PHL 204-07

*** Handout ***

PHL 204: Great Books Socrates v. Gorgias Spring 2008

Within the Gorgias, Plato is attempting to do two things at the same time: first, to demonstrate the nature of the Socratic method of elenchus versus the method of “long speeches” of the orators, and second, to determine whether the main elements of Socratic ethics can be defended using the method of elenchus. It is important to keep both of these points in mind when reading the dialogue.

I. The use of elenchus

“Elenchus” refers to the mode of argument employed by Socrates whereby he:

(a) Asks a professed expert on a subject to define some term, or defend some claim, relevant to that subject (we can call this claim P)
(b) Demonstrates that the expert believes that this claim implies some statement (P implies Q)
(c) Points out that the person who offered the claim rejects that statement (that is, believes already that Q is false)

Example from the early part of the dialogue:

(a) Socrates asks Gorgias what oratory is. Gorgias claims that it is the craft concerned with making speeches.
(b) Socrates points out that since painters make speeches about their paintings, this definition implies that painting is a kind of oratory.
(c) Socrates questions Gorgias in order to make sure that it is clear that Gorgias does not believe that painting is a kind of oratory.

Two possible things this method might achieve:

(1) Demonstrate that the professed “expert” does not know what he is talking about

Socrates believes that it is better to be refuted by someone than to refute someone (see 458a), because being refuted allows a person to move one step closer to knowledge.

(2) Arrive at the truth concerning some matter

Whether or not this method can help us to arrive at truth is more controversial. For more on this, see below.

II. Gorgias’ confused attempt to defend oratory

Starting at (456b) Gorgias begins to give a defense of oratory as something good. Socrates uses the method of elenchus to show Gorgias that in defending oratory, he ends up contradicting himself.

The contradiction arises between these three claims:
(1) Gorgias’ pupils can use oratory to be unjust (457a-b)
(2) Gorgias teaches his pupils of oratory what justice is (460a)
(3) If someone knows what is just, then he is thereby just (460b)

It is not possible for all of these to be true at the same time (see if you can show why. Combine any two and see why the remaining one must be false).

Gorgias resolves this conflict by rejecting (1).

Notice, however, that there are two other ways to resolve the conflict: reject (2) or reject (3). Polus steps in at this point to say just this, and so questions the value of the method. Has it really led to truth, or has it been used merely to show that Gorgias is confused?

Instead of rejecting 1, Gorgias should have rejected 2, but was too ashamed or afraid to do so.

Q: Polus asks Socrates what craft oratory is
A: Socrates says oratory is not a “craft,” but is instead a “knack”

Craft: an activity that meets 2 conditions.
1. directed toward something good (a product or result)
2. directed by a knowledge of the good that you mean to achieve
(note: good is used as a value judgment with moral overtones)

Knack: similar to a craft, but fails one or both of the above criteria


house builder
gym teacher
pastry makers
cosmetic makers
Socrates’ Long Speech
crafts of the body crafts of the soul
pastry baking
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