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The Two Kinds of Rhetoric in Plato's Gorgias

Andrew Beer

This paper treats two passages in Plato’s Gorgias that appear to present two conflicting accounts of the art of rhetoric. In the first (463a6-465e1) Socrates describes rhetoric as a pseudo-art: a mere knack based on experience (ἐμπειρία) with no real knowledge of its subject-matter; it is a branch of “flattery” (κολακεία) of the same status as cookery and cosmetics. But in the second passage (500d6-504e4) Socrates describes an orator with real expertise in the rhetorical art (ὁ τεχνικὸς ῥήτωρ). Most scholars of the Gorgias have focused on the first passage (see Doyle 2010 and 2006, Moss 2007, Wardy 1996, Roochnik 1995, Vickers 1988, and Romilly 1974) and neglected the second (but see Yunis 2007, Dodds 1959, and Black 1958). This selective treatment of the Gorgias’s discussion of rhetoric is largely responsible for a wide-spread view of Plato as an “unyielding partisan of philosophy and inveterate opponent of rhetoric” (Yunis 2007: 75).

This paper shows that Socrates in fact gives a coherent account of two different kinds of rhetoric, and that this account is only complete at the end of the second passage treated in my paper. Initially Socrates claims that rhetoric falls short of being a genuine art (τέχνη) for two reasons. (1) It has no concern for the good of the audience, specifically for the best condition or “health” of their souls. And (2) it cannot give a rational account (λόγος) of both the nature of the soul and the methods whereby it gratifies or “flatters” the soul. This type of rhetoric merely “takes aim at” or “guesses at” (στοχάζεσθαι) what it thinks will most gratify the audience. Most commentators on the Gorgias have regarded this as all that Socrates has to say about rhetoric. They have not seen that Socrates’ initial analysis of flattering rhetoric actually points out exactly what a genuine art of rhetoric would require. It must satisfy the two conditions unfulfilled by flattering rhetoric. (1) It must serve the good of the souls of the speaker’s audience and (2) have knowledge—or at least access to knowledge—of the good of the soul and the means of producing, preserving, and restoring this good. This, it turns out, is precisely the kind of rhetoric Socrates describes later in the Gorgias. In his conversation with Callicles, he describes a truly skillful orator who possesses both of the qualities that are lacking in flattering rhetoric. This orator strives to make the souls of his fellow citizens as good as possible and has the knowledge necessary to achieve this end.

In addition to showing the underlying harmony between Socrates’ initial and eventual remarks on rhetoric, my paper also sheds light on the nature of the relationship between “genuine art” (τέχνη) and “empirical proficiency” (ἐμπειρία). Whereas others have seen an irreconcilable opposition between these two categories, I show that ἐμπειρία is really only a primitive stage in the development of τέχνη. To take the examples of “empirical” cookery and rhetoric, each of these is an ἐμπειρία and not a τέχνη because it lacks knowledge of the good of either the body or the soul and of the means of fostering this good. But as soon as either practice acquires the relevant knowledge, it becomes a genuine art (τέχνη) and ceases to be merely “empirical”. So there is nothing intrinsically opposed to τέχνη in either cookery or rhetoric. Both pursuits, in their “empirical” condition, are simply in need of the relevant knowledge. The Gorgias proposes two ways that they could acquire this. (1) The cook could become a physician and the rhetorician a philosopher, or (2) the cook and rhetorician could submit to the guidance of a physician or a philosopher.

Session/Panel Title

Forms of Argument in Dicanic and Epideictic Speech

Session/Paper Number

48.2

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