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  • Shame and Ambiguity in Plato’s Gorgias
  • R. Bensen Cain


In Plato’s Gorgias (482c–484c) Callicles charges Socrates for using sophistic rhetorical techniques to refute Polus in two ways.1 First, he accuses Socrates of drawing on Polus’s sense of shame in getting Polus to agree to the complex thesis that doing wrong is better but more shameful than suffering it. In stating this charge, Callicles also faults Polus for giving in to his sense of shame. Callicles claims that Polus only agreed that doing wrong is more shameful (aischion) than suffering it because he was ashamed (aischuntheis) to deny it (482e3–4). Second, he charges Socrates with deliberately misleading Polus by shifting between two usages of the word shameful (aischron). Callicles distinguishes between two types of shame and points out that an act may be shameful by nature (kata phusin) or shameful by convention (kata nomon). These two ways of judging an action are “for the most part . . . opposed to each other, so that if a man is ashamed (aischunētai) and dares not say what he thinks, he is forced to contradict himself ” (482e9–483a1). As Callicles sees the problem, the charges of shame and ambiguity (as I will refer to them) are related to each other. The shame that prevents Polus from speaking out is a false shame because it is based on what the majority thinks or says and thus is no more than a social convention. Polus does not really accept the conventional values of shame and justice, but rather [End Page 212] than admit this in public he let himself get caught in a terminological difficulty with the words admirable (kalon) and shameful (aischron). In short, Socrates has not refuted Polus’s position; he has capitalized on Polus’s sense of shame and forced Polus into a contradiction by shifting between two ways of speaking while using the same word.2

In the first part of the article, I examine the fallacious argument that Socrates uses in the refutation of Polus (474c–475e). I claim that Socrates ignores the meaning that Polus tacitly gives to aischron (shameful) when Polus first states his thesis. In the argument that Socrates constructs, he uses a “sliding” ambiguity on the meaning of aischron (and kalon) to get Polus to agree with the premises. A sliding ambiguity occurs when there is a slide or shift between two or more closely related senses of a term that fall under the concept. Socrates does this by means of a series of examples that leads Polus into an agreement that excludes his original meaning of aischron by proposing new defining criteria. Polus fails to distinguish among the several meanings or uses of the same term. As a result, he accepts a narrower range of criteria for the application of aischron than he should given his original use of the term. Also, I present a critical analysis and discuss the interpretations that scholars have offered of the refutation. I find these interpretations to be inadequate because they mostly give a technical or purely logical analysis of how Polus is refuted without explaining why he is refuted by the argument as they have configured it.3

In the second part of the article, I make a connection between the refutation of Polus and Plato’s critique of sophistic rhetoric. Plato is concerned both theoretically and practically with the inherent ambiguity of language and with its misuse. He directly criticizes sophists and rhetors who use persuasive language in a self-serving and irresponsible manner. As part of this criticism, he parodies them extensively in the drama and argumentation of his dialogues. The misuse of language is what makes it possible for sophistic rhetors, such as Gorgias and Polus, to mislead their listeners, hide their real views, and remain oblivious to the inconsistencies of their positions. I argue that the dramatic device of parody is appropriate in explaining the purpose of the fallacy used in the refutation. To support this thesis, I draw on passages in the dialogue that show the unmistakable parody in Socrates’ discourse as he mimics the words and plays back the ideas of all three interlocutors. I present two...


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