Revolution Lullabye

June 10, 2007

Short Paper 2 on Kaufmann

Filed under: Uncategorized — by revolutionlullabye @ 5:26 pm

Laura J. Davies

June 10, 2007

CCR 720: Agnew

Short Paper 2

 A Good Totalitarian State? 

            Plato’s discussion of the nature, uses, and purposes for rhetoric, contained in his two dialogues, Gorgias and Phaedrus, announce a new direction for rhetoric, one that is radically different from the rhetoric practiced and taught by the Sophists. His principles for rhetoric – that it exists in all forms of human discourse, and that it, in its ideal form, should be used to promote noble and just ends – are thought of as the underlying principles of classical rhetoric, infused in one way or another in the traditional canon of classical rhetoric. Contemporary rhetorical scholars have found these two dialogues rich for analysis, and the rediscovery and renewed interest in the rhetoric of the Sophists have provided an important counterpoint to Platonic rhetoric. In his essay, “The Axiological Foundations of Plato’s Theory of Rhetoric,” Charles Kaufmann argues against other scholars, who affirm Plato’s commitment to a noble rhetorician who seeks justice, by showing how Plato’s rhetoric supports the actions of totalitarian, repressive states. Through his reexamination of Plato’s rhetorical principles, scholars today can begin to question the motives of the rhetoric described and supported in the traditional, 2400-year-old canon of rhetoric, and start to see how the reintegration of other schools of rhetoric, such as the Sophists or other lost or overlooked forms, might truly transform rhetoric into a discipline that can be used for social justice, not social control.

            By studying both the Gorgias and the Phaedrus dialogues, Kaufmann is able to discover and name four principal characteristics of Platonic rhetoric: (1) rhetoric exists in all forms of human discourse, public and private; (2) the rhetorician must be informed through episteme, the highest form of knowledge, knowledge of the transcendental forms; (3) dialectic is a necessary precursor to rhetoric, as the dialectic is responsible for discovering episteme, and rhetoric is only concerned with its delivery to an audience; and (4) “rhetoric functions to guarantee doctrinal conformity and social control” (102). Plato’s rhetoric is necessarily elitist; as he admits in the Gorgias, there are few true rhetoricians, for there are few people who can achieve knowledge through episteme. Since the rest of the masses are hopelessly ignorant of true knowledge, rhetoric, practiced by those special few, is essential for instructing and persuading them to move towards noble purposes. People can’t think for themselves, and therefore, rhetoric is not a democratic art. Plato places the power of rhetoric into the hands of a single philosopher-king ruler, and in his vision of utopia, that philosopher-king uses rhetoric to control his citizens, making sure they follow his idea of a noble life everywhere, in both private and public spheres. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure the goodness of its citizens, and rhetoric (or propaganda or censorship) is the tool to achieve that end.

            Kaufmann’s picture of the Platonic state, governed by Plato’s rhetorical principles, is very grim. In it, people are denied the power of the podium and are subject to great amounts of state intervention and oppression, for “the only legitimate use of rhetoric, within Plato’s state, is for the dissemination of doctrine. All expression in the state, be it song, story, history, myth, panegyric, or oratory, is censored to serve the ends of the state” (115). I found Kaufmann’s argument compelling, as he was determined to examine Plato’s rhetoric from a new perspective, divorced from the praise and reverence it has accumulated as Western rhetoric’s foundation. What is Plato really saying, Kaufmann asks, and he’s not afraid to call the kettle black. In thinking about his argument, I tried to adopt his own methodology – to strip the known of its acquired nuances and to see it anew, in an opposing light. So I took Kaufmann’s critique – that Plato’s rhetoric supports totalitarian states through its maintenance of hierarchy, limitations on who may speak, and use of lies, censorship, and deception to persuade the masses to pursue the ruler’s objective – and turned it upside down, as I posed this question to my husband: “Would you like to live in a totalitarian state ruled by Jesus?”

            The heart of that question is whether or not a totalitarian state can be a good thing. Could there be a ruler whose strict censorship and propaganda policies are executed for the benefit of the people only? Although at first, the thought of living in a Jesus-utopia with fascist methods of control seemed intriguing and radical, my husband and I decided that a noble totalitarian state could not exist, for it depends on the state assuming complete control of the citizens. The more power the state takes, the less power individuals and smaller social units, like the family and the community, are allowed to exercise on their own behalf. Total control by the state takes away all freedom and choices, killing off free will. Jesus, and other potential good dictators, I believe, would believe that human dignity springs forth from freedom and independence, not dependence, and Plato’s version of rhetoric only exists in a society that is completely dependent on a few skilled rhetoricians to explain what action the masses should take. Because Plato refuses, in his limitation of rhetoric to the few, to acknowledge the intellectual worth of all people, human dignity is not valued in his state. Also, I believe that a society that relies on one rhetorician to explain what it is to be noble can never become completely just, for true nobleness only is achieved through the individual struggle to attain knowledge and to act according to that knowledge. No one can give you that knowledge. You need to obtain it yourself, and a state that denies you your right to pursuing that struggle through the “freedom of speech, the marketplace of ideas, and reasoned disagreement” is denying you your essential humanity.

            I wonder what Plato’s defense to Kaufmann would be. I think Plato sees rhetoricians as skilled performers, much like doctors. Would Plato counter Kaufmann by asking him if he would entrust his medical care to the whims of the uneducated masses? Is rhetoric a learned skill, or is it an essential human characteristic?  I think Plato would argue that rhetoric is an art that requires intense study, a knowledge of the supreme characteristics of things, and a desire to seek and form a just social state. I think many current rhetoric scholars would argue the opposite – that rhetoric is practiced in all spheres of human life by all peoples and cultures. Does Plato have a point? Should rhetoric be valued more in society – should we think of a politician who skillfully uses it the same way we would a neurosurgeon? Or are we all our own unique rhetorical geniuses? I think the definition of what rhetoric is and who should practice it always must come down to a question of ethics, then; it seems impossible to divorce rhetoric from philosophy, unless you want to reduce rhetoric to a skill set, a handbook for public speaking and writing.


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