Gorgias is one of the earliest of Plato’s dialogues, dating back to a period in the 4th century B.C.E. when the 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 failures of logic. Flattering the audience allows the rhetor to get away with factual fuzziness, anecdotal evidence, unsubstantiated quotes, or unstated (because indefensible) premises. Take ads for cigarettes, which present smoking as attractive to the opposite sex, while remaining silent on the considerable health risks associated with smoking. Thus, a rhetorical strategy can be amazingly successful at gaining belief and gratifying the crowd despite its failure to accurately convey all necessary information and impart authentic knowledge.
Plato wrote Gorgias as a direct attempt to refute the claims for rhetoric made by the sophists 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 to instruct them in truth.
The structure of Gorgias has Plato’s teacher Socrates engaging in three separate conversations with those three individuals. Ultimately, taken as a collective discourse, these dialogues 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.
Many of the arguments that Socrates sets out in Gorgias would become touchstones of Platonism, and Western philosophical and religious thought more broadly. Gorgias' lasting contribution is the notion that appearance is misleading and the goal of philosophy is to arrive at the essences of things, which can only be grasped by the mind. This argument echoes in the worldview of Christianity, which contrasts the eternal needs of the soul against what is worldly and pleasurable. It also prefigures the arguments of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant against the skeptical empirical philosophy of John Locke and David Hume. Though he critiqued many aspects of Platonism, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would pick up Socrates' fascination with health, and of evaluating thought and speech as either healthy or unhealthy. Meanwhile, the French philosopher Michel Foucault would pick up on Socrates' suggestion that the goal of philosophy is not simply to know things, as an expert does, but to care for the self.