Rhetorical Strategies, the Schism, and “To Nicoles”

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. 

Derek

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