My friend hates the Gorgias

Posted: June 10, 2009 in Uncategorized
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The next item on my reading list is Plato’s dialogue The Gorgias. The first time I read this was in college, working on my thesis. I read it again and again. I think this time might be my fifth or sixth time through it. I like it. I think it’s funny. But my friend hates it.

It makes him angry. He hates the way Socrates makes mistakes that Gorgias doesn’t pick up. And of course, he couldn’t; the dialogue was written by Plato, who makes it a point to make Socrates always look good (though there is some debate about whether or not he does). But this bothers my friend.

It bothers him when Socrates puts words in Gorgias’ mouth. Like when he says “since you call any craft whatever that’s concerned with speeches oratory” (450b). Gorgias never said that. And in fact, that’s a much easier claim to refute than the one Gorgias was actually making. We call this a Straw Man Fallacy. And it doesn’t stop there.While Socrates does give some interesting definitions of rhetoric (if you replace the word oratory with rhetoric) when he says “oratory is the craft that exercises its influence through speech” (450e) or that “oratory is the producer of persuasion” (453a), he still bothers my friend. It bothers him that Socrates demands that Gorgias speak quickly and without long speeches (449b), he then turns around and gives long speeches himself (451a-c). The hypocracy gets under his skin. Even more so when Socrates talks about the need for short speeches in the middle of a very long speech (464b-466a).

I can see where he’s coming from as far as fallacies are concerned. When Socrates claims that persuasion exists in all fields, and therefore oratory is not the only producer of persuasion (and hence has no value or content of its own), Gorgias lets him get away with this leap of equivocation (453d-454a). And yes, Socrates does claim that there is no such thing as true and false knowledge, despite Plato’s belief in the Truth of the Forms (454d).

But there are others. Though he claims not to be going after Gorgias or the others personally (453b), he does consistently belittle Polus, and he does clearly attack the people he’s speaking with, which is a fallacy known as Ad Hominem, in which it is the persom who is attacked rather than the argument.

There’s also Unfair Generalization when Socrates says “So when an orater is more persuasive than a doctor, then a non-knower will be more persuasive than a knower among non-knowers” (459b). This does not follow, despite what Plato forces Gorgias to agree to. The single case of the doctor and non-doctor does not map on to every knower and non-knower. That would be like testing a medicine on one person and claiming that it will work for everyone.

And when Socrates goes into his whole thing about a person who knows carpentry being a carpenter (460b), he says that a man who learns what is just must be a just man. But that doesn’t follow. It could be seen as Equivocation; knowing what is just is not the same as knowing carpentry. Knowing what is just is like knowing what is made of wood. It’s knowledge of a thing, not knowledge of how to do a thing. Knowing about surgery doesn’t make you a surgeon; you have to know how to perform surgery to be a surgeon.

All of that bothers my friend. It riles up his blood, gets him really angry. When Socrates claims that a just man must want to do just things (460c), my friend wants to agree with him. But when Socrates says that the orator must never have done anything unjust, my friend gets angry all over again. Wanting to only do just things and actually doing only just things is not the same. I may want to always obey the speed limit, but I may accidentally go above the limit once in a while. That doesn’t mean that I don’t know the law.

Anyway, all of this makes my friend upset. He can’t even talk about the dialogue without getting angry. And I’ve only gone over the first half here. I’ll let you know how much the second half bothers him another time.

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