A Modern Take on Gorgias


GorgiasPlato’s dialogue Gorgias is mostly about the difference between content and form. Or rather it’s about how Socrates saw the difference between philosophy – content and truth – and rhetoric – form and words. Both of which are practiced and studied today in much different forms from what they were in ancient Greece. But the essential core of his argument is still there for us.

Socrates felt rhetoric  – oratory – was shallow; merely using words for persuasion, for effect, for emotion: it lacked the validity, the meaning and depth of philosophy. It lacked truth and knowledge.

If you look at the dichotomy in Gorgias as one between science, fact and evidence on one side, and pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and angry bloggers on the other, then it makes sense in a modern way. Instead of the speeches he discusses, imagine them like this: as blog posts. Gorgias argues his speeches are about freedom – angry bloggers often argue their posts are a right, and they have freedom to write whatever they please, to belittle and demean others without punishment. A modern Socrates might label these sophists “A” types.

What kind of change, then, does rhetoric effect in the soul? Socrates infers from Gorgias that it is persuasion. What kind of persuasion? One kind of persuasion “provides belief without knowing,” and another “provides knowledge.” Clearly knowledge is better than true belief, which is better than false belief, and more knowledge is better than less knowledge. But rhetoric merely imparts belief, Gorgias admits, and experience shows that rhetoric produces both true belief and false belief (454e). By this reasoning rhetoric, to the extent that it is a theoretic art, is powerless to effect the best possible change (knowledge) in the soul of the hearer, but it has the power to effect the worst possible change (false belief) in the hearer’s soul.

This may be the main reason that Socrates stops discussing the greatest of goods and begins to discuss the greatest of evils. It is important to protect one’s soul against the worst effects of rhetoric. Socrates refers to the greatest of evils, in slightly different formulations, over a dozen times. The subject matter of the greatest evil takes many forms, most notably that of injustice. Can the state of soul called false belief be reconciled with the state of soul called injustice?

One could easily apply Socrates’ views about content versus empty form to the local political scene: the debate between financial facts, facility facts and council accomplishments versus the fictions, fantasies and outright lies presented in attack ads, on social media and angry blog posts. Wikipedia tells us:

Socrates believes there are two types: “…one part of it would be flattery, I suppose, and shameful public harangue, while the other—that of getting the souls of the citizens to be as good as possible and of striving valiantly to say what is best, whether the audience will find it more pleasant or more unpleasant—is something admirable. But you’ve never seen this type of oratory…” (502e). Although rhetoric has the potential to be used justly, Socrates believes that in practice, rhetoric is flattery; the rhetorician makes the audience feel worthy because they can identify with the rhetorician’s argument.

To be fair, Socrates was opposed to false rhetoric which is really just sophistry (a word that today means deceit but derives from sophia, meaning wisdom). He asks Callicles,

Do you think orators always speak with regard to what’s best? Do they always set their sights on making the citizens as good as possible through their speeches? or are they bent upon the gratification of the citizens and do they slight the common good for the sake of their own private good, and to keep company with the people trying solely to gratify them, without any thought at all for whether this will make them better or worse?
(Gorgias, trans. Donald J. Zeyl, Hackett Publishing, 1987)

Change orators to bloggers and speeches to posts and it has a ring of modernity about it.

Plato later addressed what he felt was the proper way to approach rhetoric in his dialogue, Phaedrus: as part of the dialectic process, not simply oratory. There, he has Socrates associate good rhetoric with knowledge, and knowledge is also associated with virtue, which association you find also in Gorgias.

Plato claims that since sophists appeal only to what seems probable, they are not advancing their students and audiences, but simply flattering them with what they want to hear.

(Aristotle was a little kinder and took a different approach to rhetoric, but we’ll save Aristotle’s views for another post.) In Plato’s Greece, rhetoric was important because citizens learned to speak in order to participate in government:

The nature of the system demanded participation. And the nature of the system demanded that citizens speak. It rapidly became apparent that the primary political skill of the age was the ability to speak effectively for one’s interests. The Greeks developed the concept of rhetoric to describe the art and process of effective public speaking… the practice of rhetoric was the practice of political science. From the structure of Greek political practice, I think we can say that the Greeks saw politics as a multifaceted, social process for making the polis work. We may define “work” in the Greek context as promoting economic expansion, ensuring security, and promoting civic virtue and participation.

Today, social media and the internet allow anyone to have a voice, but seldom with the same lofty goals as contributing to the greater good. In fact most online verbiage is mere chatter. Empty or false rhetoric, Socrates would have called it. But of course, there is also other content online that is valid and has facts and content Socrates would have approved of. Online we seem to be engaged in a practical application of the dichotomy Plato presents.

Seth Paskin lays out the basic argument in a piece on The Partially Examined Life:

Socrates’ position is something like this:

  • The Art of Rhetoric does not require you to know about the subject matter about which you speak (or write)
  • In that sense it is not really an ‘art’ as art (in the sense of ‘craft’) requires one to have knowledge of the subject matter in question
  • Having knowledge is a prerequisite for virtue
  • Rhetoric is instead really a talent for persuading people not by arguing from knowledge or truth but by telling them what they want to hear
  • Telling people what they want to hear instead of the truth does not improve them aka make them virtuous
  • Rhetoricians are not virtuous in what they do both in view of their lack of knowledge and the outcome of their actions

The association between knowledge and virtue is an interesting one, too. Being knowledgeable – i.e. being properly informed of the facts and evidence – helps to make a person good, or virtuous. The pursuit of truth and knowledge is a virtuous goal. By reason that means there is an alternate: to deny truth, to pursue the false is wrong and evil.

But what is knowledge? There are indisputable facts – the Earth orbits the sun, the moon orbits the Earth, the town’s debt is under $38 million, and so on.  Then there are misinterpretations and misrepresentations of those facts: falsehoods presented as “facts” (aka lying). Another example of that is claiming the town’s rec facilities cost more than $20 million when in fact the costs were just over $13 million. This is clearly not responsible nor virtuous, according to Socrates.

But what about misinterpretations? Or different viewpoints? Personal taste? I can say a pepper sauce is mild but you may disagree and say it is hot. I may look at a painting and say it is beautiful; you may dislike it. Is this knowledge as Socrates imagined it, or simply opinions about facts (i.e. the sauce has habanero peppers in it, the painting is of a field of flowers, etc.)? Something to explore later. But for now, we can take it for granted that deliberate misrepresentation of fact is not virtuous. Label it evil since it hurts the greater good.

Of course, there’s more to Gorgias than just one thread. It’s a tapestry that looks at power, how to live a virtuous life, the nature of right and wrong, the pursuit of philosophy as a career, art, the soul, truth, justice and punishment. It’s about what kind of leader is best: a virtuous one who cherishes knowledge and truth, or one who spouts untruths and empty words aimed at pleasing and persuading?

Within this discussion, Socrates supplies a somewhat abstract logical proof of the distinction between the good and the pleasant… For Plato and his teacher, the chaos of contemporary Greek society (especially in Athens) was based on the failure of most to recognize this fundamental difference. This widespread oversight in turn leads to a confusion of flattery for art, persuasion for truth, and other such illusions.

One can see how this is meted out in the modern world: fictional online content is claptrap, but often mistaken for fact in great part because the public has no general training in critical thinking. We are not educated to use philosophical techniques to analyse content and without effort, we cannot easily tell the difference between what is good for us versus what is simply “pleasant.” People who accept fiction as fact are merely hunting for some “pleasant” confirmation bias to convince them of what they already believe.

The angry bloggers exploit this weakness and present codswallop that some people cannot or will not distinguish from actual fact. Their content is not what Plato or Socrates would have defined as something “good” that benefits the greater community.

Socrates’ point is that the empty rhetorician – or blogger to use the modern analogy – knows he doesn’t know anything, and just uses words to persuade others. He or she knows better, but doesn’t care because only the words matter, not the truth. Same with the angry bloggers. They don’t let facts get in the way of their words.

Another topic in the dialogue that has modern resonance is justice. The greatest injustice, Socrates claims, is when someone does evil and is not punished for it:

  • Those who flee justice “do everything so as not to pay the just penalty or be released from the greatest evil [tou megistou kakou], preparing for themselves possessions and friends and that they themselves should be as persuasive as possible in speaking” (479b-c).
  • “Does it follow that injustice and doing injustice are the greatest evil” (megiston kakon hê adikia kai to adikein, 479c-d)? If so, “doing injustice is second among the evils in greatness; and for the doer of injustice not to pay the just penalty is naturally the greatest and first of all evils” (pantôn megiston te kai prôton kakôn pephuken, 479d).
  • The rhetor should expose the injustices of all people, “so that, their unjust deeds [adikêmatôn] having become manifest, they may be released from the greatest evil, injustice” (tou megistou kakou, adikias, 480d).
  • “Doing injustice and not paying the just penalty when one does injustice” are “the utmost of all evils” (hapantôn eschaton kakôn, 482b).
  • If “the greatest of evils [megiston tôn kakôn] is injustice for the doer of injustice and a still greater evil than this greatest one-if that’s possible-is for the doer of injustice not to pay the just penalty,” then the most shameful failure is the failure to protect against such greatest of evils (509b).

For a modern reference to this injustice, one only needs to look at the anonymous websites that slander and attack this council and its incumbents or the anonymous posters on the internet and social media who make personal attacks and lies. Or the anonymous people who in the dark of night erect illegal election signs attacking others, or put insulting stickers on others’ signs. They hope to escape being caught, therefore any punishment, by hiding their identity. Using anonymity to commit a wrong isn’t merely cowardly, according to Socrates it is evil.

So the question in Gorgias, in modern terms, comes down to: who do you want to run your local government: the orator or the philosopher? People who use words, or people who use facts? People who do you injustice by misrepresenting the facts, or people who present the truth? People who use anonymous “friends” to attack their opponents, or people who debate and discuss issues in the open? People who the angry bloggers promote as their choices, or the incumbents?

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