“So Gorgias, you believe that you’re a master at teaching people the right way to argue.” says Socrates with a sly grin on his bearded face.
“Why yes, Socrates. I teach young, important men the ways of rhetoric. If they pay me a handsome sum, I’ll make sure they can use the loopholes of the laws to do whatever they want. I would even say there is no one that can win an argument from me.” Gorgias looks around smiling proudly. Everyone around him is impressed by the way he plays with his words. No doubt Gorgias is a wise man.
Socrates thinking to himself, while slightly cocking his head: “I’m about to end this man’s whole career.”
And so begins the debate between the ever claiming-to-be-ignorant Socrates and the Sophist Gorgias, who specializes in rhetoric. Who will win? Mostly in the Platonic dialogues no one wins. It ends in aporia, which means being stuck, a halt. But not this time. This time Socrates means business and goes all in to debate Gorgias’ reasoning. Socrates DESTROYS Gorgias on rhetoric.
The deeper meaning in the dialogue is about philosophy versus rhetoric. Or more implicitly, theory versus practicality. What is more important in life? To seem like a good person or to actually be one? With rhetoric, one can use this to seem like a good person, but the question remains: will he be a good person? Gorgias claims that he can teach virtue, Gorgias can teach someone to be good, which he does by teaching rhetoric.
Socrates goes in deep, the very foundation of philosophy is on the line! According to Socrates seeming good, which is what rhetoric teaches, isn’t necessarily being good. It is better to be good than to seem good. But there are no teachers of the good. All the sophists that claim this have failed Socrates’ elenchus, which is the method he uses to attain the truth, or at least come close to it. In the elenchus Socrates keeps asking questions to show the inconsistencies in the arguments. But if the good isn’t taught, does that mean that no one knows what the good is?
Philosophy is the way the go. In ancient Greece in the times of Plato and Aristotle a lot of attention was pointed towards techne, or craft. It was the practical that was important not the theoretical. One was good, if one did good deeds. But, says Socrates, isn’t it better to be a good person since a good person will naturally do good deeds, instead of being a bad person, who can only be chance do a good deed? In this dialogue Plato starts his lifelong quest, which Aristotle will continue, to show that the highest good isn’t techne, but sophia, wisdom. The good person is the one who loves wisdom, or the philosopher. It’s Plato’s goal to show that to strive towards knowledge of what is really good is the supreme stance to live in life. We shouldn’t care about just being able to do something good. We should care about what that good actually is. If we know that we’ll necessarily act good. According to Plato virtue and wisdom were the same thing. You could only have wisdom of the good of something and if you know the good of something, you’ll necessarily act in according to virtue towards it.
This book can also be read as a kind of introduction to the Republic of Plato. But I would say that it is more fun to read it not as a draft for the Republic but as a full-fledged work of its own. This dialogue is a blast, showing Socrates at its finest. You’ll think along deeply with him and show those damn sophists who’s boss!