The Gorgias is another of the masterpieces on which it is daunting to attempt such a brief response: its characterizations, structure, and content are all remarkable. Like the Phaedrus it is concerned with rhetoric, or at least uses rhetoric to get at deeper issues.
It is structured around Socrates’ conversations with three figures: Gorgias, probably the most famous rhetorician of the late fifth century, who introduced the Athenians to an arresting and poetic style of speaking; Polus, his young and impetuous (“colt-like”) student, and the older Callicles. Each figure has a distinct character and mode of speaking, and Socrates’ interaction with each is also carefully calibrated.
The dialogue begins with Socrates’ attempt to find a definition for the art of rhetoric. Here as elsewhere he is bothered by the notion that there could be some general art of persuasive speaking that is somehow distinct from the content of the speech: in his mind it will always be the specialist who is the most persuasive on his area (the doctor will be most persuasive about medicine; the pilot the most persuasive about handling a ship, etc.).
This first section founders when Gorgias admits that if his pupils haven’t learned what is just already when they come to him, he will teach them. Socrates points out that this, then, contradicts his earlier separation of the art from its potential bad use: if a man learns carpentry, he is a carpenter, and if a man learns justice, he is just (!). Thus if teaching justice is part of teaching rhetoric, rhetoric can never be used for unjust purposes.
Once Polus has sprung to his teacher’s defense, and then later with Callicles, the focus seems to turn more toward justice and less toward rhetoric, but the two are closely associated and Plato keeps circling back intriguingly to the initial subject. Socrates here makes his famous argument that it is better to suffer injustice than to do it, and if you do injustice it is better to be punished for it than to get away with it.
The whole of the dialogue is colored by our knowledge of Socrates’ trial and death; when he says that suffering is better than doing injustice, we know that in the crisis he lived and died by these words. Callicles reproaches him for pursuing philosophy and shunning rhetoric precisely by predicting that the most “paltry rascal” could take him to court and demand the death penalty, and that he would be unable to defend himself. (The much more practical Aristotle seems to have this text in mind when, in Rhetoric I.1, he asserts that there should be no shame in learning rhetoric to use in self-defense.) But in the end none of Socrates’ interlocutors can refute his paradoxical claims: the only real use rhetoric might have would be first to accuse yourself, if you had done anything bad, so that you could be punished for it, then to accuse your friends in the same way. If you had enemies who had committed wrong, you could use rhetoric to try to defend them against prosecution and punishment, since their getting away with injustice would be the worst possible outcome for their souls. (I was reminded of this as our president seemed to rule out prosecutions for those responsible for policies of torture and abuse of detainees… perhaps a more hostile decision than anybody was awared of!)
One of the most delightful things about this dialogue is the way it enacts my (and I’m sure others’) general response to Socratic dialogues: irritation with what pushovers his interlocutors tend to be. Thus once Gorgias is led into contradiction, Polus jumps in and identifies the point at which he had agreed where he shouldn’t have. When the same happens to Polus with his response, Callicles does a larger analysis of what went wrong — but of course the same thing will happen also to him. Finally Socrates is left to argue with himself in a very entertaining passage where he utters all the same responses to himself (“certainly!” “why, of course!” “for how not?”) we ordinarily hear from others. Yes it looks easy to see where others go wrong, says Plato. But even with the chance to correct those mistakes, Socrates will end up proving his point.