Gorgias is a book which pursues an investigation into human nature and ways of life. The dialogue is a defense by Socrates of the ideal for which he gave his life, that man’s business on earth is to discover and do what is right. If we ask what this ideal has to do with oratory the answer is that in Plato’s view it stands in direct opposition to the ends which the oratorical training of his day was adapted to serve.

The setting of Gorgias is simple, and there are only four main characters engaged in it, Socrates himself, Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. The structure of the dialogue is the three-staged difference between what Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles believe Socrates means by justice and what Socrates really means. Although Gorgias seems to be primarily about morality and justice, the issue of rhetoric is more fundamental to the dialogue. What gives Gorgias its structure and also its appearance of being about morality is the successively more divergent misunderstanding by Socrates’ three interlocutors of what he says. Socrates simply sets out to test a hypothesis about Gorgianic rhetoric that it is artless flattery and a phantom image of justice; but Gorgias, Polus, and then Callicles each react in their peculiar ways to Socrates’ speeches and hence cause Socrates to adapt to that reaction. Thus the conversation seems to shift farther and farther away from the subject of rhetoric. However, Socrates’ hypothesis about rhetoric gets confirmed by the characteristic manner in which each of the representatives of this spurious art exhibits its defects. At the end, Socrates silences all three, but he seems to persuade none of them.

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