The Socratic dialogue Gorgias, as written by Plato, initially concerns itself with the question of rhetoric and ultimately transitions to the question of justice. The underlying backbone of this transition is the reality of court speeches in Ancient Greece; people on trial or testifying presented arguments without lawyers or the obvious influence of others. However, rhetoricians were often hired to craft the narrative a witness or more central individual would use. These took into account the ethos of the figure speaking. The less educated would develop speeches in this framework, making sure not to sound scripted, while more educated individuals would use knowledge from their training.
Clearly, rhetoric mattered as a concept in Greece. The individual knowledge of this concept begins Gorgias. Socrates developed ideas using questions, and the first one is, "What is Rhetoric?” To begin with, Rhetoric is established to be a noble art because of its ability to answer questions and its ability to draw forth an audience’s sense of right and wrong with the ultimate aim of persuasion.
Socrates wishes to pare down the idea of Rhetoric as a noun. The sophists with whom Socrates discusses these concepts and Socrates transition from the concept of speeches in general to those which use rhetoric. Next, they refine the aim of rhetoric and affirm that it is in fact to persuade listeners of facts. The craft of rhetoric is instilled in rhetors, or those who help others make arguments using rhetoric. However, Socrates wishes to make sure the concept of rhetoric is maximally developed. For this to be the case, the craft must be narrowed to that which is only practiced by rhetoricians.
The ability of a rhetor to convince non-experts that a piece of knowledge is correct or that a statement is just leads the discussion to the concept of right and wrong. Gorgias takes up this concept to state that although rhetoric can be used wickedly, the fault in this does not lie with the potent art of using words to convince but instead with the individuals who practice rhetoric in this evil way. Indeed, the conviction inherent to rhetoric can distribute power away from experts who may not actually understand that about which they speak and reset the means of listening and action.
Rhetoric can be used to obtain a win, such as in a court speech, but it can also be used in the spirit of the action itself - rhetors practice their craft for the inquiry, or process, itself. This focus engenders much of the good in rhetoric as a calling, since the calling is uniquely fulfilled in every bit of its practice.
The conversation between Polus and Socrates picks up this concept of wickedness, transitioning to the impact of the action of rhetoric on the individual themselves. They examine whether there is any evil more severe than the performance of doing injustice and develop an exposition that the act of injustice is worse when not punished. We become changed by the result of our actions and our actions themselves, so the punishment of evil helps counteract the bad actions which hurt the soul and provide consequences that convince the mind of its fault.
Callicles, a new speaker, now takes up the concept of philosophy and how it ought to be practiced. Rhetoric has a clear end, while philosophy does not; the concepts of virtue and strength through the pursuit of it guides Callicles’ progression through the concept of philosophy and human requirements for pleasure. Socrates concludes this discussion, showing that joy arises from something beyond basic success in day-to-day life and that true happiness, or the Good, does not result from solely human pleasures.
Callicles and Socrates examine how a good person ought to engage with these pleasures, and Socrates asserts that the repeated discussion of these pleasures is good in itself. The discussion returns to the rhetor’s life and how it is similar and different from that of a philosopher. The preparation of the soul, mind, and body is superior to the end-based rhetoric that is employed in a courtroom, and Socrates becomes the primary speaker as he expounds on the virtues of friendship and full connection between individuals, something difficult when persuasion or another end is present as a goal.
Callicles returns more strongly to the conversation as Socrates concludes this series of arguments and addresses the human nature inherent to becoming good in and of itself while developing community. Politicians, who have less of a need to be trained in rhetoric but still live in the public eye, increase citizens’ gentleness, which suffices as a good result of their rule. Because of the argument that an unjust person not being punished is worse for them than getting away with the crime, the question of whether a rhetorician acts against the cosmic good is maintained until the very end, at which point Socrates places the discussion and examination of rhetoric as a craft and component of public life in context of the judgment of the soul after death. He does so using the formulation of conviction, providing the realization that the philosophical dialogue firmly existed as a piece of rhetoric that maintained the intention to cultivate good.