Gorgias is one of the earliest of Plato’s dialogues, dating back to a period in the 4th century B.C.E. when Sophists rhetoric reached a fever pitch of popularity in Athens. Sophistry was viewed by Plato as the epitome of false rhetoric because its primary aim was to initiate a belief rather than to convey knowledge. The danger, of course, was that the best Sophists could manipulate their rhetoric to stimulate Athenians into believing just about anything.
How? Techniques of flattery, for one, which even today proves quite successful in gratifying an audience to the point where they will easily overlook such failures of logic as a distinct relativity regarding factual truth and the use of anecdotal evidence ranging from unsubstantiated quotes to an argumentative device known as enthymeme. One particularly disastrous but effective recent example of the latter came in a speech delivered by Pres. George W. Bush:
“The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001, and still goes on. . . . With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got.
The false rhetoric in enthymeme is the vital bit of information that gets left out. In the above example, what gets left out is the link between the attack on 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq: that Saddam Hussein was behind the attack. Of course, Bush knew at the time that Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, but history has proven that regardless of this incredibly vital bit of missing information, his rhetorical strategy was amazingly successful at gaining belief and gratifying the crowd despite its failure to accurately convey all necessary information and impart authentic knowledge.
Imagine just as large a percentage of the Athenian population around 425 B.C.E. as those which bought Bush’s rhetoric inviting the Sophists which had descended upon the city like flies into their homes to regale them with their intellectual arguments and you get a better idea of why Plato was moved to produce Gorgias as a way to utterly undermine them and stifle continued belief in anything they stood for.
Specifically, this work is a direct attempt to refute those claims for rhetoric made by philosophers named Gorgias, Polus and Callices by proving that what they were practicing in the name of rhetoric was really nothing more than an artfully orchestrated persuasion of ignorant masses without bothering with matters of actual intellectual instruction.
The structure of Gorgias presents Plato’s teacher Socrates engaging in three separate conversations with those three individuals. Ultimately, taken as a collective discourse, these dialogues ultimately have Socrates bringing the topic under discussion around to four distinct points that he sets out to prove:
1. Rhetoric fails as an art.
2. Rhetoric does not have the strength to confer authority.
3. Rhetoric is no shield against suffering wrongs.
4. Rhetoric should not be utilized in the hope of escaping punishment for a sin actually committed.