Gorgias/Gorgias List of Abstracts

Updated June 20, 2021

Livio Rossetti (invited speaker)

The Very Recent Rediscovery of Gorgias / La Recentissima Riscoverta di Gorgia

It is impressive to note that the work of Gorgias was and remained a sort of unfathomable mystery until around 1980. The circumstance is indeed incredible, but it is a bare fact. In the period beforehand we should certainly acknowledge the generous contribution of Mario Untersteiner (1954) as a laudable attempt to tear through the “veil of Maya” that concealed Gorgias’ ideas. It was not he, however, who lifted the veil. Not surprisingly, in 1981, George Kerferd dared to declare, with commendable intellectual honesty, that “The interpretation of what Gorgias is saying is difficult, and we are certainly not yet even in sight of an agreed understanding of its overall significance, let alone its detailed arguments” (1981, 93). And it was true, except that the first fissures in this veil of Maya would appear shortly thereafter, starting with his Palamedes. An article by Long in 1984, one by Tordesillas in 1990 and a more ‘humble’ dissertation by Francesconi (1990) paved the way to identify Gorgias’ genial claim that “I would not have been able to betray Greeks even if I had the intention to do so,” arguing in detail for this impossibility, and then arguing immediately afterward that “I could not have wanted to betray them even if I had had the opportunity to do so”. This way, a dizzying logos amarturos (a plea non supported by eyewitnesses), where reasons capable of convincing despite the supposed absence of any proof were given, surfaces and attains indeed a truly argumentative vertigo. Already with this passage, the traditional contrast between Gorgias the consummate rhetorician (of whom Calboli spoke as late as 1986) and Gorgias the philosopher, on which Kerferd, in particular, insisted, was on the verge of dissolution once scholars were able to focus not on how sophisticated sentences were structured but on how comprehensive and complex arguments were mounted. Since then, Gorgias scholarship has experienced spectacular advances, culminating in recent speculation about the role played by him (with his Peri tou mē ontos) in revealing a seriously distorted image of Parmenides’ teaching.

È impressionante constatare che l’opera di Gorgia ha costituito ed è rimasto una sorta di mistero insondabile fin verso il 1980. La circostanza ha anzi dell’incredibile, eppure, per il periodo anteriore si può certo ricordare il generoso contributo di Mario Untersteiner (1954) come un lodevole tentativo di squarciare il ‘velo di Maya’ che occultava quelle proposte culturali. Ma non fu lui a sollevare il velo. Non a caso, proprio nel 1981, George Kerferd accettò di dichiarare, con encomiabile onestà intellettuale, che “The interpretation of what Gorgias is saying is difficult, and we are certainly not yet even i sight of a an agreed understanding of its overall significance, let alone its detailed arguments” (1981, 93). Ed era vero, solo che i primi cedimenti del velo di Maya ebbero luogo poco dopo, incominciando dal Palamede. Un articolo di Long del 1984, uno di Tordesillas del 1990 e una più ‘umile’ tesi di laurea di Francesconi (1990) hanno permesso di mettere a fuoco l’idea geniale consistente nell’addurre che “non sarei stato in grado di tradire i greci quand’anche avessi avuto l’intenzione di farlo” argomentando in dettaglio tale impossibilità e, subito dopo, nell’argomentare che “non posso aver voluto tradire quand’anche avessi avuto la possibilità di farlo”, fino a costruire un logos amarturos vertiginoso nella costruzione di ragionamenti in grado di passare per convincenti malgrado, appunto, la vertigine costituita dalla supposta assenza di qualsiasi prova. Già con questo passaggio, la contrapposizione tra il Gorgia retore consumato su cui si era fra l’altro esercitato il Calboli (1986) e il Gorgia filosofo su cui insistette in modo particolare Kerferd, fu sul punto di saltare perché non si parla più di costruzione della frase (il gorgiazein) ma di ideazione di un edificio argomentativo, anzi di più edifici. Dopodiché la storia degli studi ha conosciuto avanzamenti piuttosto spettacolari, culminati nelle recenti congetture concernenti il ruolo svolto proprio da Gorgia (con il Peri tou mē ontos) nell’accreditare un’immagine seriamente distorta dell’insegnamento di Parmenide.

Amin Ebrahimi Afrouzi

Gorgias’ Rhetoric and Rhetoric of the Gorgias

Plato’s Gorgias is often read as a war against Gorgias’ craft or rhetoric. In this paper, I will argue that instead, Plato’s dialogue appropriates rhetoric against “Gorgias,” the character named after Gorgias. This happens by a reversal of presuppositions and argumentative strategies of the dialogue’s characters. Although as characters, “Socrates” propounds philosophy and “Gorgias” rhetoric, paradoxically, the former adopts a rhetorical view (one resembling that of the real Gorgias) and the latter a Socratic one (one that resembles the view the character “Socrates” often takes in other dialogues). The argument between the two characters—hence, between philosophy and rhetoric—of course does not come to a decisive resolution. This results in a surprising plot twist: if we pick “Socrates”—hence philosophy—as the winner, we will observe that he defeats “Gorgias” by rhetorical talking points. It turns out therefore that we should perhaps take rhetoric as the true winner. If, however, we pick “Gorgias”—hence rhetoric—as the winner, he defeats “Socrates” by Socratic talking points. Then it turns out that we should perhaps take philosophy as the true winner. The culmination of a high-stake argument into this sort of paradox, which suggests that neither answer is truer than the other, is moreover a prime example of rhetoric, at least in Plato’s textbook. This too may be simply an intentional parody of Gorgias. Alternatively, it could signal that for Plato, the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric is subtler than a good-bad dichotomy.

Doug Al-Maini

The Erotic Politics of Plato’s Gorgias

This presentation examines Plato’s Gorgias and its treatment of eros and politics.  Traditionally, scholarship has interpreted the text to be defending a position of non-participation in the political life of a democratic community because of the danger active politicians court of becoming slaves to the desires the many.  The danger is understood to be based on the erotic foundations of politics and the nature of the relationship between politicians and the citizenry.  This standard interpretation is assessed, with both constructive and problematic elements considered.  In particular, the degree to which the Socrates of the Gorgias accepts that eroticism controls behaviour is tested.  A thesis contrary to the standard interpretation, that the erotic analysis of the Gorgias serves a more proactive civic purpose and even encourages political participation, is then defended.”

Robert J. Barnes

Gorgias on Speech and the Soul

I shall argue that Gorgias’s account of speech in the Encomium of Helen is a reaction to Presocratic theories of language. Unlike his predecessors, who betray a strong interest in referential theories of language, Gorgias offers an image of how speech might function non-referentially by moving the mind of the listener directly. His picture of λόγος blends together contemporary discourse concerning materialistic theories of nature and human anatomy with the traditional language of spells and magical enchantment which goes back at least to Homer. Gorgias is able to go beyond the Presocratic notions of linguistic reference and to bind together the old notions of magic with the new waves of scientific discourse by utilizing the concept of ψυχή which, in Gorgias’s time, was increasingly regarded as the primary locus not only of life but also both sensation and cognition. In this paper, I begin by showing that Gorgias’s account of non-referential speech in the Helen is anticipated in his On Not Being. There, he argues for the impossibility of human communication by reducing the Eleatic referential theory of language ad absurdum. As he claims, speech cannot possibly refer to anything other than itself because it is neither visible nor audible (sic) nor anything like the things to which it refers. In an important passage (Sext. Emp. Math. 7.85-6), Gorgias seems to acknowledge that if communication were in fact possible, speech would have to be perceived by an organ quite different from the sense organs – one which perceives speech and not just sights and sounds. Thus, the missing ingredient of earlier language theories is ψυχή which, in Gorgias’s Helen, is shown to be capable of receiving not only sights and sounds, but, crucially, the invisible current of speech as well.

Sofia Carreno Camacho

Self-persuasion in the Gorgias

Throughout this paper I will address the role of self-persuasion in Plato’s Gorgias. For this purpose, I will understand self-persuasion as both the act of becoming persuaded by one’s own means and the state of being persuaded as a result from the self-persuasive act.  I will first outline the conception of Ancient, and specifically Socratic, philosophy as a way of life and spiritual exercise as proposed by Pierre Hadot. This conception will lead me to discuss the extent to which self-persuasion is at play in the elenchus carried out in the Gorgias as understood by Hadot. The main passage to be discussed is the claim in 506d that all things, including the soul, have a condition of being arranged by an order and a well-organized soul is moderate and, therefore, good. This passage will allow me to conclude that, given the orderly nature of soul, each individual has in herself the potential of the virtuous actions that directly result from the elenctic maxims, and the elenchus only serves as a means for examinees to exploit this potential via the knowledge of themselves, for nothing can become an elenctic maxim without coming from the examinee’s own soul. Along with this claim, I will hold the passages 474a 500a, and 501d-505c to be evidence that through the elenchus a sincere commitment on the part of the examinee to abide to the elenctic moral maxims is reached. These two conclusions will finally allow a characterization of the Socratic mode of persuasion which will be contrasted with Gorgias’ own mode of persuasion characterized at the beginning of the dialogue.

Federico Casella

Speaking with Images: The Rhetoric of Metaphors and Similes in Empedocles and Gorgias

In order to expose his theories, Empedocles borrowed various terms both from Homeric poems (known to all Greeks) and from everyday (especially ‘rural’) life, creating numerous metaphors and similes (DK31B2; 23; 46; 66; 79; 84; 100; 126). Consequently, these images were very clear, but they had also the effect of astonishing the public due to their oracular tones: indeed, they unveiled many cosmic laws, before then totally unknown. I argue that Empedocles followed a precise strategy: his particular metaphors were meant to better capture the attention of his public, easily explain certain theories, and support his claim to be an infallible sage, capable of revealing divine knowledge, albeit with ‘mortal’ words (DK31B9). Another Sicilian ‘intellectual’, Gorgias, made use of numerous metaphors and similes (e.g. DK82B5a; 8; 11.8,14; 11a.1,4,6,15; 16). As is well known, he theorized the ‘power of words’: they can force people to behave even against their own will (DK82B11.8-14). In addition, sight is capable of influencing one’s judgment (DK82B11.15-19). Therefore, he was aware that his orations could easily sway his audience thanks also to his visual metaphors, which embody such ‘power’ and ‘influence’: he could thus efficiently persuade other people and, as a result, praise himself as a perfect rhetorician. In my opinion, a possible debt towards Empedocles can be recognized: indeed, according to some testimonies Gorgias listened to many of Empedocles’ speeches (or he was even his pupil). Finally, in the light of the importance of visual metaphors for Gorgias (and Empedocles), I will analyze one of the possible reasons why in the Sophist Plato considered knowledge possessed by rhetoricians and Sophists eidola and mimemata (visual “replications” – Sph. 234b5-c7) and in the Gorgias an eidolon of politics (a mere “image” – Grg. 463d1): it is knowledge of appearances, representations, images above all because it largely employs metaphors and similes (with sensible beings) – not science of ideas – as a means to argue.

J. Angelo Corlett

Punishment and Compensatory Justice in Plato’s Gorgias

Most philosophers of law take for granted that M.M. MacKenzie (Plato and Punishment) is correct when she states with rather selective and weak textual evidence that Plato was a moral education theorist about punishment. This paper will argue that several texts from Plato’s Gorgias strongly suggest that, if anything, Plato’s Socrates was primarily a retributivist and at best only minimally a moral education theorist. Concise definitions of “retributivism,” “moral education theory of punishment,” and related concepts are provided. Moreover, an analysis of what the Gorgias states about compensatory justice is provided. This seems to be the only essay of philosophy that articulates what Plato’s Socrates argues about compensatory justice. Definitions of compensatory justice concepts are provided. Thus not only are most philosophers of law and philosophers in general incorrect to think that Plato was a moral education theorist about punishment, the Gorgias provides strong evidence that what Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates is retributivist in content, and this retributivism grounds what Socrates articulates about compensatory justice. These textual findings about Plato’s Gorgias are significant as they reconceptualize how philosophers and other scholars should revise their ideas of Platonic punishment and compensatory justice.

Paulo Ferreira

Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen and Source Views on Moral Responsibility

Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen claims it is unjust to blame Helen because her leaving Menelaus for Paris is in fact due to either of four factors, each of which exempts her from responsibility for what happened (§20). I contend that each of the four factors – beyond human compulsion (§6), human physical compulsion (§7), persuasive speech (§§8–14) and overpowering emotion (§§15–19) – rules out Helen as a source of her action. §§15–19, in particular, argue not that external items trigger overpowering responses (with or without the concurrence of our propensities), but that if externals trigger overpowering responses (which happens not in all but in many cases: §§17–18), then we are not the source of the action we perform in such conditions. Thus read, Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen is the first extant witness of what is nowadays called a source view on moral responsibility. Traditional views in modern literature (e.g. Van Inwagen (1983)) assume availability of alternative possibilities (the agent’s ability on a particular occasion to either perform or not perform a given action) as at least a necessary condition for moral responsibility, and question whether determinism is compatible with that ability. Other views (e.g. Pereboom (2001)) ground moral responsibility not on availability of alternative possibilities but on the fact that the agent is the source of the action, and question whether determinism is compatible with sourcehood. Despite not having so much as touched the issue of determinism in §6, and leaving aside questions such as whether sourcehood entails alternative possibilities and which role is assigned to the latter in Aristotle and later authors, I argue it is Gorgias’ distinctive accomplishment to have framed the issue in terms of sourcehood, and our privilege to be able to appreciate Gorgias’ part in the history of the debate on moral responsibility.

Rafael Moreno González

Πολέμου καὶ μάχης: War, manliness and the characterisation of Callicles in Platoʼs Gorgias

In this contribution I argue that Calliclesʼ greeting to Socrates (Gorg. 447a1 f.) is a reproach not only for being late: the question we must ask is not (like Dodds did) how one could possibly be late for a war, but what kind of person shows up late for a battle. In Homer, when πόλεμος and μάχη or its cognates appear together, they are used to describe a distinctive type of character, a belligerent one (Iliad 1. 177; 11. 12; 12. 436; cf. Phaedo 66c6). Thus, this apparently harmless salutation hides a critique directed against Socratesʼ unmanly conduct (in the eyes of Callicles). Through the dialogue, Callicles repeatedly rebukes Socratesʼ behaviour and philosophical standpoints for being unmanly, slavish and childish (e.g., 484c4-485e2, especially 485d3-e1). Furthermore, Callicles feels his manhood is insulted when Socrates compares the way of life that the former praises with that of a kinaidos (cf. 494e4).  Consequently, from the beginning of the dialogue, we have a well-defined characterization of Callicles, which is crowned at Gorg. 515b5 when he projects onto Socrates his own philonikía, a word with warlike overtones as well. This explains why Plato makes Callicles a citizen of Acharnae, alluding to Aristophanes Acharnians, where the inhabitants of this demos are represented in favour of the war; Ach. 178. This is also why he criticizes so sharply the expansionism of the former Athenian politics (cf. 517b, 519a). The person of Callicles embodies a warlike soul and, as the comparison with Alcibiades suggests (cf. 481c5 ff. and especially 519a6), his involvement in the Athenian politics reveals a strive for honour and power rather than securing the health of his own soul and the city. Hence, the opening words of the Gorgias give us a foretaste of Calliclesʼ character in the rest of the dialogue.

Yosef Z. (Yossie) Liebersohn

Gorgias the Sophist and the Birth of Rhetoric

Renewed interest in ancient rhetoric and its sources has produced many arguments over the origins of rhetoric in which the Gorgias plays a major part; the present paper, by offering a new insight into the nature of the conversation between Socrates and Gorgias, suggests a new approach to the whole debate. The present account suggests placing Gorgias and his fellow teachers of rhetoric at an intermediate stage between de facto and de iure. These teachers considered themselves to be engaged in politics, and the term rhētorikē did not yet denote for them a fully independent field. It was, however, their own teaching of the subject that would soon lead to a new art. It is Socrates’ anachronistic task in the Gorgias, written after the process had gone a long way, to attempt to draw his interlocutors’ attention to this process which at the time was still under way, and to hint at the dangers in this process. 

Claudia Marisco

Gorgias: the game of contradiction and its mirrors

Fundamental moments of ancient philosophy occurred in Western Greece. At the Cilento, Parmenides set the benchmarks for the question about truth and the surrounding world in a new way, appealing to the articulation of being, thought and language. Shortly after, from Sicily, Gorgias raised his voice, formulating the sceptical objection related to the lack of guarantees about these bonds. This tension can be considered the background of further discussions that last up today in the collision between foundationalism and coherentism. In this work, we will consider this relation taking into account recent development about Parmenides and Gorgias that invite to review traditional interpretations. On this basis, we will examine the significant influence of this quarrel that has Plato and Antisthenes as protagonists. The latter, a former disciple of Gorgias, inverted the theses of the treaty On what is not to claim that contradiction is impossible. In the context of a turbulent relation, this turn shed light on Plato’s allusions to Antisthenes in his Gorgias. As the origin of Antisthenes’ views, the sophist contradicts himself to show the failure of both the master and the disciple. We will examine this mirror-iteration that emphasize the importance of Gorgias as the origin and motor of a discussion that survives today.

Mark Morelli

Plato’s Gorgias: Exposing the Spiritual Corruption of a Respectable Man

Plato’s Gorgias has puzzled commentators for a variety of reasons: the early disappearance of Gorgias after whom the dialogue is named and the dominant role of the aspiring politician Callicles; the eventual abandonment of the discussion of rhetoric with which the dialogue begins and its replacement by a discussion of human nature and the best life; the increasing volatility of the interlocutors; the radical final opposition which apparently cannot be bridged by rational argument; the absence of evidence of Callicles’ existence; and thedialogue’s unique structure – three conversations with three apparently quite different interlocutors. E. R. Dodds speculated that Socrates’ interlocutors, despite their apparent differences, represent one force, are spiritually akin, that each subsequent interlocutor is the “spiritual heir” of the preceding one, and that the dialogue progresses from the superficial to the fundamental. I shall propose that the three interlocutors are layers of the one personality, Gorgias, after whom the dialogue is therefore appropriately named, and that Plato is peeling away its layers, as one peels an onion, moving inward and ever deeper to reveal its corrupted spiritual core. Instead of regarding Polus and Callicles as “spiritual heirs” of Gorgias, it may be better to think of Gorgias and Polus as “spiritual descendants” of Callicles. On this view, Plato’s Gorgias exposes gradually the fundamentally aberrant core of Gorgias who, blissfully ignorant of his own corruption, stands in radical opposition to the Socratic personality and is also obliviously complicit in Socrates’ execution. Perhaps we find no historical traces of Callicles, not because he died young, a victim of his violent temperament, as some speculate, but because he’s actually a personification of the darkest depths of the historical Gorgias. On this view, then, as Olympiodorus implied in his commentary on the dialogue, Gorgias is, as it were, a puppet animated by the disordered soul of Callicles.

Allison Murphy

Two Ideals in Plato’s Gorgias

Callicles opens the final part of Plato’s Gorgias by delivering two speeches that seem to present different views of the good life. His initial “political” speech (482c-486c) praises those strong enough to break through the legal and social constraints that keep them from exercising their pleonexia. Provoked by Socrates’ questions, Callicles launches a second speech (491e-492c) that is ostensibly a clarification of the first but in fact shifts the focus to the maximal satisfaction of personal appetites. Plato’s apparent reduction of the tyrant to the hedonist has, not unreasonably, struck some as crude. Against the reductionist reading, I argue, first, that behind both of Callicles’ speeches is the same view of the idealized human life. According to this view, the perfectly good life is free of all limits, whether those be societal constraints or the demands of internal discipline. Second, I consider Socrates’s response, which deploys potent images, including that of a leaky jar, to capture the restless, insatiable, and generally amorphous nature of a life without limitations. I show that by urging Callicles to “choose the orderly life adequately supplied and satisfied with whatever it has at any time” (493c, Irwin), Socrates gestures at an ideal of ordered stability that stands in opposition to the ideal of constant, indistinguishable motions favored by Callicles. Finally, I consider how these two ideals structure the respective possibilities and limitations of the life of rhetoric and the life of philosophy.

Rory O’Sullivan

Gorgias the Teacher

This paper compares Gorgias with Thucydides, whom, according to a consensus of ancient biographers and modern scholars, he influenced. It argues that Thucydides’s deepest debt to Gorgias is not stylistic but metaphysical: Thucydides shared Gorgias’s concept of (non-)Being as an ineffable, unknowable entity beyond the reach of logos. Logos, for both, is an innate human faculty of making sense of a senseless world. It begins with a discussion that compares the speeches of Nikias at the end of Book 7 of the History to the meta-rhetoric of the Encomium of Helen, moving to a more general discussion that addresses scholarly works such as Rossetti 2008, Pratt 2015, and Borchers 2016 in the case of Gorgias; Stahl 1966, Greenwood 2006 and Ponchon 2017 for Thucydides. Not only does this comparison illuminate the thought of both Gorgias and Thucydides, but in how it conceives their literary projects it points towards an alternative answer to Socrates’s question of what Gorgias taught. ‘Teacher,’ a word in Thucydides’s famous phrase that war is a Bíaios Didáskalos (3.82.2), need not only imply what Paulo Freire (1968) has called the ‘banking’ model of education, where the teacher passes knowledge to the student, but can suggest an intervention from the outside by which the teacher causes the student to become conscious of the conditions of their existence. Gorgias’s words are meant to strike the audience, like light shaken from metal, stunning them so that they cannot see reason; but, blind, they can see how reason is not made of reality.  

Enrico Piergiacomi

Gorgias’ Laughter. An Anti-Eleatic Strategy?

One of Gorgias’ teaching consists in the advice to win a rhetorical rivalry through antilogy. If the rival performs a serious discourse, it will be necessary to oppose a ridiculous answer. By converse, if he delivers a ridiculous speech, it is mandatory to oppose a serious one (82 B 19 DK = Aristotle, Rhetoric III 1419b: τὴν μὲν σπουδὴν διαφθείρειν τῶν ἐναντίων γέλωτι, τὸν δὲ γέλωτα σπουδῆι). This fragment has not yet attracted the full scholarly attention that it deserves. The goal of this paper consists in filling this gap and to understand not only its rhetorical use, but also its philosophical meaning. In particular, I would like to address two problems. On the one hand, what do the terms “seriousness” and “ridiculousness” actually indicate? Are they two references to style, or to content? My claim is that Gorgias may imply both. A ridiculous answer could be directed both against a rival who speaks of a serious topic, or in a serious fashion, and vice-versa. If the above point is convincing, the second problem consists in finding one or more Gorgias’ texts that could provide an example of this rhetorical strategy. My hypothesis is that one of the latter may be identified with the famous speech against Eleatism: the Περὶ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος ἢ Περὶ φύσεως (82 B 3 DK). Eleatic ontology may be a serious discourse that Gorgias wants to confute through laughter, more precisely with a discourse that is intentionally ridiculous and paradoxical, since it wants to demonstrate the absurd/comic thesis that nothing exist, nothing is known and nothing can be communicated. In this sense, rhetorical laughter may display a philosophical spirit. Gorgias laughs against the seriousness of Parmenides, in order to remove rationality and “aura” from it.

Andrew Payne

Prometheus and Socrates: The Problem of Stasis

This paper explores the depiction of civil strife or stasis in the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus and in Plato’s Gorgias. The history of Athens offers examples of such strife, as does the history of Sicily, where Aeschylus spent his final years and where the Prometheus Bound apparently received its first performance. These texts show concern for one sort of victim of strife, an agent who is unbending in devotion to his chosen course of action and who refuses to alter his beliefs and actions. Prometheus is tortured by the tyrant Zeus after the Titan opposes the newly empowered dynast. He is one who is single in mind and in word and in deed. He always, in a sense, says the same, despite a series of interlocutors who counsel him to exercise flexibility, to “heal his mind”, to be prudent. Prometheus is a victim of political stasis, one who betrayed his own kinship group to aid the new power and then finds himself without any support. The new tyrant makes an example of the figure who stands alone in order to enforce loyalty to the authority of the polis. The central dramatic feature of the Gorgias is the confrontation between Socrates and Callicles. Socrates claims that it is better to suffer than to do injustice and that it is better to undergo just punishment rather than to evade punishment. Callicles responds to Socrates by imagining him subject to unjust suffering, especially suffering instigated by unjust accusations. Callicles compares himself to Zethus and Socrates to Amphion, where Zethus and Amphion are the main characters of Euripides’ Antiope, another play which dramatizes the effects of political stasis. However, Socrates refuses to alter his character. Like Prometheus, Socrates’ unwillingness to change his words and deeds to suit the wishes of the established political powers will isolate him and leave him vulnerable to the designs of his enemies. These parallels between Socrates and heroes from the Attic stage indicate that Plato wishes to appropriate tragic themes for his own purposes.

Ed Schiappa

Dating the origins of the word rhêtorikê: The latest debate and whether it matters

In 1990, an article titled “Did Plato Coin Rhêtorikê?” that made two claims. First: Plato’s Gorgias (from ca 387 BCE) is the earliest surviving instance of the word in Greek literature. Second: Plato is the likeliest suspect for having coined the word, given his documented penchant for coining similar words about verbal arts, including dialektikê, eristikê, and antilogikê.  A third claim, developed in subsequent articles, is that the dating of the word’s origin matters for reasons I shall revisit anon. There have been critiques of these claims, of course, but my sense is that they largely have stood the test of time and that most scholars are now cautious about using the term rhêtorikê when interpreting texts that antedate Gorgias.  In 2020, Maria Tanja Luzzatto challenged these claims in a lengthy essay titled “Did Gorgias Coin Rhêtorikê?: A Rereading of Plato’s Gorgias” (Lexis, 38.1: 183-224). L’s argument has two elements. The first is her primary thesis that Plato’s dialogue is a faithful representation of the historical Gorgias—at least to the extent that Gorgias’s use of the term rhêtorikê is not anachronistic and it is plausible for L to ask “Did Gorgias coin rhêtorikê?”  The second element is made up of a number of smaller arguments that respond to various points made in support of the general thesis that rhêtorikê does not appear to be a term in use prior to Plato. In this paper, I will reply to L’s primary thesis concerning Plato’s Gorgias. First, I argue that Plato’s dialogue is an unreliable guide to the history of the time, both in general and in particular in terms of the word rhêtorikê.  Evidence for L’s primary thesis, in other words, is insufficient to establish that Gorgias coined the term rhêtorikê or used it in the 5th century. Second, I contend that even if L is correct, the hermeneutic point of what I have called the origins-of-rhêtorikê thesis is intact and that the word’s popularization by Plato and Aristotle led to important changes in theorizing and teaching what we now call argument and rhetoric.

Mauro Serra

La violenza del logos: una lettura politica dell’Encomio di Elena di Gorgia

L’Encomio di Elena ruota, come è noto, intorno ad una tesi paradossale: la violenza dell’azione esercitata dal logos. Secondo Gorgia, infatti, la persuasione (peithō), piuttosto che differire dalla violenza (bia), ne costituisce una diversa manifestazione. Nonostante i numerosi tentativi compiuti dagli interpreti, questa tesi, con tutta la sua carica paradossale, non ha ancora trovato una spiegazione del tutto adeguata (ma cfr. Pratt 2015). Ciò perché, pur abitualmente considerato uno dei testi fondatori della tradizione retorica, l’Encomio di Elena non ha finora ricevuto un’interpretazione che ne evidenzi il singolare intreccio di retorica e politica. Sebbene si sia molto insistito sulla natura didattica dell’Encomio, ci si è infatti in genere limitati a considerare il testo gorgiano come uno dei primi manuali (technai) a partire dai quali la retorica si andò costituendo come disciplina. Se questo è da un certo punto di vista innegabile, cercherò, tuttavia, di mostrare che la lezione ricavabile dall’Encomio è certamente più ampia ed è una lezione politica, poiché il testo delinea un modello di ‘cittadinanza retorica’ (Kock-Villadsen 2012) su cui può essere ancora utile riflettere.  Al centro di questo modello c’è il riconoscimento del conflitto come nucleo inaggirabile della pratica discorsiva. Si tratta di una dimensione che Gorgia immagina relativa all’esercizio del logos in generale, ma che naturalmente trova in un contesto democratico la sua manifestazione più evidente. Con due importanti conseguenze. Da un lato, il tentativo di coniugare, rielaborando l’eredità dei ‘maestri di verità’ (Detienne 1977), efficacia e verità. Dall’altro il ruolo che, all’interno di questo modello teorico, viene riservato alla violenza (simbolica). Su questo punto la posizione di Gorgia si rivela, nella sua radicalità, sostanzialmente isolata anche rispetto alla successiva tradizione retorica. Per il sofista siciliano la violenza non coincide, infatti, con un uso, per quanto inevitabile, tuttavia deliberatamente ingannevole e strumentale del linguaggio, ma è in qualche misura intrinseca alla stessa pratica discorsiva, una volta che se ne sia colta adeguatamente la dimensione conflittuale. In questo modo, la lezione che Gorgia consegna ai suoi allievi va ben al di là della, in fondo scontata, autopromozione della propria competenza e contiene un invito, quanto mai attuale, a fornirsi degli strumenti adeguati per entrare nell’agone democratico.

Dimos Spatharas

Gorgias, medicine, and epideictic audiences

Gorgias’ familiarity with medicine is well-established. Comparison of his Encomium of Helen with the Hippocratic treatise De flatibus reveals the use of common epideictic topoi (studied by Jouanna and others). Gorgias’ brother was a physician and if we are to believe Plato’s account in the homonymous dialogue, Gorgias time and again helped his brother convince patients to undergo unpleasant or torturous medical practices. In the Encomium of Helen, Gorgias advertises the novelty of his epideictic approach to a topic traditionally treated in poetic narratives by emphasizing that his own method of argument relies on reasoning (logismos). As I have argued elsewhere, in his attempt to remove infamy from Helen (especially in his discussion of vision/sights) Gorgias employs scientific models of explanation which are compatible with folk cultural models. In this paper I wish to extend my previous work on Gorgias’ use of medical metaphors and ask how the deployment of medicine facilitates a rhetoric which is intended to impress listeners through a semi-scientific treatment of an ethical issue, i.e. Helen’s responsibility. I therefore propose to offer detailed analysis of medical vocabulary in Gorgias and thereby reconsider the nature and intentionality of his composition. My paper will also address the question of how ancient Greek ethics define responsibility in an attempt to show that modern scholars’ hostile criticism of Gorgias rely on anachronistic understandings of moral agency.

Stephanos Stephanides

Political Equality in the Gorgias

The Gorgias contains much discussion on political equality. Socrates, in stark opposition to Callicles, flatly ascribes to the thesis that justice consists in equality. This is reinforced on both conventional and natural grounds: conventionally, the many uphold that justice is equality, while this is also ordained in nature. Since Plato uncharacteristically makes both Socrates and the many agree on this point, however, his own preferred position seems to be obfuscated. Simultaneously, the climax of the cosmological section of the dialogue at 508a-b ends with an explicit commitment to an equality of sorts, namely the geometrical (ἡ ἰσότης ἡ γεωμετρικὴ).

This paper argues that the championing of geometrical equality is not incongruous with the previous part of the dialogue. In fact, I will show that Socrates’ debate with Callicles has been carefully paving the way for precisely this type of equality all along. On the one hand, Socrates can agree with the many that justice is equality without also having to endorse democratic principles such as absolute equality for all. On the other, Socrates can also agree with Callicles that the people whose natural right it is to ‘have more’ ought indeed to be given more (esp. 490c6), with the proviso that geometrical equality safeguards against pleonexia by ensuring that each is only given what is due without encroaching on the demands of justice.

 Interestingly, the extreme Calliclean stance seems rooted in authentic Gorgianic doctrine. In the Encomium to Helen, we find a clear adherence to the view that it is just by nature for the weak to be governed by the strong (31-32). We therefore have good reason to believe that the Gorgias’ discussion of equality is part of a much wider re-evaluation of the concept in Greek thought in which Gorgias’ own view is not entirely exempt from critique.

Coleen Zoller

Taking Our Medicine: Reconciliation and Justice in Plato’s Gorgias

My paper will focus on Plato’s Gorgias, particularly its conception of the relationship between accountability and justice. In the dialogue in which Plato has Socrates confront Gorgias of Leontini, the care of the soul is presented via analogies with the crafts that care for the body. In this analogical scheme “justice” is portrayed as the soul taking its medicine (Grg. 464c). For Socrates, anyone who has committed injustice must submit to “justice” in order to return to the path of virtue via accountability (Grg. 474b). Is a vision of forgiveness imbued in Plato’s thinking about the importance unjust souls submitting themselves to justice? Almost no one has asked this question. Charles Griswold (2007) asserts that, for Plato, forgiveness is unnecessary and not worth admiring. Marshaling evidence from Gorgias 464c and 474b, I will argue that accountability is essential to justice in Plato’s ethical and political theories, even though Plato has Socrates announce it somewhat quietly. Griswold is correct that Plato does not demonstrate an explicit interest in forgiveness in his dialogues. Nonetheless, one of the key insights in Plato’s Gorgias is thatinjustice-doers must ask to be held accountable if they are to restore the health of their souls. And if we read Gorgias 464c and 474b in conjunction with Laws 862b-c, where Plato has the Athenian call for reconciliation in order to make friends out of enemies in the wake of injustice, it may help us better understand Plato’s vision of the relationship among accountability, virtue, justice, and peace. This set of passages from the Gorgias and Laws gives us a vision of restoring justice to unjust souls through corrective treatment; that is, asking to be held accountable becomes the basis for any potential forgiveness, reconciliation, friendship, and peace.

Panel: “Comedy, Dunamis, and The Comedy of Dunamis in Plato’s Gorgias

Shane Ewegen

“The Power of Comedy, the Comedy of Power: Δύναμις in Plato’s Gorgias.”

At the end of Plato’s Symposium, Socrates claims that the same person should know how to produce (ποιεῖν) both comedy and tragedy (223d). Extending on certain scholars’ insights into the affinity between Plato’s Gorgias and Euripides’ Antiope (Nightingale, Dodds, etc.), I will argue that Socrates himself is that man who knows how to produce both comedy and tragedy, and that throughout the Gorgias he tells a number of comedic and tragic stories meant to facilitate our understanding of both politics and philosophy. Taken most broadly, the Gorgias is a comic-tragedy that critiques a certain political and epistemological understanding of power (δύναμις), ultimately yielding a comic result where the traditionally powerful are shown to be weak, and the traditionally weak—that is, the philosophers—are shown to be powerful (though in a radically reconceived sense). I will ultimately argue that Socrates’s ability to produce both comedies and tragedies coincides with his function as one of the few people practicing true statesmanship (521d), and that such true statesmanship consists in being able to use both comedy and tragedy appropriately as tools of political critique and revision. 

Sonja Tanner

“The Power of Laughter in Gorgias of Leontini and Plato’s Gorgias

Gorgias of Leontini endorses the use of laughter and Plato’s Gorgias makes copious use of laughter and comedy, but they do so in ways within Plato’s dialogue that reveal a promising distinction between rhetoric and philosophy. I argue that the dunamis of laughter and comedy in Plato’s Gorgias should be measured in its impact on pathos, ethos, and logos. Far from simply “destroy[ing] an opponent’s seriousness with laughter” (Aristotle Rhetoric 1419b3-5), the dunamis of laughter in Plato’s Gorgias softens the dialogue’s tragic and bitter tone. Rather than merely turning laughter into a rhetorical jab against his agonistic opponents, Socrates turns laughter upon himself, as a means of philosophical introspection and invites the dialogue’s audience to do so as well. Appealing to Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen will show a precedent for this. Just as the Encomium’s rhetorical treatment of itself as a paignion breeches the fourth wall, so too does the metatheatrical use of comedy in Plato’s Gorgias. But unlike the Encomium, Socrates uses this to prompt an altogether novel form of logos.

Robert Metcalf

Dunamis in Agôn:  Gorgias of Leontini and Plato’s Gorgias

In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates admonishes his audience to practice a distinctively philosophical form of agôn—involving refutative argument [elenchos] with one’s opponent, as well as discursive contestation [diamachesthai] of the dêmos as a whole—as distinct from the rhetorical agôn practiced by Gorgias and his associates, which he condemns as nothing more than shameful pandering [kolakeia].  But why, we should ask, does Plato choose Gorgias of Leontini as a foil for Socrates’ provocative articulation of philosophy as a form of agôn? In certain ways Plato’s choice of Gorgias as foil is not surprising.  From what we can gather about Gorgias the historical figure, he was himself adept at agonistic self-display (e.g., exhibiting his ability to answer whatever he is asked in public gatherings), and his writings extol rhetorical ability as a kind of agonistic prowess comparable to that displayed in the Olympic games (cf. Gorgias fragment B8).  Furthermore, to an Athenian audience, Gorgias was associated with the great agôn of the Peloponnesian War—a historical episode that lurks always in the background of Plato’s Gorgias, as the dialogue alludes to it throughout while reflecting on the dangers of rhetoric as a form of agôn in logoi. However, to further understand Gorgias’ significance for Plato’s rethinking of agôn, this paper focuses attention on two key concepts from Gorgias’ speech, Praise of Helen, that are then appropriated and radically reinterpreted by Socrates in the Gorgias:  specifically, “power [dunamis]” and “opinion/seeming [doxa].”  The paper argues that Gorgias’ understanding of doxa as the measure of demonstrative discourse, and thus as the measure of rhetorical dunamis, is precisely what Plato’s Socrates seeks to undermine in order to set philosophy as agôn apart from the rhetorical agôn practiced by Gorgias, Polus and Callicles.  An examination of Gorgias’ writings alongside Plato’s Gorgias thus allows for a philosophical reinterpretation of the meaning of ‘dunamis’ within agôn.