© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

E-mail Archives :
Tragedy in the Gorgias

September 3 & 6, 1995

This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

To: sophia <sophia@liverpool.ac.uk>
Date : September 3, 1995, 19:26:53
Subject : Tragedy in the Gorgias

As I promised in an earlier post, here are some more comments on the Gorgias.

I see the three characters discussing with Socrates as "playing the part" of the three parts of a soul, as described in the Republic: Gorgias is the logos, Polus the thumos, and Callicles the epithumiai. By "playing the part", I mean they are shown to behave and talk as would a person whose soul is dominated by the part they represent. But, taken together, they constitute one single "meta-speaker". We find the same thing in Republic, I, where Socrates is talking to a "soul" "played" by Cephalus as logos (but quite empty logos for that matter), Polemarchus as thumos and Thrasymachus as epithumiai. In the Republic, along the same line, Socrates is but the logos of another soul whose thumos is Adeimantus and epithumiai is Glaucon (the one who doesn't like the "city of pigs"). And the Republic is but a long dialogue of a soul with itself, showing how Socrates-logos "tames" the two "horses" of his soul (see Phædrus for the image of the winged chariot) whose fears have been raised by the other soul (especially by Thrasymachus-epithumiai) and voiced in their introductory speeches at the beginning of book II, and establishes internal "justice" within as the basis for social justice without.

In the Gorgias, we are not there yet, and Socrates-logos, ushered by Cherephon-thumos (all his epithumiai at rest) in Callicles' "house", is only dealing with somebody else's soul.

I don't want to go into the details of vocabulary and "staging" that confort this view, for fear of too long another post. I'll only point at the names of the two "players" that accompany Gorgias: Polos means "young colt", which reminds us of the image of the soul in the Phædrus, and Kalliclès means "the one with a reputation of beauty", beauty being the starting point for feelings (see Symposium). And it doesn't matter whether these are "historical" characters or not, as Plato still had the choice of them as "players" in his dialogue, unless you are willing to see dialogues as "tape-recorded" rendering of "historical" conversations (which I don't, as you may guess by then!).

This being said, the Gorgias shows what happens to a soul that doesn't care for "ideas", that sees logos only as a tool, as words rather than "reason", to be used for whatever purpose the thumos, and above all the epithumiai, want to use it. Gorgias doesn't pretend to teach justice, only to give his pupils a means of "looking" just by the tricks of rhetorics. And when the logos seems to be in trouble, enters the thumos. Socrates may try to get back to the logos when he starts an articulate speech (notice that the whole "theory" of rhetorics as kolakeia, 463a-466a, is adressed to Gorgias, not to Polus, though Polus is the one who answers at 466a), once the thumos has moved in, it is hard to quiet it down, until he himself is taken over by the epithumiai (Callicles) when he in turn gets into trouble with the logos of Socrates.

I won't go deeper in the analysis in this post. Let me just add two or three points.

1) This "descent into the inferno of the soul" collapses in one single dialogue what was a historical process from Parmenides to Gorgias to Alicibiades and Critias to Anytus and his likes. From "It is the same to be and to be thought" to "words can't be wrong" (the Euthydemus, in my scheme, is the exact couterpart of the Gorgias on the side of the "intelligible" world) to Socrates' trial, which can only be "redeemed" by the "parricide" of Parmenides in the Sophist, the counterpart of the Apology on the side of the "intelligible" world, which gives a rational analysis of the whole process.

2) That this process explains, in part at least, the trial of Socrates is made clear by the hint given by Callicles to Socrates on what might happen to him if someone were to bring him to court, at the beginning of his "part" (485e-486d), which is about the exact middle of the dialogue.

3) Here is an example of the way I'd like to approach the dialogues: from the "top" down (from an overall view of the dialogue and of its place in the whole scheme to the details in it) rather than from the bottom up (from textual criticism and lengthy comments on small parts of it to a larger view of a dialogue considered as an isolated work reflecting the state of mind of its author at some point in time in his life).

To: sophia <sophia@liverpool.ac.uk>
Date : September 6, 1995, 20:49:35
Subject : Re: Gorgias (part 1)

Carol Poster (1) said:

> I found the possibility that the 3 interlocutors in the Gorgias represented the 3 parts of the soul intriguing, but not yet entirely convincing. The strongest argument is that as an explanation it would account for the necessity of dialogue form. Not addressed were:

> * Are there other simpler and equally satisfactory explanations? e.g. that these characters simply represent widely held opinions of the period (or could both be true? different character types representing the predominance of different parts of the soul?)

I in effect think both are true. In the same way the Republic is simultaneously dealing with both internal (justice in the soul) and external (justice in the polis) justice, to make us realize that one cannot go without the other, and is at the same time theorizing what it is "enacting", because there, the dialogue is mainly the dialogue of a soul with itself, the Gorgias, staying at the "external" level, both "enacts" the dialogue of a soul's logos (Socrates) with all parts of another soul and hints at a "genetic" explanation of how a well-intentioned Gorgias may lead, in one or two generations, to a Callicles and to Socrates' trial, when his technè (or tribè) is put to task by less noble "souls", explanation that is theorized as well in the later part of the Republic, which describes the degeneration of soul and city.

> * A strong philological case -- are the specific terms used by Plato to describe the parts of the soul echoed accurately in the speeches (or descriptions) of the corresponding characters? Could we try for a short focussed account of a few specific passages (rather than broad arguments ad hominem)?

Before focusing at specific passages, and to be consistent with my top down approach, let me give you some results from a quick review of the use of some key words across the Gorgias, done with the help of Brandwood' Word Index.

1) The first theme of the discussion with Gorgias is logos (you don't need Brandwood to see that, though!). It doesn't matter that the logos discussed here is "speech", because the point is precisely, from the standpoint of Socrates, to investigate which logos should drive the soul.

2) The first theme of discussion with Polus once Gorgias is let aside (that is, after the "theory of kolakeia at 463a-466a, which is mostly adressed to Gorgias) has a lot to do with "will": 22 uses of the verb boulesthai in 3 Stephanus pages (466c-469c). It deals with the conflict between what you please and what you (actually) want, which is the main problem of the thumos in the soul, caught in between the logos and the epithumiai.

3) One of the first words of Callicles when he jumps into the discussion at 481b is "epithumô". This verb has only be used so far once by him at the very beginning ("epithumei Sôkratès akousai Gorgiou", 447b, showing that he assumes everybody "feels" like him), and once by Polus at 474c ("epithumô eidenai ho ti pot' ereis"), at a turning point in the discussion (it restart "ex archès", see Socrates answer at 474c) where the "boulesthai" disappears from the conversation with Polus and he starts giving in to Socrates' logos about the psuchè, which shows up a few pages later (8 uses of "psuchè" within one page at 477a-e, none before except in Socrates' theory of kolakeia, 8 uses). Except for these, all uses of the word "epithumia" (18) and the verb "epithumein" (6 more) are in the discussion with Callicles, 7 of them at the beginning within 3 pages (491d-494c).

4) Out of 79 uses of the words "hèdonè" and "hèdus", 57, that is almost three quarters, are in the first half of the discussion with Callicles, when he still accepts to answer (488b, that is, after the introductory speech of Callicles and the two surrounding speeches by Socrates, to 506b, that is about one quarter of the dialogue).

to be continued...

To: sophia <sophia@liverpool.ac.uk>
Date : September 6, 1995, 22:22:56
Subject : Re: Gorgias (part 2)

...continuation of previous posting...

5) Callicles eventually stops discussing, and only keeps answering to "please" Gorgias (505c), after Socrates again brings the psuchè into the discussion (14 uses in 4 pages, 501b-505b, out of the 19 in that first part of the discussion with Callicles), in an apology of "law and order (kosmos)", and sôphrosunè, which is kind of a summary of the Republic through the example of famed politicians that didn't measure up to its ideal.

6) The introductory speech of Socrates when Callicles jumps in (481c482c) is an appeal to feelings and to "love", which is an attempt to put in practice what is theorized in Diotime's speech in the Symposium: raise from the love of Demos, not only to the love of the demos, but to that of sophia, as Socrates raised from the love of Alcibiades to the love of philosophia, and as the reader is invited to do from the reading of the Alcibiades to that of the Laws, through a set of dialogues called "the Philosopher".

6) That the thumos should side with the logos is "shown" by the fact that the dialogue with Gorgias continues after Polus jumps in. Socrates tries to bring them together in dragging Gorgias back in the discussion when he explains his theory of kolakeia (theory is for the logos), without completely letting Polus out (see 465a).

7) Gorgias "shows" why he can't teach justice to his pupils: because he doesn't have "internal" justice. At 458b-e, when Socrates sees that Gorgias shows inconsistencies in his logos, he wants to make sure Gorgias is willing to talk seriously. At that point, Gorgias looks for a complete agreement of the other "parts of his soul", but, three pages later, at 461b, we can see this agreement was faked when Polus jumps in, showing that Gorgias could not keep his thumos under control and "loses his temper".

8) Plato shows that he is well aware of the meaning of the name "Polos" with the vocabulary he uses after he jumps in: at 461d, he tries to quiet him down by using a verb that refers to horses, inciting us to "remember" the image of the soul in the Phædrus (at least on second reading, if we follow the order I suggested!).

(1) Carol Poster, English Dept., University of Northern Iowa <poster@cobra.uni.edu> (back)

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published December 8, 1996 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
Quotations from theses pages are authorized provided they mention the author's name and source of quotation (including date of last update). Copies of these pages must not alter the text and must leave this copyright mention visible in full.