Probing Democracy: Gorgias, Public Rhetoric and the Electrate Polus

Despite a frustrating lack of any palpable challenge to Socrates’ naive, limited essentialism, Plato’s Gorgias is of undeniable interest to any rhetorician even beyond the explicit discussion of oratory and sophistry contained in its opening discussion. The dialogue is well known in composition and rhetoric for its inaugural debate in which Socrates utilizes his famed method of questioning to outwit the well-known and likable orator Gorgias, who is not accustomed to Socratic questioning. Gorgias, in this case, serves metonymically to represent long, formal speeches, the Greek rhesis, which do not invite challenge or resistance and therefore draw the ire of Socrates. Gorgias fails to defend his chosen oratory form, much to Socrates’ delight, and finally caves upon a fatal admission to Socrates’ typical display of ironic politeness. A second orator, the young Athenian Polus, fairs a little better at first but soon falls victim to a similar exercise as Gorgias. Polus’ agreement after a long series of sequential, carefully coordinated questions that it is worse to do wrong than to suffer wrong directly contradicts earlier assertions he’d made, effectively ending that branch of the dialogue. Polus, despite combatting Socrates’ subtle onslaught for a few blows, bows to the elder philosopher and concedes that, despite his earlier beliefs, it seems that it is better to suffer a wrong than to commit one. Whether the Socratic method produces actual truth rather than simply ironing out consistency of belief in an isolated setting is a question not quite relevent here, but it nonetheless certainly merits future discussion. The dialogue largely abandons explicit discussions of oration and rhetoric at this point, though frequent references by Socrates to the meta-components of the conversations corral the attention of anyone reading with a rhetorical lens.

Rounding out the Gorgias is a final exchange between Socrates and a new challenger, the even younger Athenian politician Callicles. Proving himself far more well-equipped to protest Socrates’ rather predictable methods of reasoning, Callicles mounts a hostile and borderline aggressive assault on Socrates’ chosen discipline of philosphy. In particular, Callicles targets his opposition on Plato’s understanding of fair, productive argumentation, accusing him of cornering Polus in their earlier discussion between a winning argumentative position and public shame. The implication here is that Socrates hadn’t conducted the argument here on even, fair grounds, but rather had taken advantage of Polus’ need to be accepted by his fellow members of society, a need never particularly meaningful to Socrates. In Callicles’ estimation, Socrates’ great advantage over Polus is his social indifference, his estrangement from the public sphere of intellectual life, his withdrawal into isolated philosophical meandering. Ever the spirited pragmatist, Callicles accuses Socrates of forgetting how others in society behave, of overlooking the will and mood of society in favor of naive idealism, of prioritizing idealism over concrete reality. This is a crucial moment in Plato in which the topic of democracy begins to be probed– quite valuably to the present moment, I argue. Callicles follows Polus by suggesting that it is better in a democracy to be popular than to be wise, thoughtful, educated or particularly ethical. Here’s where things get sticky.

First, let’s be careful not to view this short blog post as an attack on democracy as an institution or as a political method. Obviously, that’s not the point of this short exploration. Rather, as the title suggests, it’s meant to probe democracy, to explore it from a new angle. Socrates certainly would agree that successful functioning of a democratic  society requires the citizens maintaining it to be its custodians– to care about it enough to critique it, to examine and analyze it, to fix it when it requires maintenance. Like an old motorcycle (I revisited Pirsig’s philosophical novel last night, so this metaphor has latched itself into my mind), democracy needs to be kept in tune, re-dialed on occasion, measured and calibrated accordingly. Quite unlike Plato, Socrates and Callicles, we inhabit an era in which much of the population consumes its news via Twitter, in which the public sphere is increasingly an exercise of public digital performance. Russian operatives hacked our social web information streams, thousands of voters reading articles deliberately crafted to stoke tensions based on race, culture and difference. Countless “culture wars” rage at the present moment: the vice president walking out on a National Football League game in a coordinated, rehearsed effort after players took a knee on the field to protest police violence against persons of color; the culture clash over gun rights and ownership; the battle over whether news organizations should have the freedom to print information the executive branch considers “fake news,” frankly astounding in its dystopian, Orwellian tremors.

Democracy, when it comes to the social web sphere, is enacted in complex rhetorical situations that merit a lifetime of further examination and probing.

It is important here to acknowledge neither Plato nor Socrates to be defenders of our conventional modern notions of democracy. Indeed, it seems to me that Plato is just as much a believer in authoritarianism as either Callicles or Polus, though with radical differences in their definitions of right to rule and of the responsibility of rulers to their subjects. Callicles’ principle quarrel with Socrates turns out to be his supreme belief in “might is right,” that those with strength, courage, power and privilege are tasked with ruling fully and completely over the “weaklings” of society. He refers to a myth of Hercules in which the hero steals cattle from Geryon without paying for them, positing that it is the way of nature for the “weaker and inferior” to give way to the “man who is better and superior.” It is important here not to disregard the gender power conceptions not mentioned; equally absent is much discussion of the complexities of what is meant by “superior” or “better” in regards to the process of determining public policy. Plato’s conception of autocracy is quite the opposite of that affirmed by Callicles. He expounds upon an ideal philosopher-king that would act always to further the more virtuous interests of society, detailing a ruler who would not only possess the major virtues of Socratic areté (discipline, justice, reverence and courage) but would also educate the general public on them, including encouraging the average active political citizen to replicate them in everyday life, therefore generating a better society at the level of the individual. The social emphasis placed upon civics as a rung on the ladder of active democracy in the Greece of Plato’s time has, my argument goes, been eroded as well as warped by the processes enacted in our current era, especially within democracy as it appears on the social web.

Polus and Callicles are distinguished from Socrates principally by their commitment to public life in the Athens of their day. Both consider themselves members of the (all-male) public body ruling the city, and avoid anything more than minor deviations from conventional, commonsense wisdom, something Socrates spends his entire body of philosophical work railing against. It is here that I’d like to transition the various arguments enacted by Plato and his characters into a discussion of extreme import to modern political life- Twitter and the larger social web. While Plato and Socrates were extremely critical of the Athens of their day, they would undoubtably be stupefied and dismayed by modern politics and its penchant to pandering, extravagance and self-gratification. When a Twitter account has the universally-acknowledged power to provoke nuclear war, as has nearly been the case recently, we as rhetoricians are spurred toward an analysis of the various rhetorical situations that account creates and responds to. As a politician frequently concerned with the television ratings he garners, Donald Trump is undoubtably well-versed in checking the metadata associated with his Twitter account, including the likes, responses, ReTweets and media uproar each garners.  We must ask ourselves: what is his primary motivation, or purpose, when utilizing the rhetorical power contained in his Twitter account? Would it square with the duties of rules outlined in the Gorgias?

The human-tool interaction that occurs at the site of the tweet and Twitter like is a complex negotiation inside of a rhetorical situation that, similar to the arguments made by Polus and Callicles, encroaches into dimensions pertaining  directly to political pandering, for gratifying an audience rather than leading it, and to the ideal philosopher-ruler envisioned by Socrates and Plato. Socrates warns the citizens of Athens to be careful not to have “purchased political power at the cost of all we hold dear.” Undoubtably, modern political functioning is fine-tuned to appeal to the widest possible audience. Specifically, the relevance reflected by Twitter metadata is of extreme importance to this discussion.

Acts of democracy are increasingly performed on social web spaces such as Twitter. The issues plaguing democratic functioning throughout history, ie. blind, angry, oftentimes xenophobic and hate-driven populism, tend to fester when education in civics and citizenship is eroded and corroded. Composition’s role is clear here moving forward. I would like to revive Linda Adler-Kassner’s call for an activist WPA, as well as to forward Scott Sundevall and Katherine Fredlund’s recent endeavor in Composition Forum to teach critical media literacy and responsible citizenship through writing curricula. Sundevall and Fredlund call for student-citizens capable of participating and challenging the society they live in, a necessary function within democracies both in Athens and in the contemporary global moment. Nathaniel Rivers and Ryan Weber have recently called in the pages of College Composition and Communication for public writing pedagogies that expand the scope of rhetorical action as emerging “through a complex ecology of texts, writers, readers, institutions, objects, and history,” part of which should in my contention include considerations of student roles as actors in web 2.0 democratic spaces. Can we teach students to be responsible digital citizens in spaces like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, places where democracy is enacted each and every day?

Lastly, I’d like to propose public writing within composition courses as a possible anecdote to the modern-day manifestation of the same problems Plato outlines in the Gorgias, including asking students to take on a role of public rhetor who must think and act for the public benefit rather than simply pandering to instructor evaluation wishes within a course experience functioning as an echo chamber, gratifying active rhetorical actors rather than educating, challenging or enlightening them. The future of democracy hangs in the balance. What will democracy look like in the future? How can we ensure its survival through teaching responsible rhetorical action to its citizens?

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