three rhetoricians walk into a bar

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.]


One Response to “three rhetoricians walk into a bar”

  1. I… LOVE… IT!!!!!! This is both true and at the same time, stinking hilarious! Wow, I love it. Hey, if you want, we can exchange links? My blog(still in progress but more speeches being added everyday) is a collection of history’s most important/famous speeches. Please check it out and get back with me on the linking question, if you want to. Thank you for your time and for a HILARIOUS post!

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