December 23, 2019 | Brian Chappell


Socrates was Plato’s hero and mentor, a larger-than-life figure in his own time, a household name, even today. If we remember our school days, we might recall the Socratic Method, whereby instead of pronouncing answer after answer, the student must pose question after question until arriving at some consensus. And this is what I love about reading Plato’s dialogues: the dogged grinding out of a single thought through exhaustive and exhausting inquiry. In doing so, Socrates would turn his opponents’ positions on themselves, often causing a degree of humiliation and therefore humor. Socrates’ false humility was part of the schtick; he knew he was a master at entrapment. His declaration (possibly apocryphal) that “All I know is that I know nothing” is, while an important maxim to live by, also cheeky. He may not know all the answers, but he also knows that the other guys in the room certainly don’t either. 

But Socrates was so much more than the annoying “gadfly” showing off his own intellectual prowess at dinner parties. The Socratic Method should not be reserved only for those on the fringe who want to go down philosophical rabbit holes. Rather, Socrates and Plato are heavily invested in the question of what it means to act and speak in public. During their time, they were concerned about those who did not speak the truth truthfully. 

They had a name: Sophists (from which we derive the word sophistry). Who were the Sophists? They were a group of individuals who would travel from village to village delivering clinics on oration. Their calling card was that they could convince any audience of any position. They understood keenly that oratory – and rhetoric more broadly – was a skill that could be used for good or ill. Gorgias is a spokesman for this group, and in this dialogue he is confronted by Socrates. And the question Socrates poses to him gets to the heart of the matter. What, after all, is rhetoric? They realize rather quickly that it is an all-encompassing art form. Within any field of discipline, persuasive discourse is necessary for advancing knowledge. Therefore rhetoric is at heart a skill, not dependent on a specific body of content. This fact provides people like Gorgias with an opening. But it requires Socrates to discern the need for a philosophical approach to the practice of rhetoric. In this way his method is his response. When you pursue a line of inquiry in a way that seeks truthfulness, you realize the pitfalls of your own position, which you might hold for a number of reasons outside of logic and/or truth. That is Socrates’ modus operandi in any dialogue, and the stakes are extremely high in Gorgias.

We encounter these stakes now, when one’s ability to persuade in public is of utmost importance. In our current political moment, sophistry has won the day, not just in oratory and print, but online, and at our own small symposia with family and friends. Everybody wants to speak their truth, but we have lost sight of how to speak truthfully, without error, without fallacy, without conscious or unconscious deception of self and other. A generation after Plato, Aristotle would write a treatise on “the available means of persuasion.” We occupy a moment when the means of persuasion are becoming more and more complicated – indeed, as the era of virtual reality announces itself via “deep fake” videos and false news reports, our ability to find the truth and to convey it truthfully requires intellectual faculties and emotional sensitivities that are not prioritized when all that matters is winning. The Sophists might approve.