Socrates vs. Plato: Style vs. Substance in Plato’s Gorgias

my relationship with Gorgias is still in in the works, however, in a very short amount of time it has already undergone several transitions. I compare my relationship to Gorgias to someone who has undergone a serious trauma like the death of a loved one.

#1. confusion – anger

when I began reading Gorgias I had to keep rereading sections because I truly was mystified: was this a play, a novel, an essay? the answer is none of the above. as someone so aptly put it in seminar, this reads like “Socrates fanfiction.” Plato’s hero-mentor, Socrates literally goes from orator to orator, challenging them about their own profession, their ethics, and the nature of man. he engages them in debate, supposedly in order to “remodel their souls,” but really it’s more pontificating on Socrates’ part than genuine debate. soon it becomes clear that the person that he’s interested in talking to is himself and his own arguments are the only ones that he values. my initial reaction was a mixture of awe and confusion. who the hell is this guy, that he has the audacity to harangue and caustically humiliate gorgias and company, under the self-righteous guise of attempting to demonstrate the errors of their ways. I mean where does he get off?! His self-importance is staggering; his belief, that he, Socrates, alone, has the answers, that all others are inferior in their thinking and morality, and are merely waiting for him to enlighten him with his superior wisdom leaves you with an urge to throw this book into the giant fountain in the middle campus.

#2. rage – awe

not gonna lie, while some may call him one of the greatest minds in history, to me, reading Plato’s Gorgias felt more akin to gouging my eyeballs out, one socket at a time, while doing the splits on a crate of dynamite. First of all: SOCRATES. this guy – jesus Christ – is he a self-aggrandizing bastard. he talks so much, he would probably interrupt you at his own funeral – oh wait! oh wait! as legend would have it he actually did. right up until the hemlock was down his throat, Socrates couldn’t stop philosophizing about whatever struck his fancy; the nature of the hemlock, the method of his execution, the weather – the existential symbolism and pathetic fallacy of said weather too, I’m sure.  that’s gotta be the real reason he was executed: he drove Athens crazy to the point that the only conducive solution was to literally shut him up. In fact, Socrates is so fascinated by his own arcane musings that at one point he actually stops questioning the other orators ad simply questions himself. not only does he love to talk, but the sound of his own voice is obviously his greatest source of pleasure and amusement; being an abject narcissist he derives a peculiar kind of pleasure from his own person that he cannot achieve from any other person. and my god is he pretentious. to quote John Green, he “never took a piss without pondering the abundant metaphorical resonances of human waste production.” you just know that he was that kid sitting at the front of the classroom, his arm permanently hovering in the air demanding the teacher’s attention. and I swear to god he never had a date in his life.

#3. awe – acceptance

eventually I came to the realization that just because Socrates may be a wholly unlikable character, doesn’t mean that his arguments don’t hold up. in his time, the only way to make an argument was oratory, which like it or not, is exactly what Socrates does. just because he adds a “do you agree?” in once in a while doesn’t take away from the fact that he is a pontificating bastard, who makes longer speeches than gorgias (you know, only the eponymous character), polus, callicles, and chaerephon combined x 1000. so he’s a hypocrite. who isn’t? in order to appreciate the genius of Gorgias you have to do exactly what Socrates wants you to do: look at the truth and content of what he is saying and not the manner in which he is saying it. Socrates looks down on oratory because he believes that it is a false and impractical form of “flattery” that aims to please and dishonestly persuade rather than make a true and honest argument. in his view, orators rely on style rather than substance. when reading Gorgias many of us are unable to get over the verbosity and length of Socrates’ speech, and the nature of his character, but once you look past the delivery and straight to the arguments there is, in fact, a lot of depth and truth to them. I won’t relay said arguments since I’m sure that all of you have read Gorgias at least 5 times and as such are well versed with Socrates’ views on oratory, suffering, self-interest, good vs. evil,  and the nature of power and who really wields it.

and you know that even if the character has Socrates’ name, the views are Plato’s and he’s got a hell of a lot to say that is worth reading. so I urge you to return to this text even if it appears daunting and frustrating at first. you may want to eviscerate Socrates, but you can’t help but admire Plato.


1 thought on “Socrates vs. Plato: Style vs. Substance in Plato’s Gorgias

  1. I love your description of reading Gorgias in terms of a series of stages, finally resting on acceptance and a bit of awe. You’ve nicely captured what I think a number of people feel when reading Socrates–he is not always read as a likeable character, to say the least. But there are good arguments in there (not all of them, but some), and important things to consider. So I like where you ended up!

    I find it interesting that I have this fondness for Socrates, that I think of him as just really trying to find the truth and hoping to do so through getting rid of false views–which is what he does when he criticizes what others think. I have this hope that if anyone were to successful refute his own claims he would truly be gracious and pleased about it, as he says he would. Of course, I have no idea if this would have been the case, and mostly what I’m interested in is my own reaction. Why do I cut him slack? Why do I think of him as a good guy who is just trying to seek the truth and not just trying to show how much he knows and others don’t? Because it’s possible to see him both ways, given this and other Socratic dialogues by Plato. Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, a kind of faith in the value of philosophy and one of its most famous practitioners. Or maybe it’s because I’ve read a lot of Socratic dialogues? Honestly, I don’t know.

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