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  • Print publication year: 1998
  • Online publication date: August 2010

1 - Reconsidering Gorgias, Phaedrus, and Platonic rhetoric


The two Platonic dialogues that deal most exclusively with rhetoric – the Gorgias, written in about 387 BCE, and the Phaedrus, written about seventeen years later – are often taken as companion pieces. The more or less traditional reception has it that Gorgias is a scathing indictment not necessarily of rhetoric itself but of those who would use discourse to the end of the expedient rather than the good (see Vickers, “Defense”; Kennedy, Persuasion; Hunt, “Rhetoric”). Phaedrus is then seen as Plato's level-headed reassessment of rhetoric, and is taken by many to “explain” the vituperative tone of Gorgias. Whereas in the earlier discourse, Socrates takes his interlocutors to task for blurring the line between knowledge and belief, here Socrates admits that the line is truly hard to make out but that – all things being equal – one should favor knowledge. Whereas Gorgias insists upon a reconfiguration of the definitions of “nature” and “convention,” Phaedrus seems much more willing to concede a role for rhetoric in a conventional world (see Barilli, Rhetoric; Cantor, “Rhetoric” Gosling, Plato; Plochman, Friendly Companion; Leff, “Modern Sophistic” and “Habituation of Rhetoric”). In short, the two pieces are seen as two sides of the same coin: Gorgias condemns a simple (read sophistic) view of rhetoric and upholds a more rigorous, reasonable art, dialectic, as its alternative; and Phaedrus is dialectic's consummation, wherein Socrates shows Phaedrus, the lesser rhetorician, the proper use of figure to argue back as far as possible to first causes (see Black, “Plato's View”).