SHORTLY after the beginning of Gorgias, the dialogue is announced to be an enquiry into rhetoric. In ancient Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC rhetoric was an essential political tool. For most of this period, Athens was a radical democracy. Every male citizen from the city itself and its outlying districts had the right to attend the Assembly and take part in the decision-making process by voicing his approval or disapproval of a motion. Motions were proposed and countered in speeches. The ability to speak well in front of the Athenian people was important, then. Particular motions and political careers were made or broken by a speaker's ability.
Two and a half thousand years later, why on earth should one wish to read a book about an adjunct of a defunct political system, even when it was written by one of the acknowledged geniuses of Western literature and thought? Rhetoric hardly touches our lives now, it seems; apart from the rare occasions when we might attend a rally of some kind, it is something that happens remotely, in our own governmental assemblies or on our TV screens. There is little we can do about it, even if we are won over by a persuasive speaker. The importance of rhetoric seems to have receded.
Plato would be the first to argue that the impression that rhetoric has receded from our lives is incorrect. At 463a ff. he has Socrates describe rhetoric as a kind of flattery and claim that all kinds of flattery are good at taking on different guises. Even if the importance of rhetoric for political purposes has receded these days, rhetoric remains a strong presence in our lives in other guises. We are still constantly bombarded by people trying to persuade us. The media are full of apparently convincing presentations of products and points of view. And they work. Countless surveys have shown that faced in a shop with a choice between a product whose name is known through