88. Gorgias by Plato (399-387 BC)

Socrates questions the orator Gorgias (and bystanders Polus and Callicles) about the art of oratory, which then becomes a discussion of “right and wrong, honour and dishonour, good and bad” to Socrates’ theses of “it is better to suffer wrong than do wrong” and “it is better to be punished for one’s wrongdoing than escape one’s punishment”. Socrates eventually leads his listeners to the view that individuals and societies must strive for happiness through uprightness and self-discipline whereby the universe is an ordered whole or cosmos and not a state of disorder, chaos and license. They discuss what it means to be a good statesman or politician, and several past leaders (Pericles, Cimon, Themistocles and Miltiades) had failed as orators because they had neither made men better (true oratory) nor kept them gratified (false oratory) , leaving Athenians worse and more vicious than before.  Finally Socrates dwells on his view of judgment after death, with the souls, stripped of identity and only distinguished by the marks of good or evil performed during life, are judged and sent to the Isles of the Blessed, or to Tartarus where the irredeemable are eternally punished and the potentially redeemable can learn by their example.

My copy was the Penguin edition of Gorgias translated by Walter Hamilton (0140440941)

My thoughts:

A far-ranging discussion that begins with the misuse of oratory to appeal to and flatter the masses rather than enlighten them, through to the ideals for which everyone should lead their lives, to the correct use of power in leadership and the rewards of a good life.

I had to smile at Socrates’ view that medicine and physical training were necessary for physical wellbeing, but cookery and beauty were counterfeits of these two, providing instant gratification but not improvement or true health. Likewise, legislation and justice were spiritual necessities and should provide for the public interest, while popular lecturing and oratory mask themselves as these  to pander to the ignorant and gullible. In which case I wonder what Socrates would think of our progress in political rhetoric in two thousand years, leave alone reality television shows.

It is ironic that Socrates defends the punishment of oneself and one’s own family and friends for any crime, but one’s enemies should go unpunished to the ultimate detriment to their souls. Plato is again explaining how Socrates could embrace his execution by the State, and believe himself more moral than his enemies who sentenced him to death.

“Whatever the punishment which the crime deserves he must offer himself to it cheerfully, whether it be flogging or imprisonment or a fine or banishment or death.”    page 73

Favourite lines/passages:

“…think what hard luck it would be for me if, when you making a long speech and refusing to answer the question put to you, I am not to be allowed to go away and get out of hearing.”  p.42

“in my view oratory is a spurious counterfeit of a branch of the art of government.”    p.44

“…consider whether a true man, instead of clinging to life at all costs, ought not to dismiss from his mind the question of how long he may have to live. Let him leave that to the will of God … and let him devote himself to the next problem, how he can best live the life which is allotted to him”  p.125

Diversions and digressions:   The copy I read was printed in 1973, and glancing at the back cover, I could see the original price was 35p in Great Britain and $1.20 (recommended) in Australia.

img_1682I can still remember when I was a boy <insert appropriate old-timer voice here, Yorkshire accent optional>   buying paperbacks and wondering about Australian prices being ‘recommended’ – could I bargain the price down as a frequent book buyer, age 10?

If only we could buy books for these prices now (sigh)

Personal rating: Though my interest wavered in parts, I think this one is a 5.

Next :    I am tiring of the Socratic dialogues and would really like to finish Plato now by just reading his major works The Symposium and The Republic, but I will try and stay patient a little while longer. So next will be Menexenus by Plato.

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