Historical Rhetorics/Plato's Relationship to Rhetoric

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This chapter will build off of the previous chapter on Plato's reservations toward orality by considering his rejection of [oral] rhetoric. Plato's rejection of rhetoric is built upon two general lines of argument:

  • Democratic weakness: most people are little better than sheep and cannot be trusted to judiciously pierce rhetoric's "oral" spells. We saw an extensive treatment of this argument already in the Republic.
  • Epistemological weakness: rhetoric lacks proper knowledge. While we saw seeds of this argument in the Republic, it gains much more attention in the Gorgias, particularly in Socrates' assault on Polus.

Plato's argument against rhetoric must be taken with a grain of salt--since the Gorgais and the Phaedrus are themselves masterful rhetorical performances. However, this irony does not negate his argumentation, since (as we saw in book seven of The Republic) in both works he admits (in the Gorgias implicitly and in the Phaedrus explicitly) that certain situations require rhetorical abilities. In order for rhetoric to be righteous (i.e., aligned with Plato's Idea of the Good), it must be subservient to dialectical philosophy, used sparingly, and only by the most enlightened dialectical masters--the Republic's Philosopher Kings. Before turning direct attention to this week's readings, it is beneficial to examine how these themes appear in what many believe to be Plato's first major work, his Apology.

Plato's first treatment of rhetoric, almost entirely hostile, occurs in his Apology, the dramatic retelling of Socrates' trial and execution. Likely written between 390 and 399 BC (Kennedy 53), in the Apology Socrates chooses to die with plain truth rather than live thanks to excessive flourish. To manipulate an audience (a multitude) in pursuit of personal goals is unquestionable wickedness. On the other hand, to address individuals in pursuit of the truth is the highest good. Even after his condemnation, Socrates invites the jurors interested in what "truly" passed at his trial to stay and discuss the day. Kennedy stresses how Plato's Socrates places more blame on the orator's lined up against him than the jury who convicted him. This favoring of dialectic and deep suspicion of oratory surfaces in all of Plato's subsequent writings, including the Gorgias and Phaedrus.

Almost all critics agree that the Gorgias is a vicious attack on rhetoric. By positioning Socrates against Gorgias, one of the more reputable sophists of the day, Plato attempts to distinguish Socratic dialectic from sophistic oratory. As we will see in coming chapters, no one in the Greek period wants to be identified as a sophist--though at one point or another Socrates, Plato, Gorgias, and Isocrates all find themselves faced with such an identification. While the precise definition for the term shifts--one thing is clear: each figure does his best to make sure the term applies to his opponent rather than himself. In the Gorgias, Socrates engages three opponents: Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. In the Gorgias, sophistry is repeatedly identified as self-interested avarice.

Contemporary scholars disagree sharply on interpretations of the Phaedrus. Some, such as Kennedy and Welch argue that the Phaedrus represents a softening of the arguments against rhetoric in the Gorgias and earlier Apology. Others, such as Coulter and more recently McAdon, interpret Plato's seemingly complimentary stance toward rhetoric as a subtle satire against Isocrates' pragmatic rhetoric and his aloof characterization of Plato's Idealist philosophy.

Works Cited

  • Kennedy, George A. Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times. 2nd edition. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1999.

Relevant Secondary Sources

  • Murray, James S. "Disputation, Deception, and Dialectic: Plato on the True Rhetoric (Phaedrus 261-266)." Philosophy & Rhetoric 21 (1988): 279-289.
  • Poster, Carol. "Framing Theaetetus: Plato and Rhetorical (Mis)representation." RSQ 35.3 (Summer 2005): 31-75.
  • Poster, Carol. "Plato's Unwritten Doctrines: A Hermeneutic Problem in Rhetorical Historiography." Pre/Text 14 (1993): 127-137.
  • Quandahl, Ellen. "What is Plato? Influence and Allusion in Plato's Sophist." Rhetoric Review 7 (1989): 338-348.
  • Quimby, Rollin. "The Growth of Plato's Perception of Rhetoric." Philosophy and Rhetoric 7 (1974): 71-79.
  • Rendall, S. "Dialogue, Philosophy, and Rhetoric: The Example of Plato's Gorgias." Philosophy & Rhetoric 10 (1977): 165-179.
  • Roochnik, David. "In Defense of Plato: A Short Polemic." Philosophy & Rhetoric 24 (1991): 153-158.
  • Welch, Kathleen E. "The Platonic Paradox." Written Communication 5.1 (1988): 3-21.
  • Wiegmann, Hermann. "Plato's Critique of the Poets and the Misunderstanding of his Epistemological Argumentation." Philosophy & Rhetoric 23 (1990): 109-124.

Professor Margaret Zulick has compiled a selected bibliography on Plato's relation to rhetoric.