Gorgias Summary

Plato's dialogue Gorgias addresses rhetoric, or the art of speech. In a debate with Gorgias (a famous rhetorician, who teaches his students how to speak well), his student Polus, and the rhetorician Callicles, Socrates attempts to establish what he believes is the right way to live, and to establish philosophy as a knowledge that heals the soul, rather than rhetoric, which merely flatters it.

Gorgias begins with Socrates and Chairephon arriving late to a speech given by Gorgias. Socrates implies he's not sorry he missed it; he contrasts conversation, which he prefers, to the one-sided speech of the rhetoricians. Gorgias brags that he can make anyone into a rhetorician. In dialogue with Gorgias, Socrates attacks rhetoric, saying it is not a legitimate branch of knowledge—all professions use speech, so what specific skill does rhetoric have? They finally arrive at the conclusion that rhetoric is the art of establishing conviction in its listeners, especially in courtrooms and public assemblies. Therefore, rhetoricians deal with what is just and unjust, but it is possible for them to abuse their power—for example, by convincing a jury to let a guilty man go free. Socrates says that rhetoric is a form of flattery: it is the equivalent of cooking pastries, which feel nice to eat, but are bad for you.

Socrates continues his conversation with Polus, addressing Gorgias' claim that rhetoricians are powerful because they can bend others to their will. Socrates argues that tyrants and rhetoricians are in fact the unhappiest and least powerful people in the city. Socrates argues that to do evil and not to be punished (and thus shown the error of one's ways) is the same as having an untreated disease in one's body. Tyrants think they are acting in their best interest by confiscating the property of others, when in fact they are acting against their own interests, because evil is harmful to their soul. It follows that it is worse to do evil than to have evil done to you. It also follows that it is best to forgive one's enemies, even to go so far as to keep them from being accused by the courts. Finally, Socrates argues, it follows that, to be happy, rhetoricians should accuse themselves and their families before the courts. Socrates' interlocutors assume that he is joking.

At this point, Callicles jumps in. He accuses Socrates of having turned the world upside down—people should forgive their enemies and accuse themselves in court. Socrates argues that while rhetoricians always change their opinions depending on the views of others, philosophy remains the same. Callicles ignores this, and argues that there is nothing good about suffering evil. Evil is only bad because it damages one's standing in the eyes of others. In nature, there is only strength and weakness. Nature rewards the strong, and punishes the weak, and that is as it should be. Goodness is when the strong are rewarded for their strength. Socrates points out that, by this logic, a mass of people would be "better" than an individual, since it is stronger. But this mass of individuals often passes laws that Callicles considers "weak"—for example, laws that demand that property be distributed equally. Socrates insists again that simply to follow one's appetites causes unhappiness, not happiness.

Having reached a stalemate with Callicles, Socrates argues with himself. The purpose of philosophy is to tell us what is true and good, not what is pleasant. Socrates agrees with Callicles' prediction that, if he were ever taken before the court, he would be unable to stop the prosecutor from putting him to death. He reflects on the myth that, in the afterlife, all souls are judged naked. He believes that, if one is just and virtuous, one will be able to stand up with pride to that judgment.