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"Classical Greek Philosophy -- fall '07: Socrates and Polus disagree about whether the orators in the city have great power. Why does Socrates think that the orators have the least power in the city?

Plato’s Gorgias beings with Chaerephon and Callicles reprimanding Socrates for coming late to Gorgias’ presentation. Gorgias is a revered person in society and they feel that Socrates is being disrespectful to him. Socrates asks them what it is that Gorgias actually does. Polus, another admirer of Gorgias, butts into the conversation and tries to answer Socrates’ question. Socrates is not satisfied by his answer, but finally Gorgias himself interjects into the conversation. Gorgias tells Socrates that he is in oratory which leads Socrates to ask what an orator does. Neither Gorgias nor Polus are able to answer Socrates’ question to his satisfaction. This leads to Socrates saying that orators have the least power in the city and he and Polus then debate this statement.

Socrates says that orators have the least amount of power in the city because “they do just about nothing they want to, though they certainly do whatever they see most fit to do.”(466e) At first glance Socrates seems to be contradicting himself. What a person wants and what they see as most fit seem to be the same thing. Socrates explains that these two things are very different. Socrates uses the example of a person going to a doctor. That person wants to get better so they go to a doctor. They don’t, however, really want to get all the shots or take the pills to get better. The shots and the pills are the “what they see fit” factor. In order to get better they have to do things which they see fit, even though they may not actually want to do it.

Socrates adds to his argument and says that there are good things, bad things and intermediate things in the world. He asks Polus if people do good things to get to those intermediate things or if people do the intermediate things to get to the good things. Polus feels that it is the latter. We don’t do intermediate things just because we want those intermediate things. For example, we don’t take a walk just for the sake of taking a walk. We take a walk so that we can stay healthy or we take a walk because we’re trying to get somewhere or we take a walk just so we can clear our heads. The walk itself, that intermediate thing, is not what we’re after. The walk isn’t really what we want. We just want the benefits of the walking.

Socrates puts the final touches on his argument when he brings up the example of a leader having to put a criminal to death. That leader sees fit that that person be put to death for one reason or another. Putting the person to death is the bad/intermediate thing that brings about that eventual good. But does the leader really want to have to kill another person? Just because a person has power, it does not necessarily mean he gets to do whatever he wants. Orators may have power over people because they can convince them of things just by speaking, but that does not mean that they get to do whatever they want. To ashamedly quote Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
All quotes from Plato's Gorgias.
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