BMCR 2010.01.21

The Rhetoric of Morality and Philosophy: Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus (first published 1991)

, The Rhetoric of Morality and Philosophy: Plato's Gorgias and Phaedrus (first published 1991). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. ix, 205. ISBN 9780226042411. $25.00.

Table of Contents

This work, now nearly 20 years old, has recently been reissued in paperback. In it the late Seth Benardete reads these two seminal Platonic dialogues together as pointing to “a psychology in which the locus of moral indignation and the love of the beautiful in the human soul are properly understood” (2). For Benardete, the Gorgias is a work concerned with the rhetoric of morality, and one intended to test the efficacy of Gorgianic rhetoric. The Phaedrus represents an inquiry into the possibility of an effective philosophically-grounded rhetoric, which can also properly be called the science of eros. This interpretation, to an extent novel in 1991 though now widely accepted (see e.g., Nichols 1998, Stauffer 20061), addresses numerous issues central to Platonic studies, including the relationship between the structure of the Gorgias and the image of soul and city in the Republic, and that between the structure of Phaedrus and the concept of eros.

Benardete lays out certain fundamental assumptions and methodologies in his Introduction: e.g., rhetoric, not morality or justice, is what connects the Gorgias and Phaedrus; the Gorgias is unique in that the stages of the argument are matched by a progression of the positions taken by Socrates’s interlocutors; the Phaedrus is the passkey for all Platonic dialogues.

In his section on Gorgias 447a1-461b2 (pp. 5-30), the question is whether the rhetorician can teach justice and still act viciously. Socrates’ rival definition of rhetoric does more than set aside Gorgias’ claim that rhetoric is an art; it strips rhetoric of even the speech that is built into its name (as rhetorike techne) and of the notion that it is at any time effective (33) (since to be rhetorically effective is to bring about a change not in utterance but in behavior [6]).

After Gorgias, Polus (461b3-481b5, p. 31-60) takes on Socrates by denying Gorgias’ concession that the rhetorician can teach the beautiful, just, and the good. For Benardete, Polus does not sense Gorgias’ real problem: that the teacher of rhetoric is respectable, but whoever imbibes his teaching is incapable of persuading the city of his respectability (31). Polus will try to preserve rhetoric’s power by sacrificing its rationality (33).

Benardete divides the two sections on Callicles (‘Callicles 1 (481b6-499b3)’; ‘Callicles 2 (499b4-527e7)’) by the admission from the interlocutor that some pleasures are better than others. This is also the point in the discussion at which prudence and courage are introduced (499a), only to quickly disappear (61). The first Callicles speech, then, shows the source of the beginning of hedonism (81).

Benardete’s reading of these points in the Gorgias, however, leads to his more interesting points about the work as a whole. First, reflecting his interest in the unity of the Phaedrus, he works to show that the interlocutors of the Gorgias in a sense metamorphose: Gorgias begins with no idea of what rhetoric is and proceeds blindly; Polus begins as a spokesman for his profession but ends up being the mouthpiece for criminals who have not yet hired his services (38); Gorgias’ spurious version of Socrates’ justice became Polus’ moral indignation at the injustice of the happiness of the tyrant (81). Callicles (at 481b6) takes over the happiness of the tyrant as the identity of the pleasant and the good (81), which belies a focus on the perceived object and results in ignorance of the good (80). Second, if Polus is the bond between the two other interlocutors, and shares Gorgias’s love of reason and Callicles’s love of pleasure, then, in the end, the three reflect the condition of the soul/state in the Republic (91). Thus we see how through the Gorgias, the response of each interlocutor to the unwavering Socrates spins them further off course and exemplifies how rhetoric is a phantom of justice: the positions Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles each take show the structure of rhetoric and the three-staged difference between what they believe Socrates means by justice and what he really means by it (1).

Turning to the Phaedrus, the unity of this dialogue is Benardete’s primary concern. By the very combination of the two words into the phrase, each word of Socrates’ “erotic art” corresponds to the two parts of the Phaedrus : speeches about eros and the discussion of the art of writing. But since Socrates’s erotic art is inseparable from his self-knowledge, this reflects the connection between soul and mind (or the rhetorical first half of the work and the dialectical second part). Benardete works to connect Socrates’ ideas of self-knowledge and knowledge in order to unify the two halves of Phaedrus (104).

Eros is fundamental for philosophy (as “the completion of the soul” [184]), and is split: the motion of ascent (to the hyperuranian) “is the motion of Socratic ignorance, and the motion of [the soul’s] self-motion is the motion of self-ignorance” (152). The starting point for Socrates’ ascent to the intelligible (i.e., the Forms) is the opinions of others, and so both of these movements are combined in dialegethai, which for Benardete is the relation between conversation and understanding. This relation governs every Platonic dialogue, but only in the in the Phaedrus is this point thematic (152). Socrates’ erotic art then consists in his knowledge of how to restore and maintain “the original meaning” of dialegesthai, which has a non-literal meaning of sexual intercourse (taken by Benardete from Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazousae 890). Sexual coupling, then, is “a phantom of dialogic coupling” (155), the ultimate expression of which would be the complete combination of soul and speech (163).

Phaedrus’ error, then, is mistaking semblance for being, which occurs when one takes an image as the true erotic object. Self-knowledge prevents this mistake since a corresponding true rhetoric would provide a knowledge of likenesses (172). This is the reason why “Phaedrus is a warning of how not to read a Platonic dialogue” (189). Presumably, one avoids his mistake by reading or listening while embracing all of the true complexities involved. If the Phaedrus is the passkey to the other dialogues, then by avoiding Phaedrus’ mistake and reading in a more effective way than he was able to listen, i.e., by not taking the phantasm as the truth, one can approach knowledge of what is (191).

Benardete leads the reader step by step through his argument, taking care to ground each point in the text while still assuming familiarity with these texts and others (the index of Platonic passages discussed is 2.5 pages long, and includes 22 works). In what almost seems like a tic, however, Benardete often ends his illuminating paragraphs with an enigmatic statement that often turns on a pun or paradox: e.g., “Socrates asks for a harmony of inside and outside, though one is to be beautiful and the other is ugly; and he asks for a transvaluation of wealth that makes both ‘gold’ and ‘moderate’ into controversial terms (cf. 235e2). Socrates, it seems, asks to be a book; he asked to become Plato’s Phaedrus” (192-3); “The Phaedrus, however, might not only have a human shape and still be rational. It might look like a monster only because we are too much into ourselves and have not yet stepped out of our own skins. Socrates prays at the end of the Phaedrus to Pan” (105).

The section ‘Socrates 2′ shows an aspect of Benardete’s method at its Straussian finest. It begins: “Socrates’ second speech has nine sections, each of which is clearly marked off…The speech is organized around a central section on the hyperuranian beings, which separates the first four sections—they are about mortal and immortal indifferently—from the last four, which concern the human only. From the point of view of perfect symmetry, the seventh and eighth sections invert the relation between the second and third” (132).

Throughout the work we get examples of Benardete’s use of Greek to illustrate a point. When discussing the move from the manic to the mantic act (via the added tau), Benardete connects the historical change ‘love’ also went though: “Eros in Homer takes a short ultima in the nominative and accusative (cf. Cratylus 420b3-4), and in meaning it covers sexual desire as well as the non-excessive desire for food and drink. It is not yet a god; indeed it is believed to have been originally a neuter substantive and ceased to be so when it became a god and changed its ultima to omega and was declined with a tau throughout” (Benardete cites Benveniste in a note on this point) (133).

Benardete’s humor is apparent throughout. When discussing the tortures Polus imagines for the tyrant who is overthrown, the interlocutor includes the rack, castration, blinding, and then, after looking on at the outrages his wife and children experience, crucifixion or being covered with pitch. As Benardete notices: “How he can see though blind Polus does not explain: either the tyrant or Polus has a lively imagination” (47). This reviewer found this observation hilarious.

I regret that Benardete did not directly (as far as I can see) discuss the point in the Gorgias in which Socrates calls the true statesman ho technikos at 504d5. As Dodds points out (in his commentary ad loc.) Socrates seems to contradict his earlier denial that rhetoric is a techne.2 If that is the case, then Benardete could have taken this switch from the actual to the ideal into consideration as a move toward the discussion in the Phaedrus. Such a discussion might qualify his particularly sharp distinction regarding the definition of rhetoric between the two works.

This work should not be read with an eye toward a concrete thesis: it is Benardete’s reading of the Gorgias with the Phaedrus. The audience for this work is one sufficiently well versed with both works to be able to follow his rapid pace. Benardete does not stop for background, and his connections to other works (sometimes coming merely in a bare citation) is reflective of someone whose familiarity with Plato is to be envied. He works with the specifics of the text, but interprets so abstractly that he borders on attributing so much to the Greek text that it is difficult to ground some of his ideas.

Regarding the 31 figures found throughout the work (listed after the TOC), I must admit that I found the diagrams more of a curiosity than an aid in reading. In particular I stared for a long time at the visual representation of “Virtues and vices of body and soul” trying to interpret his 16 intersecting rectangles that graphically represent every one of the possible combinations of the two (everything from “RHB: Real Health of Body to “RIS: Real Sickness of Soul”) (35).

At the end of the Introduction is a mention of what seems will never be: a reference to his research plan to treat the Protagoras and the Symposium in yet another book, The Gods of the Poets, which would have explicated the theological dimension of the Gorgias and Phaedrus (3).

This is an interesting and lively interpretation of two important and enigmatic Platonic texts. Benardete jumps in with both feet, and his method is concurrent with his interpretations. As should be clear, much is done in these 232 pages. This book is billed as the first time these works are brought together in this way (but see Pohlenz for the Phaedrus as a ‘correction’ of the view of rhetoric in the Gorgias, and Jaeger for the Phaedrus as a new stage in Plato’s view of rhetoric from that in the Gorgias 3). The idea that the Gorgias is the proof of the inadequacy of current rhetoric, which clears the way toward a sketch of what could be true rhetoric in the Phaedrus, is now ubiquitous in Platonic scholarship. It would be beneficial for anyone to visit or revisit the work in which this line of interpretation was central.


1.Nichols, J. (trans.). 1998. Gorgias by Plato. Cornell UP; Stauffer, D. 2006. The Unity of Plato’s Gorgias: Rhetoric, Justice, and the Philosophic Life. Cambridge UP.

2.Dodds, E.R. 1959. Plato: Gorgias. Oxford UP.

3.Polenz, M. 1913. Aus Platons Werezeit, p. 343; Jaeger, W. 1939-45. Paideia (English Edition, 3 vols.), p. iii. 185.