Gorgias: persuasion, power and passion

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  • Six weekly small-group sessions for continuing students
  • Read a set passage before the evening talk and discussion
  • Not for beginners: take Reading Plato first.

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BOOKINGS NOW OPEN FOR SUMMER 2022
from Tuesday 8 Feb, 6.30-8pm in Carlton (Melb) and online.

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Access to the text

Print translations of Plato’s Gorgias are published by Penguin and Oxford

Online, we recommend David Horan’s translation, which can be printed in PDF.

Course Outline

Plato’s Gorgias presents a vivid picture of the lively intellectual scene in ancient Athens, a city that was by the 4th century BC maintaining a precarious restored democracy mediated in its senate and courts by contesting methods of persuasion. At first Plato imagines Socrates schooling the great teacher of persuasive speech, Gorgias, saying that he teaches no art, that rhetoric is merely a knack for flattery, for pleasing the audience, with no regard to the best and the true. Gorgias falls into agreement, but not so Polus and Callicles, who remain incredulous to the argument of Socrates that it is better to be wronged than to do wrong. Plato leaves the debate decidedly unresolved so that the anti-Socratic arguments would echo down through the ages until Friedrich Nietzsche apparently takes up with Callicles in his tirades against ‘slave morality’.

Session 1 | The art of persuasion |  page 447 to 461b

When Gorgias comes to town, Socrates asks not for a rhetorical display but for what exactly it is that the great man teaches. Gorgias teaches how to convince the ignorant that you know better than them and better than any expert in any field what is right and true.

Session 2 | Better to be wronged than to do wrong | page 461b to 481b

After Socrates persuades Gorgias to admit that he must also teach what is right and true, the young and confident Polis steps in to ask Socrates what is his view of rhetoric. For Socrates, it is not even an art. Rather, rhetoric is a knack for persuasion by pandering to the desires of the audience. It aims at the pleasant and ignores the best. As the discussion goes on, Polis can’t believe that Socrates could deny that the power to do what one wishes would bring happiness.

Session 3 | Triumph of the will | page 481b to 494c

Callicles challenges that Socrates is only presenting what is true by conventionally and not what is true by nature. By nature it is right for the stronger to rise to the top and take advantage of the feeble. It is the weak who make laws and conventions that instruct otherwise and who call for moderation and temperance, whereas true happiness for the powerful comes through enhancing and quenching one’s every desire.   

Session 4 | Hedonism | page 494c to 499b

Is what is good what is pleasing? Socrates uses the form-of-opposites to argue that the good life is not found by seeking what is most pleasant.

Session 5 | What is the good life? | page 499b to 513c

The tussle between Callicles and Socrates continues with Socrates encouraging Callicles away from the life of the statesman towards the life of the philosopher. For Socrates, rhetoric is to the soul, what cookery is to the body. The statesman’s rhetoric panders to pleasure with scant attention to what is true and right and good.

Session 6 | Governing by rhetoric corrupts society | page 513c to 527e

The Gorgias finishes with Socrates offering a scathing assessment of Greek statesmen, including esteemed orators of the past like Pericles. Rule-by-rhetoric, with all the attention directed to what is safe and pleasing, tends to draw attention away from what it true and good, and this corrupts and weakens the polis.  


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