Into the Gray: Resurrecting Plato in the (Long) History of Rhetoric
“The history of rhetoric” is and always has been a history(ies) composed of inadequate simplifications, of gross and destructive substitutions and easy answers, of early forecasts in uncertain clouds. Indeed, re-writing “the history” has become a favorite pastime of rhetoric scholars. Foremothers and forefathers like Susan Jarratt, Victor Vitanza and George Kennedy have spawned what amounts to an entire subdiscipline of diversifying and pluralizing the history. Rhetoric has never been what we label it when we refer to it in passing. It has never been simple. It has never been square. It has never been easy, black or white. It has always been murky, misty, gray. It has always been shrouded, shrouding. It has always been cloudy. Gray. And if you’re waiting for me to shine a light on all of this darkness, I’m going to leave you disappointed. In fact, I’m going to throw a lampshade over it and let things be gray.
One of troubles I’ve always had with writing on a blog such as this one, which blends a professional website with that of a young, budding scholar-teacher, is that while it is quite easy to begin a conversation here, and it is quite productive to explore here, it is nearly impossible to finish a conversation in the extremely-limited space the medium-genre of the academic blog affords. With this in mind, let’s take a moment to observe two key aspects of the following conversation that will set parameters for what we can expect to be gleaned, and even more importantly, how this bit of writing can be useful and constructive in larger conversations.
Firstly, the impossibility of re-surrecting Plato in the histor(ies) of rhetorike is an unnecessary feat, and I will not attempt to definitively do so here. Plato is a writer and thinker full of complicated ideas that are bandied about and referenced so often they’ve become tired, lame, sometimes pale and lifeless. No modern writer can utter the statement “we’ve misunderstood Plato” without receiving chuckles from her audience; of course we have. Obviously. The dominant form of understanding, postulated by Kennedy and most other historians of rhetoric, is that while Plato disparaged rhetoric throughout his corpus of writings and dialogues, he was an excellent practitioner of the very art he goes so far out of his way to discredit. We must set aside these dominant understandings, these (in)grained modes of thinking and articulating, and instead stretch our collective perspectives beyond the black and white and into the gray. We must not let our understandings of classical rhetorics be weighed down by the need, nay, the wish to classify definitively. Well, let’s not classify definitively. Let’s juggle this one and not strangle it through grasping quite yet. Let’s leave this one up the air.
Second, lets accept (temporarily, momentarily, while the conversation is still mid-air) that there exists a homogeneous body of criticism on this subject that we can refer to as the “dominant” understanding of Plato’s conception of rhetoric. There isn’t. But let’s let that one go for the moment. When we consider the dominant view of Plato’s treatment(s) of rhetoric, we typically cite the two dialogues Plato wrote so illustratively and persuasively: the Gorgias and the Phaedrus. In the Gorgias, Plato levels characteristic charges against rhetoric through its exemplar, Plato’s foil in this case, the Sophist Gorgias. Plato’s mouthpiece Socrates tells Gorgias his art is a knack, something developed through experience, rather than a techne, a craft which can sustain itself through rational accounting of its procedures and which can therefore be taught (27). Socrates levels the claim that rhetoric inherently forgoes inclusion of legitimate knowledge, instead aiming its usage toward simply overpowering and outmaneuvering within arguments to win power. Likewise, in the later dialogue the Phaedrus, Plato writes to the young Phaedrus to “not believe their [the Sophists’] claim that they write scientifically” and that the tools of speaking persuasively and convincing others could easily fall into the wrong hands, resulting in any range of unethical outcomes (57). In summary, Plato levels prominent yet precise criticism against rhetoric, most of which revolve around its supposed inability to include an ethical dimension.
What I’d like to say, my central point, my conjecture, is that our dominant understandings of Plato’s treatment of rhetoric fail to consider how deeply Plato wanted more from rhetorike, his own word according to Thomas Rickert, so much more than what he saw in front of him in his particular historical circumstances. The key to understanding Plato’s view of rhetoric, and we’ll leave his criticisms of the medium of writing for another day (being an entirely separate conversation), is to grasp fully and thoroughly that when Plato wrote against rhetoric, he wrote against rhetoric as he encountered it in fourth-century Athens, and we must consider that he understood rhetoric within very narrow parameters that we moderns would typically not assign or agree with. Rhetoric was not available as a discipline at the time; disciplinarity itself originated with Plato’s student Aristotle, with this idea being apparently unfamiliar to Plato as well.
Plato writes against rhetoric as he understood it, but he never denigrates it, never besmirches it, never vilifies it as a distinct entity. It seems we as scholars are guilty of sometimes confusing the censure and castigation of the behaviors of specific rhetoricians with with censure and castigation of their apparent discipline in its entirety. Reading Plato, it is clear we must sometimes read between the lines and infer intent in places where it is not explicitly stated. When we allow ourselves to do this, a compelling question emerges that becomes key to our understanding of rhetoric’s Platonic relation: if Plato was so unsatisfied with the practice of rhetoric in his day, what, then, did he wish for rhetoric to be? What is it that Plato wants from rhetoric? And why can he not resuscitate his understanding of a concept he understands so intimately and is such an astute practitioner of?
The answer is that Plato’s condemnation of rhetoric was never a firm one. In fact, he seems to have such aspirational hopes for rhetoric’s potential that he cannot bring himself to let it exist idly in what he considered a flawed, critiqued and in many senses dangerous state.
A brief passage from the Gorgias seems to answer the question what did Plato want for rhetorike? It comes to us after Plato has thoroughly outmaneuvered the Gorgias-cutout character he constructs to provide a flat, uninspired outline of rhetoric in the dialogue’s opening chapters, after which Plato begins to slowly outline his vision for an acceptable, virtuous, principled rhetoric. He questions his contemporary Callicles on oratory, the dominant historical mode for rhetorical expression in fourth century Athens:
“Then our orator, the good man of expert knowledge, will have these ends in view in any speech or action by which he seeks to influence the souls of men, in any gift which he may confer, and in any privation which he may inflict; he will always have his mind on how to bring justice and moderation and every other virtue to birth in the souls of his fellow-citizens, and on removing their opposites, injustices and excess and vice. Do you agree or not?” (100; my emphasis).
As characters on the wrong end of Platonic dialogues tend to do, Callicles concedes agreement. The passage surfaces two important facts. First, Plato’s criticism of rhetoric has never been about its designs and its postulations, but rather about its aims, its ethics, and its practice by specific people in specific contexts. Second, Plato’s treatments of rhetoric in the Gorgias are partially accusatory and censorious, but are also partially aspirational and ambitious for the capabilities of the humane, virtuous wielder of robust rhetorical tools. Plato’s version of the ideal orator, of the ideal rhetorician, answers his criticisms that have become so tired in their repetitions and reincarnations throughout the years.
It is too brief an analysis here to resuscitate Plato in the hi-story(ies) of rhetoric, but it is my hope to have at least provided a perspective, a line of questioning in lieu of addressing all of those questions in some longer work, a path that others will of course pave over to make a road.
Plato outlines chiefly in the Gorgias and briefly in the Phaedrus a vision for the ideal rhetorician that the fields of rhetoric and composition have long failed to consider in a fully-fleshed out manner. In this discussion, we’ve neglected the epistemic dimension to this discussion, ie. rhetoric’s ability to contain and articulate knowledge, but the chief issue of Plato’s is rhetoric’s capabilities in senses of ethics and in terms of its social impact. We cannot and should not simply dismiss Plato’s views of rhetoric as “negative” and “dismissive.” To do so insults not only our vigor and endurance as scholars, but our ability to defend our disciplinary apparatus as well. My proposition is a simple one: let’s accept the gray area and explain to our valued listeners that Plato’s dismissal of rhetoric is a superficial one at best. Let’s step into the fog, the gray fog, and show them the moments of Plato’s longing for the ideal philosophically-minded, ethical orator. Let’s show them the Gorgias and the Phaedrus. Let’s step into the mist and not leave it for a while. Let’s not impose simple answers. Let’s bask in the gray, and let’s consider rhetorike.
Next up, I’ll post an abstract I’m submitting to the 2019 Alabama English Symposium regarding a potential conference proposal. This year’s theme is “Digital Rhetoric/Digital Media in the Post-Truth Age.” The subject of the talk I’m proposing? Heidegger, information literacy and the “UnConcealed.”
Thomas Rickert. “Parmenides, Ontological Enaction, and the Prehistory of Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric. 2014.
Plato. “Gorgias.” Penguin Classics.
Plato. “Phaedrus.” Penguin Classics.