A Dialogue: Overheard at 4C’s

Scene: A hotel hallway at 4Cs 2008.

Gorgias. There is not enough rhetoric, I say. They read from papers and speak the words of others instead of their own. I have read these works before, and do not need to hear them again. What I heard today was mere self-service.

Callicles. Why, what is the matter with self-service? At least, then, one member of the audience is satisfied!

Gorgias. Indeed, and it was not I.

Socrates. What is this I hear? What is your profession, Gorgias?

Gorgias. I am a teacher of rhetoric.

Socrates. And as a teacher of rhetoric, do you improve your student’s abilities with your attention?

Gorgias. Of course.

Socrates. And you hold that anyone can be taught, correct?

Gorgias. Yes, Socrates, though I don’t see where…

Socrates. And upon witnessing a speaker in difficulty, do you help them to improve?

Callicles. You are really quite annoying, Socrates. Have I told you this before?

Socrates. Many times. Well, do you, Gorgias? I beg you to answer.

Gorgias. Why, of course, Socrates, I am able to train any student.

Socrates. I see. Why, then, do you complain of the quality of speech in these rhetors? Surely they are a chance for you to display your skills at speaking on any subject at length without preparation, and to gain new students.

Gorgias. But these are not my students, Socrates.

Socrates: And how do you find students, Gorgias?

Gorgias: They come to me, after hearing my speeches.

Socrates: Then I am confused, Gorgias, and I hope you can assist me in understanding your actions. You complain that these rhetors are unskilled, and yet you make no move to help them, even though helping students is both your art and your livelihood. Indeed, you stand here, out of their earshot, to make your speeches to Callicles and myself. We are not your new students, certainly? I do not recall paying you for such education. Why do you not tell these words of wisdom to them, directly?

Callicles: Socrates, you are most imprudent. Gorgias can choose his students as he pleases.

Socrates: But does he not advertise that he can teach anyone that is willing, like many others, as he has just said?

Gorgias: True, Socrates.

Socrates: Then I would have you explain why you criticize them in private rather than teach them directly.

Callicles: These are a lower class of students, Socrates, not worthy of attention. Their words and style are hopelessly out of date. They speak like they know no one but the rhetors of twenty years ago and more.

Gorgias: What Callicles says is true.

Socrates: Then, Gorgias, I am afraid that your claim to be able to teach anyone is quite peculiar, as you are unable to teach these speakers at all. Is it only those that already have skill in the art of rhetoric that you can teach successfully?

Gorgias: Talent is required, yes.

Socrates: And how do you detect talent?

Gorgias: Why, I have them speak on some topic, and if I hear potential, something malleable, then I accept them as a student.

Socrates: Really, Gorgias, I am surprised. You have not answered my question. Just how do you tell a talented student from an untalented one?

Gorgias: Originality, freshness, boldness in diction and delivery.

Socrates: Are these not the qualities of a skilled rhetor?

Gorgias: Yes, of course, but…

Socrates: Then I do not see what you teach your students, Gorgias, if you only take students that are skilled to begin with. Perhaps you teach them, with your superior senses, how to recognize and belittle lesser speakers?

Callicles: Now that is quite enough, Socrates, with your word-mongering! If we wish to hurl insults at this motley arrangement we will, for we are the stronger, and they are weak.

Socrates: Callicles, given our last conversation on that particular matter, I advise you to stop while you are ahead.

Gorgias: Socrates, exactly what would you have me do?

Socrates: Why, Gorgias, only that if you wish to hurl insults, as Callicles would have it, then call yourself such an creature; if you want to be a teacher of rhetoric, teach rhetoric.

Gorgias: How, then, with these students? It is impolitic to criticize them to their face during or after their speech; I would rather stay silent than say nothing well.

Socrates: But you have not stayed silent; you have belittled them with the aid of Callicles.

Callicles: Gorgias! Such prudence! You need but take them aside for a moment, praise them for their efforts, then advise them justly and firmly on where they may improve. Not that I would bother with the rabble in such a manner.

Socrates: It seems Callicles is the true teacher in this group, Gorgias. Perhaps you should give your students to him, or, rather, have him teach the students that you cannot.

Gorgias: I fear Callicles is right, Socrates. You are quite annoying.

Socrates: On this point alone, Gorgias, you are correct.

(My apologies to Plato)

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