Response for June 11
Edwin Black’s essay, “Plato’s View of Rhetoric,” from the collection Landmark Essays on Classical Greek Rhetoric, argues that, contrary to popular scholarly opinion, Plato did not have a negative view of rhetoric. Instead of despising it, he thought that rhetoric was a potentially powerful and valuable tool for achieving the ideal state (99). In Gorgias, Plato attacks the Sophist practice of rhetoric. Sophists did not use rhetoric to pursue true knowledge; rather, they did not attach any moral or ethical rule to rhetoric, using it to persuade an audience to any end. Black points out that in Gorgias, Plato proves Gorgias’ definition of rhetoric wrong (Gorgias says that rhetoricians know the difference between the just and the unjust, and that they must act justly, and Socrates points out that rhetoric is used towards base ends.) Plato does not say that rhetoric is evil or useless, he is just attacking the type of rhetoric used by the Sophists, which he defines as flattery. Black goes on to consider Phaedrus, and through his analysis of this dialogue, coupled with his discoveries about Plato’s attitude towards rhetoric in Gorgias, he finds a common Platonic rhetorical theory. Rhetoric is not just political speech; it is “all discourse which influences men” (92). Rhetoric depends on the dialectic to discover true knowledge and “rhetoric is a special psychological application of [that knowledge]” (92). In Plato’s mind, true, noble rhetoric is essential for the proper functioning of the state, and the good rhetorician can use rhetoric to control the citizens of a state. Charles Kaufmann, in his essay, “The Axiological Foundations of Plato’s Theory of Rhetoric,” from the same collection, expands Black’s observation of the undemocratic nature of Platonic rhetoric to a full-scale critique of Plato’s vision for rhetoric, which Kaufmann claims to support totalitarian states.
Isocrates provides an important counterpoint to Plato. Both Isocrates and Plato criticize the Sophists for their willingness to use rhetoric to debate trivial matters and for unjust ends, but unlike Plato, who believed that rhetoric was to be reserved for the few who knew episteme, or knowledge of the true forms, Isocrates held that rhetoric is to be used in order to achieve episteme. Rhetoric is about discovery, then, as much as it was about persuasion and delivery. The practice of rhetoric depends on a rhetorician’s flexibility and ability to read the situation, things only achieved through practice, not through philosophical dialectic debate. Isocrates, in Antidosis, makes the point that nothing that is “done with intelligence [can] take place without the help of speech,” or rhetoric, and that “in all our actions as well as in all our thoughts speech is our guide” (75). Isocrates was known as an educator, and he firmly believed in the value of all types of education; even learning about geometry and astronomy is useful to people who won’t apply that knowledge later, because it is the act of learning and challenging your mind that you become more able to understand and learn other disciplines and truths. Isocrates had a more practical vision of rhetoric than Plato – he believed that through careful study, a person who had some talent for rhetoric could gain the wisdom and knowledge necessary to be a rhetorician who influences people to do just things. This careful study and acquisition of knowledge and wisdom will do more than make a person a more effective speaker: such a man will “feel their influence not only in the preparation of a given discourse but in all the actions of his life. It follows, then, that the power to speak well and think right will reward the man who approaches the art of discourse with love of wisdom and love of honor.” Isocrates believes that it is a natural progression for a man who is so invested in the study of what is just and the true nature of things to be an honorable public speaker and citizen.
Is Isocrates the answer to the problems inherent in Plato’s rhetoric, as pointed out by Kaufmann and Black? Could his version of rhetoric be used to support a totalitarian state? I think his refusal to demand that the rhetorician know all before he speaks opens up the possibility for more to speak – you do not need to know the outcome before you deliver your speech, for the speech is an exercise of itself, dependent on audience, and the speaker will come to a truer understanding of the world through delivering the speech.