Cain, R. Bensen. “Shame and Ambiguity in Plato’s Gorgias.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 41.3 (2008): 212-37. Print.


The article looks at examples of ambiguity and shame evident in Plato’s “Gorgias,” a dialogue involving a man of the same name, Callicles, and Polus. Shame is differentiated into types; that which is naturally shameful and that which is shameful by way of convention. The author looks at a fallacious argument of Socrates which is used to refute Polus. He also makes a connection between the refutation of Plato and Polus’ critique of sophistic rhetoric. The misuse of language is discussed as a technique of rhetors to mislead listeners and hide their intentions.

Keywords: gorgianic rhetoric, sophistic rhetoric, platonic rhetoric, ancient greek rhetoric, equivocation, false binary, callicles, polus, socrates, parody, shame, ambiguity


  • C. begins by recapping the two “shameful” charges that C. levies against Socrates in Gorgias: 1) Socrates draws on Polus’s sense of shame when he pushing him to recognize that doing wrong is better but more shameful than suffering it; and 2) misleading Polus by confusing natural shame and shameful by convention.  Put plainly, Socrates doesn’t refute Polus; rather, he uses Polus’s sense of shame to force him into a “terminological difficulty” (213).
  • Sliding ambiguity: “occurs when there is a slide or shift between two or more closely related senses of a term that fall under a concept” (213).  This is Polus’s downfall: he accepts multiple meanings of the same term; therefore, he is unable to rely on a particular, static meaning to use as the foundations of his argument.
  • Socrates’s position: 1) DW (doing wrong) is worse than SW (suffering wrong); 2) wringers are the most unhappy people; and 3) wrongdoers are better off if they are caught and punished than if they are not (215).  Polus’s position:  1) DW is better (more beneficial to the agent) than SW.  2) [on which is more shameful] DW is more shameful for the agent than SW; 3) Admirable things are judged by the standards of pleasure or benefit and smaeful things are judged by the standards of pain or harm; 4) DW is more shameful (for the agent) because it is either more painful or more harmful to the agent; 5) DW is not more painful for the agent; 6) So, doing wrong is more harmful to the agent (216-17).  Interestingly, according to Cain, Polus hasn’t ever been genuinely refuted; rather, he has found himself in a contradiction. . . this leads to his losing the argument – not authentic refutation (218).
  • Two kinds of shame Socrates uses to trap Polus: 1) sense of shame or a sense of wrong action that prohibits action and yields to propriety; and 2) sense of shame that refers to past failures or wrongs – this form is retrospective (218).
  • Why is Polus’s position difficult?  He commits himself to the “conventional norms of shame” but “denies that what is shameful is bad” (220).  C. sees an equation between this line of thinking and the Socratic criticism of Gorgias earlier in the dialogue: “Polus blames the tyrant for his injustice and conveys the popular feelings of indignation about the tyrant’s brutality and injustice.  In a similar way Gorgias praises the power of rhetoric to rule over others and accomplish whatever it pleases, yet he blames those students of rhetoric who misuse their powers” (220).
  • C. claims that Socrates uses the ambiguity of moral vs. non-moral definitions of “shame” to trap Polus: one form of shame is the “morally shameful” definition we are familiar with; the second is the “painful/harmful” definition that lacks a moral component.  So, C. claims that Socrates is guilty of equivocation  or false dichotomy (221).  Despite this, Polus contradicts himself and therefore must lose the argument.  According to C., Plato wrote the dialogue in this way to parody the sophists – the parody in this example shows how the sophists get “trapped” in their own rhetorical devices to such a degree that they lose arguments.
  • C. finds Plato’s treatment of the sophistic rhetoric parodic throughout the dialogues  and identifies a couple of instances: Socrates’ response to Agathon’s speech in Symposium, Socrates’ middle speech on love in Phaedrus and his subsequent examination of said speech (225).  C. identifies Socrates’ equivocation of similar terms in Gorgias to a similar tactic employed by Gorgias in The Encomium of Helen: persuasion by love or force or logos??  He charges Antiphon with a similar equivocation in On Truth.

Key Quotes:

Plato is concerned both theoretically and practically with the inherent ambiguity of language

and with its misuse. He directly criticizes sophists and rhetors who use persuasive language in a self-serving and irresponsible manner. As part of this criticism, he parodies them extensively in the drama and argumentation of his dialogues. The misuse of language is what makes it possible for sophistic rhetors, such as Gorgias and Polus, to mislead their listeners, hide their real views, and remain oblivious to the inconsistencies of their positions. I argue that the dramatic device of parody is appropriate in explaining the purpose of the fallacy used in the refutation. To support this thesis, I draw on passages in the dialogue that show the unmistakable parody in Socrates’ discourse as he mimics the words and plays back the ideas of all three interlocutors.

Overall, Polus’s position is problematic because at the same time he seems to commit himself to the conventional norms of shame, he denies that what is shameful is bad. What he means to say is that what is morally disapproved of by the society is not the sole determinant of an agent’s conduct or well-being. Moral judgments may be overruled by prudential or self-interested motives, and it is this type of comparative situation about which Socrates and Polus disagree. The inconsistency of popular attitudes toward the benefi ts of injustice and its shamefulness is at the core of Socrates’ criticism of the moral viewpoint of the many. (220)

I suggest that this almost inexplicable fact—Polus has admitted a claim that he had earlier denied—is to be accounted for by looking to Plato’s attempt to criticize Gorgias and Polus dramatically by means of parody. The parody is intended to show the absurdity of sophists getting tangled in their

own devices and trapped in their nets of language. Their confusion is inevitable because sophists are not interested in getting at the truth about the matters on which they speak. Rather, they are concerned with words and how words can be used to win a debate or move an audience in whatever direction they choose (Rep. 454a–b). (222)

I have argued that there is a connection between Socrates’ use of verbal argumentation with Polus and Plato’s concern with the sophistic misuse of language as expressed by means of dramatic parody. Plato’s use of dramatic parody is multifaceted. It is an effective literary device that extends to the sophistic argumentative strategy that Plato has Socrates use against Polus. The refutation

of Polus is all the more interesting and impressive when it is viewed as an integral part of the dramatic parody of sophistic rhetoric in the Gorgias.


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