Archive for January, 2008

three rhetoricians walk into a bar

Posted in Berlin, Isocrates, MM, paideia, rhetoric, social-epistemic on January 31, 2008 by untimelymediations

The cast of the dialogue: Isocrates, James Berlin, an unnamed graduate student.

Student: Hi Isocrates!

Isocrates: Good day, Unnamed Graduate Student. What business have you in fourth century BCE Athens?

Student: Well … It’s sort hard to explain. This isn’t really Athens, see? It’s just an imaginary space I’m using instead of writing a regular blog post about some speeches of yours that I read recently.

Isocrates: [Stares blankly at Student.]

Student: Um … I’m buying a trireme.

Isocrates: A fine civic-minded student you are then! By chance, I am headed to the agora, which abuts yon trireme shop. Let us discourse awhile as we walk together.

Student: Oh … well … I was gonna go see Socrates on the way, but … okay. I guess.

Isocrates: I myself have funded several triremes, you know. Actually, I’m being sued by someone who claims I need to do more for the polis than I already have.

Student: I heard about that. In fact, I was reading your speech composed in response to the trial. The Antidosis.

Isocrates: How did you come upon that speech? I started composing it but yesterday!

Student: Well … look, here’s copy of the speech. Don’t tell anyone where you got it, okay?

Isocrates: This is wondrous strange!

Student: Yeah, I know. But it’s good that you have it ‘cos I have a few questions to ask about it. Take this part, for example. I’m a little fuzzy on how you expect oratorical training to make someone a better person.

Isocrates: [Scanning speech] Ah, but the answer is simple: “People improve and become worthier if they are interested in speaking well, have a passion for being able to persuade their audience, and also desire advantage—not what foolish people think it is but that which truly has this power”.

Student: Yeah, I get that, but how does it actually work? I mean, is there more to it than that?

Isocrates: There has to be. Consider: “Someone who is accustomed to examine and evaluate such topics will have this same facility not only for the speech at hand but also for other affairs. … Moreover, anyone who wishes to persuade others will not neglect virtue but will devote even more attention to ensuring that he achieves a most honorable reputation among his fellow citizens. Who could fail to know that speeches seem truer when spoken by those of good name than by the disreputable, and that arguments acquire more authority when they come from one’s life than from mere words”.

Student: Oh … So it’s a two-part process, then. First, oratorical training teaches how to reason and make correct choices; as you describe it, the training helps speakers avoid “topics that are unjust or insignificant or that deal with private arguments”. Instead, they learn to look for and argue about “public issues which are important and noble and promote human welfare”.

Isocrates: Yes, that is very true—proper paideia builds citizens capable of reason and who show wisdom in speech.

Student: But that’s just the first element. The training of reason—of evaluation and discernment—is valid not just for the assembly or for the agora, but for all parts of life: speech and action, public and private. So where the sophists profess to teach virtue simply through instruction of right and wrong, your method actually describes the process through which a student learns to make those distinctions for herself?

Isocrates: Himself. Who ever heard of a woman learning oratory and philosophy?

Student: Well, there’s Diotima, and Aspasia, and Hypatia—

Isocrates: Alright, alright. Yes, you describe my method well.

Student: So once students—male or female—are accustomed to the proper use of reason and oratory, and have made a virtuous name for themselves, they have to keep exercising these powers of reason and virtue in order to keep being persuasive?

Isoccrates: You have said it well: “The more ardently someone wants to persuade his audience, the more he will strive to be a gentleman and to have a good reputation among the citizens”.

Student: Ah. So, perhaps scholars of rhet—er, “philosophy”—in my day can look to your work as perhaps one way to teach civic virtue: by training students to reason and evaluate among different choices when composing, we can also use those skills to instruct them how to make choices about ethical and civic action.

Isocrates: I see little fault in your discourse.

Student: In fact, your method is sort of familiar … where could I possibly have read about it before?

Voice: [Offstage] Perhaps you read it in my book, Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures.

Student: Gosh! Isocrates, look: it’s James Berlin!

[Berlin enters, clad, like Socrates in Aristophanes’ The Clouds, in a dirty toga and bare feet.]

Student: But, Dr. Berlin, aren’t you dead? And what are you doing in Athens?

Berlin: That’s not important. What is important is that you’re right: Isocrates’s paideia does seem to have some interesting points of comparison with my ideas about social-epistemic rhetoric.

Isocrates: [Aside] Damn skippy.

Student: That’s just what I was thinking. Like Isocrates’s pedagogy, social-epistemic rhetoric uses principles of rhetorical critique and analysis to forward and agenda of responsible citizenship.

Isocrates: Dammit, Jim, I’m a philosopher, not a speechwriter!

Berlin: Of course, of course. [Berlin and Student share a conspiratorial glance; they are both skeptical of Isocrates’s claim.] Well, whatever you call it, we both seem to be after the same thing. Our friend here has described your method pretty accurately, wouldn’t you say, Isocrates?

Isocrates: [Still huffy.] I would have to admit that he has.

Berlin: I ask my students to do something similar. Using principles of social-epistemic rhetoric, students “should locate principles for discovering the available means of persuasion, principles that distinguish true from untrue knowledge, indicating what counts as real and what is ephemeral, what is good, and what is possible”. With these skills, students learn to understand how power structures use language and rhetoric to achieve ideological ends.

Student: That’s right! So by understanding how language and rhetoric are deployed by power, students can be better prepared to critique power!

Berlin: Exactly. Training in social-epistemic rhetoric “is a part of students actively becoming agents of change in a democratic society. Students in this kind of course are at every turn asked to challenge accepted wisdom and to come to their own positions about the issues under consideration. In addition, the reading and writing practices that the course encourages will further their ability to enter public dialogue, to master the operations of signification in the distribution of power. Students in such a course should thus become better writers and readers as citizens, workers, and critics of their cultures”.

Student & Isocrates: Hmm.

Berlin: “Hmm” indeed.

Student: So, what social-epistemic rhetoric has in common with Isocrates’s paideia is the conjoining of rhetorical skill and analysis to the construction of skills necessary for ethical citizenship?

Berlin: Precisely. Granted, although what constitutes ethical citizenship is not the same for each of us.

Isocrates: He’s right, you know.

Student: Well, obviously. Isocrates’s notion of virtue is dependent on a public estimation of the speaker’s ethos, which, as we have seen, he contends is nearly as if not equally as important as the argument itself in effective persuasion.

Isocrates: Well, you wouldn’t listen to a turd like Protagoras, now would you?

Student: Maybe not. On the other hand, Dr. Berlin’s idea of ethical citizenship is that of a citizen who understands the way representation and language use are deployed to shape ideology, behavior, and political action. It seems like your goal, Dr. Berlin, is to make students who use language in ways that are perhaps more ethical than the uses it is put to by power. So for you, civic virtue means being able to use rhetorical analysis to evaluate the truth content of ideological language use.

Berlin: Yes, that seems like a pretty fair description.

Student: I’m glad we got all that settled. Hey, do you guys want to go get a gyro?

[Suddenly, the Persian empire invades and all three are put to death. Finis.]

The Historicization of the Spirit, the Will, and Individuality

Posted in DR, Hegel, Individual, Plato, Will on January 30, 2008 by untimelymediations

Hegel develops a particular history; a history with a specific philosophical import.  It seems necessary to consider how this history, the history of Greek civilization, is useful to Hegel.  The questions become: What are his objectives in reading/relaying this particular history?  What does this history provide for Hegel?  What is the significance of the history that Hegel suggests? 

Here, it seems that Hegel is particularly interested in expressing the importance of the individual to Greek society.  This becomes evident both in his discussion of Greek civilization, as well as the theological constructions of this society.  Here he seems to emphasize the power of the individual over submission to a particular leader.  This becomes most explicit in his discourse on war.  Here, Hegel suggests that Greek citizens fight of their own accord:

The various peoples do not fight as mercenaries of the prince in his battles, nor as a stupid serf-like herd driven to the contest, nor yet in their own interest; but as companions of their honored chieftan – as witnesses of his exploits, and his defenders in peril (230)  

According to Hegel, the people fight as companions rather than in submission to a leader.  Also, the people witness the leader.  Here, there is a power bestowed upon the people, in that they are continually engaged in the act of witnessing.  What does this suggest?  Is Hegel advising similar recourse amongst his contemporaries? In his discussion of the spirit, soul, and most importantly, will, there is an inherent emphasis on self-determination.  Though Zeus is ruler, each God has his/her own will.  Here, Hegel provides that it is the responsibility of the leader to make concessions, and the responsibility of the people to determine.  Here, the people are attributed the power to witness, and decide.  The Trojan War, as Hegel describes it, becomes an issue of individual assent (231).

Furthermore, it is the individual that is central significance to the success of Greek civilization.  Individual government power assists in the accumulation of riches, and population/community development.  Though there are poor citizens, those that “want,” everyone feels the effects of free citizenship.  The way the passage is constructed, it seems to insist that this is very much divergent from more contemporary time periods.  Perhaps, the poor, in Hegel’s time, have experienced subjugation as they have lost the citizenship, the individual power, that he equates with the Greek people?

Moreover, following in what seems to be the Platonic tradition, Hegel, suggests the importance of the individual in relationship to nature.  Here, the individual stands as intermediary between nature and society.  The individual is equipped with a capacity to determine the importance of that which is observed.  This capacity is intimately equated with the soul.  The soul, as was hinted at previously, seems to be bound inextricably to the very individuality of the Greek people.  Here the question becomes: is individuality a derivative of the soul’s contemplation, or is individuality a necessary antecedent to the ability the soul has to interpret?  As he references, the Greek people looked to nature for wonder, and derived philosophy from this wonder.  The observant subjective spirit, gives meaning, as the spirit interprets nature (236). 

Ambiguity as Rhetorical Strategy: “Virtue” and its Contemporary Correlatives

Posted in Ambiguity, DR, Isocrates on January 28, 2008 by untimelymediations

As with most discourse of this nature, the authors of these texts draw on a particular vocabulary and a specific lexicon in an attempt to develop a more persuasive argument.  Specifically, these texts implore the various connotations associated with the term “virtue,” in order to achieve a certain objective.  Even the terms “knowledge,” “soul,” and “body” take on meanings seemingly divergent from contemporary interpretations.   Although virtue, knowledge, and soul, become a means by which the authors can validate their arguments, for they emphasize a certain textual authority, these texts absence any explanation relating to their definition or use.   

Throughout each text, these terms are invoked at numerous junctions in order to justify a particular action or a specific argument.  Interestingly, these terms don’t just simply assist in the formation of argument.  In many ways, it seems as though these texts rely on these very terms; that they are dependent on this lexicon.  For these texts, alternative word choice will not suffice.  Here, I am not so much interested in simply suggesting a certain textual weakness.  Rather, I am much more interested in the various means by which a similar reliance occurs in more contemporary contexts.   Though there are numerous examples, such as the use of the term “affect” in intellectual circles, a term that is applied to many issues without much consideration for connotation, it seems as though the realm of political debate/speech is a more interesting point of consideration.  Here, as in the texts we are currently reading, ambiguous terms are invoked without much consideration for divergent connotations or interpretations.  In many ways, the term virtue finds its correlative in the use of terms such as “our values” or “legacy” by Barack Obama, McCain’s ever ambiguous reliance on “tyranny,” to invoke a certain fear, and Hillary Clinton’s suggestion of an “American family.”  These terms, and their uses deny a definitive definition, quite simply, because these texts are devoid of any substantial form of explanation.  What are “our values,” and how do they apply to the “American family.”  Though McCain often references the events of 9/11, tyranny remains ill-defined.  Are there still tyrants present?  As often as McCain invokes this term, tyranny seems all invasive.  Is he still referring to a specific group of people, or an opposing government?  Who are these people? 

Though connotation remains ill-defined, it seems that this functions effectively and conveniently, it must be noted, in contemporary contexts.  Ambiguity serves a specific rhetorical function.  Back to the texts…  In Isocrates, the texts seem to suggest that one use the means necessary in order to obtain the intended objective.  Thus, it seems fruitful to consider whether or not ambiguity is a necessary function?  Whether ambiguity insists structure?  For it seems that by invoking a certain structured ambiguity, the author is able to achieve certain feats.

Derek Risse

Rhetorical Strategies, the Schism, and “To Nicoles”

Posted in DR, Isocrates on January 27, 2008 by untimelymediations

A recurrent trope of the texts we are examining this semester, namely those of Plato and Isocrates, is the provision/inclusion of material relating to diverse rhetorical strategies/approaches.  Although I am sure this is completely evident to those involved in this study, the predominant means by which this advice arises in each text is of particular significance.  Generally, each discourse begins with a preliminary issue (Isocrates provides advice to those in position of power, Socrates addresses the ethical concerns of teaching for monetary exchange, etc).  Then, in most of the texts, it seems as though a dramatic schism occurs, as the speaker introduces material pertaining to rhetorical strategy.  In Protagoras, Socrates shifts from the discursive issue, to the form of the discourse itself.  This becomes evident as Socrates attempts to establish a structure for dialectic dispute.  Similarly, in “To Nicoles,” although Isocrates begins by addressing the way that one in a position of power should behave, the discourse soon shifts to Isocrates’ advice concerning the most effective means of addressing a “common” audience.  This discourse initiates in the passages 38-42.  Here, Isocrates effectively outlines persuasive strategies that one might use to address an audience.  In order to most thoroughly dissect what Isocrates is presenting, I will analyze the following passages in greater specificity. 

But the truth is that in discourses of this sort we should not seek novelties, for in these discourses it is not possible to say what is paradoxical or incredible or outside the circle of accepted belief; accomplished in this field who can collect the greatest number of ideas scattered among the thoughts of all the rest and present them in the best form. 

This particular section is quite fruitful.  First, Isocrates suggests that one should not “seek novelties.”  Here, it seems that Isocrates is suggesting that a speaker should not attempt to impress an audience simply by introducing something unique.  It seems as though the pursuit of the novel is equated with a certain triviality.  Isocrates argues, in direct contradiction to this impulse, that it is almost impossible to predict what will be outside the realm of audience familiarity.  Second, following on this suggestion, Isocrates presents a different and divergent methodology for assembling material.  He provides that one should draw on those concepts or ideas that are already present.  Though the comparison is strained, Isocrates’ discourse is similar to that of Roland Barthes.  Though Barthes discusses the image in specificity, Isocrates is similar in that he recommends drawing on an established repertoire of information.  As the discourse continues, Isocrates approaches the issue of pleasure and usefulness.   

For if we are willing to survey human nature as a whole, we shall find that the majority of men do not take pleasure in the food that is the most wholesome, nor in the pursuits that are the noblest…How, then, can one advise or teach or say anything of profit and yet please such people? 

In this passage, Isocrates specifically addresses the necessity of pleasing an audience.  He asks the question in consideration of the audience that the king must eventually address.  In many ways, Isocrates emphasizes the importance of placating the audience over providing a discourse laden with “wisdom:”  “For, besides what I have said of them, they look upon men of wisdom with suspicion, while they regard men of no understanding as open and sincere” (46).  This is further affirmed in the following passage, as Isocrates elaborates on the issue of pleasure. 

…those who aim to write anything in verse or prose which will make a popular appeal should seek out, not the most profitable discourses, but those which most abound in fictions; for the ear delights in these just as the eye delights in games and contests…those who desire to command the attention of their hearers must…say the kind of things which they see are most pleasing to the crowd (49) 

Here, the discourse abounds with notions of usefulness.  Isocrates suggests that the speaker should not concern him/herself with which issues of worthiness, but rather, with that which will be most useful.  If pleasure can be considered a useful rhetorical strategy, as Isocrates is suggesting, than it must be employed to the benefit of the speaker’s purpose.  Furthermore, by allowing the rhetorical strategy to follow the advice bestowed upon the king, these speaking strategies are equated with power.  The power resides, as the text suggests, from the power to speak/write in a means that will be useful, by use of the strategies outlined above.

For now, this will suffice.  I’ll post more in the immediate future. 


Sophists and the City

Posted in Aristophanes, Jaeger, KL, Phaedrus, Plato, Socrates, sophists on January 21, 2008 by untimelymediations

Sometimes we have to be a tiny bit selfish, and this week’s readings surely exemplified this trait lying within each of us. Most clearly in Plato’s Phaedrus, the descriptions of Eros and the motives of lovers/non-lovers, illustrates that sophistry truly is wildly, intelligent trickery. With “judgment weakened by passion,” Phaedrus’ notes that “lovers consider how by reason of their love they have neglected their own concerns and rendered service to others” (4). Both Zizek and Lacan have noted that desire equals lack, and with some stretching, we can map this notion back onto sophistry. (Okay, here it goes.) By “neglecting their own concerns,” the lover selfishly seeks out pleasure rather than true friendship seen by the non-lovers. The lover, then, is constantly vying for attention, making oneself attractive to a variety of others (I am pretty certain that ‘others’ suggests men of some stature, while the ‘lovers’ are young-ish boys, but I don’t wish to make an incorrect assumption, so pardon the gender-neutrality.) Making oneself attractive to others is like updating one’s CV for different jobs—one displays what one needs (or, lacks) at this specific moment, and why that person/school would be the perfect match. Crudely speaking, Mr. Right Now. (The more this response continues, the more it is sounding like some strange Sex and the City episode. Yikes.) Lovers and sophists alike fit themselves into different situations by recognizing their own need, and finding someone to fill it. This moment of recognizing the personal need is what I find so brilliant about the sophists. As Jaeger notes,

“Now, if we assume that the purpose of rhetoric is to deceive the audience—to lead them to false conclusions by resemblances alone—that makes it imperative for the orator to have exact knowledge of the dialectic method of classification, for that is the only way to understand the varying degrees of resemblance between things” (189, emphasis mine).

If lovers and (as?) sophists both deceive their audiences, flattery and trickery are not done out of foolishness or accident, but rather though complete and precise knowledge of their subjects.

Unlike Mike, this response is not my magnum opus, so before I am run out of room, I would like to say a few brief words about The Clouds. What I have always loved about The Clouds is that while he is housed in The Thinkery, Socrates is overtly pretentious—and it works. The audience can finally laugh at rather than feel obliged to respect the man. Strepsiades, convinced (deceived?) that he “can just get out of all [his] debt” and “make men think of [him] as bold and glib,/as fearless, impudent, detestable,/ one who cobbles lies together, make up words,” clearly identifies himself as a /with the sophist/s, and lets Socrates lead him off to the ‘naked’ truth (19). Jaeger points out that the “fundamental resemblance” between Socrates and the sophists is they both “analyzed everything, and thought nothing was so great for so sacred that is was beyond discussion and did not need to be founded on rational basis” (372). Maybe the Thinkery should have a soccer team… (Get it? Like that YouTube “moment of zen” video?)

Corporeality, the Image-Image, etc.

Posted in DR, Image-Image, Phaedrus, Plato, Protagoras, Socrates, sophists on January 21, 2008 by untimelymediations

An Inadequate Corporeal (Body vs. Soul):

Perhaps, reading Rotman last semester propels minor preoccupations I experience in relationship to certain portions of each text; namely, the privileging of the soul over the body. Most specifically, the frustrations I experience arise in relationship to both Protagoras and Phaedrus. In each text, the body is degraded in relationship to the soul. This becomes evident in Socrates’ discussion with Hippocrates at the beginning of Protagoras. Socrates warns Hippocrates about the severity of entrusting the soul to a sophist. Here, the soul is equated with intellect, and is given a certain primacy over the body. The sophist, as Socrates suggests, becomes the merchandiser of the soul (Protagoras 6-7). In Phaedrus, the degradation of the body becomes even more explicit. During “Socrates’ Second Speech,” he illuminates what he considers to be the defining attributes of the soul…its immortality and its existence as the ultimate impetus or source. According to Socrates, the soul is equipped with wings that enable its transcendence. Immediately following this discussion, Socrates provides that souls differ as they are distributed amongst mortals. Of course, this seems more a means of degrading the Sophist than describing the specific attributes of the soul (See 248B – 249A). As the discourse continues, it becomes quite evident that Socrates believes the body to be an imprisoning force. Here, the degradation of the body in relationship to the soul becomes most evident.

That was the ultimate vision, and we saw it in pure light because we were pure ourselves, not buried in this thing we are carrying around now, which we call the body, locked in it like an oyster in its shell.

In addition to presenting the body as the physical imprisonment of the soul, an attack is leveled on the corporeal pleasures that one might experience. Specifically, this criticism can be located in Socrates’ recurrent insistence on speaking/writing well…“Certainly not for those you cannot feel unless you are first in pain, like most of the pleasures of the body, and which for this reason we call the pleasures of slaves” (258C). Here, if I am interpreting the passage correctly, the body that experiences pleasure is attributed a slave-like quality.

Yet, despite what would seem a consistent Socratic preoccupation with a corporeal that entraps the transcendent (i.e. the soul), Socrates suggests a rather confusing alignment of soul and body. Here, the argument oscillates from a strict degradation of the body to his omission that certain aspects of the bodily senses are in alignment with the body. He suggests that vision/sight is foremost of the senses aligned with the soul, and that one can reach the soul by means of traveling through the eye. This seems, in some respects, to provide an interesting challenge to Socrates’ initial preoccupations with the body.

Discourse on Discourse (aka. “the meta”) and the Image-Image

A common feature of many of the texts assigned this week (excluding, of course, Clouds), is that the dialogue often shifts to a topic that seems quite extraneous to that which was initially introduced or discussed. In Phaedrus, Socrates and his companion, prompted by Lysias’ speech, initiate the text with a discussion of love. Socrates attempts to address the question of whether or not it is better to be involved with a lover or a non-lover. Here, though, as in Protagoras, a transition soon occurs. After little preliminary discussion, Socrates turns the emphasis of the discourse to the spoken and the written. Socrates works to define several of the elements that contribute to a well formed work. For Socrates, to write or speak poorly seems to be the ultimate fault: “It’s not speaking or writing well that’s shameful; what’s really shameful is to engage in either of them shamefully or badly” (Phaedrus 258C). Though the transition is initially frustrating, it seems that this passage provides some illumination concerning the defining attributes of a good text.

For Socrates, speaking or writing well, is a means of directing the soul both in private in public. According to Socrates, the means by which one can accomplish this is to know the truth about which one speaks. Here, truth is privileged over opinions, and seems to be equated with a thorough understanding of the soul or the types of soul. The most useful of Socrates’ attempts to define worthy speech/writing, become evident between 263 B and 264 C.

“It follows that whoever wants to acquire the art of rhetoric must first make a systematic division and grasp the particular character of each of these two kinds of thing, both the kind where most people wander in different directions and the kind where they do not.”

Essentially, this portion of the text seems to be directed at predicting divergent understandings in language (different paths). Here, Socrates emphasizes predicting how an audience will interpret the language used. Based on this insight, the writer of a speech will be able to use the appropriate language, to acquire the goal intended. And now, thankfully, I have found the refutation to the most banal of often-uttered Frost quotes. Socrates prefers the path traveled more often. Eat that Robert!

“I think, he must not be mistaken about his subject; he must have a sharp eye for the class to which whatever he is about to discuss belongs.”

Again, the predominant emphasis in this portion of the text is on understanding the audience to which the text is directed (directing the soul). Amongst some of the other points addressed, are the defining of terms used at the beginning of a work, and the ordering of points based on necessity. Here, necessity insists a certain structure. Points arise in relationship to the necessity that they arise. Socrates seems to be insisting that there is a natural order to an argument; that arguments flow by natural form: “But surely you will admit at least this much: Every speech must be put together like a living creature, with a body of its own” (Phaedrus 264C).

Perhaps, though, this seems to be where Socrates’ speech encourages additional frustrations. Specifically, during this meta-discourse, Socrates addresses the written as the image-image (an image of an image). The written speech is an image of the oration; that which flows more naturally from the body. Though Socrates is working on the idea that a work must be directed at a particular audience, and that the written transcends the particularities of an audience, this discourse gives weight to the idea that the written is degraded as copy. This, itself, is fairly reminiscent of John Berger’s work in Ways of Seeing:

“The uniqueness of every painting was once part of the uniqueness of the place where it resided. Sometimes the painting was transportable. But it could never be seen in two places at the same time. When the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image. As a result its meaning changes” (Ways of Seeing 19).

Though, I agree that an image is extracted from a certain context of viewing, I am reluctant to degrade the image-image, especially in light of the digital. It seems more fruitful to consider how new contexts contribute, than to attribute the image-image such an overpowering absence. Though, now I fear, I might be further off track than I had intended.

Considering my lateness to this apparent race (alright, I’m starting to sound like Kanye), I will exclude the section I had entitled “Sophist Hatin’ (or, a Cry for the Sophistic System of Education in Contemporary America). I believe that Mike’s discussion of the fundamental disagreements between critical theory and philosophy suffice. Furthermore, Mike seems to be especially right in his declaration of the relevance of the Sophists to the readings that arise later in the semester. It seems that the work of Hegel and Marx will work nicely in conjunction with the discussions of economic division and class that arise in Protagoras. Namely, Protagoras’ effort to illuminate a certain class privilege inherent to education, by use of the example of the flute players (22), and his suggestion that students decide what amount to pay the sophists. This, of course, piggy-backs on Protagoras’ defense that everyone has a right to be taught, in his use of Hermes/Zeus’ distribution of shame/art-of-politics as argument.

Socrates’ Doubt

Posted in Gorgias, Jaeger, MM, Phaedrus, Protagoras, sophists, theory on January 21, 2008 by untimelymediations

Apologies in advance if this doesn’t seem up to normal standards of eloquence; I had already typed out a beautifully written and immaculately reasoned response to this week’s readings, but my connection to teh interweb went bats and I lost that draft. So, for your reading displeasure, a hastily reconstructed version of the earlier piece. I now know how Coleridge felt, by the way.

To begin:

Do I understand you, I said, and is your meaning that you teach the art of politics, and that you promise to make men good citizens?

That, Socrates, is exactly the profession which I make. [This is Protagoras speaking.]

Then, I said, you do indeed possess a noble art, if there is no mistake about this; for I will freely confess to you, Protagoras, that I have a doubt whether this art is capable of being taught, and yet I know not how to disbelieve your assertion.

Until our last meeting, I thought I might be unique in my fixation on the beef between Socrates and the sophists. As we learned last week (or as KL and I learned and JP instructed), attempts to deal with the sophists and with sophistry are hardly new; what might be the most recent revival of the sophistry is their recuperation as proto-champions of the postmodern in the work of Vitanza, Jarratt, and others. JP’s criticism of this move notwithstanding, I’d like to raise questions in response to both the beef and the recuperation, with an eye on trying to forecast some of the directions our reading this semester might take.

So: wherein lies the beef? I think the passage from the Protagoras cited above is an interesting place to start in addressing this question. Elsewhere, Socrates has been notably critical of rhetoric and of the sophists in particular. In the Gorgias, Socrates is suspicious of rhetoric’s presumably tenuous relationship with capital-T truth; the Phaedrus raises this concern again and adds to it a critique of sophistic pedagogy, aesthetic, and theology. It is in the Protagoras, though, that Socrates most explicitly critiques the promises of sophistic practice; namely, the twofold promise that sophists like Protagoras teach their students both the “art of politics” and how to be “good citizens,” that is, to be virtuous.

What Socrates’ doubt about Protagoras claims reveals is that, in essence, Socrates (and Platonists generally) and the sophists are essentially arguing at cross-purposes. Socrates’ question above betrays a (willful) misrepresentation of the sophistic promise; for his critique of the sophists to make sense, Socrates must ask the question as if politics and virtue are separate goals of the sophistic pedagogy. What is he asking Protagoras may be paraphrased as so:

Do I understand you, I said, and is your meaning that you (1) teach the art of politics, and that you (2) promise to make men good citizens?

But for the sophists and, as Jaeger argues, Greek culture generally, that distinction is not one that is readily made. As Jaeger explains,

… the Greeks in the classical era … thought that political morality and personal morality were practically identical: since the state was the sole source of all moral standards, and it was difficult to see what moral code could exist apart from the code of the state, the law of the community in which the individual lived and had his being. A purely private moral code, without reference to the state, was inconceivable to the Greeks. We must forget our idea that each individual’s acts are ruled by his conscience. (Paideia I 326)

Against the Platonist assertion that virtue was achieved through solitary pursuit of a transcendent Truth through the rigors of dialectic, the sophists taught that virtue was achieved through communal interaction using rhetoric–the divine gift necessary for the establishment and continued functioning of the polis. For Socrates and Platonism generally, rhetoric was thus, at best, a distraction from the quest for divine revelation; at worst, it mired its practitioners in the debased world of men and matter. The sophists, conversely, might have understood Platonic dialectic to be unproductive, an exercise in futility that produced no tangible results in the world of daily experience; rhetoric, on the other hand, was of immediate use, and could be deployed for the moral edification of both the individual and his community.

What this means about the sophists and sophistic rhetoric is that rhetoric is fundamentally a tool for getting along, for making one’s way through a world filled (gosh darn it!) with other people, who have plans, goals, and agendas that are not one’s own.  Rhetoric is what mandates appropriate function and action in such a world.  In short, every rhetoric is an ethics.

Now: what does this have to do with theory? I want to suggest, however tentatively, that what sophistry and theory have in common is just this interest in what makes the social work, what is necessary for a society to conduct the work of being social.  For the sophists, as we have seen, the answer is rhetoric; for Hegel, the dialectical movement of history; for Marx, the class struggle.  Of course, these examples also suggest ways that the system can be used, changed, manipulated–that is, like sophistic rhetoric, theory (or maybe Theory) outlines a way to make the social work for one’s own ends.  So, to the extent that we’re willing to accept my postulate here, we might say that theory and rhetoric are both equally about praxis as much as they are about critique.  And further, if I’m right about the connection between rhetoric and ethics, then we can also suggest some of the following implications and raise some of the following questions:

  • If rhetoric and theory are both about praxis, and if rhetoric is fundamentally an ethics, then an ethics is fundamentally a praxis as well.  I’m not sure where that gets us, but it sounds neat.  Perhaps what it suggests is that an ethical theory is sort of limited; an ethics is only valuable to the extent it can be utilized toward some productive end in the lived conditions of a given society.  Ethics, then, is kairotic.
  • Perhaps the difference between critical theory and philosophy, then, is that one asks about what makes the social work and the other asks what makes the subject work?  If (as our study this semester seeks to ask) the sophists are the forebears of critical theory, then we might rightfully expect to see a similar interest in how society works, so the connection btw the sophists and Hegel, Marx, and their heirs; what the Platonists seek to find, though, is the subject’s relationship to Truth rather than to the social–so the legacy of Plato rests with Kant and his heirs.
  • This might also explain something about why the sophists were reclaimed so quickly in the era of pomo’s golden age: to the extent that pomo and poststruct and decon and all that jazz argued for a subject built from the discursive tropes of the social, the sophists’ emphasis on the individual’s use of/by the social makes a certain amount of sense.  The question, though, is how to use the sophists without insisting that they were protopostmodern when they weren’t even pre-modern?  The sense of self or subject that comes out of reading Aristotle, the sophists, Isocrates, and Jaeger and Detienne is not necessarily the same as we understand it to be now–even if I’m not sure I could explain what it is.
  • Which raises a methodological and historiographic question: how do we recuperate the sophists or any other “lost” rhetoric or theory without necessarily, however implicitly, forcing it into our assumptions about the subject and the social?

Okay–enough for now.  McGinnis out.