The purpose of this essay is to elucidate the importance of Plato’s commitment to rational discourse in the Apology and Gorgias. Both dialogues chronicle the transfer of authority from the destructive world of Athens to the philosophers. The organization of politics and society, according to Plato, is determined by the orderliness of the souls of its citizens. The central element of the successful Platonic revolution is a profound yearning for political and spiritual regeneration.

In the Gorgias, like the Protagoras, Socrates must confront one of the great figures of his time, Gorgias of Leontini, who is not merely a rhetor, but an innovator of rhetorical approaches and an accomplished teacher. Werner Jaeger describes Gorgias as the man who “set the tone for the last thirty years of the fifth century” and as “the embodiment of the art” of rhetoric (Jaeger 1941, 127). But, the dialogue is more than a discussion of the uses of rhetoric. It is a treatise that describes the revolutionary transfer of political and moral
authority from the established “seat of power” in Athens to the philosophers. The revolution is existential in nature. The existential character of the dialogue evolves from a consciousness dependent on an individual awareness of life between the poles of the higher potentialities of politics and society, the perfection of the divine, and the lower potentialities, the problematic situation of humankind. The “In-Between,” the tension between the possibilities of human life and knowledge (metaxy), as the Gorgias suggests, does not fully represent human existence, but is a presentation of the struggle to participate in being.

Only Socrates acknowledges the role of the divine force in human affairs, the daimon, although such an influence is present throughout the dialogue.[1] The problem of the metaxy, namely the choice between a limited ground or a fullness of being, is not articulated by Gorgias, Polus, or Callicles. One of the most persistent problems in the dialogue is the inability of the participants to communicate. Moreover, some of the participants in the discussion make a deliberate effort to disrupt the conversation in an effort to limit debate. The underlying cause of this dilemma rests in the character of the souls of the individuals involved in the discourse and their openness to the existential order (Cheek 1991, 60).

Voegelin as Guide

This exegesis will rely upon the scholarship of Eric Voegelin, because his work, in contradistinction to most twentieth and twenty-first century political thinkers, attempts to explicate the quest for the existential order (Walsh 1984; Hallowell 1987; and Planinc 1991). Voegelin was born in 1901, in Cologne, the son of an engineer. In his childhood, he read Marx’s Das Kapital and thought of himself as a Marxist until he came under the tutelage of the eminent market-oriented economist Ludwig von Mises at the University of Vienna. At an early juncture in his academic career, Voegelin was attracted to the study of law and political science. Voegelin began to realize the limitations of German social science. It lacked what Burke called the “politics of prudence,” a knowledge of politics as related to practice (Kirk 1993). During the 1925-26 academic year, Voegelin studied in the United States and was greatly influenced by the scholarly environment in America. His early works are in part a response to the crisis in Germany and Austria, but Voegelin’s greatest contributions were the products of his research in the United States, under the auspices of Louisiana State University, the Hoover Institution, and other academic facilities. He remained in the United States, with the exception of a period in Munich, until his death in 1985 (Webb 1981; Sandoz 1981; Federici 2002; Walsh 1990; Heilke 1999; Cheek 2006; and Cooper 1999).

Eric Voegelin’s scholarship represents one of the most ambitious scholarly undertakings of this century. Voegelin, through his research, encountered many of the central questions of political experience. The first three volumes of his magnum opus, Order and History, began as a search for order in history. These  volumes stressed the ongoing “leaps in being” and the influences these leaps have had on humankind’s “new life.” History, while not reduced to the single, straight line of the Hegelian weltgeist, was presented as a “progression of tension” (Niemeyer 1976). His enterprise began as a study of Christianity, but he realized “one could not properly understand the Christian beginnings without going into the Jewish background” (Voegelin 1989, 63). This approach required a thorough knowledge of the classical languages, if it were to be successful. So in the early 1930s Voegelin undertook a study of Greek to augment his understanding of Plato and “become a competent political scientist” (Voegelin 1989, 39). Voegelin’s philological abilities are unique for a political scientist and they provide the basis for much of the intricacy of his study of Platonic political thought.

The Apology Transfigured

The major discussions that take place in the Gorgias, especially the problems of spiritual disorder and the rule of the passions, have already been presented in the Apology. The Apology is a Platonic envelope where one can find reflected the range of tensions involved in the Platonic quest. It can also be understood as an introduction and summary of the tenets of the dialogues, as tragedy becomes the basis for an appreciation of the tension that surrounds the corpus of work examining these tensions.

The Apology introduces this movement and transition by illuminating our understanding of the Gorgias and its place within the larger genre of the Platonic dialogues.[2] The purpose of this section is to elucidate the importance of the dialogue to the Gorgias, especially noting the prominent role of the daimonion, the divine voice Socrates hears during the course of the trial. This voice allows the reader to interpret the dialogue as a series of events taking place on two levels, mythical and political; therefore, the tools one should utilize in interpreting the Apology are also essential to an examination of the Gorgias.

In the Apology, when Socrates is questioned, he always states that he possesses human, not divine wisdom. His friends as well as his enemies both contradict this account, usually noting the old sage had “wisdom more than human” (Nietzsche [1880] 1954, 69). While Socrates stresses his association with the here and now, he is also open to the possibility of the existential order of being between the immanent and the transcendent. Meletus, the only witness the reader encounters, accuses Socrates of believing in the “things in the sky and things below the earth” (Plato [2002] 23, 18b)[3] in an attempt to convince the jury that Socrates was not pious, and more importantly, that he had contributed to the political instability of the polis.

The accusations are followed by Socrates’ response. He defends his association with the youth of Athens, but he finds Meletus’ comments regarding the gods so ridiculous as to force him to retort that the consideration of serious issues cannot take place in such a forum. Socrates proceeds to critique the remainder of Meletus’ concerns, including the charge that he has corrupted young men through his teaching. He responds ironically: “Who improves our young men? The laws?” (Plato [2002] 29, 24e). Obviously, Meletus as the witness (and as the defender of the laws) must define his position. But Socrates is arguing that undisciplined human reason is not a true guide to wisdom. In fact, human wisdom cannot serve as the answer to all questions, and by its very essence in nature (physis) it is unable to approach an understanding of the kosmos.

Meletus’ polymathic[4] questioning, an approach based on his reliance on the empirical evidence, limits his ability to experience the more universal problems related to the broader issues raised by Socrates. Socrates chooses to demonstrate the weaknesses of the arguments made by Meletus by using this line of response. He could have chosen a more eminent man like Gorgias, Prodicus, or Hippias, who were famous sophists, but Meletus is the most profound example of insolence towards the gods and to justice (dike). Even amidst the fervor of the trial and the presentation of the charges against him, Socrates boldly presents his defense. By attacking Meletus, a young and less experienced sophist, Socrates can avoid the recriminations resulting from attacking the older, more prominent accusers. Meletus also represents a spiritual point of demarcation. It is Meletus, like Polus in the Gorgias, who epitomizes the spiritual depravity of Athens. The absurdity of the challenge presented by Meletus forces Socrates to respond: “Is it by Zeus, what you think of me, Meletus, that I do not believe that there are any gods? That is what I say, that you do not believe in the Gods at all” (Plato [2002] 31, 27e).

It is the daimonion that has guided Socrates throughout his life and it has allowed him to incorporate a philosophical habit of mind. Meletus is no longer simply the central witness against Socrates, but he becomes the representative of the forces that threaten to weaken the philosophical understanding and appreciation of the role of the divine force (daimonion). We shall now turn our attention to this central concept and its role in the dialogue. Through an assessment of the role the daimonion assumes in Socrates’ life we can come to a more thorough understanding of Socrates as the active participant in the divine order.

For Socrates the daimonion has been his guide since childhood. Contrary to most scholarly commentaries, the daimonion is more than merely “a permanently implanted restraining power” (Brann 1978, 16; Stauffer 2009, 103-8), it is a manifestation of the divine, theophanic voice in the life of the philosopher-king. While it is an inner check, the mystical element it contains is the guiding force (Leander 1974). The “heavenly manifestation” is more than what we refer to today as an agent or conscience, as it is a force not of this world and more than intuition. The daimonion is not guided by the philosopher’s intellect (nous), but by something Socrates is unable to comprehend fully. The daimonion is the regenerative force in society. As it has exhibited its most important presence in the life of Socrates, the life of the polis has experienced a state of profound decline. Athens, in other words, has ignored the voice and rejected its savior.

In the Gorgias the inability of the participants in the dialogue to apprehend the existential “difference” becomes a point of demarcation. The Gorgias, like the Apology, introduces participants who are unable to acknowledge the darkness that surrounds and engulfs their very souls. The spiritual world of the soul is confused with the pedestrian world of normal life.

Socrates succeeds in demonstrating that his opponents are unable to differentiate among the possible levels of human activity, but he must also admit that a process of refinement is impossible as it is presented in the arguments of his opponents. Gorgias’ banal refusal to elevate oratory from the ruins of superficiality restricts the possibility of a movement of the art towards an assimilation of the nature of moral knowledge, which is usually dependent upon the integration of theory and practice (techne).[5] Polus’ inability to engage in discourse forces him to assume the position of a jester among men and he is unable to present the matters he would prefer to introduce into the debate. Callicles’ devotion to a new, naturalistic morality is weakened from the reverberations resulting from its lack of an ordering principle. The early insights of Socrates in the Apology become more explicit in the Gorgias. Socrates the condemned must assume the title of the defender of dike (justice), and confront the knowing and unknowing devotees of adikia (injustice). In an effort to approach a fuller understanding of the crisis as it is presented in the Gorgias and Plato’s revolutionary response we must examine Socrates and his partners in the discussion.

Socrates and Gorgias (Gorgias, 447-461)

The Respected Opponent

Socrates treatment of Gorgias is entirely different from his treatment of Polus or Callicles. Gorgias assumes a unique position among the debating opponents of Socrates. Many “Socratic” discussions, as in the Gorgias, result in the sharing of fulminations of one form or another, but Gorgias and Socrates refuse to engage in such exchanges with each other. On the other hand, perhaps the most destructive interchange can be found in the Protagoras. Both Protagoras and Alcibiades are disturbed by Socrates’ questioning and reject vehemently his approach in the dialogue. Not only does Protagoras express anger towards Socrates, but he also criticizes his own responses, thus aiding the case offered by his opponent. In the Protagoras there is a persistent element of conflict between the discussants. Socrates, by Plato’s account, appreciates the seriousness of Protagoras’ situations, and admits he must proceed with caution:

At this point I thought Protagoras was beginning to bristle, ready for a quarrel and preparing to do battle with his answers. Seeing this I became more cautious and proceeded gently with my questioning: Do you mean things which are beneficial to no human being, or things that are not beneficial at all? Do you call them good also? (Plato [1980] 329, 333e)

Socrates must respond to the challenge; he is, after all, bringing Protagoras’ basic assumptions about the situation of Athens and Athenian democracy into question. To a degree, Socrates has provoked Protagoras and presented him as an unjust man, unable to remove himself from a world of subjectivism. Protagoras’s paradoxes, as well as his position in the discussion, are exposed and refuted. Protagoras ends the debate affirming positions that are inconsistent with his earlier views. Gorgias also enters his discussion with Socrates as a man of some distinction. Socrates notes he is eager to hear Gorgias’ comments and to enter into a conversation with him. The desire to participate in the forum is presented as genuine: “I’d like to find out from the man what his craft can accomplish, and what it is that he both claims and teaches” (Plato [1987] 2, 447c). Socrates’ hope to engage Gorgias is sincere and not merely a perfunctory statement. However, Plato does incorporate a comic device at several junctures throughout the dialogue. At this early point in the conversation we can notice Socrates’ respect and admiration for Gorgias. The sincerity of the Socratic quest is manifested in the first question he poses to Gorgias through Chaerephon, Socrates’ accomplice and the early interlocutor. Through the medium of the initial question Socrates ponders the nature of Gorgias’ “craft” and the more fundamental question of the position of Gorgias within Athenian society. The deferential quality of Socrates’ introductory reply sets the tone for the remainder of his discussions with Gorgias; although, at a later point Gorgias, conceding his defeat, will exit the discussion. He returns to the conversation in three other situations to intervene between Socrates and Polus (Plato [1987] 23, 463a), and he must re-enter the debate between Socrates and Callicles on two occasions to encourage a continuation of the dialogue (Plato [1987] 72, 497b and 88, 506a).[6]

Socrates, who makes a tardy appearance at the gathering, is desperately seeking to engage in dialegesthai, or genuine dialogue, with Gorgias. Gorgias is recognized as a proficient teacher and Socrates attempts to gain a better understanding of the pedagogue’s unusual propensity for instilling his gift in his students. A veneer of order and unity (homonoia) is established between Socrates and Gorgias, due in no small part to a mutual respect for the other’s ability to promote their respective interpretations of political and social life. Such a common understanding is damaged by the subsequent antics of Polus (for example, Plato [1987] 2, 448a). We shall examine the role of Polus at a later point in the essay.

Socrates expresses his interest in discussing the nature of oratory and the problems associated with the sophistic use of the practice with Gorgias. As the master trainer and as an able discussant, Gorgias is considered by Socrates as a man of great importance. While Socrates’ encounters with Protagoras are clearly struggles, the discussions with Gorgias are of a more affable nature and assume the tone of a friend attempting to reprove or dissect the inconsistent statements of a comrade. Socrates suggests that his comments are a “word to the wise,” and that Gorgias is the only person for whom such a title is applicable:

Gorgias, I take it that you, like me, have experienced many discussions and that you’ve observed this sort of a thing about them: it’s not easy for the participants to define jointly what they’re undertaking to discuss, and so, having learned from and taught each other, to conclude their session. Instead, if they’re disputing some point and one maintains that the other isn’t right or isn’t clear, they get irritated, each thinking the other is speaking out of spite. They become eager to win instead of investigating the subject under discussion. …So, I’m afraid to pursue my examination of you, for fear that you should take me to be speaking with eagerness to win against you, rather than to have our subject become clear (Plato [1987] 16, 457c-e).

The perpetuation of the conversation with Gorgias is once again reasserted by Socrates as his goal for the session. Gorgias is obviously different from either Polus or Callicles according to Socrates. Voegelin argues “he [Gorgias] is aware of the existential conflict underlying the intellectual crash, and his conscience worries him” (Voegelin 1957, 28). Gorgias, unlike the other participants, does not dismiss the “Platonic” revolt even though he may not be willing to participate in the movement to the degree that is required of a collaborator. Gorgias, nevertheless, possesses a reflective self-consciousness which allows him to understand the finiteness of his own existence. He never becomes angry at Socrates’ discursions; in fact, he usually accepts his suggestions, demonstrating a tacit agreement with the mission of Socrates. At this point in the dialogue the possibility of a shared, common level of philosophical understanding is probable.

The Prospects for a Common Understanding of Experience (Pathos, 453-454)

The possibility for the realization of a common experience on the behalf of Socrates and Gorgias demands examination. Socrates’ disagreement with the old order remains substantial and Gorgias must be considered to be part of the regime or at least supportive of the worldview of the rulers. Gorgias has served in an official capacity and has trained others for governmental service. He argues that the orators who have been under his tutelage are appropriately prepared for such an enterprise: “Socrates, you see that the orators are the ones who give advice and whose views on these matters prevail” (Plato [1987] 14, 456a). It would be a mistake to interpret this as a sweeping endorsement of his training routine; however, he is making what he considers to be a statement of fact. Gorgias should not be misinterpreted as an enemy of the Platonic revolution. He is a partial participant in the transcendental tension (helkein),[7] and he evidences the force of the tension, although he is never fully open to the movement.

When this is acknowledged, a fuller appreciation of Gorgias can be achieved. Gorgias can now be understood as a more profound figure. Gorgias possesses qualities not usually associated with worshippers of hedonism though Gorgias has been characterized as a man who is “motivated by an inordinate desire for personal pleasure and power over others” (Wiser 1983, 51) Such an indictment is too severe. The idea of pleonexy, the unrelenting quest for material aggrandizement, never dominates Gorgias’ conversation. Gorgias concedes to Socrates’ criticism of his critique of oratory by affirming that the practice can be concerned with unjust as well as just causes (Plato [1987] 11, 454b). This also suggests an acceptance of the Socratic distinction associated with persuasion–it can either provide conviction without knowledge or aid the development of knowledge. The partial openness Gorgias demonstrates in the previously cited pericope must also be compared with his rejection of Socratic openness at other junctures.

Perhaps the most neglected element of the exchange between Gorgias and Socrates remains Gorgias’ appreciation of the dianoetic quality of Socrates’ responses. The Socratic enlargement of the sources of persuasion finds a receptive witness in Gorgias. He agrees that conviction can be altered by other means than oratory (Plato [1987] 11, 454a). Mathematics and great art, for example, can perform similar functions. Gorgias’ argument must be limited by his admission, if it is to be defensible after Socrates’ assessment, to the realm of large judicial gatherings. The orderliness of the discussion begins to exhibit some weaknesses. Gorgias’ digressions, according to Socrates, forces Socrates to assume the position of pursuing a strategy that he employs throughout most of the Platonic dialogues, and he becomes the initiating force behind the conversation: “I’m asking questions so that we can conduct an orderly discussion” (Plato [1987] 12, 454c). Gorgias submits to this “turn,” suggesting he willingly succumbs to the Socratic trap. Socrates not only offers the questions that must be answered, he also encourages particular answers from his partners in discussions. Gorgias is forced to recognize his diminished role in the exchange and he must defer the questions Socrates raises for him to his students in the hope these protégés can succeed where their master has failed.

Gorgias’ Oratory and Justice (Gorgias, 455)

Previously, Socrates suggested that the prime weakness of Gorgias’ argument concerning rhetoric was its inability to incorporate a role for the teaching of knowledge, and its central element, an appreciation for the transcendental pole of tension, the good agathon (Voegelin [1957], 112). Gorgias suggests, especially in his early responses to Socrates, that his approach to political life is disjointed from an understanding of the good, limiting the possibility for a transcendental ordering of the soul. But Gorgias, unlike the other participants in the debate, never separates his attempt at the philosophical enterprise[8] from the prospect of acknowledging the pursuit of the good, although Gorgias occasionally departs from the active employment of such a life. He remains a participant in the struggle, although no clear elucidation of a resolution to the dilemma is presented.

The most profound limitation concerning Gorgias’ position, and one that is partially ameliorated at a later point in the dialogue, concerns his definition of oratory. Gorgias is, of course, defining the ordering principles of society, as he understands these ideas, when he offers his view of oratory. Oratory becomes for Gorgias the consummate element of his ontology of being. The elevation of oratory also suggests a partial refusal to accept the requirements of the full philosophical (noetic) openness, thus the path towards selfawareness seems more bewildering for Gorgias.

The scope of Gorgian openness cannot be fully explicated due to the boundaries of our analysis. The admiration exhibited for the “art of giving speeches” becomes for Gorgias “The greatest of human concerns…the best” (Plato [1987] 8, 451d). Again, the importance of persuasion is stressed and Socrates must ask for a refinement of the term; he defines the art of oratory as the practice of “instilling persuasion” (Plato [1987] 10, 453a) and Gorgias asserts he has defined oratory “quite adequately” and “That is the long and short of it” (Plato [1987] 10, 453a). Gorgias continues to accept the important role of his “art” throughout the dialogue. To a degree, he must endeavor to present a defense of his work, as he and the order he represents are under scrutiny in this interchange. Gorgias’ devotion to oratory is elevated over the ethical and moral constrains of the practice, suggesting that the great teacher is unable to counter the predicament that confronts him in the dialogue. Gorgias, unlike Polus and Callicles, continues the discussion with Socrates; both men listen patiently to the comments of the other, insinuating that some semblance 
of rational discourse is occurring. As Voegelin argues, true discussion can only transpire within a framework where limitations are incorporated by the rules of linguistic engagement (Voegelin 1961). Only then, can those engaged have a common understanding of terms central to a meaningful exchange.

The success of the Platonic mission depends on the transferal of knowledge so that virtue may be cultivated (Voegelin 1961). When this purpose cannot be served in the course of a discussion, Socrates excuses himself from the encounter. Voegelin suggests this improves the prospect for free speech:

Plato establishes the principle, all too frequently ignored today, that freedom of speech included also the liberty to refuse to listen. Freedom of speech serves the purpose of rational discussion; whoever abuses it in order to prevent discussion in breaking the rules of the game as accepted by civilized society (Voegelin 1961, 276).

Gorgias obeys the proper limits more closely and more thoughtfully than Socrates’ other debating partners in the Gorgias. In fact, after Gorgias leaves the conversation with Socrates, he assumes the role of facilitator, encouraging interaction and at several points he revives a floundering interchange.

Gorgias possesses some comprehension of the transcendental origin of the social order and this understanding is exemplified by his willingness to embrace a role for justice in the work of the practitioner of oratory. The practice, as Gorgias delineates it, contains a metaphysical element. Socrates expresses amazement at Gorgias’ portrayal and proceeds to associate a “supernatural” quality with the depiction. Gorgias agrees with Socrates’ interpretation and suggests oratory “encompasses and subordinates to itself just about everything that can be accomplished” (Plato [1987] 14, 456b). The sublimation of a potentially intemperate oratory suggests the principal weakness of Gorgias’ position: the practice remains a destructive exercise if it cannot improve the basis for an understanding of practical knowledge. Gorgias is unwilling to acquiesce to the demands of the Platonic truth. The philosophical inquiry, which must serve as the foundation for an understanding of this truth in existence, is deformed, and any movement towards the transcendental source is prohibited by Gorgias’ refusal to consider the intricacies of Socrates’ prescription.

However, Gorgias’ critique endures due to its receptivity to a role for the agathon, albeit with some qualifications. In other words, he apprehends a higher purpose for social and political discourse than the other debate participants. The mature solemnization of Gorgias’ argument includes a role for justice in the practice of oratory, and the indication that the use of oratory cannot be separated from the moral life:

The orator has the ability to speak against everyone on every subject, so as in gatherings to be more persuasive, in short, about anything he likes, but the fact that he has the ability to rob doctors or other craftsmen of their reputation does not give him any more of a reason to do it. He should use oratory justly, as he would use any competitive skill (Plato [1987] 15, 457a).

Gorgias is incapable of a leap in being. He can never fully expose himself to the fuller dimensions of Socrates’ profound critique. Gorgias does not experience a transformation in openness, but he is influenced by the encounter with Socrates. The decline of his position within the discussion is essential to a recognition of his role within the larger dialogue.

Gorgias’ Fall: The Partial Rejection of Socratic Openness

Socrates begins his last exchange with Gorgias by reintroducing the existential problem, again demonstrating a special understanding of Gorgias and his situation. The degree of communication at this point between Socrates and Gorgias continues and a more thorough delineation of the dispute can be ascertained. Socrates tries to convince Gorgias that simply winning an argument is not as important as beginning a process towards right behavior. Gorgias rescinds his pledge of active and full participation in the discussion. The objective of the event can no longer be a path which brings one back to the transcendental origin of the social order. Gorgias’ exploration of the role of the oratory in society becomes divorced from its connection with the ethical and moral life. The role of oratory in social and political life is greatly depreciated and Gorgias’ argument begins to unravel.

Gorgias has moved in the direction of denying any prospects for transcendental fulfillment. The well-being of humankind is superseded by the profane desire to succeed at convincing others of your views, and promoting one’s own position in society. Questions of an enduring nature, if not excluded, cannot properly be examined due to the rage for approval and personal success. Socrates does not hold all oratory in disdain, only those practices that prevent the promotion of justice. Gorgias’ approach is not dismissed in its entirety. There are acknowledgments of his contributions in the course of the dialogue. Socrates never rejects the possibility that his approach to oratory and the moral life could also be misused. The discussion always returns to the preeminent Socratic tenet: oratory, as well as all other human activities, must be used to benefit justice (Plato [1987] 112-113, 527ac). The approach to human affairs offered by Gorgias is impotent by its very nature; Gorgias’ mode of existence becomes more qualified and less open to the more substantial questions it must entertain.

The claims of Gorgias are further weakened by his inability to respond fully to the criticisms made against his use of oratory by Socrates. Again, Socrates exerts a willingness to allow Gorgias the opportunity to revise and extend his comments, but it is of no avail (Plato [1987] 17, 458d-e). The devaluation of the Gorgian position reaches a climax when the great teacher must admit that his practice of oratory may be used to persuade gatherings of people without knowledge of the good, the true and the beautiful (Plato [1987] 17, 459a). The divorcement of a role for justice, and for a recognition of the existential tension as it related to the use of oratory, depreciates the importance of Gorgias’ earlier arguments. The debate must now turn to Socrates who is presented with the opportunity of elaborating his assessment of the discussion and his critique of a bewildered discussant.

Socrates can pursue his mission with much freedom, given the capitulation of Gorgias. The penultimate concession transpires when Socrates queries Gorgias concerning the proposition that an orator must necessarily be just and that a just man will want to do just things. At this point, Gorgias, restrained by his previous submissions, answers “apparently so” (Plato [1987] 19, 460c). The response is once more followed by Socrates’ reintroduction of the existential problem although it is expressed in a dichotomized fashion: “if you, like me, think that being refuted is a profitable thing, it would be worthwhile to continue the discussion, but if you didn’t, to let it drop” (Plato [1987] 20, 461a). Gorgias’ embarrassment is so great that he cannot reenter the discussion. Voegelin correctly suggests that Socrates has exceeded the norms of rational discussion in this instance:

…nobody will ever deny that he knows what justice is and that he can teach it, the question is unfair and should not be asked. To involve a man [Gorgias] in a contradiction by forcing from him an admission on a point which he is ashamed to deny, betrays gross boorishness (agroikia) on the part of Socrates (Voegelin 1957, 25).

Socrates admonitions suggest an imprudent approach on his part. He proceeds to critique the idea of oratory as it was presented by Gorgias. He argues that oratory for Gorgias is whatever a particular defender of the “knack” may suggest that it is at any given time (Plato [1987] 22, 462b).[9] It is a craft that can be constructed to fit the individual and his or her circumstances. The argument presented by Socrates is coherent and encourages one to reconsider Gorgias’ defense of oratory, but it does not accurately convey his position. The charge of relativism cannot be substantiated. Gorgias advocates a rule for justice in oratory, although he removes the teachers of the practice from sharing any responsibility for their students. Gorgias has already elucidated his view that justice must be part of oratory; nevertheless, his ability to overcome the earlier rationalization of a divorcement of justice from oratory and political life hinders his position in this discussion. Socrates continues his commentary and carefully proves that the removal of any obligation vis à vis the teacher is untenable, as the teacher must share part of the blame for the student. Gorgias again succumbs to Socrates’ criticisms.

Socrates’ performance in the discussion with Gorgias is tainted by his propensity for undertaking a strategy that seeks to denigrate the positions and stature of, rather than engaging in a deeper exploration of, the major concerns of the colloquy. Gorgias has the potential for approaching an existential understanding of the tensions involved in human life and he possesses a recognition of the role of intentionality as the ground for understanding. The prospects for the acquisition of a more reflective approach are never fully articulated by Gorgias. The inability to adequately come to terms with the tension prevents these events from ever assuming a structure. Gorgias deserves much of the blame for this failure, but as we shall note, he represents the only attempt to consider the consequences of the tensions of existence in the dialogue. To examine the antithesis, we must turn to an appraisal of Polus and Callicles.

Socrates and Polus (Gorgias, 461-481)

Polus and Ideology

The discussion between Gorgias and Socrates turns into a debate between Polus and Socrates. Socrates begins the interchange by thanking Polus for assuming the position of Gorgias. The existential issue surfaces again, but Socrates’ introduction suggests that the likelihood of having such an exchange with Polus is remote. Polus, Gorgias’ disciple, is offered the same opportunity as his teacher. He not only refuses to consider the prospects for his openness, but Polus cannot understand the dimensions of the discussion and its ramifications for political society. Polus’ ignorance of the crisis before him consigns his role within the dialogue to that of a comic figure; Socrates suggests such an approach when he refers to Polus, as he attempts to assume Gorgias’ argument, as “most admirable Polus” (Plato [1987] 21, 461c). Whereas Gorgias expresses an appreciation for the role of humankind in the search for the truth of existence, Polus loathes the prospects of confronting such a problem and prefers to experience life in the here and now, potentially disregarding the health of the living soul.

Polus must be understood as a defender of the life of desire. Rhetoric and oratory become the means for promoting such a presence in the world. Socrates correctly castigates Polus’ defense of oratory, describing the “knack” as an experience, empeiria, designed for “producing a certain gratification and pleasure” (Plato [1987] 22, 462c) Polus’ sensual proclamations can never acquire the refinement necessary to be considered a craft, techne. Socrates’ criticism of Polus and his proposal continues unabated at this point. To facilitate discussion, Socrates must present Polus with a childish analogy of the body and the soul in an attempt to present the proper relationship between justice and oratory. Moreover, Polus exerts an immunity from confronting the multifaceted conundrum before him. The parable presented by Socrates, like those of Christ in the New Testament, assumes the form of true story (alethes logos), and has the potential of contributing and improving Polus’ comprehension of the ultimate consequences of his decisions and defense of the ephemeral world. Socrates’ redefinition of oratory reduces it now to something even less enduring than a “knack”: “You’ve (Polus) now heard what I say oratory is. It’s the counterpart in the soul to pastry baking, its counterpart in the body (Plato [1987] 26, 465d-e). Polus lacks the rhetorical proclivities to either present an alternative or directly refute the claims of Socrates. Socrates’ dismissal of Polus’ oratory as “a shameful thing” acquires more credibility when his debating opponent is unable to reformulate the arguments of his mentor so as to make them more compelling (Plato [1987] 24, 463d). The prospects for Polus contributing to the debate become more remote and he evinces no awareness of the ramifications of his attachment to the “old myths of society,” thereby affirming the foundational elements of the undifferentiated self (Gunnell 1968, 147). Polus has clearly lost the debate, due in no small part to his inability to participate, and he must now assume a more confrontational, if not an ad hominen, approach.

The Drift towards Relativism (468c) and the Introduction of the Measure of Pleasure and Pain (470)

Polus, Voegelin suggests, pursues a line of argument based on his intellectual dishonesty. Since he has failed in his attempt at rational discourse, he can only hope to gain success from either attacking Socrates or disrupting the discussion. Polus, of course, chooses to exploit Socrates the person and the rules of the debate. The interconnection of oratory and political power becomes the foci of Polus’ revised argument. Oratory, Polus retorts, can have the trappings of a salutary enterprise when it assists the seekers of political power and influence in realizing their goal of obtaining political office:

Socrates: I don’t think they’re held in any regard at all.

Polus: What do you mean, they’re not held in any regard? Don’t they have the greatest power in the cities?

Socrates: No, if by “having power” you mean something that’s good for the one who has power.

Polus: That’s just what I do mean.

Socrates: “In that case I think that orators have the least power of any in the city” (Plato [1987] 27, 466b).

Polus’ defense of the orators who serve as political leaders rests on relativistic premises, and the relativism takes the form of an organic argument. The activities of these political men are not constituted by an understanding of the good, but out of an interest in promoting their interests in the present.

As Polus correctly suggests, the conditions of political life are subject to frequent permutations; however, he rejects the possibility of an ordering principle. The Platonic mission, the search for the agathon, may be a response to the sublime positivism of sophistic rhetoric. It is not a prescriptive approach to political life that lends itself to a simple elucidation. It is an experience of turning towards the movement of the transcendent; after all, the good is to be pursued in terms of “what is most like it (eikon),” and “then carried on step further” (Voegelin 1957, 113). Voegelin demonstrates the good (agathon) cannot be immanentized for the sake of explaining its importance for every banal concern known to humankind.[10] The process must become “a search for truth concerning the order of being” (Voegelin 1956, xiv).

Obviously, Polus’ inability to even recognize the conflict prevents him for obtaining any appreciation of the Platonic mission. His fixity of purpose endures, and Polus yearns to continue the debate, even though he has been thoroughly refuted by Socrates. Polus’ plan in perpetuating the dialogue is to disrupt the exchange with Socrates. If he can accomplish this goal, he can appear to have successfully refuted Socrates’ arguments. Polus decides to revive his defense of self-gratification as the true foundation of the oratoric enterprise (Plato [1987] 22, 462d). He suggests all human actions should be in accordance with the interests of those people who are engaging in the acts. Polus disapproves of Socrates connection of the agathon and the kalon (admirable) as compared with the kakon (bad) and aischron (shameful) (Plato [1987] 39, 474d). Socrates argues the admirable and good person is truly happy, whereas the bad and shameful is not. The happy man is the result of education and a soul open to justice. Polus’ confusion and reluctance to participate in this discussion only augments the confinement of his compromised position. He remains completely closed to the existential problem and moves further away from participating in existence. The transferal of the knowledge of order, namely the understanding of the “truth of his own order,” is now an impossibility (Voegelin 1990, 136).

Polus is snared by his own attempt at deception. The good man is the powerful politician, regardless of how this person uses his power (Plato [1987] 31, 468e). Socrates proceeds to prove for Polus that great power is not “doing what one sees fit,” and, in fact, leaders who pursue such tactics are incapable of responding in the way they would truly want to respond (Plato [1987] 32, 469e). Polus becomes more disheveled and is forced to depart from the debate. While Gorgias, ever the decorous citizen, fades away from the discussion in silence, Polus withdraws as he submits his final comment in response to Socrates: “I think your statements are absurd, Socrates” (Plato [1987] 50, 480e).” Polus leaves the debate unconvinced of the importance of Socrates’ remark. No rapport takes place between the two men, and Polus demonstrates a lack of willingness to acquire the necessary prerequisites for appreciating Socrates’ existential challenge to the perverse order of Athens.

Socrates and Callicles (Gorgias, 481-527)

Callicles and Power

Callicles comprehends the Socratic revolt against the corruption he represents, as well as his own vehement rejection of the existential problem. Our treatment of Callicles will be less because he refuses to entertain the possibility of communication with Socrates regarding the problem of the existential quest. Callicles, unlike either Gorgias or Polus, realizes the threat posed by Socrates. Socrates is the enemy of the life Callicles holds so dear. The Socratic mission opposes the decadent order of Athens so thoroughly as to threaten its “spiritual core” (Voegelin 1957, 28). Callicles recognizes the severity of Socrates’ impugning of Athens and decides to retaliate.

For Callicles, like Polus and Thrasymachus (in the Republic), humankind’s role in political society cannot be defined by an attempt to engage in experiences that lead to the agathon (Voegelin 1957, 28) but in terms of the promotion of people with stronger natures over people possessed with weaker natures.[11] Callicles must declare war on Socrates love of philosophy and he tries to accomplish the task by arguing for the relative unimportance of philosophy:

This is the truth of the matter, as you will acknowledge if you abandon philosophy and move on to more important things. Philosophy is no doubt a delightful thing, Socrates,as long as one is exposed to it in moderation at the appropriate time of life. But if one spends more time with it than he should, it’s the undoing of mankind (Plato [1987] 55, 484c).

Philosophy, according to Callicles, is for children. To elevate the practice of philosophy as the overarching concern of political life is “ridiculous” (Plato [1987] 56, 485a). Callicles’ honesty separates him from Polus. Only Callicles clearly elucidates what the other participants in the debate believe to be true, as they are either unwilling or unable to adequately express their positions. Socrates argues for a life of balance and moderation so that person’s soul can pursue the proper path in life. Callicles refuses to accept such an ordering of greatest good (eros), claiming man should be allowed to have appetites as large and as unrestrained as possible (Plato [1987] 64-65, 492a). This, for Callicles, is true happiness. The “flowing in” of power to the undisciplined man allows for the most pleasure and any limitation of this fulfillment interferes with man’s natural role. In his refutation of Socrates’ parable of the man and the jars, he argues that satisfaction must come not from having our jars filled with water, but from the continual and unmitigated aggrandizement of the process. The hedonism of Callicles also forms a philosophy of existence. He must not accept any limitation upon the conventions he represents, as such a move would denote a movement towards Socrates’ critique regarding the corruption of the foundations of life in the political order of Athens.

Quest for Order

Callicles slowly removes himself from an active role in the debate, allowing Socrates to reintroduce the prospects for the state of the existential community. Ironically, Callicles’ growing impotence encourages Socrates to restate and develop how a restoration could be achieved:

Yes, Callicles, wise men claim, that partnership and friendship, orderliness, self-control, and justice hold together heavens and earth, and god and men, and that is why they call this universe a world order, my friend, and not an undisciplined world-disorder (Plato [1987] 88, 507e 508a).

According to Socrates, there can be no happiness without personal restraint, and the man who exhibits this restraint is the just man. The tyrant and his legions are naturally afraid of the just man because he poses a threat to the regime (Plato [1987] 91, 510b-c). Callicles realizes Socrates’ critique has the potential of overthrowing the established elements of Athenian society and that he will no longer be trusted by the citizens of Athens. Callicles senses the difference, but is unable to appreciate the decadence of his society and communicate the difference to others.

By his confession Callicles shares much in common with Socrates’ tyrannical man. The acquisition and preservation of political power form the needs of life that are most essential to survival. Socrates counters Callicles’ project, arguing there must be more to life than preservation, by ironically urging: “Perhaps one who is truly a man should stop thinking about how long he will live” (Plato [1987] 94, 512d-e). After all, the Socratic revolt, of course, results in his death. Socrates knows he is “one of a few Athenians…to take up the true political craft and practice true politics” (Plato [1987] 105, 521d). Callicles has no understanding of the experience of reality and cannot be dissuaded from holding Socrates and his order of an existential reality in disdain. He also is in a state of intellectual confusion, which should also be understood as a condition of spiritual decay. At a weak moment, he admits the order of the soul should be justice, confirming Socrates’ claim of justice as the underlying principle of oratory. Callicles’ acquiescence again suggests he is no longer an active participant in the discussion. He has been refuted by Socrates and he has admitted the logical inconsistency of his position. Callicles’ presentation of the mutual compatibility of goodness and strength has failed. Socrates’ view of goodness can now properly be understood as participation in the existential order and as aiding the attempt to redeem a corrupt Athens.


Socrates fails in his attempt to convince his opponents of the concrete, existential situation that provides the basis for openness. Only Gorgias possesses the potential of approaching the existential problem in a serious way, even though his struggle is unsuccessful. The relationship between Socrates and Gorgias is characterized by displays of mutual respect and cooperation at several junctures.

As we have suggested, the Apology and the Gorgias chronicle the transfer of authority from the destructive world of Athens to the philosophers. The organization of the society, according to Plato, is determined by the orderliness of the souls of its citizens. The central element of the successful Platonic revolution is, Voegelin reminds us, “a radical call for spiritual regeneration” (Voegelin 1957, 39). The attempt to assist the soul in overcoming its passions and the potential for spiritual derailment must continue. The disruptions of order in this century also require that modern men and women avoid an attachment to the “dogmatic derailments” represented by the numerous contemporary messianic movements (Voegelin 1957, 39).

Books related to this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


This paper was originally presented to the Georgia Political Science Association and is republished here by permission.


1. This essay will use the Greek terms diamon and daimonion to denote the divine force in human affairs. The cited term will confirm to original textual usage.

2. Unfortunately, the most significant contributions of the Apology have been reduced to ancillary concerns due to the attention given to the rhetoric Plato’s Socrates utilizes in his three speeches and the debate over whether (or not) he deserved the verdict he received (McComiskey 2002; West 1984; and Brickhouse 1989).

3. All references to the works of Plato will include the page number of the translation and the Stephanus reference number as well.

4. A polymath is a person of great and varied learning.

5. Also see Roochnik (1998) for a less conventional, but alternative interpretation of techne in the political thought of Plato.

6. Gorgias demonstrates his fairness and devotion to the debate by urging Callicles to return to the matter at hand and to uphold the commitment he has made to participate in the discussion, namely, to accept the use of any tactic of refutation Socrates might employ (Plato [1987] 72, 497b).

7. “In Voegelin, the tension of existence when it is experienced as the power of attraction exercised by the transcendental. Correlative to zetein or zetesis.” (Webb 1981, 282).

8. This “attempt” separates Gorgias from Polus and Callicles. His approach to the moral life could develop into a process that incorporates phronesis. When Gorgias’ position is refuted, he discerns the importance of Socrates’ presentation.

9. Socrates is actually replying to Polus at this point; however, the distinction is based on his earlier conversation with Gorgias.

10. “What is the idea of the agathon? The briefest answer to the question will best bring out the decisive point: Concerning the content of the agathon nothing can be said at all. That is the fundamental insight of Platonic ethics. The transcendence of the agathon makes immanent propositions concerning its content impossible” (Voegelin 1957, 113).

11. It is Thrasymachus who echoes Callicles’ argument when he asserts: “‘Listen then,’ he replied. ‘I say that justice or right is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party. Now where is your praise?’“ (Plato [1986] 77).


Brann, Eva. 1978. “The Offense of Socrates: A Re-reading of Plato’s Apology.” Interpretation 7 (2): 1-21.

Brickhouse, Thomas. 1989. Socrates on Trial. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cheek, H. Lee, Jr. 1991. “A Note on the Platonic and Aristotelian Critique of Democratic Man.” International Social Science Review 66 (Spring): 59-63.

Cheek, H. Lee, Jr. 2006. “Recovering Moses: The Contribution of Eric Voegelin and Contemporary Political Science.” Hebraic Political Studies 1 (Summer): 493-509.

Cooper, Barry. Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press.

Federici, Michael P. 2002. Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order. Wilmington, DE: I.S.I. Books.

Gunnell, John G. 1968. Political Philosophy and Time. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Heilke, Thomas W. 1999. Eric Voegelin: In Quest of Reality. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.

Jaeger, Werner. 1943. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Volume II. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kirk, Russell. 1993. Politics of Prudence. Wilmington, DE: I.S.I. Books.

Leander, Folke. 1974. The Inner Check: A Concept of Paul Elmer More With Reference to Benedetto Croce. London: Edward Wright.

McComiskey, Bruce. 2002. Gorgias and the New Sophistic Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Niemeyer, Gerhart. 1976. “Eric Voegelin’s Philosophy and the Drama of Mankind.” Modern Age 20 (Winter): 28-39.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. [1880] 1954. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. and Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin.

Planinc, Zdravko. 1991. Plato’s Political Philosophy. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press.

Plato. 2002. Five Dialogues. Trans. G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Plato. 1987. Gorgias. Trans. Donald J. Zeyl. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Plato. 1980. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Trans. W. K. C. Guthrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Plato. 1986. The Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. New York: Penguin Books.

Plochmann, George Kimball, and Franklin E. Robinson, eds. 1988. A Friendly Companion to Plato’s Gorgias. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Roochnik, David. 1998. Of Art and Wisdom: Plato’s Understanding of Techne. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Sandoz, Ellis, ed. 1982. Eric Voegelin’s Thought: A Critical Appraisal. Durham: Duke University Press.

Seeskin, Kenneth. 1987. Dialogue and Discovery: A Study in Socratic Method. Albany: State University Press of New York.

Stauffer, Devin. 2009. The Unity of Plato’s Gorgias. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Voegelin, Eric. 1990. Anamnesis. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press.

Voegelin, Eric. 1989. Autobiographical Reflections. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press.

Voegelin, Eric. 1971. “The Gospel and Culture.” In Jesus and Man’s Hope, Volume II, ed. Donald Miller. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Voegelin, Eric. 1961. “On the Readiness to Rational Discussion.” In Freedom and Serfdom, ed. Albert Hunold and Helmut Schoeck. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Voegelin, Eric. 1956. Order and History, Volume One: Israel and Revelation. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press.

Voegelin, Eric. 1957. Order and History, Volume Three: Plato and Aristotle. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press.

Walsh, David. 1990. After Ideology. San Francisco: Harper.

Walsh, David. 1984. “Voegelin’s Response to the Disorder of the Age.” Review of Politics 46 (April): 266-87.

Webb, Eugene. 1981. Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

West, Thomas G. 1984. Four Texts on Socrates. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Wiser, James L. 1983. “The Force of Reason: On Reading Plato’s Gorgias.” In The Ethical Dimension of Political Life, ed. Francis Canavan. Durham: Duke University Press.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email