Plato. Gorgias. In The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.87-138.
Plato. Phaedrus. In The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 138-168.
In Plato’s Gorgias, he recreates a discussion (sometimes turned into an argument!) between Socrates and three men identified as Sophists or belonging to the sophist tradition: Gorgias, his student Polus, and Callicles. The discussion begins when Socrates urges his student, Chaerephon, to ask Gorgias to define who he is. This turns into a debate and an investigation of the true nature of rhetoric and the duty or purpose of the rhetorician. Socrates is particularly interested in what reponsibility a teacher and accomplished practicioner of rhetoric has for persuading his students and his audience to pursue noble, just aims. When the three Sophists fail to dispel Socrates’ contention that rhetoric is not noble but instead mere flattery – dishonest and potentiall harmful, like using cookery instead of medicine – it seems as if Plato is dismissing rhetoric, for rhetoric is not good in itself. Effective rhetoric depends on the rhetor understanding and pleasing the audience, and if the rhetor’s success is dependent then on his audience’s preconceived whims and wishes and beliefs, what place is there for a rhetor who speaks unpopular yet noble and good Truth? A slave to convention, then, is the rhetorician, and therefore the rhetorician does not, as the philosopher does, move people towards justice and good.
Plato’s hardline stance against rhetoric is revised in the Phaedrus. First, through the retelling of a speech by the orator Lysias and then through an extended speech by Socrates, it is shown that rhetoric, as was proven in Gorgias, is too easily tied up with ignoble human ambition and desire to be a pure end to good. These two speeches compare rhetoric to an evil lover, who desires to control his beloved and therefore is prone to pettiness and madness which can lead to harm, for both the lover and the beloved. However, Plato doesn’t stop here – he recognizes that not all madness is evil, and therefore all love is not manipulating, selfish flattery. Madness is an attribute of the gods and the muses, and therefore, the madness which is love can also have a transcendent, beautiful side, one that is worthy of the divine. Rhetoric of this kind – the rhetoric of the noble lover – pushes the audience (the beloved) to strive for the good and the noble. Speech is powerful; this Plato cannot deny, and the noble rhetorician uses his power of speech and the power inherent in language for good, not for flattery or to uplift unseemly arguments. Rhetoric, then, has an important place in society, for philosophy is a solitary pursuit – in order for large groups of people to graspe the truths reached through individual study and contemplation, there needs to be a rhetorician who understands the fine divisions and classifications of both small and great things to express these truths to an audience. Rhetoric is social, and noble rhetoric can uplift a society, but to become this sort of rhetorician requires careful study and a deep understanding of the world.
I found some of the rhetorical structures of both dialogues interesting juxtaposed next to what seemed to be Plato’s argument (what Socrates was saying.) First of all, in Gorgias, it was known that the Sophists were excellent speakers, but they all seemed stunted in this dialogue: Socrates spoke the most and, although he chastised them numerous times for not making their answers concise enough, his lines were longer and more detailed and contrived than the Sophists. I don’t think Plato gave a fair representaiton of the Sophists, for he allows Socrates to reign in the argument – the Sophists answer his questions instead of questioning Socrates. But perhaps this is because the Sophists boasted that they could speak on any subject, and when they spoke, they gave answers instead of more questions, which is a hallmark of Socrates. Does that mean it is more effective to pose questions than to give answers? That to control the discussion and the conversation, you need to be the questioner instead of the one being questioned? And did the Sophists, the supreme rhetoricians that they were, not realize the effectiveness of the “defensive” position of questioning than the “offensive” one of giving answers?
But can you be a noble rhetorician if all you do is be defensive?