For centuries, the Sophistic movement of ancient Greece was either ignored or marginalized, likely due to the negative portrayal they received at the hands of Plato. They were written off as charlatans and frauds who had little to offer of philosophical value.
Of all the Sophists, Gorgias even today remains the most recognized and well known. In contrast to his contemporary Plato, Gorgias did not believe in the possibility of absolute truth. Instead, he believed that the best we can manage is an educated opinion, and that all knowledge is subjective and contextual.
He is famous for the following paradox: “Nothing exists; or if it does exist, we cannot know it; or if we can know it, we cannot communicate our knowledge to another person.”
In the past, some have read this statement either as a parody, or as an excessively resigned and nihilistic take on epistemological reality.
But for Gorgias, this state of affairs was not to be lamented, but rather something to be accepted and worked with.
The impossibility of absolute truth was no cause for despair, but instead simply a recognition of the limitations inherent to human language and cognition.
For Gorgias, the purpose of rhetoric was to allow us to navigate the uncertainties of a reality created by and shared through imperfect language. In a world where truth always remained elusive and uncertain, rhetoric could help us to establish consensus as the basis for action.
The rhetoric of Gorgias is firmly rooted in a relativistic epistemology that views all language and all argumentation as inherently deceptive (in that it obscures the full truth, a position which foreshadows Burke’s concept of the terministic screen).
He even directly compares the power of language to magic, with its capacity to enchant and to cast a spell over the listener. For him, words are creative, rather than merely descriptive. Words are the best tools that we have at our disposal to create a shared consensus reality in a world where nothing is ever certain.
It is better, for Gorgias, to recognize the powerful but limited nature of words as a kind of spell or enchantment–for only then may we hope to retain some measure of control and skill in their use and application.