An Introduction to Argumentation
The Gorgias is one of Plato’s early dialogues (circa 380 BCE), one of the many where Socrates features as the main character. Socrates engages in conversation with three interlocutors who identify as sophists: Gorgias, one of the most respected sophists/rhetoricians of the time, and two of his disciples, Polus and Callicles. The initial topic under discussion is the very definition of rhetoric. Socrates argues that, although it can be put to good use, in practice rhetoric is no more than flattery: telling people what they want to hear, rather than aiming at the truth, in order to manipulate their opinions and views. Rhetoric thus only serves to convince the ignorant, whereas philosophy promotes a virtuous life. The conversation then turns into a discussion of what it means to lead a good life. Callicles, the most extreme and outspoken of the three, maintains that a good life is merely a life of maximal pleasure, where the stronger rightfully dominates the weaker. Despite his best efforts, Socrates is unable to change Callicles’ mind with his arguments. The dialogue as a whole offers deep reflections on how to engage in fruitful argumentation, and the limits and scope of rational discourse.