The conversation begins between Socrated and Gorgias, once they have been introduced, with an attempt to discover rhetoric. Socrates asks Gorgias what it is that he teaches. In dialogue with Chaerephon, Socrates instructs him to ask Gorgias who he is. Chaerephon seeks clarification and Socrates replies:
Socrates: “I mean such a question as would elicit from him, if he had been a maker of shoes, the answer that he is a cobbler.”
Gorgias believes that if a rhetorician and a doctor were to debate how to treat the patent the audience would agree with the rhetorician. There are real life examples of this happening–but my immediate example is a little inflammatory so just ask if you want me to expand on that.
Anyway, armed with power like that a person could literally get away with murder. In Plato’s interpretation of Gorgias, Gorgias claims at to teach virtue along with rhetoric but sophists do not always make such a claim to teach goodness. “For the Sophists, the importance of oratory lies precisely in its instrumental value (it enables individuals to achieve their predetermined goals) and a lack of teleological relevance (it assumes that the individuals goals are either already constituted or constituted by other means)” (Laverty, 2006).
Gorgias’ view on rhetoric is to make the speaker persuasive so that they sound as though they know what they are talking about. Such as the rhetoricain vs the doctor. Similarly, the rhetorician may be able to persuade an assembly without knowing what the best course of action is.
When Socrates explains, at the bidding of Gorgias’ student Polus, that he thinks rhetoric is more of a skill than an art. Socrates expounds on what it is that rhetoric does:
Socrates: And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?
and Gorgias agrees by saying:
Gorgias: Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?
This goes on until the discussion reaches rhetoric’s ability to potentially grant life or death to a person–because a skilled rhetorician would be able to either kill or convince someone to kill a person by virtue of his words only. Gorgias and Polus find this to be a great thing while the ever moral Socrates declares that he himself would rather be put to death then to condem a man to death wrongly.
Further, at the cajoling of Socrates, Polus agrees that justice is good and injustice is bad…but wait! Something is usually good because it is pleasant, and justice is not always pleasant so it must be beneficial and therefore unjust or injustice must than be harmful (which is the antecedent and consequence topic within rhetoric). Virtue then by Socrates account is knowing how to get what is good by attaining what is most beneficial.
Socrates posits virtue, but not altruism. Perhaps because he knew his audience.
Finally Socrates the virtuous spars with Callicles the immoralist. They have no common ground and so Socrates cannot, as he did with Polus and Gorgias, get Callicles to concede to any point which would make it possible for Socrates to refute him. For what is good or bad to someone who cares not for morals?
On such grounds it may be failing of the teacher or failing of the student but the inability to reach a commonality makes it pretty difficult for learning, or conversation, to occur.
I embedded the Plato link, but for Laverty:
Laverty, M. (2006). Philosophy of education: Overcoming the theory-practice divide. Paideusis – International Journal in Philosophy of Education, 15(1). pp. 31-44.