Gorgias dialogue summarised in standard form

Plato’s Gorgias dialogue appears in VCE Philosophy as part of Unit 3 – The Good Life. The dialogue depicts a conversation between Socrates and a group of dinner party guests. It explores what constitutes the ‘good life’ through discussions about the nature of rhetoric, art, power, temperance, justice, and good and evil. As a Socratic dialogue, Gorgias can present some unique challenges for students, particularly in the realm of separating the arguments out from the rest of the dialogue. To help with this, below you will find the Gorgias dialogue summarised in standard form with the superfluous dialogue ‘stripped back’.

This guide is not intended to replace a careful reading of Gorgias. Instead, it is designed to help guide your reading by providing you with a framework to reference.

Plato’s Gorgias dialogue summarised in standard form

Background information

  • Callicles and Socrates are at odds over what it means to live a good life.
    • Callicles offers a hedonistic/libertarian perspective. He contends conventions such as morality are designed by the weak to hold down the strong.
    • Socrates argues that conventions matter. He contends it is worse to do wrong than suffer a wrong because doing wrong corrupts your soul.
  • There is also a focus on convention vs nature:
    • By convention (nomos), it is more shameful to commit injustice rather than suffer it.
      • By nature (physis), it is worse to be unable to stand up for oneself.
    • By convention, people should have “fair” share.
      • ­By nature, the strong should take more for, being better men, they are entitled to it.

1st argument – Socrates

P1. A good person or life is one of harmony and unity.

P2. Committing crimes/wrongs indicates you have an unbalanced life of disharmony and disunity.

P3. Doing wrong/committing crimes also does damage to one’s immortal soul

Therefore: It is better to suffer a wrong than do wrong.

2nd argument – Socrates

 P1. Being punished for doing wrongs allows your soul to be repaired because you become aware of the damage and change your ways.

 P2. Failing to punish a wrong means the evildoer will not change.

Therefore: When you commit a wrong it is better to be punished for it.

3rd argument – Socrates

 P1. We want our enemies to suffer.

 P2. We want our loved ones to be happy/not harmed.

 Therefore: When our enemies commit wrongs we should not want them punished. When our friends/family commit wrongs, we should try to get them punished.

4th argument – Callicles

 P1. In nature the strongest take what they want. This is natural justice.

 P2. The majority of people in society are weak and cannot take what they want.

P3. Consequently, the majority create conventions which aim to stop the strong from taking as much as they want/can.

Therefore: It is only according to convention that it is more shameful to do wrong than suffer wrong. In nature, might is right.

Points to consider for evaluation

  • Nature does not unequivocally teach the strong to dominate/exploit the weak.
    • E.g. There are cooperative animal species (in which weak individuals are helped by others) and cooperative/altruistic human behaviour.
  • If the majority can construct and impose laws on society, then are they really the ‘weakest’?
  • Do conventions accurately reflect the views of the majority?
    • E.g. There are laws/conventions that don’t reflect the majority view such as euthanasia, gay marriage, abortion, marijuana.
  • Getting what you want requires the cooperation and assistance of others and society as a whole. If you do wrongs, you will eventually alienate people and be unable to get what you want/need.
  • Is =/= ought: Saying that something is a certain way tells us nothing about whether it should be that way. To argue as  Callicles does is to commit ‘the naturalistic fallacy’.
  • What Callicles recommends as ‘natural’ behaviour is in fact another kind of socially conditioned behaviour (individualism).
  • Are powerful members of society the strongest or are they just lucky and fortunate compared to the weaker members of society. Is Jamie Packer stronger or smarter than everyone else or just fortunate to be born into a wealthy family?

Callicles vs Socrates on power, pleasure, and rhetoric


  • Virtue / excellence (aretê): qualities that allow a thing to perform its function or achieve its natural goal well.
  • Our goal is the most pleasant life [hedonism].
  • Pleasure consists in the process of satisfying a desire.
  • Rhetoric allows one to persuade and persuasion is useful in getting what you want.
  • Socrates’ absorption in philosophy has made him unable to defend himself from unjust treatment. Such powerlessness is the most shameful thing in nature.
  • Rhetoric is good, philosophy is bad.


  • Socrates appeals to argument with Polus to show that this is wrong – the worst thing for you is doing injustice, not suffering it.
  • Rhetoric dangerous, philosophy good.

Points to consider for evaluation

  • Some crimes/wrongs might be committed for the ‘greater good’ or from necessity.
  • Punishment could do further damage. For example, people who are imprisoned often end up drug addicts, associating with other criminals, or suffering abuse and psychological damage.
  • Punishment will only educate wrongdoers if they are capable of learning from the punishment. Some people can’t be rehabilitated.
  • We should wish that even our enemies have their souls repaired so that they are no longer bad. As Socrates himself argues, a good life involves promoting the good life in the rest of our community and educating others.
  • We could help our friends and family be better people and change their bad ways without seeking to have them punished. We could educate and guide them, perhaps with philosophy.
  • A life that is overly ordered and balanced could be boring and predictable.
  • One may commit crimes in a very organised and ordered way. Committing crimes doesn’t have to result from an unbalanced life.

5th argument – Callicles

P1. Philosophers are ridiculous when they take to politics

P2. Philosophers are also ill equipped to defend themselves in law courts and would get the death penalty (Plato’s Apology describes Socrates final moments after he was indeed sentenced to death).

Thus, philosophy has no real value for grown men and in public life.

6th argument – Socrates

P1. Due to their numbers, the majority are naturally stronger.

P2. The majority also construct the conventions that govern society.

P3. Dominant social conventions state that it is wrong to take as much as you can without considering others.

P4. Since the naturally stronger are the same people who create the conventions, natural justice and conventional justice is the same thing.

Thus, contrary to Callicles’ claim, it is worst to commit wrongs than suffer wrongs, according to both nature and convention.

Points to consider for evalution

  • Callicles could respond by saying that the majority are only stronger as a group but he meant that natural justice is the rule of those who are stronger as individuals.
  • Socrates’ argument could be stronger if he said the majority must be stronger because they have the ability to convince others to obey their rules and laws not simply because there are more of them.

7th argument – Socrates

Callicles revises his position and states that the more powerful are not the stronger but the wiser and the nobler. To which Socrates responds….

P1. A doctor is wiser about nutrition. A farmer is wiser about seed. A weaver is wiser about coats and a cobbler is wiser about shoes.

P2. If the wiser should be able to take as much as they want, the doctor should get more food, the farmer more seed, the cobbler bigger shoes and the weaver more coats.

P3. The doctor should not get more food nor the cobbler bigger shoes.

Thus, the wiser and nobler should not take as much as they want.

Points to consider for evalution

  • Callicles didn’t say the wiser are entitled to get more because they are wise. Instead, he argues that wisdom will help people get more of what they want.  To be consistent, Callicls must argue that if the doctor’s wisdom enables him to get more food and the cobbler more shoes, then that is natural justice. It is not clear why  Callicles changes his position here because this is not really a counter argument to his position.
  • A doctor and a cobbler may be wise but still unable to get more food/bigger shoes because someone else might prevent them from doing so. This is still ‘might is right’ because the person who prevents them is the stronger or wiser and they are taking as much as they want.

8th argument – Callicles

Callicles changes his definition of “the better” again in response to Socrates’ counter arguments. Callicles now claims that the better are men who are wiser in matters of politics and the state, and courageous enough to act on their intentions.

Socrates asks Callicles what relation these men have to themselves. Do they rule themselves or simply do and desire whatever they want?

9th argument – Callicles

P1. The good life is being able to desire as much as you want, do whatever you want, and take as much as you want.

P2. If we controlled and limited our own wants and desires, we wouldn’t be doing whatever we want.

Thus, those who live the good life are not ruled by anyone including themselves.

Points to consider for evaluation

  • There are lots of people who seem to live hedonistic lives but don’t appear happy (e.g. celebrities).
  • If we have no self control, aren’t we just at the mercy of our emotions and instincts? If this is the case, it seems we are just slaves to our passion.

10th argument – Socrates

P1. Someone who is hedonistic would have unlimited desires.

P2. If you have unlimited desires, you can never be satisfied or happy.

P3. Someone who controlled their desires could satisfy them and remain satisfied and happy.

Thus, a temperate life is better than a hedonistic one.

Points for evaluation

  • You could desire and take as much as you want but still not have unlimited desires – e.g. your desires could have limits ‘built in’ (think “I desire to live a minimalist life without material possessions”).
  • Limiting your desires might make life boring because you’d have nothing to work towards when you had achieved your desires. This is why Callicles says that you would be like a corpse or a stone. Perhaps what makes life meaningful is that we have to keep working to satisfy desires.

11th argument – Socrates

P1. Some pleasures are bad or at least not good (the life of a catamite or a life spent itching and scratching).

Thus, pleasure and the good are not the same.


  • Are these things really pleasurable (the life of a catamite and itching and scratching) or are they just done out of necessity to avoid something unpleasurable?
  • Callicles could say that he means things that are pleasurable in the long term. Things that will lead to an overall pleasurable life not short term pleasures, which may not lead to a good life.

12th Argument – Socrates

P1. Good and bad are opposites

P2. Opposites cannot co-exist but must alternate

P3. Pleasure and pain can co-exist (drinking when thirsty)

P4. Since pleasure and pain are not opposites they are neither good nor bad.

Thus, pleasure is not the same as the good.

Points for evaluation

  • Socrates’ examples of opposites are things that can coexist: ill health and good health, strength and weakness, swiftness and slowness. A person can be sick in their stomach but generally healthy or strong in the arms but have weakness of the legs, at least in the sense that the pain of thirst and the pleasure of drinking coexist.
  • Thirst and drinking aren’t simultaneous. First one feels the pain of thirst and this pain ceases when the pleasure of drinking commences. They alternate.
  • There is no such thing as good that contains no bad. This is an unrealistic ideal.

13th argument – Socrates

P1. The possession of good qualities is what makes a person good (e.g. possessing good looks makes one good looking).

P2. If pleasure is the same as the good, possessing pleasure should make one a good person.

P3. A coward is more pleased by an enemies retreat than the brave person is.

P4. If pleasure is the same as the good, a coward is good and better than a brave person.

P5. A coward is not good or better than a brave person.

Thus, the good is not the same as pleasure.

Points to consider for evaluation

  • Calicles could respond by saying that the cowardly are leading a good life because they would avoid dangerous, unpleasant and harmful situations, which is a good thing.
  • Callicles could state that like equality, courage is a social convention constructed by the weak to restrain the strong and courage stops one from satisfying their own ideas and taking whatever they can.
  • Socrates’ argument also depends on his claim that having good qualities makes one a good person. Having good qualities doesn’t make one a good person. One can have good qualities and not use them well. One can have a kind nature and not do kind things because they are shy or vague or incompetent.
  • Callicles doesn’t say that having pleasurable experiences makes one morally good but that this is a pleasurable and good life.

14th argument – Socrates

Socrates distinguishes between means and ends. He argues that all activities aim at the good and that the good should not be a means to anything else but should be the goal of every action. This is why there are good pleasures and bad pleasures. Good pleasures aim at the good and bad ones don’t aim at the good.

15th argument – Socrates

P1. Activities are either knacks or involve expertise.

P2. Knacks are merely pleasurable activities that aim at immediate gratification and don’t involve careful foresight, reasoning and expertise.

P3. Areas of expertise are activities that aim at the good and involve reason and analysis, including thinking about the nature of pleasure and why it occurs and how to control it and if it’s a good pleasure and how to reproduce it.

P4. Rhetoric, cookery, theatre, poetry and music aim merely at pleasure and don’t involve reason and foresight.

P5. Activities like medicine and philosophy aim at the good and require skill and expertise.

Thus, rhetoric and poetry, etc are knacks and philosophy is an area of expertise.


  • Activities like cooking and poetry seem to aim at the good – cooking nutritious food can lead to good health, for example.
  • We could use rhetoric to flatter people and influence them and still aim at the good. We might be trying to influence people to improve society, for example.