Gorgias, a renowned practitioner of rhetoric is present in the house of Callicles, along with his disciple Polus. Among the party are Socrates and his friend Chaerephon. They are intrigued by Gorgias and want to get a better understanding of what he does and what the nature of his profession is.


Gorgias explains that rhetoric is an art and he would call himself a rhetorician. Socrates however finds this answer unsatisfactory as he does not understand what rhetoric is concerned with. For example the art of weaving is concerned with the making of garments. What does the person practicing the art of rhetoric do?

Gorgias now gives a bit more detail to his explanation saying that rhetoric is an art that is concerned with discourse.

But does rhetoric treat all kinds of discourse? For example medicine is an art that allows men to speak with certainty about what a person is inflicted with and how he may get well. Is rhetoric same as the art of medicine then?

Certainly not, replies Gorgias as he is made to impose a limitation on his profession. But a decisive definition of the rhetoric is still elusive. The questioning continues.

Just like rhetoric can not be called an art that deals with discourse concerning the sick, it can also not be said that rhetoric is an art that deals with the discourse of gymnastics or with the discourse of geometry. Or in general with the discourse of subjects which any other art form is concerned with?

Then why just call rhetoric an art of discourse and not all the other art forms like medicine and gymnastics as the art of discourse as well?

This question leaves Gorgias a bit puzzled and he replies that the difference lies in the fact that rhetoric is practiced only by the medium of the words and all the other art forms that are described by Socrates involve some action of hands. But Socrates is not satisfied by the answer and the questioning continues

It follows then that the art of painting which requires no words to be spoken and other arts which practiced in silence also do not come within the art of rhetoric, as defined by Gorgias. But what about the art of arithmetic which is entirely expressed through the medium of words and use language to express themselves? Would it be called rhetoric?

Gorgias replies in negative. The questioning continues.

Socrates now wishes to know what is the quality of the words that rhetoric concerns itself with? For example the art of arithmetic concerns itself about the quantities of odd and even numbers and their relationship to one another. Then with what words is the art of rhetoric is concerned with?

"To the greatest, Socrates, and the best of human things."

Gorgias' reply seems to be ambiguous to Socrates. The question that naturally follows is what is the greatest and the best in human beings? Is it health,beauty and wealth as the old saying goes? Because what Gorgias says can be applied to any art form. For example the physician may say that my art concerns with the greatest and best of human things. Because health is the greatest good. And so may the money maker. Because wealth is the greatest good. And so may the trainer. Because beauty is the greatest good. He asks Gorgias what good is the greatest of man? To which he replies

That good, Socrates, which is truly the greatest, being that which gives to men freedom in their own persons, and to individuals the power of ruling over others in their several states.

Socrates asks once more what good is that? Gorgias replies

"What is there greater than the word which persuades the judges in the courts, or the senators in the council, or the citizens in the assembly, or at any other political meeting?—if you have the power of uttering this word, you will have the physician your slave, and the trainer your slave, and the money-maker of whom you talk will be found to gather treasures, not for himself, but for you who are able to speak and to persuade the multitude."

This reply leaves Scorates satisfied. And he concludes that rhetoric is an art of persuasion. Gorgias agrees that persuasion is the chief aim of rhetoric. But is rhetoric the only art that persuades?

Sorcartes asserts that anyone who teaches anything persuades men of what he teaches. For example arithmetic and arithmetician teaches us the properties of number. And persuade us of those properties. Then does not arithmetic persuades just like rhetoric does? Which implies that rhetoric is not the only art of persuasion. And therefore it is important that it is described what rhetoric persuades men of?

Gorgias replies:

"I answer, Socrates, that rhetoric is the art of persuasion in courts of law and other assemblies, as I was just now saying, and about the just and unjust."

Socrates is not satisfied by the answer and reasons that there is such a thing as having learned and having believed. And having believed is quite different from having learnt. And there is also such a thing as false knowledge as well as false belief. And the two are also different from each other. Both people who have learnt and people who believe can be persuaded just the same.

"And which sort of persuasion does rhetoric create in courts of law and other assemblies about the just and unjust, the sort of persuasion which gives belief without knowledge, or that which gives knowledge?"

Gorgias answers that rhetoric is the art that only creates belief.

Socrates asks what good will rhetoric do for a person? For a rhetorician will not be consulted with while building walls or making medicine.

Gorgias answers that the power of rhetoric lies in sway it holds over people

Socrates argues that if rhetoric is an art that persuades of belief without knowledge then rhetoric only has an influence over the ignorant. For the rhetoric can not influence a physician about medicine without knowledge of medicine, but only those who are ignorant about it. And that the rhetorician does not have to know the truth about things but only discover a way to persuade people who are ignorant of the the subject matter.

Gorgias finds great comfort in the fact that it is powerful not to have learnt any other arts but the art of rhetoric only and yet in no way be inferior to persuaders of them.

But then if the rhetorician is ignorant of other arts like medicine and arithmetic but still hods the power to influence then would it not be reasonable to say that the rhetorician is equally ignorant of the just and the unjust?

A just man would never do an injustice. But a rhetorician might make a bad use of rhetoric because he is ignorant about the notions of just and unjust. Socrates concludes that the argument that a rhetorician practices justice is proven to be false. Gorgias is unable to define his own art.


Polus asks Socrates what then is the art of rhetoric.

Socrates replies that rhetoric is not an art form at all rather it is an experience or routine that causes delight or gratification. Similar to cookery which is also a routine that causes delight or gratification. Rhetoric and cookery fall under the same class of flattery. This class is not a true art form but rather a sham. Cookery causes delight of the senses having no regard to the actual health of the body. When a person is sick the diet administered by the physician may not please the sense of taste but it will cure the body of the disease. Similarly rhetoric gives the soul the pleasure of justice without actually being just.

Polus questions "Do you mean to say that the rhetoricians are esteemed flatterers" and "Have they not great power, and can they not do whatever they desire?"

Socrates replies that they don't have any great power and only do what they think best and not what they truly desire.

This leaves Polus puzzled

Socrates explains: When men drink medicine for the sake of health do they will the act of drinking the medicine which is painful or do they will the good health which will be the result of drinking that medicine? When a man does something for the sake of something else, he wills not what he does but that for the sake of which he does it. There are good things and evil things. Intermediate and indifferent things.

Sitting running and walking for example are neither good nor bad. And the indifferent things are done for the sake of good. When we walk we walk for the sake of good. When a man is killed or exiled it is believed that killing or exiling the man will result in good. Men who do any of these things do it for the sake of good. Therefore when a tyrant or a rhetorician kills someone or deprives someone of his power under the idea that he does it for his own good when, in fact it is not in his interests, can he be said to be doing what is best for him?

[ Here Socrates builds upon his winning argument with Gorgias. He had already proved that rhetoricians don't have true knowledge and only work with belief. And a person without knowledge can't really know what's good or what's bad ]

Polus asks if Socrates would not like to have the power to kill,despoil or imprison any one he pleases? Does seeing such a power in another person make him envious?

Socrates asks whether the killing and despoiling was performed justly or unjustly? Polus asks for his opinion in either case.

"If he killed another unjustly, in which case he is also to be pitied; and he is not to be envied if he killed him justly"

Who would be more wretched then? The person who suffers injustice or the person who does injustice?

If given only two choices Socrates would rather suffer than do injustice. But why? He illustrates with an example. Supposing Socrates goes to a crowded market with a dagger. Any person he wants killed will be stabbed. He may steal the possession of anyone. He may burn any house. Destroy any vessel. Then would he be in possession of a great power?

No because the would be caught and punished

And is punishment evil?

Yes according to Polus

[ It's easy to loose track of the discussion when Socrates gives examples like these. With the illustration of a man with a dagger Socrates wishes to establish that unless power can be applied to a just end, towards good, it can not result in happiness. Polus's argument,that rhetorician holds great power in influencing people, is being refuted by him that it's not great at all since it does not do what's truly great (which is the ideal of justice) and only what they think is the best. ]

But then a man may be called in possession of a great power only if his actions turn out to his advantage and not otherwise. He asks when is killing and despoiling a person considered to be good and when evil?

Killing is good when it is done for a just cause and evil when it's done for an unjust cause.

Polus wishes to know if the tyrant kings of past were miserable or happy?

Socrates replies that the only way to know whether a person is happy or not is to know where he stands in the matter of education and justice. For the people who are gentle and good are also happy.

Polus argues that a person would be miserable if he is caught and punished. But if a person has great power and he exercises that power without any regard for just or unjust and he manages to escape the consequences then he will be happy.

Socrates affirms that the unpunished evil doer is the most miserable. And the evil doer that is punished is less miserable. Least miserable being the person who has never committed an evil act.

He explains that one who punishes rightly, punishes justly and thus acts justly. Then the person who suffers retribution suffers justly. Then the punisher does what is honorable and the punished suffers what's honorable. And honourable is what is pleasant and useful. The punished suffers what is good. And he is benefited by the deliverance of evil from his soul. He explains further that the greatest evil with respect to man's estate is poverty. The greatest evil with respect to man's health is disease. The greatest evil with respect to man's soul is injustice. The money maker delivers from the evil of poverty. The physician delivers the man's body from disease. And the judge delivers a man soul from injustice. And the person delivered from poverty , disease and injustice is far happier than the person still suffering from it. Therefore the person punished for his unjust acts will be better that the person still suffering from the injustice in his soul.

[ It's fun to note that the dialogue was started in order to know what rhetoric actually is but it took a turn to determine what is just and what is unjust. Socrates arguments are idealistic. Rhetoric would have no place in a society imagined by Socrates but in daily routine both Gorgias and Polus find rhetoric to be a powerful tool in getting what they want. Socrates contests that what they want and get by the unjust use of rhetoric will only make them unhappy]


Callicles who had been quietly listening untill this point puts down his arguments as follows.

  1. Gorgias was entangled in the web of justice and injustice. That a rhetorician can not practice true justice because he has no knowledge only a belief.
  2. Polus was defeated because he spoke from modesty and custom. Not according to the nature's law. In nature the might is right. And natural justice shines through.

Socrates questions what does he mean by natural justice? Is it that rule of justice is the rule of the stronger or of the better? Callicles answers that they are the same.

But then are not many stronger than one and their opinions better than the one? Callicles replies that superior is the one that is better.

Socrates wishes to know how he is better? Does he mean worthier and wiser? If that is the case should a physician have a larger share of meat and drinks? Callicles means the men of political ability who ought to govern and have a larger share than the governed. He further asserts that a man should let his desires grow and take means to satisfy those desires. Luxury and self indulgence are true happiness

Socrates answers with a story:-

The life of self-contentment and self-indulgence may be represented respectively by two men, who are filling jars with streams of wine, honey, milk,—the jars of the one are sound, and the jars of the other leaky; the first fills his jars, and has no more trouble with them; the second is always filling them, and would suffer extreme misery if he desisted.

Callicles does not agree with the story. Socrates continues by saying that pleasure and pain are simultaneous and they cease to exist at the same time. For example in case of drinking the pain of thirst is satisfied at the same time as the pleasure drinking. But good and pleasure are not the same.

The pleasure is to be pursued for the sake of good. And good is that which makes us good. This virtue can not be attained by accident. There must be harmony and order. And the soul that has order is better than the soul that is out of order. Which implies that the temperate is good and intemperate is bad. He asks Callicles to disregard the length of life and only think about how it can be best lived. That rhetoric is useful only when it is practiced justly. The soul should always pursue what is noble and just. Not what is pleasurable and possibly unjust. He does not believe death to be evil but to die and go to the world below laden with offences is the worst of evils. And he would not be ashamed if he dies at the hand of some tyrant having done no injustice to anyone. But he won't be able to tolerate the injustice of his soul. And for this reason he would rather pursue the just than that which only gives the appearance of just. He would rather seek knowledge than that which only gives a belief of knowledge. He would rather be than just seem.

[ Socrates' goal in this dialogue was to show that rhetoric is not a true art form. The practitioner of rhetoric possesses no knowledge and speaks only from belief. In that goal he succeeds. His arguments,though, are framed for an idealistic society, one that he would chose to live in. But the reality is quite different. Callicles is right in saying that "Might is right" as it often is. And Socrates concedes that if that be the case he is ready to suffer for his beliefs. For him ideals are more important than life itself. And for you?]

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