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«The Doctor and the Pastry Chef: Pleasure and Persuasion in Plato’s Gorgias Penultimate draft – final version in Ancient Philosophy, 27, 2007 ...»

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The Doctor and the Pastry Chef: Pleasure and Persuasion in Plato’s Gorgias

Penultimate draft – final version in Ancient Philosophy, 27, 2007

Jessica Moss

The Gorgias’ ostensible subject is rhetoric, which it defines as a “producer of

persuasion.”1 But the dialogue is also centrally concerned with another kind of

persuasion: Socrates’ attempts to persuade his interlocutors to pursue the life of justice

and philosophy. Socrates tells his interlocutors that the subject at issue between them is the most important one of all: “in what way one should live.”2 And he tries to persuade them to reject their own answers to this question and accept his own instead, not only attacking their views and making positive arguments for his own, but also saying outright and repeatedly that such persuasion is his goal: “I want…to persuade you to change your mind…Am I persuading you at all…?” (493c4-d1; cf. 494a3-5, 513c8-d1 and 527c5-6).

The Gorgias not only emphasizes that Socrates wants to persuade people to choose the right life, however; it also emphasizes that he very often fails. This is dramatized in the progression of the dialogue: Gorgias is polite if uncomfortable; Polus is openly incredulous about Socrates’ claims even when his own have been formally refuted (480e1-2); Callicles ends by being so annoyed that he drops out of the conversation altogether, leaving Socrates to converse with himself in a parody of his failure to engage others (505d4 ff.). The dialogue offers explicit comments on Socrates’ lack of PeiyoËw dhµiourgÒw, 453a2. Translations are mine except where otherwise noted.

500c3-4; compare the equivalent formulations “Who is happy and who is not” (472c6-d1), and “What a man should be like and what he should do” (487e8-488a1).

persuasiveness as well: Polus says that no one will believe Socrates’ strange views;3 Callicles accuses him of being so inept with words that he “couldn’t put a speech together correctly before councils of justice or utter any plausible or persuasive sound” (486a1b2)4, and later says not only that he himself is not persuaded by Socrates but that this is “what happens to most people” (tÚ t«n poll«n pãyow) (513c5-6). Of course, Socrates falls short of persuading his interlocutors in many other dialogues, and sometimes they even remark on the fact. No other dialogue, however, draws so much attention to Socrates’ failures to persuade.

Most significantly, the dialogue emphasizes Socrates’ persuasive failures by pitting him against three orators, and pitting philosophy against rhetoric. For rhetoric is presented as a persuader extraordinaire,5 with particular emphasis on its ability to persuade crowds, i.e. the ignorant many.6 This makes for a sharp contrast with Socrates, “Couldn’t even a child refute you, and show that the things you say aren’t true?” (470c4-5);

compare Polus’ remarks throughout the conversation.

Trans. D. J. Zeyl.

Plato chooses as its first proponent the famous orator and teacher Gorgias, notorious for extolling the power of verbal persuasion in his Encomium of Helen; when Gorgias and Socrates search for a definition of rhetoric they agree that it is “a producer of persuasion, and that’s the long and short of it,” the ability to “instill persuasion in the souls of those who hear it” (453a2-5).

Gorgias boasts that rhetoric gives one the ability to persuade “judges in the law court and councilors in the council and assemblymen in the assembly, and to persuade in any other gathering” (452e1-3), the ability “to speak and persuade the crowds (tå plÆyh)” (452e7-8); he also claims that the orator will be more persuasive than any other craftsman “in a crowd” (456c6).

who admits to being hopeless in front of crowds7 and to holding views that most people find absurd,8 and aspires at best to produce for his views “one witness, the person with whom I’m arguing” (474b5-6).

The Gorgias’ critique of Socratic persuasion has received attention in good discussions by Klosko, Scott, and Woolf.9 They argue that by emphasizing Socrates’ failures to persuade others through argument, and in particular by pitting Socrates against the passionate and intransigent Callicles, the dialogue implies that rational argument alone cannot sway someone in whom non-rational forces – erôs, or non-rational desires in general – are strong.

–  –  –

illuminates the subject of persuasion through an aspect of the dialogue that has not received sufficient attention, one that may seem on its surface to be a mere literary flourish. This is the allegory of the doctor and the pastry chef, who vie for the citizens’ trust.

1. Socrates and the Doctor Toward the end of the dialogue, in a passage rich with allusions to Socrates’ trial and conviction as described in the Apology, Socrates himself addresses his failures to Socrates gives his own interpretation of these claims at 459a3-4: “Doesn’t ‘in front of a crowd’ mean ‘in front of those who lack knowledge?’” 473e6 ff.; cf. 521e ff.

471e ff.

Klosko 1986, 1993; Scott 1999; Woolf 2000.

persuade. Callicles has said that Socrates could not speak persuasively enough to defend himself if he were brought into court on false charges by someone who could speak persuasively; Socrates agrees with him, saying: “I won’t have anything to say in court…For I will be judged as a doctor would be judged if a pastry chef accused him in front of a jury of children” (521e2-4). He goes on to spin out the analogy in detail; we will return to this passage below. But this is not the first time in the dialogue that Socrates has compared himself to a doctor, and his brand of conversation to medical practice. Earlier he has exhorted Polus to answer his questions by saying “Answer, submitting yourself nobly to the argument as to a doctor” (475d7). And he has asked whether he should “struggle with the Athenians so that they will become as good as possible, like a doctor, or be servile and associate with them for their gratification” (521a2-5), clearly implying that he in fact does the former.





This analogy between Socrates and the doctor is far from innocuous. Looking at the dialogue’s characterization of medicine, we will see that it serves two major purposes.

First, it allows Plato to present Socrates’ practice, and indeed philosophy in general, as beneficial – as a valuable and vital art that looks to the wellbeing of the soul.10 Second, it provides an account of why Socrates is often unsuccessful in his efforts to persuade people to value justice and philosophy. For there are many people who find what Socrates does unpleasant, and these people will refuse to submit to his arguments, just as some people refuse to submit to the doctor’s painful cures.

To understand the dialogue’s view of medicine, and thus its interest in comparing Socrates to the doctor, we must start with the fourfold division of 464a-465e. Here This point has been well recognized: see e.g. Anton 1980.

Socrates distinguishes between crafts (t°xnai), which benefit body or soul and are based on knowledge of their subjects, and knacks (§µpeir€ai), which imitate crafts, provide pleasure instead of benefit, and are based on experience and guessing instead of knowledge. The crafts that care for the body are medicine and gymnastics; those that care for the soul – together constituting “the political craft” – are justice and legislation.

Justice is the counterpart (ént€strofon) of medicine, legislation of gymnastics (464b7The knack that imitates medicine is pastry-baking, while cosmetics imitates gymnastics, sophistry legislation, and rhetoric justice (463b2-465c5). Each knack is a form of kolake€a, pandering or flattery.

–  –  –

Here medicine is brought in as the bodily analogue not of Socratic dialectic, but of something on the face of it quite different: the craft of justice. Let us examine what medicine and justice have in common, and then ask how this bears on the comparisons between the doctor and Socrates.

The fourfold division does not reveal much about medicine or justice beyond the fact that they are beneficial. Later in the conversation with Polus, however, at 476ad, Socrates offers us an analysis of these crafts that shows why they are counterparts, explains what he means by the craft of justice, and makes clear its supreme importance.

Medicine and justice, says Socrates, both benefit by removing a bad condition – that is, we might say, they are crafts of correction. By submitting to medical treatment one frees one’s body from its characteristic evil, sickness. To submit to justice, meanwhile, is to “pay the penalty” for one’s wrongs, to be disciplined (kolãzesyai);11 discipline frees one’s soul from its characteristic evil, vice.12 Furthermore, vice is the greatest evil of all (477e4-6), and therefore justice is the most beneficial craft.

This passage makes clear how we are to understand the craft of justice: it is the craft of removing injustice from souls. But does Socrates really think that submitting to the punishments prescribed in Athenian courts will free one’s soul from vice, just as submitting to a doctors’ cures will free one’s body from sickness? He mentions flogging, fines, prison, exile and the death penalty (480c8-d3), but it is quite mysterious how such 476a7-8. Kolãzein can mean to prune, retrench, hold in check, keep in, confine, chastise, correct, or punish. Plato clearly has several of these senses in mind (see below); I choose ‘discipline’ as the broadest translation.

The person who submits to discipline, paying the penalty for his wrongs, is benefited (»fele›tai, 477a3); the benefit in question is the improvement of his soul (477a5-6), for by submitting to discipline one “gets free of some badness of soul” (kak€aw êra cux∞w épallãttetai, 477a7-8).

punishments might remove vice from the soul, and Plato offers no hints.13 Furthermore, the idea that the genuine craft of justice is practiced in law courts clashes with the characterization of the courts elsewhere in the dialogue: in the courts an innocent man may be unjustly accused and unable to defend himself, while a person who knows how to speak well will escape punishment for his crime.14 The courts are the domain not of genuine justice, but of the worthless knack that imitates it, rhetoric.

As we have seen, however, Socrates repeatedly compares the doctor not to a traditional judge but to himself. Moreover, later in the dialogue, he describes his own practice of questioning his interlocutors as “discipline”: when Callicles refuses to answer his questions, Socrates says, “This man won’t tolerate being benefited and undergoing what our discussion is about, being disciplined (kolazÒµenow)” (505c3-4). Submitting one’s beliefs to Socrates’ scrutiny, he suggests here, is like paying the penalty for one’s Compare Mackenzie 1981: 181. The only attempt I know to show how physical punishment could improve the soul is Brickhouse and Smith 2002: they argue that the pain of such punishment will “sever the connection wrongdoers make between wrongdoing and the benefit they anticipate” (cf. Brickhouse and Smith 1999: 219-220). The view is intriguing, but not clearly supported by the text, and seems to downplay the perhaps deliberate oddity of Plato’s mentions of physical punishment. Perhaps the conditional nature of the claims about physical punishment at 480c-d (“if his unjust acts merit whipping, he should submit to being beaten…”) indicate that Socrates is not committed to physical punishment ever being a genuine cure. I offer an alternative suggestion at the end of section 2 below.

472a1-2, 486a6-b4, 521b1-522e1. Only in the afterlife court of the final myth is real justice delivered; only there will those whose souls are diseased be compelled to pay the penalty, and be cured.

wrongdoings to a judge. The implication is that Socrates himself is the psychic counterpart to the doctor: he himself is (or aspires to be) the true practitioner of justice.

But how are we to understand this claim? In what sense is submitting to Socrates’ questions like submitting one’s body to a doctor’s cures (457d7), or to a judge’s punishments (503c3-4)? The answer is suggested by a speech Socrates makes to Gorgias early in the dialogue, about the benefit (and pleasure) of refutation.15

–  –  –

say anything untrue…For I regard it [being refuted] a greater good [than refuting someone else], insofar as it is a greater good to get free of (épallag∞nai) the greatest evil oneself than to free someone else from it. For I don’t suppose there’s anything so bad for a person as false belief about the things we’re

–  –  –

There are several important parallels between this passage and Socrates’ description of the corrective powers of medicine and justice in his conversation with Polus (475d-481b). First, here Socrates says that to be refuted is to get free of (épallag∞nai) a great harm, using the same verb he will use in the conversation with Polus: one who is disciplined gets free of (épallãttetai) an evil of the soul (477a2and one who submits to the doctor gets free of sickness (477e7-8). The implication is that refutation is a craft of discipline. By being refuted, one gets free of a bad thing in one’s soul – namely, a false belief.16 For a similar interpretation of this speech, see Sedley, forthcoming.

For refutation as beneficial, see also 461a3 and 506c1-3.

Second, both passages mention “the greatest evil” (kakÚn tÚn µ°giston). In the first passage this refers to false belief about “the things we’re discussing right now” (458b1). What subject does Socrates have in mind? Clearly the subject about which he

claims he is going to refute Gorgias, as follows:

It was said in our earlier conversation, Gorgias, that rhetoric concerned speeches not about the odd and even, but about the just and unjust….So I supposed that in saying those things you meant that rhetoric would never be an unjust thing….But when a little later you said that an orator might use rhetoric unjustly, that’s why I was surprised, and thought that the things you said didn’t harmonize…

–  –  –



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