Literature Study GuidesDialogues Of PlatoWhat Is Rhetoric Summary 449c 461b Summary

Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide


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Dialogues of Plato | What Is Rhetoric? Summary (449c–461b) | Summary



Socrates wants to know the scope of rhetoric's domain. He offers examples by way of analogy, such as weaving being about making clothing and music being about making melodies. Since Gorgias claims to teach rhetoric, it must be knowledge about something, just as weaving and music involve knowledge.

Gorgias tells Socrates that rhetoric's domain of knowledge is speeches, but Socrates is dissatisfied. Speeches telling sick people about how to be well are not within the scope of what rhetoric does, so Gorgias has not provided a good answer. As they proceed, Socrates elicits from Gorgias two significant arguments concerning rhetoric:

  1. It is a great power—to produce persuasion—and so "the greatest good for men." The power is a freedom to rule both oneself and others through words.
  2. It is morally neutral. So, the teacher of rhetoric is not responsible for what a student does with his acquired skill. He is not an ethics teacher, but rather a craftsman of the persuasive art, the product of which is belief, rather than knowledge.

Gorgias offers an analogy to bolster his claim that a teacher of rhetoric cannot be held responsible for his students' misuse of this skill: A man who has learned boxing and then beats his mother, father, and friends cannot blame his trainer as the cause.

Gorgias's role as a teacher of rhetoric involves being able to teach anyone how to speak persuasively on any subject, even more so than the experts in the subject matter themselves. Socrates points out that this skill is more effective on an ignorant than a knowledgeable audience. Moreover, because persuasion is not restricted to rhetoric—teachers persuade, for example, with an aim toward knowledge—it would seem it does not produce knowledge itself but, at least in some instances, true belief.

Gorgias accepts the view that the orator who learns "the trick of persuasion" is better equipped for success with the ignorant over the knowledgeable. Indeed, he says it makes things easier for the student of rhetoric, for they "don't have to learn any other arts but this single one." This is the case with respect to not only the arts such as health, but also with "the just and the unjust, the ugly and the beautiful, and good and evil." However, Gorgias maintains that the student who does not already know about moral matters will learn them from him.

Socrates's examination of Gorgias ends with some perplexity. On the one hand, rhetoric is morally neutral, but on the other hand, its domain includes justice—and, importantly, orators can use their skill unjustly. Given the initial analogies to other crafts, such as weaving, medicine, and building, it would seem that rhetoric includes knowledge of justice—and, as Socrates has it, knowledge directs action. Another way to put things is that, like a person who has learned building is a builder, so also the person who has learned what is just is himself just. However, this is inconsistent with the claim that an orator can speak on any subject without also knowing about it.


The two arguments highlighted are suggestive of the worry Plato has over skills being used for bad ends. The Sophist's role is to teach men how to speak persuasively, but this skill is not necessarily guided by a concern with the truth. Callicles, who studies rhetoric, is not interested in the improvement of his soul, but in power. So, the new and old accusations resonate against him: he "makes the weaker argument appear the stronger" and, in so doing, corrupts the youth. Used rightly, rhetoric helps people discover knowledge; used wrongly, it harms the soul.

On the current understanding of rhetoric gleaned from the definitions by Gorgias and analyses conducted by Socrates, one may be quite good at giving speeches without having any expertise in the subject matter of which a speech is about. The rhetorician is something like an actor: good at making his audience believe he knows what he is talking about.

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