Revolution Lullabye

June 4, 2007

June 4 Response

Filed under: Uncategorized — by revolutionlullabye @ 2:56 am

June 4


In both the “Encomium of Helen,” believed to be written by Gorgias, and Dissoi Logoi, composed by an unknown Sophist, the author approaches his argument from the unexpected outside perspective. Gorgias reverses the common notion that Helen is an evil seductress by pointing out her helplessness in the hands of divine Fate, passion, and language – who could resist these forces that are powerful beyond her own human (even if she is only half-human and half-god) desires and wishes? The author of Dissoi Logoi, like Gorgias, also approaches his discussion of good/evil, just/unjust, etc. by looking at the situation anew, without the taint of the commonly held standard. For, as this author points out, the black-and-white distinction that we like to place on the terms “good” and “evil” or “seemly” and “unseemly” is not actually there – for death is bad, but good for the gravediggers; for boys to learn warfare instead of philosophy is seemly in Sparta, but not in the other Greek city-states, etc. Everything, these authors point out, is relative, and that refusal to take a hard-line stance on issues seems to be the hallmark of the Sophists.

It’s interesting to me that these “premodern” philosophers (that is, those who came before Plato and Aristotle) are so postmodern according to our 21st century academic distinctions. The insistence at looking at a situation removed from its immediate context so that you might understand all sides of it is what I consider to be one of the tenants of postmodernism – that there is no one Truth, only small truths that are true from a particular viewpoint. So, I don’t think Gorgias was trying to convince everyone that Helen was an innocent victim; why would a Sophist want to establish an alternative Truth that just replaces the old Truth with itself? Instead, I think Gorgias just wants his audience to realize that the stories we tell are not necessarily rooted in positivist, solid soil – they are ever-shifting and can be told in various ways.

I believe that this relativism and consequently this emphasis on individual human experience is what 20th and 21st century rhetoricians are appealing to when they argue that rhetoric should try to revive sophistry as the “antidote,” as Vitanza suggests, to the Aristotelian line of rhetoric that has been preserved and therefore preferred as the canon today. In John Poulakos’ essay, “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric,” he enters the debate of whether or not rhetoric is a theory-based discipline or an art by showing that the Sophists, with their emphasis on the moment and preference to give speeches off the cuff, so that they might better react to their audiences, side with the art (techne) camp. I imagine it would be difficult to pass a major in rhetoric past the Arts and Sciences faculty if you constructed the major around a Sophistic perspective! According to Poulakos, since Sophistic rhetoric emphasized “rhetoric as art, style as personal expression, kairos (the opportune moment), to prepon (the apprioppriate) and to dynaton (the possible),” there could be no hard and fast rules that were easily transferable from teacher to student (56). Since there is no one vision of the possible, and because every moment is a unique one, everything depends on the individual speaker. Rhetoric is art.

Susan Jarratt continues Poulakos’ argument that the Sophists thought of rhetoric as an art in her article “The First Sophists and the Uses of History” by emphasizing the performative nature of sophist rhetoric. She points out that many of the new popular composition classroom techniques, such as sentence-combining, could be directly linked to the Sophists, but since there has been little historical work done on the Sophists (as of 1987), that connection has not been clearly made yet. She also argues that it is difficult to do work on the Sophists and explain their rhetoric because when we do, we still explain it in the context of an Aristotelian tradition and canon. We need to, as the unknown author of Dissoi Logoi would have argued, taken ourselves outside our comfortable mindset and see rhetoric anew, with a different perspective. Victor Vitanza actively tries to push his reader out of their comfortable mindset in the style of his writing, as shown in his article, “Critical Sub/Versions of the History of Philosophical Rhetoric.” His playful nature with nature, creating new meanings in words by inserting slashes or deliberately spelling them different, shows his audience that language is a flexible reality, just like the world. Vitanza is arguing for the arrival of the “Third Sophist” to change the nature of rhetoric today. That Third Sophist would transform rhetoric into the new metadiscipline that is the foundation of all other disciplines, transplanting positivist philosophy, which holds that position in today’s academy (41). In his mind, historiography attempts to display those unexpected perspectives that the Sophists made visible to their audience; this new history is “pluralistic, anarchistic, intertextual” – unlike anything we are used to in our particular academic mindset (53). However, in order to have this work, the academy must be willing to accept it, not only in rogue scholars like Vitanza, but others also, who come from the same Sophist ideology but, since everything is individual, relative, and performative in sophism, look nothing like Vitanza. Can the academy grow to understand and make room for nontransferable, unique knowledge like this? Can the spirit of Sophistry replace the institution created through traditional, canonoized philosophical rhetoric?


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