The Foundations of What went Wrong

Having read the Phaedrus and the Gorgias before, I was relatively prepared for what I would find in the Protagoras and the Sophist–that being Socrates’ continuous tongue lashings of the sophists and rhetoric in general and the chanpioning of the methods of dialectic. From the Sophist’s sophist as the undefinable slippery eel to Soctrates’ lambasting of Protagoras (in hiw oh-so-very polite Socratic way), these dialogues indeed offered nothing of surprise. What stuck out to me, however, in my initial read of the Sophist and the Protagoras, and my re-reads of both the Phaedrus and the Gorgias is the emphasis on the necessity of knowing all about which you speak in order for rhetoric to be considered an art (or the rhetorician to be an artist) and the underemphasis (and I think we could say absolute disavowal of) the possibility of rhetoric as a techne, or simply the means with which the citizens of Athens could effectively address the polis. This is the most obvious I would say in Socrates’ discussion of the nature of the soul in the Phaedrus, where the Philosopher (and his method of dialectic) are able to see “truth” whereas the sophist/rhetorician is merely deluded:

For just this reason it is fair that only a philosopher’s mind grows wings, since its memory always keeps it as close as possible to those realities by being close to which the gods are divine. A man who uses reminders of these things correctly is always at the highest, most perfect level of initiation, and he is the only one who is perfect as perfect can be. (37)

If the soul reaches close enough to divinity to see the ideal truth, it remembers these things and thus becomes the highest form of humanity (the philosopher) and the sophist is relegated to the eighth place, one above the tyrant. So in order for the rhetorician to truly claim to use rhetoric artfully, he must know the nature of all things of which he speaks as well as the nature of all souls to whom he speaks. Anything else is trickery, delusion, etc.–cookery as he claims in the Gorgias–lending to the slipperiness of the ability to define the Sophist in general.

As I phrased in the title of this post, these dialogues, although they certainly go to great lengths to develop the case for philosophy and dialectic, also do much damage to rhetoric and the reputations of the sophists themselves (though this is not necessarily news). What is remarkable about Socrates’/Plato’s treatment of rhetoric and sophistry is the ingenious use of persuasive techniques. The development of an argument against rhetoric as an art and against the Sophists in general through identifiable rhetorically persuasive moves (and a plethora of logical fallacies to boot) … I find it hard to believe that Socrates knew the entire ideal truth of rhetoric and sophistry, but that can all be excused because, hey, he proved it through dialectic, right?

At any rate, it seems that, sure if you try to prove rhetoric to be an art through a Platonic ideal, you will always fall short, but when looked at as a techne (or, perhaps mere cookery) the validity of rhetoric becomes apparent, as something that can be made of use as a tool for addressing the polis.



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