Gorgias is a detailed study of virtue founded upon an inquiry into the nature of rhetoric, art, power, temperance, justice, and good versus evil. As such, the dialogue both maintains independent significance and relates closely to Plato's overarching philosophical project of defining noble and proper human existence. It exists in the form of a mostly friendly (though at times scathing) conversation between Socrates and four fellow citizens. Chaerephon, an apparent contemporary of Socrates, is found speaking with Plato's teacher at the beginning of the dialogue, yet says little else throughout the conversation. Callicles, another of Socrates's peers (and here his harshest insulter), plays host to Gorgias as well as opponent to Socrates near the discussion's close. Gorgias is the famous orator (for whom this text was named), the questioning of whom serves as catalyst for the debates around which Gorgias centers. And Polus is Gorgias's inexperienced, overeager student. One must remember that although the dialogue depicts a fictitious interaction, Socrates was indeed Plato's teacher. As a result, this character's words for the most part should be taken as indicative of the actual Socratic framework and presentation, in addition to serving as an expression of Plato's own positions.
Though Plato himself did not split his writing into sections, the text nonetheless divides quite smoothly into general topics. The first vague section (ending at 466) finds Socrates and his friend Chaerephon discussing Gorgias's status as an imminent rhetorician. Socrates desires to question Gorgias about the scope and nature of rhetoric, so the two head towards the home of Callicles where the great Sophist can be found. The intense discussion that ensues leads to the more general consideration of true versus false arts (flattery/routine), a distinction based upon the good existing as different from the pleasant. Though this is the first hint at the dissimilarity between the two notions, the point is not further developed until much later in the dialogue.
The second part (466–480) delves into the true essence of power, with the eventual conclusion that it exists both in an overall lack of need and in one's ability to perform only those actions he/she independently wills. In this sense, for example, a tyrannical leader does not have actual power, because he/she must perform actions (such as executions) since they are good for the state—not because the ruler independently wills them. This particular inquiry quickly leads to a defining of what is the worst wrong a person can commit, with the eventual determination that no evil surpasses that of inflicting wrong and escaping punishment. Herein lies the text's first suggestion of an overarching question of right and wrong, an issue that eventually results in a mapping of virtue.
The next general portion (480–488) contains a divergence from the rest of the more typically investigative tone of Gorgias. Callicles spends a fair amount of time chastising Socrates and the fact that such a grown man would remain immersed in the pursuit of philosophy. Apparently, Callicles sees this continued practice as a disgrace in adults. Here more than anywhere else in the work, Socrates's pursuit of truth is directly threatened by the prevalent beliefs of his contemporaries.
The fourth sweeping section (488–507) tracks the participants' inquiry into the nature and value of temperance and justice. Within this discussion, Socrates supplies a somewhat abstract logical proof of the distinction between the good and the pleasant, thereby resolving an issue begun in the dialogue's first main section. For Plato and his teacher, the chaos of contemporary Greek society (especially in Athens) was based on the failure of most to recognize this fundamental difference. This widespread oversight in turn leads to a confusion of flattery for art, persuasion for truth, and other such illusions. The conversation moves on to conclude the topic with a grounding of proper existence in temperance and justice.
What remains of the text (through 527e) comprises an attempt by Socrates to display how virtue arises from an appropriate balance of the arts defined earlier in the dialogue, as well as an attempt to show how virtue manifests itself in a righteous life. Socrates describes virtue of the body (through gymnastics and medicine) as well as of the soul (through temperance and justice). Interestingly, Socrates's response here smacks of rhetoric and oration more than of dialogue, and his tone takes on a passion and urgency unusual even for him. This intense passion suggests the vital significance for him (and thus for Plato) of the topics in focus. The mythology of death Socrates relates at the dialogue's conclusion illustrates the importance of virtue both in this world and beyond.
Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.
Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.
Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.
Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.
Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.
Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.