Archive for the Isocrates Category

What About Dolphins? or The Art of Distinction

Posted in difference, DR, genealogy, Isocrates, rhetoric on February 5, 2008 by untimelymediations

Considering that I already posted previously, I’ll attempt to keep this post as concise as possible (keyword: “attempt”).  In any event, as I read my notes on Antidosis, I am reminded that Isocrates initiates his discourse by differentiating between humans and animals.  Here, he provides that humans are superior as a result of a certain discursive capacity.  According to Isocrates, our ability to speak, moreover, our ability to speak well, equips us with the ability to build and maintain civilizations.  Though I could provide a lengthy refutation to this hierarchy, it seems as though the title will suffice (In any event, Professor Pruchnic will know exactly where I am coming from.  That’s all that really matters, right? jk).  

(The Filth) 

Though this seems a rather trivial point of consideration, I believe there is some merit in examining similar concerns in each text.  This concern, following on the previous example, is that of distinction.  Each author seems entirely preoccupied with one distinction or another.  Just consider Plato’s frustrations with the Sophists.

Although an element of distinction operates in most texts of this nature, today’s conversation with Professor Pruchnic encourages some fruitful questions.  Specifically, Jeff addressed a series of texts that operate on rather simplistic distinctions.  Such texts provide distinctions without any apparent import; without attempting, for example, to use such distinctions to propel change.  This is the difference, as Pruchnic suggested, between historicizing and providing a genealogy.  The question becomes, why then is it so entirely significant that Isocrates initiate his discourse by providing the human a position of superiority?  Is this an effort to draw attention to the discursive strategies that he will soon use (noting that he emphasized the capacity to speak)?  Does this serve any function at all?

On another level, it seems important that as we read these texts, we avoid simply distinguishing between the movements of the past, and the rhethorical strategies employed in more contemporary contexts.  For, this is the crucial difference between simply providing a history of transition, and reading these transitions in the context of a useful genealogy.  Where did this come from?   vs.  How is this different?  What does it matter? And, how can it be used?  Use being of the upmost significance here.  Anyways, this is what I am considering at the moment.

Super Response for Super Tuesday

Posted in Ambiguity, Hegel, Isocrates, Jaeger, KL, Marx, rhetoric, sophists on February 4, 2008 by untimelymediations

(Before this post begins, I’ve noticed that my blog apparently has spontaneously combusted—I’ll update the link on the right as soon as I start a new one/the old one un-combusts.)

In writing this response, I fully understand the risk of my sounding slightly morose and vulgar.  Over the weekend I was submerged in funeral planning, although as a good academic, I related the experience of death back to philosophy and rhetoric.  I have been overhearing the same conversations, individuals repeating the same apologies for the loss, the same condolences.  Derek mentioned in his post that the lexicon of the Presidential campaign is rather ambiguous, and so, too, is the lexicon of grief.  In “To Niocles,” Isocrates reinforces the notion (contra Hegel’s small “n” notion) that in speaking and ruling, one should constantly think of the masses, to “take thought for the common people, and do everything to rule them in a way that pleases them” (161).  Listening to friends and family react to death, people are very hesitant to specify anything—they are offering their apologies to comfort the masses in a way that I do not see comforting whatsoever.  (Ya know, all the “I’m so sorry for your loss”-es, “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know”-s, and the ever popular “She’s in a better place now”-s.)  But, we are all guilty of this, as we have all been in these situations where rhetoric does not suffice, so we revert to the same, ordinary phrases.  There is nothing we can say that will please the masses (in this situation, those closest to the dead), nothing that will release their pain of loss.  So, while I find Isocrates’ insistence on moderate and blanketed speech troublesome (in the same, ambiguous manner as “American family” and “tyranny” are supposed to ‘mean’ the same thing for everyone), perhaps Isocrates is right.  Since, according to Isocrates, we should not aim to please one group over another perhaps the sameness of condolences appear sufficient when one is in funeral-mode.
So maybe this funeral experience is the perfect example of Sophistry, that everyone coming and going, dropping off food, sharing their memories and condolences represents the “selfish selflessness”—they are doing these things not to make the family feel any better, but that it ultimately makes the giver feel like a better person.  Someone dying of cancer is much different than someone dying in a car accident—the family has known her that death was imminent for sometime now, and her monthly decay was somewhat preparing everyone for this weekend.  However, there are friends (some from whom the family has not heard in more than an decade) stopping by to say hello.  It’s funny because they all seem to say, “we knew she had cancer, but we didn’t know it was that bad.”  These statements lead me to believe that they are not stopping by to comfort the family, but rather that they are simply pretending to care, and hoping that all their lasagna and lunch meat will make the family feel better.  Actually, it seems that one offers such gifts so that there is a personal/selfish return—in effect the giver feels better knowing that s/he has given rather than how the family feels about receiving the gift (here seems to be the perfect space for Derrida, but that’s next week!).

Now, I would like to set aside all the “funeral talk” and focus on Marx and Hegel’s writing on the Greeks, placing particular attention on the individual verses the collective good or gain.  As Jaeger notes of Isocrates’ “Niocles”:

“The better should not be ruled by the worse, nor the wise be governed by the foolish.  In association with others that means that the prince must criticize the bad and vie with the good.  The essential thing is that he who wants to rule over others must apply that principle to himself, and be able to justify his position by his own true superiority to them all” (96).

For the Sophist, being concerned firstly and ultimately with himself is the means to pleasing the masses.  By “applying that principle to himself,” the Sophist can neither be the brunt of criticism, nor can he be the critic, since he is no different from everyone else.  By always thinking primarily of the individual, the Sophist’s best intentions are, in a roundabout way, the masses.

Hegel maintains that the differences between the Platonists/Socratics verses the Sophists lies in the emphasis placed on the individual.  We can see this divide in the following passages:

“The mission of Socrates was to express the beautiful, good, true, and right, as the end aim of the individual, while with the Sophists the content was not present as an ultimate end, so that all this was left to the individual will”

“[For the Sophists], the Notion of the thing as determined in and for itself; for it brings forward external reasons through which right and wrong, utility and harmfulness, are distinguished.  To Plato and Socrates, on the other hand, the main point is that the nature of the conditions should be considered, and that the Notion of the thing in and for itself should become evolved” (366-367).

(Okay, I have to run off again, but I plan to connect the individual aims of Sophistry to the modes of production discussed in The German Ideology.  I will finish this post later, fully understanding the risk of ridicule for having an incomplete post.)

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.]

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.