Shame as a Tool for Persuasion in Plato's Gorgias

Journal of the History of Philosophy 47 (3):451-461 (2009)
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In Gorgias, Socrates stands accused of argumentative "foul play" involving manipulation by shame. Polus says that Socrates wins the fight with Gorgias by shaming him into the admission that "a rhetorician knows what is right . . . and would teach this to his pupils" . And later, when Polus himself has been "tied up" and "muzzled" , Callicles says that he was refuted only because he was ashamed to reveal his true convictions. These allegations, if justified, directly undermine Socrates' claim to be improving his interlocutors by argument. For if Socrates' use of shame tends to produce insincere assertion, then elenchus cannot serve as a tool for moral reform. In an important recent paper, Jessica Moss presents a new apologia for Socrates on these old charges. According to Moss, although Socrates adopts a strategy of shaming rather than reasoning his interlocutors into agreement, this is legitimate because his appeals to shame function as appeals to a moral sense, which connect a person to his own "deep" convictions. Moreover, she claims that shame "can be a more effective tool of persuasion than reason," for it is capable, where reason is not, of dislodging a person's "intuitive" moral beliefs. This essay argues that each of these points is mistaken.

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Dylan Futter
University of the Witwatersrand


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