PlatoS Dialogue Gorgias Speechmaking And Oration Essay

Plato?S Dialogue, Gorgias: Speechmaking And Oration Essay, Research Paper

In Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, Socrates raises the issue of speechmaking. He asks his interlocutors to refrain from making speeches in their usual drawn on manner, and to simply answer his questions. While, for the most part, the three sophists avoid long speeches, Socrates himself often makes comments at length. His questioning, while usually short and to the point, at times takes on aspects of the same methods that he chastises his conversationalists for. Socrates’ speeches, however, avoid the use of oratory and rhetoric language. While he does make extended statements, he does not attempt to use his speeches to push his opinions, but rather, to explain his thoughts in greater detail. Unlike the sophists, his goal is not to gain himself power, but rather, to show his interlocutors the truth.

Socrates’ follower, Chaerephon, asks Polus at the beginning of the discussion, “What is the art in which Gorgias is expert, and what would be the corresponding right name to give him?” (448) In response, Polus responds in the typical rhetorician’s manner, using glossy language and seemingly educated structure. Ultimately, however, not answering the question at all. Socrates is quick to point this out, however, and asks that the interlocutors avoid using the tactics again.

Soon thereafter, Gorgias takes up the conversation. He explains to Socrates that he will answer all the questions in as much brevity as possible. He claims, “Nobody can express a given idea more concisely than I.” (449) Happy with Gorgias’ promise, Socrates proceeds to question him on the subject of rhetoric. Gorgias stays true to his promise, never speaking more than a few words; Socrates, however has trouble keeping his tongue. After only a short discussion Socrates begins a lengthy speech. There is a lack of rhetoric in his monologue, however, and he seems merely to be using examples for Gorgias to better understand. He poses questions to himself, such as “Tell me Socrates, what is the art of arithmetic?” (451), merely to show Gorgias what type of answers he expects.

Hypothetical questioning is a reoccurring theme in Socrates’ many speeches during the dialogue. He does so during his conversations with all three interlocutors and it is this subtle difference that distinguishes his speeches from those of Polus and Callicles. By stating his beliefs in the form of hypothetical questions, as he does with Gorgias (451-2), and then later with Polus (469) and Callicles (493), Socrates avoids making forcefully opinionated statements. When he does choose to push his opinions, he invites his interlocutors to “hear what I have to say and then raise objections if you like.” (478) For the most part, Socrates’ speeches are based solely upon further explaining his points, rather than all at once forming and concluding his opinions.

In the case of Polus and Callicles, it is evident that their training as sophists is used throughout their dialogue. Both often find themselves being led in a discussion by Socrates, only to have to fight their way out by use of rhetoric speeches. Despite their efforts, however, Socrates is neither impressed nor deceived.

Before his dialogue with Polus, Socrates asks that he “keep in check the tendency to make long speeches which [he] showed at the beginning of our conversation.” (461) Polus keeps his speechmaking in check for quite a time, however he does not abandon his use of oratory. While Socrates attempts to keep the discussion in a questioning manner, Polus continually tries to lead Socrates’ responses. Polus, at one point, asks, “can they [orators] not kill whoever they please, like dictators, and inflict confiscation and banishment on anyone they choose?”, to which Socrates replies, “I swear Polus, whenever you open your mouth I’m in doubt whether you are expressing your own opinion or asking me a question.” (466) Polus’ oratory is so inherent, that he cannot even pose a question without attempting to force his opinion onto the listener.

Socrates’ distaste for Polus’ use of oratory is evident throughout the discussion. Quite often, Socrates is rude to Polus, simply because it is nearly impossible for him to carry on the level of questioning that he wishes with someone so set on asking closed questions. When Polus asks him if he thinks “that good orators are meanly thought of in a state, and regarded as pander”, Socrates coldly replies, “Is this a question or the beginning of a speech?” (466)

Later in the conversation, Polus makes a bold statement about the King of Persia, stating that despite his vicious ways, he must be a quite content man. Previously, Socrates had argued that all evil people are unhappy, so Polus takes the chance to mock Socrates’ logic. Socrates is not shaken by Polus’ use of language, and tells him “while I thought you admirably well-trained in oratory you seemed to me to have neglected the art of reasoning”. “In your opinion”, he states, “you have now proved that I was wrong . . . How can this be, my good sir, seeing that I don’t admit the force of anything that you have said?” (471)

The argument between Polus and Socrates goes on for quite some time, with Polus trying to fight the method of Socrates. Slowly, Polus’ use of oratory decreases, and Socrates finds a foothold in his argument, that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Step by step, the dialogue continues, until several points regarding misery and happiness are made. Through one of his own speeches, Socrates connects these points and convinces Polus that oratory is unlikely “to be of much use to a man who is not going to do wrong.” (481) The key to Socrates’ speech is not that he brought any new information to the table and forces it upon Polus, but rather that he makes simple connections between already established points.

Despite his efforts to avoid rhetoric dialogue, Socrates does at times seem quite pushy in his methods. Callicles, seeing his fellow sophists so easily swayed by Socrates’ theories, claims that his language “shows all the extravagance of a regular catch-penny speaker.” He goes onto argue the point that Socrates exploits the semantic differences of language; “If a man speaks the language of convention, you meet him with a question framed in the language of nature.” (482) Socrates never denies the allegations, nor does he have to. Neither his methods, nor his theories are affected by such talk.

Callicles’ speech is that of a typical sophist. He raises no questions in his speech, and does not attempt to use logic to prove his points. In the end, Callicles speaks about his own opinions for quite some time, and as his proof, quotes three lines of an ancient poem. That’s not to say that some of Callicles’ theories aren’t valid, just that he does not allow for discussion, and therefore loses a chance to perhaps prove his point to Socrates or the other interlocutors.

The last of the Callicles’ speeches is a boldly stated opinion on the right and good way of life. Callicles holds back nothing when he states,

“I tell you frankly that natural good and right consist in this, that the man who is going to live as a man ought should encourage his appetites to be as strong as possible . . . and be able by means of his courage and intelligence to satisfy them in all their intensity by providing them with whatever they happen to desire.” (491-2)

This speech, unlike others by the interlocutors, has very little rhetoric language. The first paragraph, (quoted above), and the final paragraph, in which Callicles speaks of “the truth”, are indicative of Callicles’ dialect. The rest of the speech, although opinionated, is somewhat like those of Socrates, in that it poses questions to be answered by another. Socrates is aware of the strength of this speech, and in fact, praises Callicles attempt to “set out plainly in the light of day opinions which other people entertain but are loth to express.” (492) Callicles does not make another speech in the dialogue, but then again, those of Socrates do not sway him either.

Obviously, Socrates is not a fan of oratory or rhetoric language. In an early confrontation with Polus, Socrates is not satisfied with his interlocutor’s attempt at proving him wrong through the use of oratory. Polus used, as proof of his point, the fact his theory on what made happy and content men was commonly accepted. Despite popular knowledge, however, Polus can “produce no compelling reason why [Socrates] should” believe him. (472) Socrates knows that his beliefs are not accepted in society, so an argument attempting to prove him wrong simply because his opinions are not the consensus will achieve nothing. Socrates later tells Polus, that while you “have everybody in agreement with you except for me, I am content if I can obtain you single agreement and testimony.” (475)

Socrates understands that the majority of the world will never understand his theories or beliefs. He does not attempt to pressure everyone he can into sharing his beliefs, rather, his “method is to call in support of my statements the evidence of a single witness, the man I am arguing with, and to take his vote alone; the rest of the world are nothing to me; I am not talking to them.” (474)

Despite all of his efforts, Socrates cannot convince Callicles that it is better to be wronged than to do wrong. He is forced to conceding that he and Callicles are “in an endless circle of mutual misunderstanding.” (517) The end of the dialogue is somewhat distressing, in that, because Socrates’ methods of questioning have been unsuccessful, he is forced to resort to oratory. It is obvious that nothing that Socrates can say will sway Callicles’ opinion, so he chooses to relate his opinions to the will of the gods. While his speech may be somewhat inspiring to those present at the discussion, it is disheartening to see Socrates reduce himself to the level of orator. Although it is apparent that he is done trying to influence Callicles’ opinions with his tale of Zeus, Poseidon and Pluto, he is still digressing from his normal form of conversation. His final words, that “the way which you in mistaken confidence are urging upon me; it is quite worthless, Callicles”, are uncharacteristic of Socrates and perhaps show his frustration in his own inabilities. (527)

Ultimately, Socrates remains mostly true to his method of discussion. His use of speeches as ways of expanding his opinions, rather than force them is quite successful for him, and it seems to lend itself well to his type of conversation. Despite a few digressions, he refrains from using oratory or rhetoric unlike the interlocutors, and although he is unable to convince Callicles of the “truth”, he is not unsuccessful in the sense that he defended himself against the methods of the sophists.


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