Jenks, Rod. “The Sounds of Silence: Rhetoric and Dialectic in the Refutation of Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 40.2 (2007): 201-15. Print.


The article discusses Socrates’ attempt to refute Callicles in Plato’s “Gorgias.” The  author argues that Socrates’ representation of ethics and moral psychology, thought to be an inadequate refute to Callicles’ criticisms, is actually “complete and cogent.” The author dissects the rhetorical dialogue presented in “Gorgias” and describes the arguments that Gorgias, Callicles and Socrates present. Socrates’ argument for the compresence of pleasure and pain and scholarly objection to it are also discussed.

Keywords: socrates, elenchus, callicles, compresent argument, benthamite argument, ancient rhetoric, sophistic rhetoric, platonic rhetoric, socratic ethics, Gorgias, Phaedo, Meno, hedonism


  • J. begins by recapping the argument he is arguing against: according to Cooper, Santas, Irwin, Kahn, Grube et al., claim that Socrates’ poor attempt to refute Callicles in Gorgias is actually Plato’s “gathering skepticism about Socratic ethics” or the problems of Socrates’ moral psychology (1).  Against this position, J. argues that Callicles is not a straw man and that Socrates’ argument is “complete and cogent.”  He does this by claiming that the “Compresence Argument” in 495e-497d actually makes it impossible for Callicles to escape via the “Benthamite escape route”[1. This is a utilitarian argument.] (1).
  • Callicles argues that “real values” are the “resolute pursuit of pleasure” [2. Remember, we’re discussing the nature of rhetoric in this dialogue.  Gorgias claims it is persuasion without ethics.  Socrates argues against that position.].  Or, put differently, Callicles argues the Benthamite hedonist position: pleasure is good.  But there are different degrees of pleasure: good pleasure is very pleasurable and bad pleasure is less pleasurable.
  • J. claims that Socrates “wins the day” with his Compresence Argument against Callicles.  This argument states that pleasure and pain can be co-present in us at all times [4. So, for example, we are pleasured by drinking a cold beer; however, that pleasure is pleasurable because of the pain of thirst.].  So, according to this argument, Socrates claims that pleasure and pain are (perhaps) always co-present; however, the moral qualities of those actions are never copresent . . . either something is good or it is bad (4).  So, this argument makes clear that good isn’t synonymous with pleasant and bad isn’t the same as painful.  This position has been critiqued by many, notably Aristotle.  A. noted that “the pleasure of a good smell is not necessarily the relief from a bad smell” (5).  As such, pleasures don’t necessarily depend on pains in the same way that goods depend on evils.
  • For Socrates, pain and pleasure are physical, embodied states that are always present in the same location at the same time.  His definition doesn’t include things like financial or social well-being (in this dialogue anyway).
  • J. argues that because Socrates presents the Compresence Argument in the dialogue the brave-man/coward argument [5. In this argument “it emerges that mere quantity of pleasure is not a viable measure of its quality.”] isn’t going to work because “better pleasure” doesn’t mean the same thing as “more pleasant pleasure” (7).
  • J. acknowledges that the Compresence Argument has a weakness: the argument is merely verbal and as such can’t actually get at the truth. . . “pleasure” and “good” are verbal constructs that make the tightness of the C.A. loose around the edges (because of the indeterminacy of language).  Interestingly, this is exactly the point that J. is making in his argument: the Gorgias is about the “right use of words” (9).  As such, the “communitarian dimension of human life” is rendered through language and must be rendered through the good and the bad – not the pleasurable and less pleasurable. . . in other words, this dialogue is about ethics and morals (9).  Callicles’ burn by Socrates, then, is a legitimate one. . . not inadequate.  It is legitimate because it draws attention to the ways that Callicles is bound by language and can’t dismiss an argument because it is only logos – the Compresence Argument deals a “knock-out blow” to the hedonistic position (10).
  • J. claims that even Gorgias – the teacher of persuasion – recognizes the moral component of language use for the communitarian good: “Do not behave in this way [Callicles], but answer for our sakes, too” (497b4).
  • J. claims that because Socrates relies heavily on speech at the end of the dialogue (remember, Callicles just quits speaking and Socrates executes the elenchus himself), he is relying on rhetoric more than philosophy.  This, according to J., is a Platonic recognition of the limits of some central Socratic themes (11).  Rhetoric is, perhaps, of some use!

Key Quotes:

Plato, then, is at least concerned that his arguments might be taken to be jejune points about the ordinary use of words. And it is ironic that, in a dialogue concerning the nature of rhetoric, which just is the use of words for persuasive purposes, the charge of wielding merely verbal arguments should be leveled so often. But the fear that the cogency of the Compresence Argument might be undermined by its (apparently) merely verbal character is  dispatched by Callicles’ final refusal to speak. His silence, in fact, speaks volumes. The only way he can salvage his position, remain true to himself, is by refusing to speak. And, as it turns out, he cannot salvage his position even by remaining silent, since Callicles himself will constantly disagree with Callicles. (8)

Socrates’ speech at the close of the dialogue can thus be seen as both personally and politically motivated. It is curious, though, that Socrates relies, in the end, not on argument, but on exhortation and myth-making. In other words, Socrates relies at the end not strictly on philosophy, but also (and even primarily) on rhetoric. And this suggests that Plato, as he writes the Gorgias, is beginning to have his doubts about some central Socratic themes. Rhetoric is not wholly useless, Plato is beginning to sense. Gorgias himself observes, without Socratic objection, that rhetoric can used to persuade a patient to obey a doctor. (See Gorgias 456b.) Provided that it is directed toward the enlightenment of the soul, myth-making, storytelling, persuasive speaking, can be rather useful. (11)

Key Sources:

Beversluis, John. 2000. Cross-Examining Socrates: A Defense of the Interlocutors in Plato’s Early Dialogues. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Cooper, John M. 1999. Reason and Emotion. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Santas, Gerasimos Xenophon. 1979. Socrates: Philosophy in Plato’s Early Dialogues. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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