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Socrates on Oratory, Desire, Power, and Good in Gorgias 447a-468e
To critically assess the language of Socrates within the work Gorgias, a look will be taken at the key steps to refutation and how Gorgias, and later Polus, may have failed in his attempt, and further, how Socrates makes the argument that tyrants, like orators or politicians, have no real power and that they are unable to act upon their own desires because they are crippled by the very power that makes them powerful.
When Socrates and Chaerephon arrive at the lecture of Gorgias, Callicles makes the blithe joke that Socrates never lowers himself to such an argument that he is about to make—but he, like an arrogant rooster, forces his way into a refutation that Gorgias never knew was coming. By way of manipulating Chaerephon into asking the questions that spark the dialogue, Socrates gets Gorgias to admit that he is a rhetorician, and that even the ability to teach others the way of rhetoric is attributed to him.
If Socrates can be said to have a talent, it is the ability to make others immediately and irrevocably give up their core beliefs without, really, much argument at all.
Socrates Controls the Debate
However, in his attempt at precision in language, Gorgias does exactly what Socrates intended to accuse him of doing—being unable to define his being and purpose in life purely because he sought to, and admitted he was best at, explaining things in the simplest of terms.
Socrates refutation follows in an attempt to get Gorgias to define something, then to expound upon that with niceties and confusion, getting Gorgias to further his argument and, essentially, dig himself into the hole that Socrates planned all the while to push him into.
In truth, Socrates is a pompous wisenheimer although he does have an innate ability to disarm his opponents by getting them to not only agree with him, but to abandon their beliefs as well. He patronizes Gorgias over and over, claiming that he isn’t trying to offend, he is a nice guy just trying to understand, but, indeed, Socrates knows very well the subject matter that he tries to get Gorgias to explain and is merely entering into such debate to prove a point. He leads the conversation in such a way that Gorgias never had a chance, even though, before the conversation began, Gorgias believed himself one of the best rhetoricians around and was very pleased with his previous lecture.
The Morality in Persuasion
Because Gorgias made the bold claim that he could answer any question put to him, Socrates dove in to make the point of how very wrong Gorgias is. To Socrates, Gorgias was merely easy prey. In making such a audacious statement, Socrates knew that he had to put Gorgias into his place—which was that he really had no idea what he was talking about all along. Gorgias had it in his head that the theory of rhetoric was, essentially, the art of speaking. Much later, Socrates convinces Gorgias that rhetoric is actually the art of persuasion, which irrevocably leads Gorgias into his greatest contradiction—that of morality in persuasion.
But, despite whatever one might say about Socrates’ character, he does make a philosophical point that the nature of words and arguments cannot be so simply stated. Especially one so indefinable as rhetoric. With his refutation of Gorgias, Socrates gets Gorgias to claim that rhetoricians have the ability to speak in a manner that is more persuasive than a professional in the same field, but that because all rhetoricians practice a certain code of morality, that they would not act in such a manner as to fool people into believing they are a professional when they are not. In this, Socrates has Gorgias beat. Because, as Socrates adeptly catches, anyone who practices moral ethics would not behave in such a manner, and thus, what Gorgias has described cannot exist because of that contradiction.
Those Who Have the Most Power Have the Least
Socrates is ultimately about finding and defining the contradiction in any argument. Throughout his refutation with Gorgias, Socrates makes Gorgias define his belief, without a doubt, and then crushes him in an instant by proving how he is wrong. Gorgias, for his part, opened himself up to this messy refutation by making his bold claim, but, in a way, he stood no chance against Socrates’ bullying. In fact, Socrates entered into this refutation simply to make Gorgias look the fool in front of the assembled crowd that he had just given a lecture to—to make Gorgias look very bad indeed in front of the people he had just been proud of himself for teaching. In essence, Socrates delivers a low blow and ultimately destroys Gorgias’ reputation instantly.
The conversation follows a few beats later to the claim that Socrates makes to Polus that tyrants, like orators, or politicians, have no great power because in doing what seems best, politicians strive to do what is good for them—and in this is their failing, because in their attempt to do what they believe is best for themselves, politicians are unable to do what they want. Socrates explains that politicians are the weakest of humans because they have the innate gene that makes them follow the whims of others, and, paradoxically, are unable to choose what they want to do—which makes them excessively weak. And thus, those who have the most power have the least.
A Politician Unable to Make Choices for Himself is the Weakest Creature
Socrates makes the distinction that in doing what one thinks is best, one is often unable to do what one wants. In his argument, Socrates brings up the scenario that a politician might have to execute someone for the betterment of all, despite the fact that the politician might not want to go through with this execution at all. In this, Socrates defines that politicians have very little power at all—because they have to act for the community, they are literally unable to act solely for themselves. And, it is because of this nature that they have no power. Of course, Polus is forced to agree with Socrates because he can give no argument to the contrary.
But, consider what Polus was unable to argue. While a politician may have to make decisions for the betterment of his community, he still has the ultimate choice of whether or not to go through with any action, and further, he has the choice, in his heart, that he must know is not only the right choice but the choice that will actually be what he wants to do. Indeed, one could argue that a politician that is unable to make choices for himself is the weakest creature, but, if all politicians are such weak creatures, who then is running the country? There has to be someone pulling the strings—and he has to be a master orator to make those strings move in a desirable way.
Perhaps Socrates is correct in his assessment, but, it can also follow that Socrates is just a pompous bully rounding on the playground to make others feel the shame of being unable to stand up for their own values. If Socrates can be said to have a talent, it is the ability to make others immediately and irrevocably give up their core beliefs without, really, much argument at all. Sure, Gorgias put up a bit of a fight, but it was clear from the beginning that he never had a chance against Socrates—Callicles made it clear that Socrates was being kind to condescend to Gorgias’ level. In fact, no one does. Because Socrates enters into every conversation with the idea of drawing a simple question into a refutation that his opponent never saw coming and never had a fair chance of avoiding.
Plato. (1994). Gorgias. Trns. Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford UP.