Gorgias, Plato addresses the Sophists and shows Socrates facing off against several of them in a discussion of justice. As can be seen from this dialogue, different Sophists taught somewhat different doctrines. In general, though, the Sophists considered the nature of law and whether law could be viewed as something objective, a scientific certainty to be applied to the world. Essentially, the Sophists found that there was no way to know whether there could be such a law or not and that therefore there was no reason to seek it. Later Sophists argued that there is no real "justice" or "right" and that these are only names applied to local and changing conventions. They further argued that the only real authority in the world is force. Thus the law is what can be imposed by force in a given society, which is the position Callicles takes in this dialogue. Plato writes this dialogue in part as a way of analyzing and overcoming his grief at the way the Sophists have substituted oratory for philosophy, an action he sees as promoting injustice rather than justice.
Plato sought to counter the views of the Sophists, and in the Gorgias, Socrates seeks to counter one of the leading Sophists, Gorgias. Gorgias believes that absolute truth is not possible. He extols the virtues of language and the power it gives, including the capability of changing the whole person. Callicles also represents his point-of-view in the dialogue, and Socrates argues that deciding what is right based on what gives pleasure is the wrong approach. He also counters other tenets of the Sophists, including the primacy of the law of nature, the use of force to gain compliance, and other issues.
Socrates carries on a dialogue with three main individuals, all Sophists -- Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles, with Callicles being the most argumentative and assertive of the three. The dialogue begins with a discussion of oratory, with Socrates trying to learn what Gorgias believes oratory to be. Socrates calls oratory a craft, and Gorgias says this is not correct, associating the idea of a craft with "working with your hands and activities of that sort" (6). Throughout, Socrates tries to get the Sophists to be specific in their answers and to define their terms, and it is clear that they are unaccustomed to doing so and are more accustomed to speaking in vague generalities using terms that have some meaning to them if not to others. The term "oratory" itself is ill defined by the Sophists, and Socrates tries to get them to be more concrete in their use of this and other terms. Gorgias often identifies terms by their effects rather than by what they are, as when he says of oratory that it is "the source of freedom for mankind itself and at the same time it is for each person the source of rule over others in one's own city" (9). Gorgias says that oratory is the art of persuasion (9), and Socrates brings this idea down to the orator as "a producer of conviction-persuasion" rather than a teacher of "what is just and unjust" (13). For Socrates, teaching what is just and unjust is a higher calling and is related to philosophy, which he describes later as the object of his love (51).
Callicles challenges Socrates directly in these very terms, stating that philosophy is something for children, who grow up "and move on to more important things" (55). Callicles does not mean to say that they move on to fuzzy thinking, but in effect that is precisely what he is demonstrating in his argument. He claims that philosophers are the one's who do not think clearly because they are, like Socrates and Plato, idealists rather than realists. He says that philosophers are "people [who] turn out to be inexperienced in the laws of their city or in the kind of speech one must use to deal with matters of business" (55).
The way Plato presents Callicles in particular shows that the Sophist does not truly understand others and cannot see clearly outside his narrow range of interest and belief. He has Callicles make several statements that the reader knows are false, as when he criticizes Socrates and says that if Socrates were arrested and condemned to death, "you can know that you wouldn't have any use for yourself" (57). He quotes Euripides to show that Socrates is wasting his time and should instead "Practice them sweet music of an active life" (57). He also tells Socrates to "abandon philosophy and move on to more important things" (55).
Of course, the history of the life of Socrates shows how wrong this assessment really is, for Socrates is able to defend himself at the end of his life, ultimately living out his philosophy by taking responsibility for his actions even though he has not corrupted the youth of Athens as charged. It is clear from this dialogue that Socrates analyzes issues very closely and does so using analogy, an approach that angers Callicles, who berates Socrates, saying, "You simply don't let up on your continual talk of shoemakers and cleaners, cooks and doctors, as if our discussion were about them!" (63). When Socrates does talk of these things, he is only using analogy to illuminate his argument, an argument which Callicles prefers not to understand.
The argument with Callicles follows those with Gorgias and Polus. In the dialogue with Gorgias, Socrates suggests that teaching oratory as an ethically neutral art is itself an injustice, perpetuating injustice by encouraging persuasion to whatever point-of-view the speaker wishes to espouse, whether it is a just or unjust point-of-view. Socrates makes his position clear when he notes the logical conclusion of what Gorgias has been saying about oratory:
Oratory doesn't need to have any knowledge of the state of their subject matters; it only needs to have discovered a persuasion device in order to make itself appear to those who don't have knowledge that it knows more than those who actually do have it (18).
Injustice is cited by Socrates more than once as "the most shameful thing" (45). This counters the early view by Polus that to be targeted by a tyrant and to be killed or to have your possessions taken is the more shameful. Socrates answered that it is the tyrant who should be shamed, noting, "Yes, the one who puts someone to death unjustly is [miserable], my friend, and he's to be pitied besides. But the one who does so justly isn't to be envied" (31).
The discussion with Polus is an attempt by the student, Polus, to succeed where the teacher, Gorgias, has failed. Gorgias tries to set forth the principles of the sophists and finds that Socrates has a series of reasons why that position is false. Gorgias, as Socrates later says, is shamed by this so that he withdraws. Polus determines not to be shamed and instead to promote the principals of the Sophists even more vigorously and with no apology, beginning by claiming that orators have "the greatest power in their cities" (27). The philosophy espoused by Gorgias and Polus is essentially a pragmatic one -- oratory is good because it is effective. Orators have great power because "they, like tyrants, put to death anyone they want, and confiscate the property and banish from their cities anyone they see fit" (27).
Without denying that this can be accomplish through oratory, Socrates challenges the idea that this indicates power, or that those who perform such actions can be said to be happy. For the Sophists, the ends would seem to justify the means. More than this, though, the sheer exercise of power mens that the person so doing achieves happiness, since that is presumably his aim. Socrates, however, insists on defining terms more carefully than this. For Socrates, happiness is not a matter of achieving what one wants. It is rather a real state of being that must be defined, just as must "power," "best," "superior," and other traits and states of being that are raised in the course of this discussion. If these terms are given clear and precise meaning, as they must, then the imprecise and vague assumptions of the Sophists disappear or are shown to be simply wrong. For Socrates, people do things "for the sake of what's good" (30), and "good" cannot be defined simply as what you desire. Good is rather defined as what is just because that serves the soul, and those who do unjust things harm their soul no matter how much pleasure they may seem to be achieving in this world, in their physical being.
As noted, Callicles is a much more argumentative and steadfast man, a man who sees the others as having been shamed when they should not have been shamed. Socrates repeats his arguments in a more forceful and elaborate manner here, forcing Callicles to respond so that he ends in the same basic position as Gorgias…