Discussing Plato’s Dialogue “The Gorgias”

We are discussing Plato’s dialogue, The Gorgias.

Below are some excerpts from the thread.

To read a Platonic dialogue is to watch ideas in motion, not just any motion, but the special motion which takes place when giving birth. Socrates at times describes himself as a mid-wife, helping minds to give birth. There is a wonderful adjective for this role which Socrates plays; maiutic.

Socrates has two different nick-names in the dialogues; sting-ray and gadfly. In ancient Greek, the word for sting-ray is Nar-kay, or Narke, which is the root word for narcotic.

A sting from the tail of the sting-ray causes the body to become numb. Socrates was called narke because of his ability through a series of questions and answers, to numb his opponent into a motionless cul-de-sac, called in Greek “a-poria” which means “no way out.”

Now, the gadfly nick-name denoted the very opposite of numbing. The gadfly, through its bites, could sting the lethargic horse of the state into motion. Socrates also stings up those who feel hopeless by “mytho-poiesis” or making a story or parable to give them a feeling of what it shall be like when they finally come to understand.

Someone who presumes to know is smug and complacent and does not seek or inquire. But also, those who have lost hope and given up do not seek or inquire.

Notice how these two opposite qualities of motion and rest are united in the one person of Socrates. We may better appreciate the conflict between motion and rest if we consider that Aristotle speaks of an “unmoved mover” as that one principle which somehow must exist as a source for everything else.

To understand Socrates’ narcotic strategy, we must understand his theory of knowledge.

Socrates had a woman named Diotema as a mentor who instructed him in a theory of knowledge which is likened to a ladder of divine ascent, which describes an inductive ascent from love of objects, to sexual love, to love of mathematics, and finally to the love of the EIDOS of justice or beauty.

Socrates states that “God does not love wisdom, because he possesses it.” Remember that the word “philo-sophia” means “love of wisdom.” If we have something or believe that we possess it, then we do not go in search for it. We are smug and confident that the wisdom is ours. This smugness can be a form of illness, and the medicine to restore us to a state which is suitable for inquiry is refutation through a syllogistic chain of questions and answers which ultimately forces us to admit that we do not really possess true knowledge about a particular matter like justice or happiness.

We may see this theory of knowledge or dialectic illustrated in a well-known Sufi teaching story, made popularized in the many books of Idres Shah.

Nasrudin is a comical, sophomoric (or wise-fool) character. One day, someone sees Nasrudin frantically searching the street outside his house. When asked what has been lost, Nasrudin explains that he has lost his keys. When asked where he lost them, he explains that he lost them in the house. When asked why he is searching in the street for something lost in the house, Nasrudin explains that it is dark inside the house, and there is more light outside in the street.

Abraham Heschel illustrates something of this problem, in volume one of “The Prophets” when he writes (paraphrased) “We must learn to understand what it is that we see, and not merely see only that which we understand.” Our compulsion is to search where the light is better, even if that means looking in the wrong place. Abraham Maslow put it differently: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem tends to become a nail.”

Most of what I explain here will be things that I learned at St. John’s College in Annapolis in the 1960s. It is worth mentioning that the teachers there prefer to call themselves “tutors” rather than “professors”, in honor of this Socratic method, since a “professor” professes to already know the truth, and will convey it to students in a lecture and for a price, much like the rhetorician Gorgias in this dialogue. The term “tutor” better reflects the role of a mid-wife who aids the student during this maiutic process of giving birth.

I would like to focus in quite a bit on this notion of uniting opposites, such as motion and rest.

Socrates and Odysseus share something interesting in common. Homer describes Odysseus bodily build as a paradigm of this uniting of opposites. Odysseus had very short legs, so that when he stood amongst the other Achaeans, he was the shortest. But Odysseus had an unusually long trunk such that, when he sat in council, his head was above all the rest, and his words poured forth like a flurry of snow.

Socrates unites outer homeliness with inner beauty.

Rabelais made reference to this quality of Socrates in his Prologue.

Regarding Socrates’ homeliness, I am reminded of that verse from Isaiah Ch. 53,2 “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, [there is] no beauty that we should desire him.”

This harmonizing or balancing of opposites is a very ancient notion. The Greeks called it the golden mean. The Buddha called it the middle way. According to legend, Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha (a term meaning “Awakened One”), had tried every form of philosophy and religion, and was meditating near a river’s bank, close to death from fasting. A boat passed by on the river, and Siddhartha could hear the voice of a master musician instructing his disciple as the young student strung an instrument: “Do not leave it loose, or it shall not sound, nor tighten it overmuch lest the string break.” Suddenly, Siddhartha realized the wisdom of “the middle way”, the mean between extremes.

I realize that I might appear to you to be jumping about a bit with all these topics, but you must remember that when I read the Gorgias, all of these notions are within me at once, as a gestalt, and I perceive the dialogue through this lens of experience.

With regard to the similarity between Socrates and Odysseus, I want to make a certain point about the position of Odysseus’ ship in Homer’s “Catalog of Ships” in Book II of the Iliad. I am going to use the figures at this url to assist me:

Notice how the 12 ships of Odysseus are in the exact middle of this line-up of ships, as a mean or balance between extremes.

At one extreme of the line-up of ships along the shore is Ajax, who is so massive, that his epithet is bulwark or “wall”.

Achilles epithet is “swift-footed”.

Achilles and Ajax possess opposite virtues which are difficult to unite or harmonize; Ajax’ size, and Achilles’ speed.

We see Odysseus as a mean between these two extremes of opposite but necessary virtues.

Once, in Book Eight of the Iliad, we find one verse which clarifies the logic of positioning in the catalog of ships:

Again, in Book 11, we are reminded of this same geometry:

Ajax, who is massive but slower, is placed closest to Troy so that, during an attack, the approaching enemy will first encounter Ajax’ massive strength.

Achilles is positioned furtherest from Troy, since his virtue of speed allows him to meet the approaching enemy before anyone else.

Plato stresses this role of Odysseus as a harmonious balance in The Republic

I suppose one might say that the assortment of possible lives for rebirth, spread out before the souls which have drawn lots, resembles the assortment of facts and phenomena in reality, spread out for the mind to choose, or the assortment of careers spread out before students.

But it is not the phenomenon or fact which casts the mind into a certain state, or the career which shapes the student, but rather it is the harmony of the mind, the balance of the student, which conditions the choice of attention and specialization. Hence the task of the Socratic method is not to offer facts upon a platter, or sheet music, but rather to fine tune and harmonize the mind of the student as a process rather than a destination.

It is not the scenery which colors the vision, but rather the harmony or focus of vision which determines the scenery.

What follows may seem a non sequitur, but it is good for the reader to have some insight into the educational philosophy of the college which influenced me; a college which attempts to put into practice the maiutic process harmonization which I describe.

The Motto of St. John’s College Motto

Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque ( I make free men from children by means of books and a balance)

This metaphor of our education as a lens which shapes our vision reminds me of a true story which I entitled “Eighth Grade Existentialism”

When studying Plato, it may be helpful to realize that, in the 20th century, Kurt Godel the mathematician was essentially a Platonist and viewed number as having some independent and mystical existence, along with Einstein, who was a personal friend of Godel. Opposite to the Platonist is the empiricist and positivist, who see number as a human instrument or construction, and a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Remember that over the entrance to Plato’s Lyceum was written “Let no one enter here who has not mastered Euclid’s Elements of Geometry”.

After this long prelude or prologue, we may begin to look at the Gorgias itself.

Gorgias is an orator and rhetorician. Socrates and his companion arrive late upon the scene, just missing Gorgias’ demonstration of expository speaking.

We should keep in mind that one of the charges against Socrates at his trial, in addition to corrupting the youth of Athens, was that he taught people the art of “making the weaker argument defeat the stronger.”

I sometimes wonder if our contemporary educational system isn’t corrupting the youth by heaping scores of sheet music before the symphony and never attempting to tune the instruments in the orchestra. Society shall prepare and drink its own cup of hemlock for that crime.

An offer is made to have Gorgias repeat his performance for Socrates’ benefit, but Socrates convinces Gorgias to enter into a simpler dialogue of brief questions and answers. Socrates gleefully compliments Gorgias on how well he complies with the rules of this simple form of dialogue.

Socrates is leading Gorgias into his dialectic trap. I once saw a cartoon in a magazine depicting a dog, who has laid down a trail of cat food, leading to an open dryer, hiding and gleefully waiting for the cat to step inside the dryer. Once the cat is in, the dog will slam the door shut and rejoice as the cat spins round and round. Once Gorgias agrees to enter Socrates’ “laundromat” of syllogisms, then poor Gorgias will find his head spinning like that cat.

For me, the age old struggle between Platonists and empiricists arrives at a dizzying plateau once the question is finally asked “is reality digital or analog?” which is related to issues of holism versus reductionism. It will be helpful to read this link as a refresher on holism and reductionism:

Perhaps by now some readers are ready to throw up their hands and shout

Sitaram! Whatever does this enormous mountain of baloney that you have amassed have to do with Plato’s dialogue with Gorgias?

I am only beginning to realize one excellent answer to that question just now, after hours of reading and writing. The rhetoricians and sophists, such as Gorgias, quite possibly represent the empiricism and reductionism inchoate, while the Socratic method of dialect inquiry represents the holists with their model theory.

I may be quite mistaken in my notion, but it is exciting to think of the possibilities should such a notion be plausible.

With today’s science and technology, we can take images, sound, and even the human genome, and digitize it to a sequence of numbers. If we should find one day that a digitized representation of reality can exactly match reality and be indistinguishable from it, then we may conclude that reality is digital. If, on the other hand, all attempts at digitization are doomed to be mere approximations to the original, or counterfeits, in the sense that the number pi is irrational, then we may conclude that reality and being are analog.

I was struck by all of this when I stumbled one day across a casual remark by Einstein to the effect (paraphrasing) that “no one could ever have arrived inductively at a notion of relativity simply from empirical observations.” What Einstein is pointing to involves a branch of mathematics called “model theory”. There are numerous axiomatic systems of mathematics (e.g. Euclidean, hyperbolic, ellipical and Riemmanian geometries) mutually exclusive to one another in how they describe space, and all dwelling in the human imagination much like Plato’s “eidei” or ideal forms. One day, someone notices that one of these axiomatic systems resembles observable phenomena. Ptolemy could account for the observed motion of the planets with epicycles, with an accuracy equal to Kepler’s system of ellipses. Model theory has to do with the initial phase of stumbling upon a system which seems to match observations, as well as the later phase of asking “is this system actually the way things are (i.e. the noumena)? or is the system only an ad hoc contrivance for measurement?”

The laws of relativity and quantum and thermodynamics in no way lead inductively to the existence and nature of bunny rabbits, and yet the existence of rabbits in no way violates those laws. The laws of statistics do not inductively lead to the rules of poker or blackjack. Such games of chance obey the laws of statistics and probability, yet we would not study statistics in order to learn how to play the games themselves.

The Socratic line of questions and answers, a series of syllogisms and predication, is the tail of the sting-ray. At the end of the tail is a stinger, the numbing and silencing narcotic of “aporia” and refutation.


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