History of Rhetoric, Week 3: Plato’s “Gorgias”

We continue reading Plato this week, this time taking a deep dive into the Gorgias, and attempting to situate it between two primary commentators, James Kastely and Michael Svoboda. Both Kastely and Svoboda are writing somewhat recently (1997 still counts as recent, right? Future historians of the Internet, feel free to be as judgey as you wish), and each calls attention to the rhetorical situation of Plato’s dialogue; where they differ, however, seems to be in the fundamental task of defining rhetoric.

Both Kastely and Svoboda do admirable jobs of summing up the dialogue, so we will only rehearse our own summary in the broadest of strokes: After being invited to meet the famed Sophist Gorgias, Socrates engages Gorgias in a dialectic aimed at better understanding the rhetor’s profession. Gorgias’ student Polus takes over the dialectic when Gorgias appears to admit that a teacher cannot be blamed if their student uses the skills learned in an unjust manner. Polus advances the view that rhetoric is most useful for attaining one’s aims, but in turn retires from the conversation; he is replaced by Callicles who pushes this view to its extreme and even goes on the attack against Socrates and philosophy, claiming it to be an unmanly pursuit. Callicles exits the conversation and Socrates continues on his own, first by attempting to carry the dialectic alone, and later by telling a myth of the afterlife in which souls are judged naked according to the quality of their lives.

In his reading of the dialogue, Kastely resonates with Gerald Press’s article from last week, emphasizing the dialogue as an enactment designed to create an effect. That effect is a dissatisfaction with Gorgias’ apparent lack of resolution, which should prompt the critical reader to seek a different understanding of rhetoric other than what is actually said by the interlocutors. Just as the dialogue invites refutation, Socrates himself is characterized by this desire to be refuted. The act of refutation is central to Kastely’s vision of rhetoric, which requires that we be open to negation, willing to re-examine the ways in which language and culture have conditioned our experiences and recognize the unnaturalness of this condition. Gorgias gets this, and he is similarly committed to rhetoric’s ability to empower its practitioners when used in a community – “Rhetoric and community are essentially related; consequently justice is a constitutive concern for rhetoric.” (Kastely 34) Polus doesn’t get this, and his intervention into the dialectic signals a shift from rhetoric’s relation to justice and community to its relation to agency. The shift is even more pronounced when Callicles enters the conversation, and both of Gorgias’ students see the dialectic as a zero-sum game of winning or losing the argument; they fail because of their inability or unwillingness to open themselves to refutation, and implicit in this reading is an admonishment to us, the readers, from Kastely, not to make the same mistake by taking the dialogue at face value.

Both Plato and Socrates are sensitive to the rhetorical situation in which they are engaged. For Plato, this is signaled through the dissatisfying enactment of the dialogue, and for Socrates this is his shifts in approach depending on to whom he is speaking (politeness with Gorgias, terseness with Polus, aggression with Callicles, and finally an employment of speech-making itself at the end). One way in which both author and character’s rhetorical awareness coincide is in Socrates’ radical claim that it is better to have harm done to oneself than to do harm; other commentators have noted the false binary this seems to set up, because of course it would seem to be even better still if one could both avoid experiencing or doing harm. However, Kastely “[takes] Plato’s insight to be that we cannot avoid these features. It is not a question of deciding to be good or evil; rather, since some consequences of action always escape prediction or control, anyone who acts will occasionally cause suffering. Equally, since no one can create a totally secure environment in which all relevant aspects are under control, everyone is fated to suffer at some time. […] The problem for philosophy is how to live responsibly in a world in which even our best efforts fall short.” (37)

There’s a lot going on in that interpretation. Nearly twenty years after Kastely has written this article, this passage takes on some especially pedagogical overtones in light of the University of Chicago’s discouragement of trigger warnings and safe spaces on their campus. I’ve been ruminating over a blog post dealing with this administrative policy, its reinforcement of neoliberal politics, and rhetoric’s place in all of this, and Kastely might just have turned this triangulation of topics into a rectangulation (take that, Callicles and your disdain for geometry!). However, that is a post for another time. For now, we are concerned with the broader question of how to live in the world.

Socrates and Plato seem willing to grant that we live and act in the world in good faith, trusting that what we do will not have ill effects on others. However, this is the result of results-oriented thinking, which privileges previous experience over situation and context. To put it another way – both cooks and rhetors act in good faith and in accordance with conventional practices that have become naturalized. But when these acts done in good faith yield unintentional harm, corrective measures are needed to put new constraints on our practices. Kastely explains that

“We are born into worlds that are meaningful before we arrive, and it is part of our natural development to take them over. And although they are inescapably conventional and hence embody understandings of what reality is and what is of value, these worlds appear to us to be natural arrangements of human practices. […] Such historically encoded understandings make up the languages into which we are born. We act, then, in good faith in the world. But what if a language that we inherit embodies a misunderstanding of ourselves or of others? […] A language’s corruption is not accidental, and we cannot escape from the ethical consequences of that corruption by resolving to do good, for it is the nature of language to be inadequate to a complete representation of ourselves and others.

“The problems for rhetoric that are philosophically troubling are not those that involve the intentional exclusion of others from the community. However upsetting is the conscious use of race, gender, class, or creed to deny a person a voice, the more disturbing insight is that we undoubtedly exclude others from the community not because we wish to do them injury or because we possess despicable motives but because we are trapped in our languages. There is no political stance that can ensure that we act justly toward others. [Gorgias’s] justification for rhetoric is that it is the one intellectual practice that allows us to live responsibly in a world in which we are inadvertent origins of others’ suffering. […] We do not have a choice to pursue or not to pursue the political life. The choice is whether to pursue it critically or uncritically.” (44, quoted at length because, wow, how about that?)

We pursue political life critically through rhetorical openness and willingness to be refuted, through which we learn and are able to expand our language, and in turn our communities, to include more. This sort of educational practice is a difficult pill to swallow when the situation arises, but hopefully rhetoric is there to assist the doctor and persuade the unwilling patient. Philosophy needs rhetoric.

Like Kastely’s reading of Gorgias, Michael Svoboda foregrounds Plato’s awareness of the rhetorical situation in the dialogue’s construction and intended effect. Unlike the previous attempt to bring rhetoric and philosophy together, however, Svoboda reads a more political lesson into the dialogue and supports this reading through attention to the historical contexts of ancient Athenian history that Plato’s readers would have been well aware of. Svoboda places the figure of the unjust student at the center and creating a link between the student and the citizen. Svoboda is willing to grant acting in good faith to only some of the teachers/political leaders in Athens, and reads Gorgias as Plato’s plea to Athens to temper its unjust desires. By alluding to the Peloponnesian War’s failures due to Athenian desire to expand its empire, and drawing connections to the current Athenian political climate that again hungered for conquest, Plato warns against giving in to those temptations. Gorgias also serves as an intertextual response to other prevailing commonplaces of the day, including Thucydides’ apparent willingness to excuse or overlook the conditions that led to the Peloponnesian War’s failure, Isocrates’ similar support for Athenian empire by scapegoating the incompetent military leaders, and Polycrates’ lost but often-responded to Accusation of Socrates.

Svoboda’s reading is persuasive in its attention to the very real and material histories that I know unfortunately little about. In making this argument, Svoboda seems to be leaning heavily on the historical figures of Socrates, Gorgias, and Callicles (among others) and the resonance that their lives and actions would have had for Plato’s contemporary readers. While I think that the interlocutors were purposefully chosen for this dialogue, I’m still strongly influenced by Gerald Press’ argument that Plato creates a fictional world for his dialogues, taking the real world as a starting point but quickly moving the reader into possible ways of knowing and being.

Kastely characterizes rhetoric by its power to refute, over more traditional definitions of rhetoric as concerned with persuasion, or even imagination (to echo Press and Poulakos). Svoboda seems to stick more to this traditional definition, as the extent of Plato’s rhetorical work, for Svoboda, is persuading the unjust citizens of Athens not to give in to their immoderate desires. These definitions of rhetoric and its purview are not necessarily mutually exclusive (especially in both authors’ respect for rhetoric’s intervention into politics), but the ways in which the two commentators attain their readings of Plato’s rhetoric is through fundamentally different methodologies and assumptions. Whereas Kastely reads rhetoric’s commitment to cooperation and public interest as constitutive of Gorgias’ own ethos (again, the question of the historical Gorgias comes into play here – does this vision resonate with the Gorgias we read two weeks ago?), Svoboda reads Gorgias as lacking in agency, an ineffective rhetor who misunderstood his audience but nevertheless enabled the latent Athenian desire for empire and motivated the city to (more) war.

For myself, Kastely’s reading seems overall more hospitable, resonating with my own personal and professional commitments. It also seems to open more possibilities for further conversation with pedagogical praxis, contemporary social and political issues, and presents a vision of existence that is at once practical (recognizing that the preconditions of language mean we will do harm and exclude others) and hopeful (allowing us to imagine that things will not always be this way, and that we can be more expansive in our language and lives). But we’ll see how that view holds up under further dialectic.


Texts for this week:

  • Plato – Gorgias
  • James L. Kastely – “In Defense of Plato’s Gorgias
  • Michael Svoboda – “Athens, the Unjust Student of Rhetoric: A Dramatic Historical Interpretation of Plato’s ‘Gorgias’”

Author: Phil Choong

PhD student in the Department of English at Indiana University. Working between critical and literary theory, rhetoric, and pedagogy.

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