teaching the Gorgias

Tomorrow I’ll be teaching Plato’s Gorgias, and today I’ve been reviewing it. It strikes me, as it always does when I read this dialogue, that this is Socrates at his worst, and I find myself asking, as I always ask when I read this dialogue, whether Plato knew that.

Socrates’s chief opponent here, Callicles, is contemptible in his frank hedonism and lust for power, but he makes one point (482e) that I find compelling: He says that Socrates pretends to care about truth, but in fact only tries, through subtly shifting the terms of an argument, to manipulate people into admitting inconsistencies which he then pounces on. A little later on (485e) he calls this habit adolescent — and that seems right to me. Socrates offers the occasional noble speech about wanting to find the best way to live — or rather, about how he has found and embodies the best way to live — but in actual dialectical disputation seems to care only about trivial point-scoring based on shifting the meanings of words. (“Aren’t we claiming that people who feel pleasure are good? And that people suffering distress are bad?”)

No wonder Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles all get thoroughly exasperated with him, at first giving answers “on cue,” as Callicles puts it, and then simply declining to respond, so that for an extended period of the dialogue Socrates is reduced to answering his own questions. And even when Callicles starts responding again, it’s only “so that you can get on and finish the argument.” (Though later still — as Socrates doggedly pursues his cheese-paring course — he wonders, “Can’t you speak without someone answering your questions?”)

Now, one way to explain this is to say that Socrates’s three interlocutors are completely lacking in the philosophical temperament — like many of their fellow Athenians, who will, we are sometimes reminded obliquely in this dialogue, eventually put Socrates to death — and that my own sympathy with their exasperation suggests that I lack that temperament as well.

But if so, why does Plato have Socrates make so many arguments that (as every decent commentary points out) are simply bad? Just to emphasize the contempt that Socrates has for these people? That doesn’t seem likely.

The Gorgias is a very strange dialogue and poses all sorts of pedagogical difficulties. Because if what I have said here about Socrates and his interlocutors is correct, no one in this dialogue makes good arguments.