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Plato’s Condemnation of Rhetoric in Gorgias


Plato in his Gorgias seeks to accomplish multiple tasks. This essay will be focusing on the first, that being the condemnation of rhetoric and what it represents to him. The Gorgias outlines an exchange between Socrates, the titular character, Gorgias, Polus and Callicles. This essay will be fundamentally concerned with the exchange between Socrates and Gorgias, and its treatment of rhetoric (interchangeable with oratory for the purpose of this essay). This essay will be approaching the topic of rhetoric, as dealt with in the dialogue, by initially discussing the problem with the dialogue format, then moving onto the meaning of rhetoric and how both Gorgias and Socrates misrepresent it. The essay will then be discussing the virtues of rhetoric as a complementary skill and then finally, what Socrates got right about rhetoric.

This essay will ultimately find that rhetoric is not a baseless and unethical knack as argued by Socrates, but a possibly valuable and complementary skill.

Gorgias, like the art of rhetoric that it criticises, uses a variety of tricks common in written dialogues to convince readers of a point. While Socrates states the importance of arguing for truth, rather than victory (Plato, 1997: 457d), Plato’s dialogue makes the mistake of setting up the dialogue in a way that often misrepresents the topic and distracts readers away from the flaws of the argument at hand. While a true discussion can be valuable as it gives an opportunity for all sides to present their points relatively equally, a written dialogue rather tricks us into thinking that a discussion has taken place when instead, it is merely a single author illustrating his arguments. Dialogues are often seen as different to simple essays, but they are both similar in that the author controls the state of the argument. Where they differ is that dialogues do create a false sense of competition, while using a number of tricks, to elevate the superiority of the author’s preferred point. An example of this in the text is Gorgias’ completely inadequate defence of his position, as well as his unnecessary capitulation to many of Socrates’ claims. Polus does put up more of a fight, but his contribution is not treated valuably. Only Callicles can be said to be given fair treatment by Plato.

Ironically, the tricks that have been used in the dialogue format are akin to the rhetoric that Socrates adamantly condemns. Socrates, as mentioned earlier, illustrates the importance of truth and condemns the baseless persuasion of rhetoric, but the dialogue format used is filled with similar tricks to convince the reader to take the side of the author. The superiority of an essay format that only indicates the authors views is that readers are not deceived into believing that a proper discourse has taken place. In a dialogue, the false debate creates an illusion of competition, but which is unfortunately inadequate.

Gorgias is, no doubt, set up as the fall-guy in the text. Perhaps Plato was accurately recording how the real Gorgias would have replied, but perhaps not. What is clear is that Gorgias is not meant to be a defender of rhetoric, but rather a ‘strawman’ to be burnt at its expense. With that in mind, let us proceed.

Gorgias fatally misrepresents rhetoric and thus allows Socrates to easily condemn it. Gorgias argues that rhetoric gives knowledge in and of itself, that it exists as a separate craft and that it is a source for good. Socrates approaches the topic incorrectly due to these flimsy positions.

Gorgias’ first mistake is his limitation of the subject matter of what speeches oratory produces (Plato, 1997: 449e). Gorgias limits the scope of rhetoric to producing speeches, an area in which he is correct, but conflates speeches as a topic itself, rather than a method of conveying topics. Socrates is right in responding that many forms of knowledge use speech (Plato, 1997: 450), but makes the same flaw as Gorgias. Both treat rhetoric as a craft that produces an intrinsically valuable product and, as a result, allow Socrates to approach rhetoric incorrectly and condemn it. Rather than arguing that rhetoric is an independent craft that produces an intrinsically good product, Gorgias should have initially promoted rhetoric as a complementary skill that can aid other disciplines and the conveying of knowledge.

Gorgias, in all likelihood in an effort to impress Socrates and his audience, claims that oratory is a source for the good (Plato, 1997: 451d). Socrates aptly responds by asking in what way it produces the good, as good is relative to a purpose. Gorgias states that this good is freedom and the ability to persuade others (Plato, 1997: 451d-252e). Socrates makes a simultaneously accurate and incorrect argument in response to this. He argues that other disciplines also persuade (Plato, 1997: 454), making rhetoric redundant. This is correct, but is based on the incorrect assumption of rhetoric as a stand-alone subject. When one sees rhetoric accurately, as a complementary skill, then this statement by Socrates becomes less apt as it is that persuasion within the other disciplines that can be said to be in the domain of rhetoric.

Socrates fundamentally condemns rhetoric as being used to spread deceit and ignorance, rather than knowledge, as he argues that orators do not necessarily know what they are talking about and that they use their skill in a self-interested fashion (Plato, 1997: 459e; Erickson, 2004). Gorgias led onto this accusation by simultaneously claiming that orators are necessarily good (Plato, 1997: 460c), but that they should also use rhetoric responsibly (Erickson, 2004). The inconsistency allows Socrates to accuse rhetoric of being shameful (Plato, 1997: 463d), and its users unjust. Gorgias, before this accusation, actually made a sound argument in that one cannot blame the craft for the actions of a few who misuse it (Plato, 1997: 457). Many crafts and skills are capable of being used for good or bad. A chemist can use their skills to work on medication for healing, but also has the skills to create poisons. To use an even harsher example, the study of physics led to the Atomic Bomb. Socrates, by condemning rhetoric for the actions of a few (who Gorgias has already condemned himself) is blaming the tool and not the user. In addition, orators are not necessarily going to spread ignorance or deceit. Those who knowingly do so are committing fraud, a crime on its own without condemning rhetoric (Paskin, 2013). In teaching of the good and the teaching of the knowledge that Socrates holds dear, an orator may truly believe that they are telling the truth. They are not acting immorally, even if the information they are spreading is wrong. If this is the case, they are negligent, not evil. Socrates primarily has a problem with rhetoric being used for bad, but this isn’t the fault of rhetoric, but of bad people.

Rhetoric is basically misunderstood by both parties. It isn’t a stand-alone subject. It combines with subjects to convey knowledge convincingly and effectively. When examined as an intrinsically good discipline, of course it will fail. Socrates is correct to say that rhetoric is baseless, but that is because it is meant to be combined with knowledge. The aim of this section is to prove that rhetoric is beneficial as a complementary skill, and should not be completely condemned.

Gorgias gives a defence of rhetoric that Socrates shrugs off too hastily. Gorgias reports that he helped convince a patient to seek treatment where his brother, a physician, failed (Plato, 1997: 456b). While Gorgias may not have had the knowledge of a physician himself, he was able to work in tandem with one with knowledge to reach a positive outcome. In this way, rhetoric is a valuable complementary skill alongside the knowledge of other disciplines. To use another skill to highlight this, imagine the skill of running. It doesn’t really utilise knowledge, it doesn’t produce anything tangible, but it can be used in tandem with other activities to be valuable – such as delivering messages. Socrates wants all activities to have an intrinsically good producing function, but that is not how many positive activities work. They are amoral actions that can be used for a variety of purposes.

Where rhetoric can fulfil this requirement by Socrates, however, is that it produces effective communication of ideas. He would and did condemn such a notion, stating that other disciplines also persuade (Plato, 1997: 450). But this is not that particular discipline being used for this communication. The domain of rhetoric is effective communication – confidence, clarity and catering to the context – something that any good teacher would utilise to transfer their knowledge.

Socrates’ condemnation of rhetoric is ironic, as he is using it himself (Erickson, 2004). He is catering to an audience, often tries to appease Gorgias by reducing any misunderstanding of implied rudeness, is confident and, in fact, uses quite a few communication tricks to push Gorgias and Polus into traps. Callicles actually accuses him along these lines (Plato, 1997: 483). What this use of rhetoric by the condemner reveals is that rhetoric is not easily avoided. It is the art of the speaker and when one speaks, one will often evoke it if they mean it or not.

For the educator or the reclusive craftsman, being taught rhetoric can be highly valuable. Effective communication is not intrinsic in other disciplines. Knowledge of mathematics does not make one a good speaker or a good communicator of ideas, but the political life of Athens and many other scenarios may push one into a situation where the confidence and poise of rhetoric can be valuable. This is not only for the speaker, but also for the listeners, who would benefit much more from a speaker who has been trained to speak clearly and effectively.

Socrates is concerned with truth over victory (Plato, 1997: 457d), and is concerned that rhetoric will lead to the dissemination of untruthful ideas. But rhetoric can be used by those with truthful ideas to promote the truth effectively. Socrates actually does this himself, as dealt with earlier. Socrates, however, wishes for a world that is free of rhetoric. This isn’t going to happen, however, and rhetoric should rather be promoted for good causes.

Socrates is not completely wrong about rhetoric. Many people do use it for flattery, as he accuses (Plato, 1997: 466b), and thus for self-interested manipulation. In politics, especially, it is used to manipulate the masses without illustrating any concrete ability to lead. The reason for this is that rhetoric isn’t concerned with the content of speech but completely with its delivery. As such, an orator can make lies and shallow remarks sound impressive. This lack of substance is what concerns Socrates and gives him a preference for dialectic, where an astute listener can immediately realise and indicate the orator’s lack of truly convincing content.

Even in the best cases, rhetoric does treat people patronisingly. It teaches catering to an audience, which often means talking down to those that the speaker perceives to be uneducated. In the case of Gorgias’ physician story, it convinces people to listen to an argument they normally would not. It is kind of a trick, that woos rather than convinces. But sometimes this is needed. It is an unpleasant fact that many people focus upon the cosmetics of an argument rather than the content. Wooing is often the best way to get a positive outcome. The problem isn’t that rhetoric manipulates those who won’t see reason; the problem is that there are many who require wooing rather than reason to be convinced.

The basis of the Gorgias as a criticism of rhetoric is flawed due to a faulty foundation. Gorgias misrepresents the discipline, allowing Socrates to attack it inaccurately. Gorgias presents it and Socrates attacks it as a stand-alone craft and intrinsically good – both of which are false. Rather, rhetoric should be treated as a complementary skill that, like many disciplines, can be used for good or bad. It is intrinsically amoral and should not be condemned for such. As a complementary skill, rhetoric was shown in this essay to be valuable as it can help the effective communication of those with knowledge in a variety of scenarios. While Socrates was fundamentally wrong about rhetoric, he was right in that rhetoric does unfortunately focus too much upon style over substance, allowing bad people to use it to manipulate rather than educate. It was also identified that rhetoric can be patronising, as it implies that many listeners are not intelligent enough to understand the argument normally, and have to be persuaded through the cosmetics of speech. These criticisms are minor compared to the benefits of rhetoric, however, which use is so necessitated that even Socrates used it while he condemned it. Overall, Socrates dealt with rhetoric wrongly, misunderstanding it at its core and its implications.


Erickson, D.N., 2004. Gorgias, Polus, and Socrates on Rhetoric in Plato’s Gorgias. [Online] Available at: http://www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/lcmnd/e_journal/v2004_1.html [Accessed 8 August 2016].

Paskin, S., 2013. Socrates’ Attack on Rhetoric in the “Gorgias”. [Online] Available at: http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2013/01/19/socrates-attack-on-rhetoric-in-the-gorgias/ [Accessed 4 August 2016].

Plato, 1997. Gorgias. In J.M. Cooper, ed. Plato: Complete Works. Translated by D.J. Zeyl. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. 791-869.