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  • Why Socrates and Thrasymachus Become Friends
  • Catherine Zuckert

In the Platonic dialogues Socrates is shown talking to two, and only two, famous teachers of rhetoric, Thrasymachus of Chalcedon and Gorgias of Leontini.1 At first glance relations between Socrates and Gorgias appear to be much more courteous—they might even be described as cordial—than relations between Socrates and Thrasymachus. In the Gorgias Socrates explicitly and intentionally seeks an opportunity to talk to Gorgias and treats him with great respect. Socrates shows that Gorgias’s claims concerning the power of his art are contradictory, but the philosopher does not press his advantage or embarrass the rhetorician (Stauffer 2006, 34). Although Gorgias indicates his interest in hearing what Socrates has to say by urging his young friends Polus and Callicles to continue the conversation, Gorgias never says that he is convinced by Socrates. And Socrates never announces that Gorgias has become his friend.2

In the Republic Socrates reports that Thrasymachus burst into the conversation like a lion. Socrates even claims that he and his interlocutor (Polemarchus) were frightened. The initial exchange between Socrates and Thrasymachus thus appears to be hostile. In the argument that follows, Socrates embarrasses Thrasymachus; the famous teacher of rhetoric blushes. Nevertheless, Socrates declares later in the conversation (1900, 498d) that he and Thrasymachus have become friends.3 [End Page 163]

The difference in the relations Socrates had—or at least thought that he could have—with the two teachers of rhetoric is important, because it indicates what sort of rhetoric Socrates thought was compatible not only with his philosophy but also with a just political order and what was not. The differences between the claims and arguments of the two teachers of rhetoric are not easy to pinpoint, however. Many of the charges that Gorgias’s associates Polus and Callicles make against Socrates, at least partly in defense of Gorgias, sound very much like charges Thrasymachus makes against Socrates. In order to discover the grounds of the difference in the relation between the philosopher and the two teachers of rhetoric, it thus becomes necessary to review and compare the claims Gorgias and his students make with those Thrasymachus levels against Socrates at the beginning of the Republic.

Socrates’ Encounter with Gorgias

At the beginning of the Gorgias the famous rhetorician’s Athenian host Callicles expresses surprise that Socrates has come to hear Gorgias declaim. But Socrates is not interested in witnessing a demonstration of Gorgias’s prowess as a speaker; he wants to ask the rhetorician what the power of his art is and what he teaches. Since Gorgias had previously offered to answer any questions after his speech, he agrees to respond to Socrates’ queries.

In order for them to converse, Socrates emphasizes, Gorgias will have to keep his responses short. Although Gorgias sensibly observes that all questions cannot be answered adequately with brief replies, his first responses to Socrates’ questions are very short. Since Gorgias claims to be a knower and practitioner of an art, Socrates asks what he does and makes others capable of doing. Gorgias replies that he gives speeches and teaches others how to orate. Socrates asks what the speeches are about. “The greatest of human affairs, and the best” (1998, 451d), Gorgias vaguely and rather evasively responds. Pressed to be more specific, he finally declares that his art provides “the greatest good and cause both of freedom for human beings themselves and rule over others in each man’s own city” by enabling them to make speeches that “persuade judges in the law court, councilors in the council, assemblymen in the assembly, and in every other . . . political gathering” (1998, 452d–e, translation slightly modified).

The Grounds of Gorgias’s Claims

If Gorgias had not been restricted to brief replies by his agreement with Socrates, he might have explained the reasons for his vast claims with [End Page 164] arguments like those to be found in two of his remaining fragments. In his “Encomium to Helen” he explains the overwhelming power of speech, and in “On the Nonexistent” he demonstrates the reason or basis of this power by arguing that there is no form of “being” that exists independent of our...


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