Mapping McComiskey’s “Disassembling Plato’s Critique of Rhetoric in the Gorgias”

McComiskey, Bruce. “Disassembling Plato’s Critique of Rhetoric in the Gorgias (447a-466a).” Rhetoric Review 11 (1992): 79-90.McComiskey



Gorgias/Socrates (

Click here (historical rhetorics aug 28 2011 Disassembling Plato’s Critique of Rhetoric in the Gorgias.) for my map of McComiskey’s argument in favor of Gorgian/sophistic rhetoric’s theoretical coherence and practical validity

*in the map, click the “+” signs to expand the map/view all content*

McComiskey’s argument: 

  • (thesis) McComiskey argues that despite (some of) recent scholarship’s acceptance/valorization of Plato’s articulation of the sophists (Gorgias in particular) Plato’s manipulation of Gorgias’ epistemology is disdainful, hostile, unfair – not to mention inaccurate – and results in the achievement of his intention: to discount Gorgias/sophistic rhetoric to the extent that he could attain his (largely democratic) audience’s confidence in his (oligarchic) ideology.  McComiskey argues that the primary reason for Plato’s intentional manipulation of Gorgias’ rhetoric pertains to the historical/political context (a successful writer-audience relationship could only be achieved if Plato (who espoused oligarchy) could influence his primarily democratic audience to see the error in their epistemology and adopt an oligarchic perspective). McComiskey’s evidence for this argument is articulated through his analysis of the methodology Plato employs to manipulate Gorgias’ epistemological ideology.
  • (evidence) Plato’s primary audience was the (democratic-minded) Adenine citizenry, which means that such an audience would undoubtedly have sided with (democratic-minded) Gorgias; therefore, Plato rhetorically manipulates Gorgias’ epistemology (his art; “techne”) as foundational and ahistorical so that the (democratic-minded) audience would see the error in Gorgias/sophistic relativistic ideology and adopt Plato’s philosophy (i.e. rejecting rhetoric and ultimately espousing oligarchy).
  • Gorgias’ techne versus Plato’s techne:
  •           For Gorgias/sophists, all knowledge is opinion – everything is relative to a kairotic moment; therefore, if rationality depends on some sort of reference to perfect knowledge in order to judge its legitimacy, no argument can ever be entirely rational (for Gorgias, techne is aesthetic)
  •           Plato’s Gorgias allows Socrates to claim that Gorgian rhetoric is irrational, that it does not refer to an immutable standard of truth, and that it does not quality as a techne (art) (for Plato, techne is philosophical)
  • Plato misrepresents Gorgias’ perspective concerning of (aesthetic) techne as ”’foundational”’ (rather than critical/interpretive/creative) in an effort to delegitimize Gorgias’ techne (and thus garner the audience’s support of oligarchy, etc.)
  • (conclusion) “… since Plato’s audience … was largely democratic in political orientation, he misrepresented Gorgias’ epistemology in order to ease the anticipated hostility toward the text and to make Gorgianic rhetoric appear absurd” (McComiskey 214)

Discussion Questions 

  • What is the potential danger in McComiskey’s articulation of wisdom?
  • “Wise people are those who submit to the powers of apate, and thus broaden their interpretive (thus creative) abilities. Those who reject apate continue to interpret perceptibles in the same ways, and can never come to understand the complexities of the universe as it interacts with humankind. Thus, for Gorgias, instruction in certain knowledge is impossible. Even if it were, since it does not deceive its audience, it would be inferior to rhetoric” (212)  
  • If reality is created (i.e. deceived into “being”) how is it possible to espouse a “right” or a “wrong” deception? If Gorgias is right, and human perception continually and always-already distorts “reality,” who ought to judge whether we’re distorting correctly (i.e. deceiving well) or incorrectly (i.e. insisting on knowledge-based communication of Truth)? If we accept Gorgias/sophistic interpretation of reality, then must we not accept alternative interpretations of the interpretation? Where does the binary fall apart?
  • Is it possible that rather than completely manipulating Gorgias’ epistemology, that Gorgias did in fact allow for competing ideologies to “win”? 
  • What are the rhetorical reasons – if any – that Gorgias may have conceded to Socrates (i.e. if we consider that Plato didn’t completely manipulate Gorgias’ dialogue)? Is it possible that there’s an opportunity for Gorgias’ ideology to develop more sustainability because of these very conversations? In hindsight, it is possible that Socrates’ argument was in fact the stronger argument AT THAT PARTICULAR TIME? 

About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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