I found The Rhetorical Tradition’s narration about Gorgias to be the most interesting material from this week’s reading. Having recently studied Plato’s Gorgias, which suggests a strong distain for rhetorical tradition, it was exciting to hear a more admirable view of the rhetorician Gorgias as well as read one of his essays.
In Gorgias, Plato writes the namesake character to be easily manipulated, arrogant and, at times, incredibly ignorant. For example, at one point during the dialogue, Socrates – Plato’s characterization of his actual views – challenges Gorgias to respond to a series of questions in as few words as possible. Gorgias, wanting to prove himself as credible, agrees: “I’ll try anyway to be as brief as possible. Because even this is also one of the things I claim, that no one could say the same things in fewer words than I” (Plato 32). By asking Gorgias to limit his answers, Socrates effectively takes away his power of rebuttal and argument. And unfortunately for Gorgias, this allows Socrates to entangle him in his own words. Because Gorgias is given a constraint on his responses to Socrates, he gives the impression of lacking enthusiasm for his profession. When he should be arguing in defense of Sophism and rhetoric, Gorgias is lackluster instead.
A similar example exists during the argument between Socrates and Gorgias about whether rhetoric is the art of speaking. Inevitably, they determine that it cannot be because many crafts require speech. As the conversation develops, Gorgias is unable to explain to Socrates why rhetoric has a mastery of words over other arts. Instead, Gorgias determines that rhetoric is the art of persuasion. And later, he specifies that it is the art of persuasion in law courts that determines justice. Socrates attempts to summarize the conversation by saying: “[I]t looks like rhetoric is a crafter not of persuasion that teaches but of persuasion into belief about what’s just and unjust” (Plato 39). At this point, rhetoric has become the art of inspiring beliefs. As is common throughout Gorgias, Gorgias blindly agrees to Socrates’s statement.
In Gorgias, Socrates arrives late to a community gathering and misses Gorgias’s lecture altogether; this is a deliberate demonstration on author Plato’s part. With this, he makes a statement that Gorgias’s rhetorical speeches are uninteresting and not worth his time. In summary, Plato makes Sophist rhetoric sound like a lot of “mumbo jumbo,” for lack of a better phrase. But, The Rhetorical Tradition helped to remind me of why Gorgias is considered one of the best rhetoricians in history. “Listening to Gorgias apparently aroused not only intense sensual pleasure but also a shared sense of participation in a kind of wisdom available no other way” (Bizzell and Herzberg 42). It is quite clear throughout the dialogue within Gorgias that Plato views Sophist rhetoric as insincere persuasion aimed at promoting a particular belief; it lacks any goodness or virtue and is often untrue. But Gorgias had a remarkable power in his words and was, I believe, quite persuasive. His persuasive talents are exemplified in Encomium of Helen. Through what I consider to be heavy irony, Gorgias describes the outstanding ability of language to take control of people. His analysis of Helen’s choice to surrender to Paris was powerful. I can wholeheartedly understand his argument.
After working so closely with Gorgias, it was a refreshing reminder that Plato’s perspective is only one-dimensional. My initial interaction with Gorgias was not a fair one. He was truly a remarkable and noteworthy rhetorician, by any standards.
Plato. Gorgias. Trans. Joe Sachs. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2009. Print.