The Dramatic Setting of the Gorgias
The Gorgias has been often characterized by commentators as a remarkably bitter dialogue. After all, the dialogue presents a war between philosophy and rhetoric. Socrates is involved in three discussions of growing length and complexity with characters who, to various degrees, defend the power of rhetoric and the superiority of political life over philosophical life. It is a "fighting dialogue", as is also suggested by its incipit: "to war and battle."
One would expect Socrates to win against his non-philosophical interlocutors. However, this is not the case. The more the conversations proceed, the more they are infiltrated by anger and misunderstanding, the more one is under the impression that Socrates may well silence his interlocutors but he hardly persuades them. His last interlocutor, Callicles, not only is not persuaded by him, but at one point even refuses to talk to Socrates and leaves him with the choice between abandoning the discussion altogether and performing a monologue.
The myth of last judgment, which concludes the dialogue, is addressed to Callicles. However, Socrates is afraid that Callicles will dismiss it as an old wives' tale and hence will pay no more attention to the myth than he paid to Socrates' previous claims. Socrates' invocation of Callicles' name, which concludes the dialogue, is significantly left unanswered.
The uneasiness with which Plato scholars have often responded to the Gorgias can be taken as the starting point for a further inquiry. Besides the reasons I just pointed out, can other aspects of this dialogue account for its peculiar impact on many readers?
In what follows I will contrast the dramatic setting of the Gorgias with that of the Protagoras. The two dialogues are closely related. While in the Protagoras Socrates discusses with a famous sophist, in the Gorgias he discusses with a rhetorician. Here Socrates differentiates between rhetoricians and sophists, on the basis of his bipartition of flattery in analogy with the bipartition of care of the soul. Sophistry is to legislation what rhetoric is to justice. (1) This differentiation is partially erased by an immediately subsequent claim. Sophistry and rhetoric, albeit naturally distinct, are "jumbled up" in everyday life (2) in such a way that for all practical purposes they are indistinguishable. If we are interested in meeting sophists and rhetors as they are "jumbled up" in everyday life, we can say that the Protagoras and the Gorgias deal with the same kind of human being.
The following is a concise list of similarities and dissimilarities:
1) The Gorgias is a performed dialogue.
The Protagoras is a narrated dialogue. The narrator is Socrates himself.
2) The Gorgias begins in medias res.
In the Protagoras Socrates' narration is introduced by a dialogical framing scene, with an exchange between Socrates and the unnamed friend.
3) The Gorgias is a voluntary dialogue. Socrates wants to talk to Gorgias and goes to speak to him. He blames Chaerophon for being late.
The Protagoras is a compulsory dialogue. Socrates says that he had been aware of Protagoras' presence in Athens for two days before Hippocrates insisted that he be accompanied to speak with the sophist. Socrates' visit to Callias' house and the ensuing conversation with Protagoras are done for Hippocrates' sake. (3)
4) In the Gorgias Socrates' discussion with the interlocutor after whom the dialogue is named is much shorter than his discussion with the other two interlocutors.
In the Protagoras the discussion with the interlocutor after whom the dialogue is named occupies most of the dialogue. (4)
5) Both dialogues have a "Hades dimension". In the Gorgias Callicles says that the life of human beings like him is turned upside down, since they do the opposite of what they ought to do if what Socrates says is true. (5) Socrates will later claim that the life praised by Callicles is like that of the water carriers who are being punished in Hades. (6) It is not a life of true enjoyment, but rather the instantiation on earth of the reversed world of Hades. The myth of last judgment, by drawing the distinction between Kronos' age and Zeus' age in regard to truth and appearance, illuminates Socrates' view of the condition of his interlocutors' souls. To various degrees they live their life as if they were still the mortal dwellers of Kronos' realm.
In the Protagoras Socrates' narration to the unknown comrades establishes from the outset the metaphorical connection between his experience with the sophists in Callias' house and a descent to Hades. Socrates first associates Protagoras with Orpheus, (7) who descended to Hades alive thanks to the enchanting power of his music. He then quotes Odyssey xi and associates Hippias with Heracles (8) (who also descended to Hades alive) and Prodicus with Tantalus. (9)
6) The temporal setting of the Gorgias is indeterminate.
a) We are given contradictory dates as to the year in which it is supposed to occur. (10)
b) We are told nothing about the time of the day in which the conversation takes place. The only temporal indication is that Socrates is "late". Socrates arrives late and unexpected when Gorgias, who just finished a rhetorical display, is about to answer any questions raised by those inside. Gorgias claims that he can answer all questions and that in fact he has not been asked a new question for many years.
Socrates' late and unexpected arrival, and Gorgias' confidence that no question can really bring anything new and unexpected, can be seen in light of Socrates' myth at the end of the dialogue. In the last judgment myth Socrates maintains that true judgment of the soul is possible only once human beings are made to face death's unexpectedness. The unexpected arrival of death, the possibility to abstract from deceiving appearance and the discovery of truth about the soul characterize Zeus' improvement upon Kronos' laws. Vice versa, foreknowledge of death, and hence control over their last trials by the mortals who can rely on the judges' dependence on appearance, characterize Kronos' laws. While last judgments in Kronos' age are under the mortals' control and do not really allow for any new discovery, last judgments in Zeus' age allow for the emergence of truth.
In a way reminiscent of what Socrates says of the powerful king who faces trial in Zeus' age, (11) Gorgias is made to face Socrates directly, and is deprived of the veil of appearance provided by the many witnesses who surround him. The applause of Gorgias' audience and the help provided by his follower, Polus, are quickly dismissed by Socrates, who makes clear from the outset that he is not willing to undergo another epideixis on Gorgias' part. Rather than passively listen to Gorgias' showing off, Socrates wants to ask questions. He intends to find out "who Gorgias is" and what the power of his techne is. While Gorgias' sympathetic audience seems unable to ask him unexpected questions, Socrates' unexpected arrival and his unwillingness to submit to another long display suggest that his questions may indeed surprise Gorgias, find him unprepared and vulnerable. Socrates will refute Gorgias, seemingly by asking him unexpected questions. This suggests that Gorgias will be experiencing, before the reader's eyes, something comparable to the revolution brought about by the passage from the time of Kronos to the time of Zeus in Socrates' myth.
If we now turn to the temporal setting of the Protagoras we can see that:
a) The larger temporal framing is indeterminate (as with the Gorgias, contradictory dates allow us only to consider a time-span in which it may have occurred).
b) The smaller temporal framing is determined in detail. We are given many indications as to the part of the day in which the conversations take place. Socrates is awakened by Hippocrates just before dawn. (12) He declares that it is too early for them to rush to Callias' house as Hippocrates would like, and proposes that they wait until daylight comes. (13) Hippocrates blushes right at dawn. (14) They arrive at Callias' house after dawn, but stop at the doorway in order to finish their discussion. They knock on the door only after having come to an agreement. (15) Socrates' pre-dawn conversation with Hippocrates has its peak when Hippocrates feels ashamed about wishing to become a sophist. The light comes in at the same time as he blushes.
In the Gorgias shame plays a big role, but nobody blushes. Here the characters are often ashamed to manifest their true beliefs, but as a consequence what they say and how they really feel are at odds. Their words are refuted by Socrates, but it remains a question if their real beliefs are refuted too.
Another way to put this is to say that in the Protagoras Socrates is approached by Hippocrates early enough. His mind perhaps can still be enlightened, as I think is suggested by the image. In the Gorgias Socrates arrives late in the day and no light ever comes in. Nobody blushes, not even Callicles, who is the closest to becoming really ashamed at one point. The general atmosphere of the Gorgias is darker. This may suggest that for Callicles there is much less hope than for Hippocrates. In the language of Socrates' myth, he may be one of the incurables. (16)
7) The spatial framing of the Gorgias is indeterminate. All the reader is invited to see is that there is a movement from "outside" to "inside". The movement itself is not described (an unicum in the Platonic corpus). While the passage from "outside" to "inside" is almost magical, the characters are often aggressive, angry, polemical, abusive: the boundaries of each other's souls are most of the time ignored by them. The metaphorical walls between what is outside and what is inside tend to disappear. It is worth remembering that Socrates compares the soul to a jar, i. e. to a container, and describes the profligate's soul to a leaky jar. In the last judgment myth, last judgment in Zeus' time is equated to un-mediated contact between two souls, stripped of all that belonged to them in conjunction with their body.
A container has a wall that separates it from the outside. The body of a human being has boundaries constituted by its skin. In English, as in other languages, however, the skin can be taken as a representative of the boundaries of a soul. If we say of someone that he has "a thin skin", among other things we imply that he is very sensitive and vulnerable, in that the boundaries between him and other people are shaky. Someone with a thin skin takes everything "personally". The limit between his internal world and that of others is always in question.
One important issue at stake in this dialogue is that the passage from surface to depth, from the external to the internal world appears extraordinarily simple and not mediated by firm boundaries. It is as if we were invited to ask two opposite questions: is there a surface which is not a surface of depth? Is there a depth that can manifest itself without relying on a surface? At first sight the dialogue seems to invite us to associate rhetoric with the first option, and philosophy with the second.
At the same time, the dialogue itself, taken as a container of the various conflicts enacted during the three conversations, appears often on the point of breaking and falling apart. Its walls run serious risks too. The conversation is constantly interrupted, either because the characters change their roles in asking questions and answering them, or because they get overtly angry, and, in the case of Callicles, even refuse to continue.
By contrast, the spatial framing of Socrates' narration in the Protagoras is specified by many details. Hippocrates knocks violently on Socrates' door and rushes inside. (17) Their conversation begins inside the house and continues in the court of Socrates' house. (18) In the court Socrates develops at length the opposition between buying victuals and liquors that can be carried out in separate vessels and buying doctrines that cannot be carried away in separate vessels. In order to explain the disanalogy Socrates points out that doctrines, once acquired, do not remain outside the soul but enter inside it and affect it. Only when this is made clear to Hippocrates does Socrates invite him to go outside and walk to Callias' house. (19)
The passage from outside to inside is again underlined when Socrates and Hippocrates reach Callias' house. They stop outside the doorway, finish their discussion and come to an agreement. (20) Once they resolve to knock at the door an angry eunuch does not want to let them in. (21) When they finally enter they come upon Protagoras walking round in the cloister. The revolutions of Protagoras' followers in the cloister are described. (22) The geography of Callias' house and the place occupied by his guests are presented in some detail. Both the house and its guests are related by Socrates to Hades.
In the Protagoras, where Socrates is the narrator, the opposition between what is outside the soul, what is inside it, and what can enter and affect it is carefully stressed. Accordingly, the description of any movement from an enclosed space to an open space is pointed out. Enclosed spaces, in turn, are described in detail. While Hippocrates needs to learn that teachings enter the soul and affect it, Socrates knows that the soul is not simply "inside". It has different parts that may be affected for better or worse by different teachings. The geography of Callias' house, in analogy with the geography of Hades, points to a geography of the soul's internal world.
8) The ending of the Gorgias points to its beginning. The dialogue starts with Callicles' words and ends with an invocation of his name. However, nothing in the ending hints at an open future: Socrates' myth of Hades receives no response. As a consequence, the beginning and ending of the Gorgias relate to each other as if in a circle. Immediately before the myth of final judgment we find two prophecies: Callicles may suffer the same fate as Alcibiades. (23) Socrates may be brought to court and be unable to defend himself. (24) We know that the second prophecy soon proved true. We know nothing of what happened to Callicles after his dialogue with Socrates. If he ever existed his name did not survive him.
The ending of the Protagoras directs us to its beginning. The dialogue concludes when Socrates leaves Protagoras with the excuse that he is due somewhere else. As we find out by reading the beginning of the dialogue, however, after leaving Protagoras and the whole company Socrates meets the unnamed companion, reveals that he is free and narrates the whole story. In other words, his declaration of which is first stated at 335c4-7, turns out to be a lie. Socrates in fact has all the leisure he wants, since he not only narrates his conversation with Protagoras, but includes also the story of Hippocrates' bizarre visit to him before dawn. The end of the dialogue directs the reader's attention to an open future. Socrates' life is still in his hands. The whole narration is due to Socrates'
If we consider all these points we can see that the reader of the Gorgias, in contrast with that of the Protagoras, is almost overwhelmed by the dialogue. As we have seen, this very long dialogue does not have a framing scene, is indeterminate in time and space, has a title that does not help much to understand its content and has an almost sinister ending. Furthermore, it unfolds in a sequence of refutations that become longer and longer in direct proportion with the degree of anger and misunderstanding they unravel. The reader is introduced into a claustrophobic interior which lacks light and does not promise any light for the future.
In such a setting the absence of a narrator can be equated with the absence of any mediation. The reader has almost to recover from a sequence of blows. He/she is invited to think through what he/she reads as someone may be invited to find space where there is none. More than an invitation this looks like an appeal to the self-preservation of one's mind.
Let us consider Odyssey xi. Here Odysseus does not really descend to Hades: the shadows of the dead approach him. Still, in the end he is taken by "green fear" and runs away. However, the reader of the Odyssey is not made to witness unfolding events. The reader knows that Odysseus is the narrator of his own adventure. He is now a guest of the Phaiakians, comfortably sitting in the royal palace and recounting to friendly ears the terrible events that he survived. In sum, from the beginning of book xi the reader knows that Odysseus' adventure in Hades was not fatal to him.
In the Protagoras Socrates' function as a narrator is similar. When he tells his story to the unnamed friends the reader knows that it belongs to Socrates' past: he survived his descent to Hades in Callias' house. To the temporal distance between the events and the time in which the narration takes place corresponds a distance between the mind of the narrator and the facts he is recounting. He is under no compulsion to act, while he tells his story. He has scolhv: he is free to think about his experience in the process of recollection.
The reader of the Gorgias is made a witness of unfolding events. The dramatic setting indicates that Socrates' conversations with his interlocutors in the dialogue can be seen in the perspective of the passage from Kronos' age to Zeus' age in the judgment of the soul. If this is the case, the reader is plunged in a Hades-like atmosphere, but does not know whether Socrates will emerge alive from Hades. No Virgil leads the reader through the hellish atmosphere of the dialogue. Since Socrates is only one of the characters, the reader is not told by him what he has in mind when he says certain things or acts in certain ways. (25)
At the end of the Gorgias Socrates claims that the punishments inflicted on the incurables in Hades are to serve as examples to the wrongdoers whose souls can still be cured. Perhaps the reader of the Gorgias is meant to be a witness of this sort. If his mind is curable the spectacle he is invited to witness will not be overbearing. The process of recollection is entirely left to him.
The Gorgias is not the result of Plato's still undeveloped authorial skills, as Taylor once suggested. (26) To the contrary, as I hope I have shown, its dramatic setting illuminates the philosophical significance of the dialogue as it does in Plato's mature masterpieces.
(1) Gorgias 464b2-465c4.
(2) Gorgias, 465c5-10. See also 520a7-9.
(3) Protagoras, 310b8-9. On this point see David Roochnik, Of Art and Wisdom: Plato's Understanding of Techne (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), p. 212.
(4) See R. B. Rutherford, The Art of Plato,. Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. London: Duckworth, 1995, p.141
(5) Gorgias, 481c1-7.
(6) Gorgias, 493b1-8.
(7) Protagoras, 315a10.
(8) Ivi, 315b10. See Odyssey, xi, 601.
(9) Ivi, 315c9-10. See Odyssey, xi, 582.
(10) Some interpreters have observed that the time-span suggested by the various dates (between 427 - year of Gorgias' first visit in Athens - and 405 - when the trial at Arginousae took place) corresponds approximately to the beginning and the end of the Peloponnesian war (431-404). See Gorgias, M. Canto, ed. and transl. (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1987): 49-54; A. Saxonhouse, "An Unspoken Theme in Plato's Gorgias: War", Interpretation 11 (1983): 139-169; Seth Bernadete, The Rhetoric of Morality and Philosophy: Plato's Gorgias and Phaedrus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 7.
(11) Compare Gorgias 523c4-d3 with 524d8-525a1.
(12) Protagoras, 310a9:
(13) Protagoras, 311a1-8.
(14) Protagoras, 312a2-3: "to this he replied with a blush - for by then there was a glimmer of daylight by which I could see him quite clearly". See Roochnik, Of Art and Wisdom, p. 213.
(15) Protagoras, 314c3-8.
(16) Gorgias, 525c2-d1.
(17) Protagoras, 310a9-b2.
(18) Protagoras, 311a2-6.
(20) Protagoras, 314c3-8.
(21) Protagoras, 314c8-e4.
(22) Protagoras, 314e4-315b9.
(23) Gorgias, 519a7b2: "And perhaps they'll seize on you, if you're not careful, and on my companion Alcibiades, when they lose both their more recent gains and what they had before, though you aren't wholly responsible for the evils, but perhaps partly responsible."
(24) Gorgias, 521e ff.
(25) Consider for example Protagoras 317c7. Socrates, who just approached Protagoras with his request, says: "on this, as I suspected that he wished to make a display before Prodicus and Hippias, and give himself airs on the personal attachment shown by our coming to him, I remarked: "then surely we must call Prodicus and Hippias and their followers to come and listen to us!"
Socrates does not simply relate what he said. He presents the thoughts
that were in his mind before speaking. The reader is supposed to see what
intentions and expectations lie behind an otherwise unqualified
invitation. Socrates thinks before acting, (Protagoras points out this
"prometheutic" quality of Socrates from the outset, long before the myth
of Prometheus becomes central. See Protagoras 316c6:
(26) A. E. Taylor, Plato. The Man and his Work (London, 1929), p. 103: "Personally I cannot help feeling that, with all its moral splendor, the dialogue is too long: it "drags". The Plato of the Protagoras or Republic, as I feel, would have known how to secure the same effect with less expenditure of words; there is a diffuseness about our dialogue which betrays the hand of a prentice, though the prentice in this case is Plato."