Plato’s Views on Rhetoric

I.                     Plato’s Views on Rhetoric

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

II.                   Rhetoric and Knowledge in Reference to “I Have a  Dream”

On the 28th of August 1963, the great leader of the African American people, a legend of American history, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the appeal to freedom heard around the world; As stunning as his words were, as clairvoyant as they later became.  There is yet a bitter taste as in application of Plato the persuasive must constantly remind of the open system of new knowledge and a higher truth or beauty.

Upon closer reference to the speech itself one senses both its ardent vitality and yet recognizes the danger of rhetoric as purely a tool of persuasiveness.  The first paragraph sounds like a wonderful declaration but is basely a lie.  “Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the emancipation proclamation.  This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.  It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”  While this sounds great, using devices such as the shattering of darkness and bondage into the angelic glow of light.  It does not make sense at all, when rhetoric itself is proclaimed to be a lie, when the words of the emancipation did not free the slaves though legally they were free.  It is suspicious to say that the black Americans are still not free due to invisible chains like discrimination; As especially when discrimination was more blatantly applied to black Americans but many such as Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglas rose to ranks of prominence and national points of pride.

        Furthermore, since Martin Luther King is speaking to so many, at the Lincoln Memorial, were black people so languishing when their leader spoke mightily on one of the most sacred sites in America?  Since Martin Luther would himself classify himself as a Negro, allegedly unless he made a case for mixed breeding, also justifiable but which would intrude surely on his status of negro; Then furthermore on his status as Negro leader talking for all the “Negro [who] lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”        John Donne famously said that no man is an island unto himself and in this case Martin Luther is surrounded by people appealing to his words and strength.  Unless people are animistic trees on his island, it is clearly an island.

        Also, if black people at that time were so badly off why then did segregation produce the greatest black leader of all time, Martin Luther King?  If things were so bad would not every Negro or Black be on some procrustean bed of poverty, misery, and living in a desolate valley with no light to burn for reassurance?  Also when Germanic immigrants were living at that time in the appalachias and living in conditions almost from the dark ages dying of coal lung, over-exhaustion, and childbearing, is ‘a bad life’ the fault or reason of being black.  Or furthermore of being black enough to talk to a crowd in the light of the Lincoln memorial with inspirational words.  If suffering people is enough to get you up there why is the Appalachian miner with cracked feet for no shoes, a cornpipe, and little life left not giving the speech for the ‘oppressed, the coal lung stricken’ the ‘miners giving others coal to burn but stowing away twigs for a meager fire?’

        While justice has certainly not been done for the black and miserable or the miner listening to sad songs and playing a  banjo to try to wrench himself from the reality of bad material conditions and dying from a coal lung.  Certainly there is room for progress but it is not all that convincing or credible for Martin Luther in tailored suit, well-fed, without a coal-lung to talk authentically about suffering when many of the truly suffering stay silent in brutal toil and wrenching conditions.

        When the “palaces of justice” in Martin Luther’s speech may be the palaces of tyranny in Hussein’s age of UNICEF money turned into palaces and largess only for himself.  While Martin Luther’s speech is majestic, its florid vitality is dangerous as conditions for most black people worsened after emancipation and further worsened after the ‘civil-rights movement.’  In the work of William Julius Massey, there is told the sad state of affairs after freedom was won again, the crack ghettos, the grotesque mutilations and the private shame.

III.                 The main point of my paper is that readers should look outside the document itself as the skilled rhetorician is so persuasive there are so many referents within a document that a web is spun to catch the reader thoroughly.  Logic is an impersonal and godlike instrument that should be skillfully and carefully applied to the suspicious but glorious or ardent dream.

Much injustice still reigns in this world, hopefully after the machinations of men the austere and pious glare of true thinkers in pursuit of the beauty and the good will have their say as well.  Probably not in the Lincoln Memorial but in far more modest places like the pizza parlor, skating rink, leaky classroom, or lousy dorm room;  The world is very complicated and all are suffering, but it is not enough to talk in florid sentiments of it.  When it hits you, rainbow parades and violet days are not realistic, language changes and the audience can feel it.  That stricken by the terror of threats, death, a denial of the ludicrously lyrical is just too sad to even be attempted in any strain of seriousness or upon any true faith in truth and justice.

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