Plato (427–347 BCE) was an Athenian philosopher during the classical period in ancient Greece, founder of the Platonist school of thought, and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western World. Plato was highly influenced by his teacher, Socrates, and Socrates is the main character in many of Plato’s works. Plato’s definition of rhetoric is “the art of enchanting the soul.” He mistrusted rhetoric, though, due to its power to control audiences. He had, then, a love-hate relationship with rhetoric: rhetoric could be used to manipulate, but it could also be used by a philosopher to draw people to the truth.
Plato wrote the dialogue Gorgias to attack the Sophistic view of rhetoric. The protagonist of this work is Socrates, who is presumably the one communicating Plato’s real-life views of rhetoric. The other characters in this story are Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. In this dialogue, the characters have a conversation about the true definition of rhetoric. At the beginning, Socrates questions Gorgias on the true nature of the Sophists. This is because Plato views art (techne) as something that involves knowledge of some class of objects, just as medicine involves knowledge of the human body. He thinks that if something is true art, a practitioner should be able to explain its goals. In the dialogue, Gorgias responds by saying that he instructs with rhetoric, an art concerned with words. Socrates is not satisfied with this answer, so he interrogates Gorgias further, asking him what good does rhetoric create. Gorgias answers that rhetoric provides personal freedom for individuals and also the mastery over others in one’s own country. Socrates continues to question Gorgias on rhetoric until he gets an answer he is satisfied with. They get into a debate about justice versus injustice. Socrates believes that Sophists claim to teach about justice without having any understanding of justice.
At this point, Polus, Gorgias’s young student, jumps in and defends Gorgias, saying that Socrates is being rude. They get into a debate about what is just and unjust. Socrates suggests that oratory is useless unless it encourages the unjust to face discipline for the sake of the soul’s benefit. Most orators aren’t concerned with helping to create good citizens; they’re only concerned with gratifying their audiences and promoting their own interests. Socrates suggests that the soul should be well-organized, and that a good orator would consider the nature of the soul when giving his speeches.
Callicles argues that it is important for a person to seek long life at all costs, using things like oratory to avoid political danger. Socrates says that it is more important for someone to live well in the time they have. Socrates ends this dialogue by summarizing everything that has been talked about. Socrates does not necessarily win the debate, but he makes his opinion known about rhetoric.
- Plato, and Dodds, E. R. (2001). Gorgias. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Beer, A. (2020). The Two Kinds of Rhetoric in Plato’s Gorgias. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://classicalstudies.org/annual-meeting/145/abstract/two-kinds-rhetoric-platos-gorgias