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What claims (if any) to ignorance does Socrates make as regards himself? He emphasizes both his individual and an overall human lack of knowledge to a far greater extent in other dialogues. Why might such a focus here be absent?
Socrates professes ignorance only twice, in 506a and 509a. Moreover, these brief utterances come quite late in the discussion—a fact that, when combined with such infrequent instances, renders the point all but obsolete. This lack of focus on the elusiveness of knowledge is indeed uncharacteristic of many Platonic dialogues, several of which have as their entire purpose the study of human ignorance.
One possible explanation for this absence of skepticism about what Socrates knows lies within the turmoil of Plato's time. Amidst the Peloponnesian War, civil strife, political corruption, and the recent trial and death of Socrates, Plato must have felt strong passion for the topics of Gorgias because of their intense contemporary relevance. He therefore, through Socrates, chooses to weigh in powerfully and convincingly at the expense of his more typical hesitancy about knowledge due to the urgent problems of justice and virtue Athens (and Greece) faced at the time of the work's writing.
How does Socrates distinguish true arts from false ones (routine, flattery)? What makes something an art?
The essential distinction between true and false arts lies in that art aims at the good, while flattery aims at the pleasant. Though a full elaboration of difference between the good and the pleasant does not come until much later in the work, Socrates does provide some examples to help illustrate his point. Cookery, for instance, is NOT an art, since it creates a false impression of health and robustness through the pleasure of good eating. Medicine, however, is a true art since it aims directly at health (a good), sometimes even at the expense of something pleasant.
True art therefore denotes those pursuits that target the good, while false arts refer to those which utilize the pleasurable to create a deceptive impression of being the good.
Various opinions exist concerning what is the main topic of Gorgias: rhetoric, politics, justice, etc. Is there one underlying focus of the dialogue? If so, then what is it? Please explain your answer.
There is no one definite answer to this question, since only Plato himself knows what his aim was in writing Gorgias. Certainly one strong contender is truth, since this pursuit is an overarching theme of Plato's writings in general, in addition to being plainly stated as an ultimate goal by Socrates within the dialogue.
However, upon analysis of the discussion of each significant topic within the work, a pattern emerges. Whether considering justice, rhetoric, temperance, politics, or teaching, Socrates's statements and beliefs tend to depend upon the matter of right versus wrong within each specific arena. All value determinations are dictated by such a focus. In light of this continually recurring theme, then, the main focus appears to be human virtue and proper living.
Suggested Essay Topics
Why does Socrates deny rhetoric as an art? Do you find his argument convincing? Why or why not?
In his discussion of rhetoric, Socrates attacks the knowledge of the masses, declaring crowds to be ignorant and foolish. How does his attack on rhetoric depend upon this position? To what extent may the group be trusted?
Immediately prior to 467e, Socrates states "[i]f a man acts with some purpose, he does not will the act, but the purpose of the act." What does he mean by this? Do you agree? Explain.
Socrates argues the tyrant has no power. How does he formulate this position? Is it a logical construction, or merely an opinion derived from belief? Does this render the claim more or less convincing? Please explain.
Why is it worse to commit rather than suffer wrong or evil? Why might it be worse still if the evil goes unpunished? Does Socrates construct a strong case for this contention?
Socrates employs the metaphor of a leaky jar in order to describe a person who does not strive to discipline his/her desires. Do you find this imagery convincing? Why or why not? How does he relate this to his larger claim about temperance as a crucial aspect of proper living? Do you agree with him?
How does the pleasant differ from the good?