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Jenna Murphy

Dr. Kevin Brooks

ENGL 275

4/23/17

Platos Gorgias: A Review for Introduction to Writing Studies

The works of Western culture, particularly the Platonic dialogues, have left Rhetoric and

Composition scholars with a rich and vast repository of philosophical thought. While

contemporary research in the field has shifted and developed various aspects of the discipline,

classical rhetorics influence, and, specifically, its rootedness in Platonic thought, endures in

composition theory today. Various scholars representative of this tradition, such as Edward J.

Corbett, have suggested that there is much usefulness to be found in classical rhetoric and its

conventions. In light of this classical approach, a review of Platos Gorgias has been found

worthwhile to determine the texts applicability for students in the Introduction to Writing

Studies (ENG 275) at North Dakota State University. A review of the text reveals that it is both

useful and applicable to meeting the objectives of the course, both in terms of student interest

and integration into course content.

Platos Gorgias could be considered the genesis point of exposition on the proper motives

and value of rhetoric. Socrates dialogue with his interlocutor represents the central debate

surrounding the inherent value of rhetoric, which has shaped scholarly discussion and pedagogy

in the field of Rhetoric and Composition Studies historically. While his interlocutor contends the

goodness and usefulness of rhetoric, Socrates expresses deep reservations about the ability of

rhetoric to corrupt not only what Socrates would consider true philosophical thought, but also to
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corrupt the minds of public listeners. For Socrates, rhetoric is likened to both cosmetics and

cookery, crafts that do not truly represent their substance, but rather are manicured to allure and

attract: So pastry baking, as I say, is the flattery that wears the mask of medicine. Cosmetics is

the one that wears that of gymnastics in the same way: a mischievous, deceptive, disgraceful,

illiberal thing; one that perpetrates deception by means of shaping and coloring, smoothing out

and dressing up (Plato 222). Socrates goes on to clarify exactly what he means by the

deceptiveness of oratory by a series of analogies: what cosmetics is to gymnastics, sophistry is

to legislation; and what pastry baking is to medicine, oratory is to justice (Plato 222).

Essentially, Socrates expresses a deep concern about the ability of rhetoric to be used for self-

serving or corrupt purposes. For Socrates, the persuasive nature of rhetoric needs to be used with

discretion, if at all.

Socrates contends that rhetoric must be oriented toward and formed by the Platonic ideals

of goodness, truth, and beauty to be a worthwhile endeavor. He suggests that rhetoric is

representative of a knackfor producing a certain gratification and pleasure rather than an art

seeking the good of the public (Plato 219). Socrates presents the method of dialectic as a means

of arriving at truth as his preferred method, and expounds on the nature of justice as part of his

explanation. He explains that doing whats unjust is actually the greatest of evils, and likens

illiberal rhetoric to unjust behavior (Plato 226). For the next portion of the dialogue, Socrates

expounds on the idea of justice, punishment, suffering, happiness, and reward as a means of

convincing his interlocutor that oratory must seek goodness, truth, and beauty if it is to possess

value (Plato 227-235). To illustrate his case, Socrates turns to a pretty tale to express his

dedication to the pursuit of justice and its relation both to the afterlife and to the use of rhetoric

(Jowett 418). Socrates employs the myth of the last judgement to describe his belief that just as
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individuals are physically stripped before the judgement seat of Rhadamanthus, so to are any

injustices in the souls of individuals laid bare. From this analogy, Socrates returns to his concern

that rhetoric improperly motivated is a prime source of injustice, and has the potential to create a

mar on the soul he wishes at all costs to avoid (Jowett 420). In fact, Socrates concludes by

suggesting serious apprehension about the ability of rhetoric to be used at all for a worthwhile

purpose: Yes, this is the sort of thing I think oratory is useful for, Polus, since for the person

who has no intention of behaving unjustly it doesnt seem to me to have much useif in fact it

has any use at all (Plato 240). Here the dialogue draws to a close and the reader is left to

consider when, how and if rhetoric is to be used in the service of the public good. Socrates

allows his interlocutors, and audience by extension, to consider the ethical ramifications of

persuasive speech not supported by proper intentions. Students who read the dialogue in the

present day will be no less engaged by his arguments than readers of the past.

Platos Gorgias provides an ancient perspective with contemporary applications for

students in Introduction to Writing Studies at North Dakota State University. While some may

argue that the antiquity of the text precludes it from the interest of students today, the dialogues

exposition on rhetoric should not be relegated to the past. Students in Introduction to Writing

Studies, much like students of other ages, will find themselves taken up in the dialogic style,

wittiness, and often present humor of Socrates in the Gorgias. Rather than reading a textbook on

Writing Studies, which has the tendency to prescribe or define the field, in the Gorgias students

will be privy to a philosophical conversation about the nature of rhetoric, and through it have the

opportunity to develop their own thoughts about the role and place of rhetoric today. In other

words, by reading the Gorgias, students are given the opportunity to synthesize and create their

own new knowledge about rhetoric, rather than receive definitions provided by others. This
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process is one of the gifts of the philosophic dialogues: these texts are instrumental in causing

students to wrestle with meaning and accepted norms.

Along with the dialogues ability to provoke thought and synthesis, however, Socrates

use of myth in the Gorgias provides both a challenge and unique opportunity. While the use of

myth provides valuable insight into ancient Greek cultural and religious practice, it may conflict

with the empiricist and post-Enlightenment saturated culture of students today that requires

quantification and evidence with distrust toward the spiritual, unobservable world. At the same

time, it can be argued that the use of myth is a valuable part of literary studies and adds a

roundedness and poetic element to Socrates argument. Moreover, the myth of last judgement is

in many ways inessential to Socrates overall argument. His case could stand without it, if

educators are so inclined to ignore or downplay the myth within the broader context of the

dialogue.

In the process of reading the Gorgias, students will also be led to consider concepts like

truth, goodness, and justice and, more importantly, their role in motivating rhetoric. These ideas

are applicable to the interests of students as they grapple with what truth means in society today

and how writing and rhetoric can facilitate public goods. Furthermore, the style of the Platonic

dialogues is engaging to many, and from this tradition the Socratic dialogues endures. In

addition, students of Writing Studies should find the Gorgias of interest because of its

foundational nature in the history of rhetoric. Many of the ideas presented by Socrates in the text

have influenced and shaped Writing Studies historically as well as conceptually. In this way, the

Gorgias is a somewhat timeless addition to the course for students in this class and future

classes.
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Platos Gorgias will integrate well with content in Introduction to Writing Studies. In

terms of timing, the Gorgias would best integrate with the content in Introduction to Writing

Studies near the beginning of the course. Because the beginning of the course focuses on some of

the foundational sources of theory and pedagogy in Writing Studies, an appropriate time to

introduce the Gorgias would be in the early weeks of the course. According to the syllabus,

Weeks 1-4+ of the course are dedicated to the history of rhetoric and writing; history of writing

studies, and this would be a fitting time for students to read the Gorgias. The syllabus for

Introduction to Writing Studies also explains that the objectives of the course include learning

key figures and concepts from the history of rhetoric and writing studies, as well as academic

study of and practice of public / civic writing. Students of Introduction to Writing Studies

reading the Gorgias seems an apt contribution to an understanding of this content. Students could

learn about the roots of distrust for rhetoric and some of the classical conceptions of its use. The

Gorgias could easily be compared and contrasted with a Ciceronian work, such as De Oratore. In

the course at present, these works have been discussed briefly, but reading the Gorgias and/or De

Oratore would provide students with a more in-depth look at the ancient foundations of rhetoric

that continue to influence modern conceptions of the field today.

A review of Platos Gorgias reveals that it is a worthwhile text for students in the

Introduction to Writing Studies (ENG 275) at North Dakota State University. The Gorgias is

both useful and applicable to meeting the objectives of the course, both in terms of student

interest and integration into course content. While the works of Western culture, particularly the

Platonic dialogues, have left Rhetoric and Composition scholars with a rich and vast repository

of philosophical thought, these texts should not be left unused for modern purposes. In the

Gorgias both thought that was foundational to the field of Rhetoric and Composition studies can
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be found, as well as a touch point for beginning new exploration and discussion for the students

of today.
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Works Cited

Plato. Gorgias. Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, 4th Ed., edited by S. Marc Cohen,
Patricia Curd, and C.D.C. Reeve, Hackett, 2011, pp. 219-240.

Jowett, Benjamin. The Dialogues of Plato in Five Volumes, Vol. 2, Oxford University, 1892, pp.
416-421.