Barack, Aristotle, Plato & Me (Pt.1)

I’ve been pondering Obamamania in the past few weeks, which has in turn caused me to begin mulling over the contrasting views of Aristotle and Plato on the worth of rhetoric, something that has interested me since I took a class on the subject in college. Definitions of rhetoric abound, but the definition I was taught and still use declares rhetoric to be the faculty of discovering the available means of persuasion—a definition which allows rather broad applications. In ancient Greece, however, rhetoric was chiefly concerned with spoken persuasion because the main form of communication was still verbal. Thus, spoken arguments were unsurpassed in importance in courtrooms, legal assembles, and philosophic debate. Studying rhetoric understandably became a desirable activity for any man aspiring to gain a position of importance.

But rhetoric was not without its critics, Plato being foremost among them. In a dialogue written by Plato entitled Gorgias, Socrates (who serves as Plato’s mouthpiece) converses with the dialogue’s namesake, a well known teacher of rhetoric. In the dialogue, Socrates teases out from Gorgias what he thinks rhetoric is and what he deems the nature of rhetoric to be. Initially Gorgias proclaims breathlessly that rhetoric belongs to the “greatest …and the best of human things,” because:

What is there greater than the word which persuades the judges in the courts, or the senators in the council, or the citizens in the assembly, or at any other political meeting?-if you have the power of uttering this word, you will have the physician your slave, and the trainer your slave, and the money-maker…will be found to gather treasures, not for himself, but for you who are able to speak and to persuade the multitude.

Gorgias then explicitly defines rhetoric as an “artificer of persuasion” that deals specifically the “the just and the unjust.” After some further prodding, Gorgias is then compelled to admit that rhetoric’s source of persuasion is belief rather than knowledge. In other words, the rhetorician does not instruct, but instead creates belief.

Now that these basic premises have been settled on, cold Socratic/Platonic logic goes in for the kill:

Soc. You were saying, in fact, that the rhetorician will have, greater powers of persuasion than the physician even in a matter of health?

Gor. Yes, with the multitude-that is.

Soc. You mean to say, with the ignorant; for with those who know he cannot be supposed to have greater powers of persuasion.

Gor. Very true.

Soc. But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gor. Certainly.

Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?

Gor. No.

Soc. And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gor. Clearly.

Soc. Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?

Gor. In the case supposed:-Yes.

Soc. And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Socrates point is clear: by Gorgias’ own admission, the rhetoricians’ true talent is to be more persuasive to the layman than the knowledgeable expert. And if this is so, how can rhetoric be considered virtuous or great—it will after all, only serve to flatter the audience with what they want to hear rather than to impart knowledge. To make the point clearer, Socrates provides an analogy:

cookery : medicine :: rhetoric : justice

It is not hard to imagine that children, if given a choice, would be easily persuaded that the crispy confections of cookery were more beneficial to health that the bitter medicinal pill. But any reasonably intelligent person would recognize the ruse, and just as cookery can only pretend to know what is best for the body, rhetoric can only pretend to know what is best for justice.

And here is what I consider to be the crux of the matter: Plato’s main claim is, insofar as the rhetorician is speaking to a stupid audience, the inevitable result is not the clarification but the obfuscation of truth. Rhetoric is thus a trifling habitude and nothing else.

Aristotle, on the other hand, who was quite positive on rhetoric and has laid the firmest foundation for the study of rhetoric as a worthwhile pursuit, framed the matter in the exact opposite way. Namely, that insofar as the rhetorician is speaking to a smart audience, the inevitable result has to be the clarification rather than the obfuscation of truth. Clever audiences will not be duped, so rhetoric could only presuade them closer to the truth.

Simply put then, I’ve always considered the major disagreement between Aristotelian and Platonic views of rhetoric to be the basic assumption that people are either smart or stupid. If one assumes the former, rhetoric can easily be argued to be noble, if the latter is assumed, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that rhetoric has a baneful proclivity.

Since I’m quite sure I’ve strained my readers’ attention spans quite enough, what this has to do with my thoughts on Barack Obama will be the subject of the next post.