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Plato’s Gorgias Explained: Summary, Themes and Famous Notions

Plato‘s philosophical dialogue, Gorgias, is a conversation between the renowned philosopher Socrates and three prominent figures of ancient Greece — Gorgias, Polus and Callicles — on the use and abuse of rhetoric, the nature of morality and the pursuit of the good life.

Believed to have been written around 380 BCE, Gorgias is classified as an early Platonic dialogue, as characterized by Plato’s portray of Socrates engaging in dialectical questioning, challenging the beliefs of his interlocutors and exploring fundamental questions of knowledge and ethics.

The dialogue is a timeless masterpiece that critically examines the sophist tradition of oratory persuasion and its value, or lack thereof, in the context of the inherent ethical implications, as well as the repercussion for the individual and society at large. In so doing, it explores the tensions between rhetoric and morality, pleasure and justice, and the pursuit of immediate gratification versus the enduring fulfillment of the good life.

A Synopsis of Plato’s Gorgias

The Gorgias is a dialogue involving Socrates, the renowned rhetorician Gorgias, his student Polus, and the character Callicles, who hosts the encounter, about the nature and morality of rhetoric.

The dialogue commences with Socrates and his friend Chaerephon arriving late to a speech by Gorgias, a prominent rhetorician. Socrates, known for his method of questioning, expresses his preference for conversation over one-sided speeches, and Gorgias agrees to let Socrates cross-examine him.

Gorgias claims expertise in the art of rhetoric, which he defines as the skill of persuading others, and acknowledges that it is primarily utilized in courtrooms and public assemblies, thus effecting justice and politics. Socrates, in light of this statement, challenges the nature and legitimacy of rhetoric.

He questions whether rhetoric is a true craft or merely a knack for gratification and flattery. Polus argues in favor of rhetoric as a craft, while Socrates contends that it lacks the depth of a true art because it does not consider what is best but focuses solely on what is pleasurable. Rhetoric, Socrates contends, utilizes persuasive techniques that appeal to the audience’s emotions and desires to elicit the intended response, with no regard for what is just.

Socrates confronts Gorgias with the incongruity of teaching oratory without considering the principles of justice and morality, and questions Gorgias about whether rhetoricians, including himself, bear ethical responsibility for how their students use the persuasive skills they teach. Gorgias, however, maintains that the responsibility for ethical use lies with the students rather than the teacher.

Socrates then shifts the conversation by drawing a parallel between tyrants and rhetoricians. He contends that both groups, as they act unjustly by abusing their power, ultimately lead unhappy lives. He emphasizes the importance of these individuals facing the consequences of their actions, including punishment and rebuke. He suggests that those who engage in unjust actions, including tyrants and rhetoricians, carry a burden of unhappiness and that injustice corrupts their souls.

Socrates contends that injustice, particularly when it goes unpunished, is a grave evil that is inflicted onto oneself, and likens it to a tumor growing in one’s soul, asserting that it is far worse to do evil than to suffer it.

He posits that individuals should recognize their wrongdoing and seek judgment to avoid the festering and incurable corruption of their souls, which leads to the assertion that rhetoricians should accuse themselves, as well as their family and friends, in order to cure their souls from injustice. If the aforementioned is true, he continues, one should also ensure that one’s enemy, if they’ve acted immorally, does not face justice.

Polus and Callicles, astonished, express disbelief and question whether he is being facetious.

Callicles intervenes, vehemently criticizing Socrates’ line of thinking. He argues that doing wrong is not inherently shameful and that suffering wrong is worse than committing it, stating that only a weakling would prioritize artificial law over natural law. Callicles then dismisses philosophy as frivolous and unattractive, particularly in older men, accuses Socrates of being a demagogue and states that if he were ever on trial he would be helpless and ultimately be sentenced to death.

Socrates, unfazed, remarks on Callicles’ frankness and proceeds to counter the defense of natural justice, contending that nature itself affirms that committing injustice is worse than suffering it, that equality is justice and unrestrained indulgence is detrimental to oneself.

He then circles back to his previous argument and posits, once again, that the undisciplined individual is unhappy and should be subjected to justice.

As the dialogue reaches a stalemate, Socrates, on Callicles’ request, continues through a dialectic monologue, reiterating his belief that rhetoric is most effectively used against oneself. In this dialectic monologue, he emphasizes the pursuit of what is best, not merely what is pleasant, and stresses the importance of taking bitter truths over sweet falsehoods.

Concluding the narrative, Socrates tells a myth which he believes true, about the judgment of souls after death, warning Callicles that he too will face judgment and be as helpless there as Socrates is in this realm.

Analysis: Main Themes


The Gorgias is primarily concerned with the ethical implications of persuasive oratory techniques, associated with sophism in ancient Greece, when they are divorced from a commitment to truth and virtue and utilized solely for personal gain.

The dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias exemplifies and illustrates Plato’s critique of rhetoric for its ability to deceive, manipulate and corrupt individuals as well as the justice and political systems, and in so doing corrupt the state itself, affecting the entire community.

The similarity that Plato, through the character of Socrates, remarks upon – that rhetoricians and tyrants are unhappy individuals – is no mere accident, but rather a subtle commentary on the values shared by sophists and tyrants: self-serving moral relativism, in the pursuit of personal gratification. Implicitly, the argument is made that sophism leads to immorality and tyranny whereas philosophy leads to virtue and justice.

The Gorgias, therefore, is not merely a critique of rhetoric and sophism, nor is it an advocacy for the pursuit of truth and virtue, but also a work of political philosophy. In essence, the dialogue remarks upon the interconnectedness of truth, virtue and justice in all spheres of life – a hallmark of both Socratic and Platonic philosophy.

Virtue and Happiness

No analysis of the Gorgias would be complete without a discussion of the four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – as they were known and understood in ancient Greece. In fact, attempting to understand Socratic and Platonic philosophy in general without this knowledge would prove challenging.

In this particular instance, Socrates’ affirmation that “Callicles’ ideal is like a leaky jar, insatiable and unhappy”, in response to his defense of natural law and the rule of the strong, is best understood as a deficiency in temperance – moderation and abstention, when necessary, through self-control.

The assertion that sophists and tyrants are unhappy is essentially a critique of hedonism and an affirmation of the four cardinal virtues as indispensable for a fulfilling life. The leaky jar analogy, in turn, draws attention to the dangers of submitting to one’s unchecked impulses, not only on account of the extrinsic moral consequences that may ensue, but also for the detriment to oneself, namely, unhappiness and the corruption of one’s soul.

In sum, Socrates’ arguments against Callicles’ naturalistic morality are rooted in the conviction that the cultivation of virtues is essential for a life of happiness and fulfillment – a sentiment echoed in Plato’s conception of the tripartite soul, in which the ideal state is for reason to guide and moderate the spirited and appetitive desires.

The Value of Philosophy

In stark contrast to the rhetoricians’ intellectual and moral relativism, stands philosophy. More specifically, philosophy as Socrates and Plato understood it – the unwavering and uncompromising pursuit of knowledge, truth and virtue.

Socrates regarded philosophy as a lifelong endeavor, an intellectual and moral journey that leads to self-discovery and the unveiling of universal truths. His famous assertion that “the unexamined life is not worth living” underscores his belief that philosophy – love of wisdom, that is – is essential for human fulfillment. Plato’s intellectual paradigm, in turn, asserts the transcendent value of philosophical knowledge and its potential to guide humanity toward the highest ideals of truth and justice. He portrayed philosophers as those who possess knowledge of the Forms, abstract and perfect representations of reality – that is, universal truths, in line with Socratic thought – and who should govern the state based on their wisdom and commitment to justice, for the good of all.

The Gorgias dialogue, merely by presenting a discussion between Socrates and a sophist of renown, known for their relativistic approach to knowledge, would invariably and inevitably entail a debate on objectivity and subjectivity and an affirmation of the existence of objective truths.

By undermining the knowledge, skill, morality and, in sum, the value of rhetoric and rhetoricians, Plato, through the character of Socrates, directly elevates the qualities he values: wisdom, truth and virtue.

Significance: Famous Notions

Better to suffer injustice than commit injustice

The idea that it is worse to commit injustice than to suffer it, which Socrates advances in the Gorgias, is a contentious moral statement grounded in the belief that the consequences of committing an unjust act are more detrimental to one’s soul than being the victim of injustice. Contrary to popular belief, that is, both then and now, which values self-preservation and personal gain over moral integrity.

Socrates, the central character in many of Plato’s dialogues, is known for his commitment to ethical inquiry and the pursuit of wisdom, and his philosophy places a strong emphasis on living a virtuous life. Plato’s philosophy, in turn, is deeply influenced by Socrates’ ethical concerns. He believed that the cultivation of the soul and the pursuit of justice are essential for the good life, and ought to take precedence over power and material success.

The notion that it is better to be a victim than to enact an injustice, in a sense, exemplifies and illustrates both Socratic and Platonic thought, for it affirms the importance of virtue and the well-being of the soul in the pursuit of a meaningful and fulfilling life.

It remains, to this day, a foundational idea in the realm of ethics and moral philosophy, not to mention theology. It has had profound implications for ethics and has been a subject of debate and discussion in philosophy for centuries, for it raises important questions about the consequences of our actions, the role of morality in human life and the nature of justice itself.

Natural Law

Natural law, as espoused by Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias, is the idea that the strong and powerful individuals in society should follow their desires and interests without restrain. He contends that conventional morality, which constrains the powerful, is a product of human convention and not a reflection of the natural order. In essence, Callicles argues for a kind of moral relativism, contingent on strength and position, that privileges the strong and asserts that they are entitled to pursue their desires without ethical limitations.

Callicles’ defense of natural law stands in stark contrast to the moral philosophy of Socrates, who believed in the pursuit of wisdom and virtue as the highest goods in life. He argued that individuals should cultivate their souls and seek to understand and live in accordance with objective moral principles, regardless of their social status or power. While Plato’s own philosophy, in turn, emphasizes the pursuit of wisdom, justice and the ideal forms, he nonetheless presents Callicles’ viewpoint as a foil to Socratic and Platonic ethics.

The notion of natural law is significant in the history of philosophy because it represents a challenge to conventional moral and ethical norms. It introduces the idea that morality is not universal but rather contingent on one’s power and position in society.

Moral relativism has been a topic of debate in philosophy, politics and ethics for centuries, as it forces us to question the foundations of moral principles and consider whether they are indeed rooted in a universal ethical order or merely products of social agreement.

Notably, the notion of “natural law”, or “the state of nature” as it came to be known, would later be picked up by political philosopher Thomas Hobbes in support of sovereign authority and countered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his defense of humankind’s inherent goodness. Most famous of all, however, is Friedrich Nietzsche’s ethical perspective, which essentially echoes Callicles’ position and can be summarized as an intentional affront on both Platonism and Christianity.

The Judgement of Naked Souls

The Judgment of Naked Souls is a significant and thought-provoking notion presented in Plato’s Gorgias that underscores the importance of the intrinsic qualities of the soul, and the development of moral character, over worldly pursuits.

According to the story, in ancient times, Cronos judged people just before their deaths and divided them into two categories: the good and righteous were sent to the Isles of the Blessed, while the godless and unrighteous were consigned to a prison of vengeance and punishment, the Tartarus. These judgments, however, were flawed because they were made while people were alive and still wearing clothes, leading the judges to be deceived by appearances. To rectify this, Zeus arranged for people to be judged after death, thus being stripped of their bodies. Socrates states that he believes in this myth and deduces from it that death is the separation of body and soul.

In essence, the myth tells that, after death, individuals will face judgment in a state stripped of all external influences, wealth, power and reputation. In this judgment, the soul is assessed solely on its intrinsic qualities and moral character.

The notion of a post-mortem judgement has had profound implications for ethics, morality and the the concept of the good life, not to mention theology; for it disputes the importance of success, power, and material wealth as the ultimate goals of human existence, emphasizing instead the primacy of moral character and the intrinsic qualities of the soul in determining a person’s ultimate worth.

The Judgement of Naked Souls aligns with the philosophies of both Socrates and Plato, as they share a belief in the significance of the soul and the cultivation wisdom and moral excellence as the highest ideals in life.

Final Thoughts

Plato’s Gorgias is a philosophical dialogue that primarily explores the nature of rhetoric and its ethical implications. It features Socrates engaging in discussions with prominent figures of ancient Greece, including Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. Throughout the dialogue, the characters debate the art of persuasion, the pursuit of genuine knowledge and virtue, and the consequences of one’s choices and actions, both in this life and the next.

Gorgias, a prominent Sophist in ancient Greece known for his expertise in rhetoric, represents the traditional Sophistic view that all knowledge is opinion and that rhetoric is a powerful tool that can be used to win arguments and achieve personal goals. Polus is a young student of Gorgias, who is enthusiastic about rhetoric and believes that persuasive speech can lead to success and happiness.

Callicles, however, represents a different perspective altogether. He is a young Athenian who values power, strength and natural desires above all else. Callicles argues for a philosophy of self-indulgence and dominance, asserting that individuals of superior strength and intellect should be free to pursue their desires without restraint, and thus representing a hedonistic and might-makes-right mentality.

In the dialogue, these characters engage in philosophical debates with Socrates, who acts as the protagonist, challenging their beliefs and encouraging them to examine the ethical implications of their positions. Through these interactions, Plato explores the tensions between rhetoric, ethics, morality and the pursuit of the good life, providing valuable insights into the intellectual climate of ancient Greece and the shared commitment of Socrates and Plato to truth, virtue and the betterment of the individual and society through philosophy.

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