Outline of Plato's Gorgias


Text of Plato's Gorgias at Perseus Library
Bibliography on the rhetorical Gorgias.

Date and Setting

Gorgias belongs to the middle dialogues but shares some similarities with the earlier dialogues. It is surely earlier than the great middle dialogues, Phaedrus, Symposium, Republic. The presumptive date is ca. 380. It is set during the reign of Archelaus, son of Perdiccas II, of Macedon. Archelaus ruled from 413-399 BCE. It also includes references to confiscation of property, murder and exile, so possibly set after the coup of 411 or the coup of the Thirty Tyrants (403)? At any rate after Plato becomes Socrates’ student in 407? Is “Polus” Plato himself??



While Callicles' identity is unkown, here is portrayed as a wealthy practicing politician. The name means "good reputation" (kala + kleos).


Chaerephon was one of Socrates’ few friends among the democrats. He is mentioned as a character witness by Socrates in Apology 21A:

For of my wisdom—if it is wisdom at all—and of its nature, I will offer you the god of Delphi as a witness. You know Chaerephon, I fancy. He was my comrade from a youth and the comrade of your democratic party, and shared in the recent exile and came back with you. And you know the kind of man Chaerephon was, how impetuous in whatever he undertook. Well, once he went to Delphi and made so bold as to ask the oracle this question; and, gentlemen, don’t make a disturbance at what I say; for he asked if there were anyone wiser than I. Now the Pythia replied that there was no one wiser. And about these things his brother here will bear you witness, since Chaerephon is dead.

Chaerephon is also mentioned in Aristophanes’ The Clouds as Socrates’ companion:

Pheidippides: Out on the rogues! I know them. Those rank pedants, those palefaced, barefoot vagabonds you mean: That Socrates, poor wretch, and Chaerephon. (Clouds 100).


The famous sophist and rhetorician who emigrated to Athens from Sicily in the Golden Age, 427 BCE. Student of Tisias and Empedocles; famous for bringing poetic stylistic effects from the drama into prose rhetoric. An acclaimed orator in his own right as well as a famous teacher. He would have been very old by the time he encountered Socrates.


Identity unknown. “Polus” means “colt”. Polus is the attractive young “colt” everyone wants to impress, including Socrates.


Introduction (447)

Dialogue with Gorgias (449-461)

Socrates elicits a definition of rhetoric as a good from Gorgias: “I mean the ability to persuade with words judges in the law courts, senators in the Senate, assemblymen in the Assembly, and men in any other meeting which convenes for the public interest.” Soc. “… If I understand you at all, you mean that rhetoric produces persuasion. Its entire business is persuasion; the whole sum and substance of it comes to that.” Gorgias assents. (453)—Rhetoric concerns only persuasion
Socrates then argues that rhetoric is not the only producer of persuasion, since every occupation is persuasive in regards to its special subject. Of what sort, then is persuasion in rhetoric? Gorgias again assents: “Very well. The sort of persuasion I mean, Socrates, is the kind used in law courts and other public gatherings, and it deals with justice and injustice.” (454)—Rhetoric concerns only one kind of persuasion—that having to do with the just and the unjust
Socrates begins a new line: Is learning (memathekenai / mathisio) the same as belief? (pepisteukenai / pistio); no: there can be a false and true belief, but no false and true knowledge (//pistio, episteme //). (454)—knowledge is not the same as belief, but both are the result of persuasion. Hence there are two kinds of persuasion.
Socrates: then which kind of persuasion is that which concerns the just and the unjust, that which produces belief without knowledge, or that which produces knowledge?
Gorgias volunteers the information in his praise of rhetoric that it should not be used unjustly, just like any other art; and if the student uses it unjustly, the teacher should not be held liable.
But the rhetorician knows less than the specialist about each branch of knowledge. Is it the same in regard to the just and the unjust? (459E)
Gorgias: “Why Socrates, it is my opinion that if a pupil does not happen to know these things, he will learn them, as well as rhetoric, from me.” (460)
But if a man who has mastered medicine is a doctor, etc. than he who has mastered justice is a just man. Therefore the rhetorician will be just; but you just said he might use rhetoric unjustly, which does not follow.

Dialogue with Polus (462-480)

Polus chooses to do the asking (462B), but Socrates must feed him the questions.

Rhetoric is not an art but a knack comparable to cookery. (464-466). Rhetoric is to Justice as Cookery is to Medicine; a branch of the art of flattery that resembles politics.

Table of the Comparison of Rhetoric to Cookery

Art Fake Arts True Arts
Constructive Arts of the Body Cosmetics Gymnastics
Remedial Arts of the Body Cookery Medicine
Constructive Arts of the Soul Sophistic Legislation
Remedial Arts of the Soul Rhetoric Justice

Orators in fact have the least power of any citizen. Great power is a good. For an ignorant man to do what he thinks best is not good. If rhetoric therefore is merely flattery, orators have no power because they do not do what they wish. (467b)
Actions are engaged in for the sake of their end. All ends are either good, bad or neutral, and we commit neutral acts to achieve goods, not the other way around. If therefore someone does what he thinks is best but it is not for his good, he does not do what he truly desires. (468c)

To do injustice is worse than to suffer injustice. Doing whatever one pleases and exercising power are not the same thing. (469-470). Happiness is dependent on honor and virtue (471). Example of Archelaus (Macedonian king). The force of witnesses as opposed to the force of logic (472). The dictator who gets away with it is more miserable than the one who is punished. (473)

Polus admits he does not consider good (agathon) to be identical with fine (kalon), nor bad (kakon) with base (aisxron). (474d). Degrees of fineness and baseness. Fineness concerns things either pleasant or useful, and baseness things either painful or harmful. Polus has stated that doing wrong is baser but not worse than suffering wrong. But if whatever is baser is either more painful or more harmful, and doing wrong is not more painful, than it must be more harmful. So it is baser than suffering wrong, but also worse.

But also if one does something wrong it is better to be punished than not punished, since just punishment is a fine thing (477). Medicine is the art of curing the body; and justice the art of curing the soul. (478).
If someone does wrong, then he ought to go to the judge as to a doctor (480). So there is no use for oratory for the purpose of defending one’s misdeeds, but only for denouncing oneself.

Dialogue with Callicles (481-506)

Socrates' Speech

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