Plato’s Views on Rhetoric

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According to Alfred North Whitehead, “all subsequent thought is a footnote to Plato” (qtd in Honderich 284). The importance that Whitehead ascribes to Plato is a result of Plato’s development of a philosophical system that was able to tackle issues within the fields of epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and social and political philosophy.

Although Plato did not write a systematic philosophical treatise, he was able to tackle the issues within the various fields stated above in his different dialogues as can be seen in Euthydemus, Protagoras, Phaedrus and his other works. For the purpose of this paper, the focus will be on Plato’s conception of rhetoric and how his conception of rhetoric has influenced political thought.

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Robert Wandy (1998) defines rhetoric as “the capacity to persuade others, or a practical realization of this ability, or at least, an attempt at persuasion, successful or not”. The conscious reflection on the practice of rhetoric and the debate regarding its nature and value started during the period of the Ancient Greeks. During the period of the Ancient Greeks, there was a distinction between the rhetoricians and sophists.

The former group taught techniques of persuasion whereas the later group taught general moral and political convictions. Although the sophists separated themselves from rhetoricians, they also taught rhetoric to their students on the assumption that the ability to persuade others is one of the necessary qualities of a leader. It is this conception of rhetorical skill as a necessary quality of a leader that Plato initially questions in his discussion of rhetoric. It is important to note that Plato’s works were not veered towards the discussion of rhetoric itself, the concept however was continually tackled in his works due to the sophists’ aforementioned assumption regarding the importance of rhetoric for the formation of a political leader.

Plato’s initial discussion of the concept may be found in the Euthydemus. Within the text, Socrates describes rhetoric as “the great art of enchantment which charms and pacifies large assemblies of men” (34). Socrates holds that although rhetoric may be considered as an art, it cannot be considered as a true art since there is little correspondence between those who study rhetoric and those who practice it. Such a view of rhetoric however changed within the Protagoras.

Within the text, Socrates argues that although a speaker’s rhetorical skills may persuade the audience, such a skill is not significant in the outcome of a dialogue and as such rhetorical skill is not a necessary skill in the pursuit of knowledge. Socrates states, “It (rhetorical skills) cannot give any account of the nature of the things it offers . . . and so (it) cannot explain the reason why it is offered” (Protagoras 55). Plato’s conception of rhetoric however changes in the Phaedrus. Within the text, Plato differentiates true rhetoric from false rhetoric. He argues that it is not necessarily the practice of rhetoric which is bad but it is the practice of rhetoric shamefully or badly which leads to the art’s denunciation (Phaedrus 23).

He argues that in order to become a true rhetorician, it is necessary for an individual to have innate abilities, knowledge, as well as practice of the art (Phaedrus 33). He states, “All great arts demand discussion and high speculation about nature; for this loftiness of mind and effectiveness in all directions seem somehow to come from such pursuits” (Phaedrus 33). True rhetoric, in this sense, involves the continuous pursuit of knowledge and hence within the context of Plato’s philosophy the continuous pursuit of the good. Plato however delineates the importance of rhetoric to the public sphere as he equates it to public and political discourse addressed to the people.

He claims, Rhetoric in its entire nature, an art which leads the soul by means of words, not only in law courts and the various other public assemblages, but in private companies as well. It is not the same when concerned with small things as with great, and properly speaking, no more to be esteemed in important than in trifling matters. (Phaedrus 25)

Plato’s delineation of rhetoric to the public sphere is thereby evident since the importance of rhetoric lies in how it influences the soul through the use of words of persuasion in the formation of opinion. It is important to note that Plato differentiates knowledge from opinion. The attainment of knowledge as it is related to the attainment of ‘the good’ stands as the ultimate goal of human existence. Although knowledge is deemed to be more important than opinion, the later if practiced with the goal of attaining the former will enable the creation of an oral culture maintained by both values and wisdom. The creation of such a culture will be enabled by the practice of true rhetoric in the public sphere according to Plato.

The importance of Plato’s conception of rhetoric in the aforementioned works stems from its ability to provide us with a written account of the importance of rhetoric in the practice of politics during the period of the Ancient Greeks. In addition to this, one might note that Plato stands as the initiator of the discussion on the subject. It was through his works that Isocrates and Aristotle responded to and it was through the works of these individuals that the later scholars on the topic responded to as well.

As opposed to Isocrates’ conception of Plato’s view of rhetoric as enabling the continuous anarchic condition in Ancient Greece during that period, Plato’s view of rhetoric may be seen as enabling the formation of a democratic institution. It may be argued the Plato’s political philosophy opted for a form of anarchic condition wherein the philosopher-king stands as the sole ruler of the people however given that Plato places importance on the value of rhetoric in dialogue it may be noted that such an anarchic state may be overcome as a result of the political growth of a particular civilization due to its practice of dialogue.

In relation to this, the importance of Plato’s discussion on rhetoric to our times may be seen in how Plato’s discussions enables us to see the difference between political propaganda as well political views that are merely characterized by verbosity and panache as opposed to political views that present a clear and rational account of the view that they adhere to. One might note that Plato provides us with the primary standards for assessing the political views of our time as he places emphasis on the necessity to practice both rationality and clear thinking in the assessment of political beliefs.

Works Cited

  1. Honderich, Ted. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1995.
  2. Plato. Euthydemus. Trans. Edwin Gifford. Np: Forgotten Books, 2005.
  3.  “Excerpts from Phaedrus”. Readings in Classical Rhetoric. Eds. Thomas Benson and Michael Prosser. Np: Hermagoras P., 1996.
  4. Protagoras. Trans. C.C. Taylor. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2002.
  5. Wandy, Robert. The Birth of Rhetoric: Gorgias, Plato and Their Successors. London: Routledge, 1998.

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