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  • Why Is the Gorgias so Bitter?1
  • Alessandra Fussi

Mihi in oratoribus irridendis ipse esse orator summus videbatur.

-Cicero, De Oratore 1.47

1. The hand of an apprentice?

Commentators have often responded with uneasiness to Plato's Gorgias. E. R. Dodds speaks of the "disillusioned bitterness" of the criticisms leveled against Athenian politics and politicians and of the tragic tone of the dialogue's last part, which culminates in a prediction of Socrates' condemnation (1959, 19). F. M. Cornford observes that the discussion between Socrates and Callicles "is marked by a bitterness of tone rarely found elsewhere in the dialogues" (1945, 21). A. E. Taylor is more explicitly irritated: "Personally-he writes-I cannot help feeling that, with all its moral splendor, the dialogue is too long: it 'drags.' The Plato of the Protagoras or Republic, as I feel, would have known how to secure the same effect with less expenditure of words; there is a diffuseness about our dialogue which betrays the hand of a prentice, though the prentice in this case is Plato" (1960, 103). Many readers of the Gorgias have a similar emotional response, yet the feeling that this is a bitter dialogue is never analyzed, accounted for, or adequately justified.

While assessing various hypotheses on the date of composition of the Gorgias, Dodds speculates that its "disillusioned bitterness" may suggest that Plato wrote the dialogue right after Socrates' death and under the impact of the event. The Gorgias is so bitter, the reasoning goes, because Plato was enraged with the Athenians when he wrote it. Dodds goes on to discard the hypothesis of such an early date of composition, but he does not revise his view that this is indeed a bitter dialogue. Why, then, does the [End Page 39] Gorgias sound so bitter? Instead of relying on external factors, I suggest it would be more profitable to turn to the dialogue itself for an answer. After all, the impression of bitterness is a function of the emotional impact that the dialogue has on its readers. A well-constructed chain of arguments can hardly sound bitter. The Gorgias contains many arguments, but its emotional impact must lie elsewhere. So where?

In the dialogue, Socrates is involved in three discussions of increasing length and complexity with interlocutors who, in one way or another, defend the power of rhetoric and the superiority of political life over philosophical life. The discussions cannot, however, be characterized as mere exercises in abstract reasoning, or urbane conversations on different views of the good life; the Gorgias is a "fighting dialogue," as indicates its opening sally, "to war and battle" (447a1).2 As the saying goes, these are fighting words, since Callicles is basically accusing Socrates of being a coward.

Even if we abstract from the themes evoked in the Gorgias, it is difficult to ignore the peculiarity of its dramatic movement. First, we are plunged in medias res, with no clear indication as to the time and place of the dialogue's unfolding. We then proceed through a tour de force of conversations that begin, are immediately interrupted, start again, and continue through refutations, repeated interruptions, fits of anger, and bad temper. If we expected Socrates to win against his nonphilosophical interlocutors, we are sorely disappointed. The further the conversations proceed, the more they are infiltrated by anger and misunderstanding, and the more we come to feel that, though Socrates' interlocutors may well be silenced, they will remain unpersuaded. Indeed, toward the end of the dialogue, Callicles simply refuses to respond to Socrates, who is finally reduced to performing a monologue. The dialogue ends with a myth addressed to Callicles in the stated conviction that the young man will dismiss it as an old wives' tale (527a5-b3). The invocation of Callicles' name, which concludes the dialogue, is significantly and poignantly left hanging.

Besides the points just mentioned, I think that several aspects of the dramatic setting contribute significantly to the dialogue's peculiar emotional impact on its readers. I will try to show this, first, by considering eight dramatic devices Plato uses in the Gorgias and, second, by contrasting these devices with their counterparts in the Protagoras. The two dialogues...


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