowd in favor of goodness and justice – possibly foreshadowing his demise.

When Callicles enters he is so flabbergasted by Socrates’ words that he wonders if he is joking. He attempts to make a striking distinction that will settle the debate with Socrates: the opposition between nature and law. Socrates’ method of inducing shame in contradicting oneself (the greatest shame being to commit injustice and the corruption of the soul) applies to the law (politics) but not to nature:

“Although you claim to be pursuing the truth, you’re in fact bringing the discussion around to the sort of crowd-pleasing vulgarities that are admirable only by law and not by nature. And these, nature and law, are for the most part opposed to each other, so if a person is ashamed and doesn’t dare say what he thinks, he’s forced to contradict himself. This is in fact the clever trick you’ve thought of, with which you work mischief in your discussions: if a person makes a statement in terms law, you slyly question him in terms of nature; if he makes it in terms of nature, you question him in terms of law…

I believe that the people who institute our laws are the weak and the many. So they institute laws and assign praise and blame with themselves and their own advantage in mind. As a way of frightening the more powerful among men, the ones who are capable of having a greater share, out of getting a greater share than they, they say that getting more than ones share is “shameful” and “unjust,” and that doing what’s unjust is nothing but trying to get more than one’s share. I think they like getting an equal share, since they are inferior.” [483]

Socrates will engage with this belief by asking for clear definitions. What is meant by “superior?” Again, like with power, what is superior and better must be understood with something extra like ‘intelligence’ or ‘bravery.’ We are led here because certainly the many are superior to the one – a mob can overtake a single person at the sight of a perceived injustice, so how do the superior justify their superiority to the masses? If they relied only on their natural strength (or beauty or intelligence) they would still be overcome by strength of the numerous crowd, naturally.

“Socrates: Now aren’t the many superior by nature to the one? They’re the ones who in fact impose the laws upon the one, as you were saying yourself a moment ago.

Callicles: Of course.

Socrates: So the rules of the many are the rules of the superior.

Callicles: Yes, they are.

Socrates: Aren’t they the rules of the better? For by your reasoning, I take it, the superior are better.

Callicles: Yes.

Socrates: And aren’t the rules of these people admirable by nature, seeing that they’re the superior ones?

Callicles: That is my view…

Socrates: It’s not only by law, then, that doing what’s unjust is more shameful than suffering it, or just to have and equal share, but it’s so by nature, too. So it looks as though you weren’t right to accuse me when you said that nature and law were opposed to each other…” [489]

The rule of the many are not only superior by the strength of their great numbers (nature) but they demand equal distribution as a matter of proportionate justice (law). This is something of a democratic comeback for Socrates, or at least for egalitarianism. The two will go on to discuss pleasure and goodness, with Socrates advocating for self-restraint and Callicles for an enlarged appetite for the intelligent, natural leaders. But let’s sit on this distinction for a moment. Callicles and others recognize a disparity in abilities and qualities between individuals by nature, yet the majority rule by law. The equality demanded by the great majority is quickly admitted to be the rule of the strongest (this is questionable to me and I think history bears me out) and they shift the terms of the debate to the qualities of leaders and what makes an individual superior or better. But if the majority are superior by nature and therefore by law then what’s the point? The natural force of a greater number of people can (and did, a lot) overtake a single ruler, so the discussion should be about the qualities of the people at large. The two are more interested in making arguments over the nature of the qualities themselves, but Socrates prods Callicles about his superior ruler who supposedly deserves more than the majority and hopes to get him to admit that this ruler should be able to rule himself. Socrates again pulls his example from craftsman, whom Callicles seems to despise, and it seems to follow that anyone could rule as long as they show self-control and wisely conform with natural law: equally distribute goods as the natural force of superior numbers of people demand through the means of law-making.

It is of course never that easy. With assemblies needing to be called and crowds gathered, individuals rise up to speak and gain reputations for their moving words. So we’ve returned back to the problem of sophistry. From this point of view, pausing from a moment during the dialogue, it looks like Socrates is trying to direct his eloquent friends to follow natural law by convincing them to focus on themselves (as opposed to bashing the mobs for their ‘weakness’ and letting the great one’s appetites expand and consume the most). Natural Law demands that the great majority get their fair share, justice requires that those who rule tend to themselves by cultivating a reasoned self-control over their appetites and ambition.

All well and good, but Socrates has a weakness: his method leaves no defense against those others who do not follow him. He’s convinced that it’s better to suffer injustice than to act unjustly, so an unjust action against him is a risk. This Socrates will wear in stride. Death for him is not something one should spend one’s days worrying over. Being committed to justice and the real and true health of the citizenry (doctor prescribed) is a greater good than the safety and longevity of oneself. It is not the people who should be scorned for lacking the self-assured intelligence that the orators have supposedly gained by learning how to flatter them. The glory and habits of those in position to lead are what Socrates puts under scrutiny. Though a good helmsman (captain) of a ship gets all of the glory, he’ll turn right around and tell you that the engineers make the ship sail. [512]

But all is not settled with death. Socrates will bring up the question of public works and construction projects that bestowed glory upon city leaders like harbors, walls, ships, and temples. [514b] These proved to be a great benefit to the people and they justly reward the leaders who put those projects into action with glory. Constructing large works requires planning, leadership, and direction, it cannot be accomplished naturally by the people at large. After all, these are artifices – the leaders who conceive of and act on them do not do so out of nature.

“Right now you’re operating very much like that, too, Callicles. You sing the praises of those who threw parties for these people, and who feasted them lavishly with what they had an appetite for. And they say that they have made the city great! But that the city is swollen and festering, thanks to these early leaders, that they don’t notice. For they filled the city with harbors and dockyards, walls, tribute payments and such trash as that, but did so without justice or self-control.” [519]

For Socrates these developmental projects only offer gratification of the body (of the people) and not the soul. He is or course speaking after these deeds have been done and trying to explain why the riches they brought to the city were not able to last. His evaluation of the benefits stemming from these infrastructure developments is reflected in the people’s turning against those leaders who initiated them. Once again, he puts the focus on the leaders and uses the reactions of the people to test their soul.

Taking care of the body politic is difficult enough but Socrates takes it one step farther. Like Callicles’ leaders who set them selves apart from the bulk of the citizenry and swallow up the whole world, enlarging the appetites of the people by granting them the riches that developmental infrastructure provides creates a new problem. Socrates seems to be saying that it’s better to forgo public projects that lift people out of poverty, opting instead for preaching self-control and resignation to our fateful graves.

But if we tend both the body and the souls (public as well as private) then we could hold that proportionate equality that natural law demands while also growing richer. It’s not an enlarged pie that angers the people but a disproportionately divided one. I’m pretty well convinced that developmental projects have are the way to prosperity. The Socratic challenge comes afterwards: will the flourishing state last in perpetuity? Will the city (or state or nation) keep its gains and divide them equally? Can we have our ‘city with a soul’?

“Shouldn’t we then attempt to take care for the city and it’s citizens with the aim of making the citizens themselves as good as possible?” [514]

Finishing Up

Socrates has a peculiar method for his time and his aim is pretty clear: he is targeting the powerful to convince them to stop seeking power in the way they currently are. He brings the majority back from their denigrated position in the eyes of the persuasive orators. Nature and law should be joined and fate and death should be met regardless.

What hurts his friends the most is the constant turning of the feelings of shame and laughter. His provocations could and were met with laughter at their ridiculousness for those engaged in the play for power and influence (perhaps all of this laughter was nervous laughter). The charge of shameful behavior is constantly leveled at Socrates and philosophy in general. It seems his friends are wise to his game by the time of the beginning of Gorgias and they know the feeling of shame that comes with contradicting oneself. Where shame belongs and who is deserved of laughter are the ball which this game of dialogue turns over from a defense to an offense. Socrates is skilled at creating turnovers on defense, but can he score?

The shame induced by getting a friend to contradict themself is one that seems to surpass the shame of appearing ridiculous or inept. Socrates does this so well that at times it feels like he is not just sticking the knife in but twisting it too. But he provides an out: the shame disappears when his friends join him in his quest for a justice worthy of a craftsman. Remember, Socrates desire is for collaboration with his friends for achieving the greatest good for his city and its people. His genius is that he can speak with his friends who are most positioned to accomplish this task while talking them down from their antagonistic procedures. His strategy, deployed in the midst of friendly conversation, is to redirect the shame that he knows they will feel when he meets with them towards his own desire: an impersonal justice.

Can this strategy succeed? Can human nature tolerate such shame? Perhaps the fate of world order, natural law, and public infrastructure development depend more on the more or less graceful turnings of shame among friends – or nations.

Author: billrosethorn

(Geo)Philosopher. Building bridges between populism and geopolitics for fellow earthlings.

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