History of Rhetoric, Weeks 8-12: Cicero, Quintilian, and the Roman tradition

As we move from ancient Greece to Rome, we see a number of shifts in how rhetoric is talked about and taught. While ancient Athenian rhetoric’s value was debated for its ability to have citizens participate in civic life, Roman rhetoric was oriented more towards the administration of the empire. While both applications of rhetoric would hope to be practiced virtuously, the Romans give much greater attention to figuring out the nuts and bolts of rhetoric. Many texts on rhetoric were written during this period, usually with the tone of a “how-to” guide for constructing and delivering speeches. While reading through Cicero, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, and later contributors who build on concepts such as stasis theory or the canons of rhetoric, my overall impression of this period was that while rhetoric enjoyed further proliferation and circulation, the actual movement forward of the field tended to be minute from text to text; writing a new handbook of rhetoric mostly meant adding a step or two to an existing process for writing and delivering a speech, for example, or defining an additional few levels of stasis theory, or distinguishing different contexts in which one might give a speech of praise. In practically every case, each subsequent text adds to and complicates previous rhetoricians’ work, rather than simplifying it. All this had the effect of making the Romans a bit of a blur to me, honestly, with their preoccupation with procedure and minutiae.

I feel bad giving such short and general shrift to the great Cicero and other founders of rhetoric, but things didn’t really start getting interesting for me with the Romans until we hit Quintilian. I felt an incredible kinship with Quintilian, who in the Institutes of Oratory seems to be looking for a balance between rhetorical theory, practice, and pedagogy. He’s one of the first rhetoricians to be writing in continuity with a tradition that was influenced by the likes of Cicero and Isocrates, while also attempting to push rhetoric in different directions.

I’ll admit, some of my affinity for Quintilian might also be the circumstances under which I was reading him – it was the night of November 8th, 2016, sitting in my kitchen reading about how Quintilian was writing and thinking about rhetoric’s importance in the decline of the empire, while the results of the US presidential election were being reported on in the background. In Quintilian’s time, rhetoric had become even further diminished and changed from earlier conceptions, so that it was now seen mostly as a tool for training future administrators and magistrates of the empire. While rhetoric enjoyed imperial endowments that allowed it to continue, it was being put to more and more instrumental ends and becoming less and less about empowering individual citizens to participate in civic life. This is the state of affairs in which Quintilian was working, but also, I think, hoping to push back against. Rhetoric as a course of study was to be a lifelong endeavor, under Quintilian’s proposed system of rhetorical education; boys were to be sent to a teacher as soon as he “shall have attained such proficiency in his studies as to be able to comprehend what we have called the first precepts of the teachers of rhetoric.”  The study of rhetoric would foster the culture of a family, with a relationship akin to a parent and child existing between the teacher and student – students would “love their tutors not less than their studies, and regard them as parents, not indeed of their bodies, but of their minds.”

Quintilian’s model of education stresses the need for doing that also allows for reflection. Rhetoric is not simply the ability to speak – responding to Aristotle’s claim that oratory, as a practice that everyone engages in, precedes art, that then it is not an art itself, Quintilian writes: “Everything which art has brought to perfection had its origin in nature […] So if any kind of speaking whatever is to be called oratory, I will admit that oratory existed before it was an art; but if every one that speaks is not an orator, and if men in early times did not speak as orators, our reasoners must confess that an orator is formed by art, and did not exist before art.” Further, Quintilian defends rhetoric as a virtue, and it is traditionally from Quintilian that we receive the definition of rhetoric as “a good man speaking well.” As the importance of eloquence becomes elaborated in Cicero and the Roman rhetoricians, Quintilian again links the ability to speak well with a virtuous character, describing “the true dignity of eloquence.”

Going forward, the relationship between rhetoric and virtuous character will return to prominence as Christianity begins to adopt and create its own rhetorical practices. Join us next time as we elide centuries of Church history!


History of Rhetoric, Weeks 5-7: Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” book 1 & Isocrates’ “Against the Sophists” and “Antidosis”

Because of my tardiness in reporting on these readings, we’ll be grouping the remaining texts of the semester into thematic groups. This week, we combine a few key readings under the heading of Plato’s successors and two major Greek traditions of rhetoric that flourished after Plato: Aristotle and Isocrates. My same disclaimer from the end of the previous post applies here and going forward – while there is much richness to explore in each of these texts, time constraints unfortunately won’t allow me to develop much more than general impressions and suggestions for further inquiries. With that said, onward to general impressions and suggestions!

Any discussion of rhetoric is bound to circle back, at some point, to Aristotle and his exhaustive cataloguing of the discipline’s capacities. While many before and after him define rhetoric simply as the art of persuasion, Aristotle’s own definition is significantly more nuanced than that. Instead, Aristotle writes that:

“The duty of rhetoric is to deal with such matters as we deliberate upon without arts or systems to guide us, in the hearing of persons who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument, or follow a long chain of reasoning. The subjects of our deliberation are such as seem to present us with alternative possibilities: about things that could not have been, and cannot now or in the future be, other than they are, nobody who takes them to be of this nature wastes his time in deliberation.”

Under this conception, rhetoric is a guide and aid to public good. Aristotle, that polymath whose own works and interests touch on so many areas in philosophy, science, the arts, and more, somewhat sidesteps Plato’s problem of the rhetorician not being knowledgeable in the areas about which she or he speaks. Instead, for Aristotle, the rhetorician works in concert with experts to bring their knowledge to the public – for example, the rhetorician could be an aid to the doctor in persuading the patient to accept the medicine and treatment being offered.

Within the above definition, the other striking feature is that rhetoric and deliberation only deal with things that can be changed; the “alternative possibilities” that Aristotle alludes to are echoed by Poulakos’ claim that rhetoric moves from the actual to the possible. However, I have to wonder – once we get into more contemporary theories of representation and being, in which experience is mediated, doesn’t this in turn increase rhetoric’s domain? Aristotle is very clear on wanting to delimit rhetoric’s scope, as he further writes:

“Rhetoric has been given a far wider subject-matter than strictly belongs to it. The truth is, that rhetoric is a combination of the science of logic and of the ethical branch of politics. But the more we try to make either dialectic or rhetoric not, what they really are, practical faculties, but sciences, the more we shall inadvertently be destroying their true nature; for we shall be re-fashioning them and shall be passing into the region of sciences dealing with definite subjects rather than simply with words and forms of reasoning.”

There seems to be a tension here, between the theory and practice of rhetoric. I found Christian Lundberg’s article “Letting Rhetoric Be: On Rhetoric and Rhetoricity” to be particularly useful here. Rather than translate Aristotle’s famous definition as “Rhetoric is…”, Lundberg instead advances a translation that figures the passage as “Let rhetoric be defined as…” This different figuration emphasizes rhetoric’s contingent nature, acknowledging that under certain conditions or in certain situations, rhetoric is capable of doing and being a certain thing, and also demonstrates Aristotle’s recognition of this contingency inherent in the discipline. However, Lundberg’s notion of rhetoricity widens the scope even further to allow for the overflow and excess of meanings and possibilities of rhetoric that are not accounted for in a single definition or case of application. To what extent this rhetoricity is something that can itself be concretely defined or theorized is an open question, and one we will perhaps return to later.

If we step back and take a broader look at what Aristotle’s Rhetoric is doing, it is the first in a series of texts that will attempt to prescribe how to do rhetoric in different situations, whether that is praising someone, arguing a legal case, governing, etc. Rhetorical situation and awareness is key for Aristotle, since both at the level of individuals and governments, their qualities “are revealed in their deliberate acts of choice; and these are determined by the end that inspires them.”
Moving from Aristotle to Isocrates, we follow a very different conception of rhetoric. In both Against the Sophists and Antidosis, Isocrates seeks to distinguish his own practice and teaching of rhetoric from other contemporary schools and popular opinions surrounding the discipline. What I found most interesting was the way disciplinarity seems to be thought of in Isocrates’ writing – at a time when no clear boundaries between philosophy and rhetoric were yet established, Isocrates simply refers to what he does and teaches as “philosophy,” and conceives of that philosophy as something very different from the metaphysical leanings of Platonism or the Aristotelian categories of things. Philosophy and rhetoric, for Isocrates, is something situated in context and dependent upon circumstances: it must fit the occasion. In a similar vein, Isocrates’ proposal for education is one that is grounded in practicality rather than universality, and he encourages his readers to be suspicious of those who claim to teach universal truths for cheap.

In the Antidosis, Isocrates lays out more specifically how he understands the relationship between rhetoric and morality or good character. Likely in response to Plato’s accusation that studying rhetoric does not necessarily include knowledge of the good, he claims that:

 “I consider that the kind of art which can implant honesty and justice in depraved natures has never existed and does not now exist, and that people who profess that power will grow weary and case from their vain pretensions before such an education is ever found. But I do hold that people can become better and worthier if they conceive an ambition to speak well, if they become possessed of the desire to be able to persuade their hearers, and, finally, if they set their hearts on seizing their advantage – I do not mean ‘advantage’ in the sense given to that word by the empty-minded, but advantage in the true meaning of that term.”

Rhetoric is inherently concerned with furthering the public good, for Isocrates, and it is from this optimistic point of view that he is able to present his hypothetical defense against corrupting the youth of Athens.

Ultimately, although Isocrates is less theoretically rich than Plato or Aristotle in his writings, he is a worthy third way. Both Aristotle and Isocrates orient our work towards the good of the community, with attention to the particularity of the situation. And yet, in the midst of all of this back-and-forth in defining and designating rhetoric’s scope and power, I find myself continuing to return to Lundberg’s notion of rhetoricity and the overflow that is not contained in any given situation. In the spirit of spilling over, our next post will move us past the Greeks and into the Roman rhetoricians.

History of Rhetoric, Week 4: Plato’s “Phaedrus”

Hello! It has been quite a while since I last updated, so I have a major backlog of rhetorical history to catch up on and blog about. Today we resume with an examination of Plato’s Phaedrus.

The first time I read this dialogue was as an undergrad, in a course studying the relationship between literature and philosophy in Plato’s dialogues. On that occasion, we paired Phaedrus with Ion on one hand, to follow up on the mindset of the speech-maker and storyteller, and Symposium on the other hand, for continuity with Phaedrus’s character as well as to continue tracking love and friendship in the dialogues. This time around, of course, I’m reading Phaedrus with an eye for its contributions to and comments on the study of rhetoric and there is plenty to think with.

First and most obviously, there is the trio of speeches that are presented to the reader. Each one deals directly with the topic of love – who to love and how to love ethically. The first speech is originally written by the sophist Lysias and was heard by Phaedrus, who now reads the speech to Socrates; in it, the speech-giver claims that it is best to “bestow favors” upon those who are not in love with you, since there are fewer messy entanglements to worry about, should anything go wrong. Socrates speaks next, with his head covered so that he “may get through [his] discourse as quickly as possible and that [he] may not look at [Phaedrus] and become embarrassed.” In this second speech, he tells the story of a young boy who was told the same arguments that Lysias puts forward – following this logic, the lover would try to make the beloved inferior and speaker, so that he will continue to depend upon the lover; the lover seeks pleasure rather than the good, which is what prevents him from acting with his beloved’s best interests in mind. Finally, in the third speech, Socrates outlines his famous model for the soul as a chariot with two winged horses – one horse represents the pursuit of pleasure while the other horse represents the pursuit of the good, and it is up to the charioteer to keep these horses reined in and in balance.

The final portion of the dialogue returns us to a more direct exchange of ideas between Socrates and Phaedrus in which the character of the orator and the art of rhetoric are called into question. For Phaedrus, knowledge of the truth is not a relevant prerequisite, merely the ability to speak persuasively; in typical Platonic fashion, Socrates pushes back, arguing that persuasion without an orientation to the ethical and the good is irresponsible. Further, in their later discussion of writing, Socrates charges that writing replaces memory with reminder, giving the appearance but not the true quality of wisdom. Writing cannot be questioned or engaged directly with, and so only dialectic affords the opportunity to gain wisdom.

It is interesting to note that in this final section, Socrates does not fully refute the value of speech-making, and indeed, the traditional paradox of Socrates’ method comes out in this dialogue – while he speaks against sophistry and empty speeches, he is willing and able to deliver a persuasive speech himself. My take on this, however, is to note that oration begins for Socrates when dialectic breaks down; we saw this in Gorgias, after attempting and failing to engage the titular Gorgias and his disciplines in conversation, Socrates resorts to the form they will understand – speeches – to make his final arguments. In Phaedrus, the arrangement is a bit different – while the speeches make up the bulk of the dialogue, the dialectic portion at the end would seem to have the most obvious significance for scholars of rhetoric, but even this section is punctuated with the myth of the invention of writing.

There is much more within this dialogue that deserves closer examination and commentary. However, in the interests of catching up in reasonable time, we’ll end this post on Phaedrus here with a few  observations and questions that I want to keep thinking about for the next time I’m able to read this dialogue:

  • What are the key elements of the first speech that are not adequately addressed by either of Socrates’ latter speeches? In other words, are there points that are advanced in Lysias’ speech that are granted or allowed to stand?
  • Both of Socrates’ speeches deal with the balance of pleasure and the good; the second speech places more emphasis on why pursuits of pleasure are insufficient, whereas the third speech pushes us more to think about why the pursuit of the good is a worthy one. Given this resonance between the two speeches, what is being said in the third one that could not have been permitted in the second?
  • This dialogue, more than some of the others concerning rhetoric and education, push us into the metaphysical side of Platonic thought. However, as Dr. Arthos has cautioned, it’s very important for us to distinguish between Platonic thought and Plato’s actual writing.
  • The metaphysical aspects seem to also push us more towards universal and totalizing theories of knowledge and being, which rhetoric as a discipline would generally want to resist, given its own commitment to situation, context, and contingency. What opportunities exist in Phaedrus (as well as Plato’s other dialogues) for contingency to break through?

History of Rhetoric, Week 3: Plato’s “Gorgias”

We continue reading Plato this week, this time taking a deep dive into the Gorgias, and attempting to situate it between two primary commentators, James Kastely and Michael Svoboda. Both Kastely and Svoboda are writing somewhat recently (1997 still counts as recent, right? Future historians of the Internet, feel free to be as judgey as you wish), and each calls attention to the rhetorical situation of Plato’s dialogue; where they differ, however, seems to be in the fundamental task of defining rhetoric.

Both Kastely and Svoboda do admirable jobs of summing up the dialogue, so we will only rehearse our own summary in the broadest of strokes: After being invited to meet the famed Sophist Gorgias, Socrates engages Gorgias in a dialectic aimed at better understanding the rhetor’s profession. Gorgias’ student Polus takes over the dialectic when Gorgias appears to admit that a teacher cannot be blamed if their student uses the skills learned in an unjust manner. Polus advances the view that rhetoric is most useful for attaining one’s aims, but in turn retires from the conversation; he is replaced by Callicles who pushes this view to its extreme and even goes on the attack against Socrates and philosophy, claiming it to be an unmanly pursuit. Callicles exits the conversation and Socrates continues on his own, first by attempting to carry the dialectic alone, and later by telling a myth of the afterlife in which souls are judged naked according to the quality of their lives.

In his reading of the dialogue, Kastely resonates with Gerald Press’s article from last week, emphasizing the dialogue as an enactment designed to create an effect. That effect is a dissatisfaction with Gorgias’ apparent lack of resolution, which should prompt the critical reader to seek a different understanding of rhetoric other than what is actually said by the interlocutors. Just as the dialogue invites refutation, Socrates himself is characterized by this desire to be refuted. The act of refutation is central to Kastely’s vision of rhetoric, which requires that we be open to negation, willing to re-examine the ways in which language and culture have conditioned our experiences and recognize the unnaturalness of this condition. Gorgias gets this, and he is similarly committed to rhetoric’s ability to empower its practitioners when used in a community – “Rhetoric and community are essentially related; consequently justice is a constitutive concern for rhetoric.” (Kastely 34) Polus doesn’t get this, and his intervention into the dialectic signals a shift from rhetoric’s relation to justice and community to its relation to agency. The shift is even more pronounced when Callicles enters the conversation, and both of Gorgias’ students see the dialectic as a zero-sum game of winning or losing the argument; they fail because of their inability or unwillingness to open themselves to refutation, and implicit in this reading is an admonishment to us, the readers, from Kastely, not to make the same mistake by taking the dialogue at face value.

Both Plato and Socrates are sensitive to the rhetorical situation in which they are engaged. For Plato, this is signaled through the dissatisfying enactment of the dialogue, and for Socrates this is his shifts in approach depending on to whom he is speaking (politeness with Gorgias, terseness with Polus, aggression with Callicles, and finally an employment of speech-making itself at the end). One way in which both author and character’s rhetorical awareness coincide is in Socrates’ radical claim that it is better to have harm done to oneself than to do harm; other commentators have noted the false binary this seems to set up, because of course it would seem to be even better still if one could both avoid experiencing or doing harm. However, Kastely “[takes] Plato’s insight to be that we cannot avoid these features. It is not a question of deciding to be good or evil; rather, since some consequences of action always escape prediction or control, anyone who acts will occasionally cause suffering. Equally, since no one can create a totally secure environment in which all relevant aspects are under control, everyone is fated to suffer at some time. […] The problem for philosophy is how to live responsibly in a world in which even our best efforts fall short.” (37)

There’s a lot going on in that interpretation. Nearly twenty years after Kastely has written this article, this passage takes on some especially pedagogical overtones in light of the University of Chicago’s discouragement of trigger warnings and safe spaces on their campus. I’ve been ruminating over a blog post dealing with this administrative policy, its reinforcement of neoliberal politics, and rhetoric’s place in all of this, and Kastely might just have turned this triangulation of topics into a rectangulation (take that, Callicles and your disdain for geometry!). However, that is a post for another time. For now, we are concerned with the broader question of how to live in the world.

Socrates and Plato seem willing to grant that we live and act in the world in good faith, trusting that what we do will not have ill effects on others. However, this is the result of results-oriented thinking, which privileges previous experience over situation and context. To put it another way – both cooks and rhetors act in good faith and in accordance with conventional practices that have become naturalized. But when these acts done in good faith yield unintentional harm, corrective measures are needed to put new constraints on our practices. Kastely explains that

“We are born into worlds that are meaningful before we arrive, and it is part of our natural development to take them over. And although they are inescapably conventional and hence embody understandings of what reality is and what is of value, these worlds appear to us to be natural arrangements of human practices. […] Such historically encoded understandings make up the languages into which we are born. We act, then, in good faith in the world. But what if a language that we inherit embodies a misunderstanding of ourselves or of others? […] A language’s corruption is not accidental, and we cannot escape from the ethical consequences of that corruption by resolving to do good, for it is the nature of language to be inadequate to a complete representation of ourselves and others.

“The problems for rhetoric that are philosophically troubling are not those that involve the intentional exclusion of others from the community. However upsetting is the conscious use of race, gender, class, or creed to deny a person a voice, the more disturbing insight is that we undoubtedly exclude others from the community not because we wish to do them injury or because we possess despicable motives but because we are trapped in our languages. There is no political stance that can ensure that we act justly toward others. [Gorgias’s] justification for rhetoric is that it is the one intellectual practice that allows us to live responsibly in a world in which we are inadvertent origins of others’ suffering. […] We do not have a choice to pursue or not to pursue the political life. The choice is whether to pursue it critically or uncritically.” (44, quoted at length because, wow, how about that?)

We pursue political life critically through rhetorical openness and willingness to be refuted, through which we learn and are able to expand our language, and in turn our communities, to include more. This sort of educational practice is a difficult pill to swallow when the situation arises, but hopefully rhetoric is there to assist the doctor and persuade the unwilling patient. Philosophy needs rhetoric.

Like Kastely’s reading of Gorgias, Michael Svoboda foregrounds Plato’s awareness of the rhetorical situation in the dialogue’s construction and intended effect. Unlike the previous attempt to bring rhetoric and philosophy together, however, Svoboda reads a more political lesson into the dialogue and supports this reading through attention to the historical contexts of ancient Athenian history that Plato’s readers would have been well aware of. Svoboda places the figure of the unjust student at the center and creating a link between the student and the citizen. Svoboda is willing to grant acting in good faith to only some of the teachers/political leaders in Athens, and reads Gorgias as Plato’s plea to Athens to temper its unjust desires. By alluding to the Peloponnesian War’s failures due to Athenian desire to expand its empire, and drawing connections to the current Athenian political climate that again hungered for conquest, Plato warns against giving in to those temptations. Gorgias also serves as an intertextual response to other prevailing commonplaces of the day, including Thucydides’ apparent willingness to excuse or overlook the conditions that led to the Peloponnesian War’s failure, Isocrates’ similar support for Athenian empire by scapegoating the incompetent military leaders, and Polycrates’ lost but often-responded to Accusation of Socrates.

Svoboda’s reading is persuasive in its attention to the very real and material histories that I know unfortunately little about. In making this argument, Svoboda seems to be leaning heavily on the historical figures of Socrates, Gorgias, and Callicles (among others) and the resonance that their lives and actions would have had for Plato’s contemporary readers. While I think that the interlocutors were purposefully chosen for this dialogue, I’m still strongly influenced by Gerald Press’ argument that Plato creates a fictional world for his dialogues, taking the real world as a starting point but quickly moving the reader into possible ways of knowing and being.

Kastely characterizes rhetoric by its power to refute, over more traditional definitions of rhetoric as concerned with persuasion, or even imagination (to echo Press and Poulakos). Svoboda seems to stick more to this traditional definition, as the extent of Plato’s rhetorical work, for Svoboda, is persuading the unjust citizens of Athens not to give in to their immoderate desires. These definitions of rhetoric and its purview are not necessarily mutually exclusive (especially in both authors’ respect for rhetoric’s intervention into politics), but the ways in which the two commentators attain their readings of Plato’s rhetoric is through fundamentally different methodologies and assumptions. Whereas Kastely reads rhetoric’s commitment to cooperation and public interest as constitutive of Gorgias’ own ethos (again, the question of the historical Gorgias comes into play here – does this vision resonate with the Gorgias we read two weeks ago?), Svoboda reads Gorgias as lacking in agency, an ineffective rhetor who misunderstood his audience but nevertheless enabled the latent Athenian desire for empire and motivated the city to (more) war.

For myself, Kastely’s reading seems overall more hospitable, resonating with my own personal and professional commitments. It also seems to open more possibilities for further conversation with pedagogical praxis, contemporary social and political issues, and presents a vision of existence that is at once practical (recognizing that the preconditions of language mean we will do harm and exclude others) and hopeful (allowing us to imagine that things will not always be this way, and that we can be more expansive in our language and lives). But we’ll see how that view holds up under further dialectic.


Texts for this week:

  • Plato – Gorgias
  • James L. Kastely – “In Defense of Plato’s Gorgias
  • Michael Svoboda – “Athens, the Unjust Student of Rhetoric: A Dramatic Historical Interpretation of Plato’s ‘Gorgias’”

History of Rhetoric, Week 2: Reading Plato

After our first week with the Sophists and Gorgias’ “Encomium,” we turn this week to Plato and his accounts of Socrates’ refutations of sophistry and speech-making. The conventional reading is well-known – a mistrust of speeches that are pleasant to hear but originate from speakers who cannot claim expert knowledge in any field, leading to a rejection of those who practice this, including sophists, rhapsodes, and even prospective boyfriends. Throughout these dialogues, I was struck by this refusal; in another course, I’ve been reading Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and in particular his famous refrain that “The medium is the message,” or perhaps more accurately that the medium is a message in its own right. Thinking along these lines, one apparent weakness of Socrates’ argument is his unwillingness to separate the content of a speech (that which would come from the specialized knowledge of a doctor, charioteer, or other professional) from the structure and contextual [things] that go into making a speech, which have been claimed as rhetoric’s domain.

This way of thinking has dominated perceptions of rhetoric since antiquity, and to this day rhetoric has to contend with accusations of “empty” rhetoric used for unethical ends. Rhetoric, to its credit, has done plenty to construct its own defenses against these attacks, and sometimes even embracing its sophistic origins, as in John Poulakos’ article from last week. However, this literal reading of the dialogues is up for question, which also happens to be the central focus for this week’s critical essays taken from The Third Way, edited by Francisco Gonzalez (1995).

In the first essay we read, James Arieti argues for a reading of the Platonic dialogues as dramatic rather than rigorously philosophic texts. This way of approaching Plato’s writing discourages a systematic or synthetic approach, so that rather than constructing a philosophic system, Plato is instead having the characters speak and act in ways that are beneficial to Plato the teacher, not Plato the philosopher. For instance, Arieti performs a reading of Phaedrus that goes beyond the surface-level topic of love to additionally place different methods of teaching rhetoric in competition.

Arieti writes that “the controversy raging in Plato’s day, the debate between Alcidamas and Isocrates on whether speeches best should be written in advance – Isocrates’ view – or extemporaneous – Alcidamas’ view. The debate is dramatically portrayed in the Phaedrus: we have first the written speech of Lysias […] and then two spontaneous, extemporaneous speeches delivered by Socrates. [T]he dialogue is meant to persuade Plato’s contemporary audience that it too can get a better education in oratory at the Academy than at either the school of Isocrates or that of Alcidamas.”

If Gorgias’ “Encomium” can be read as self-promotion (demonstrating how the power of speech can be put towards any end for the speaker’s pleasure), Ariteti similarly sees Plato’s dialogues as an advertisement for the sort of education available at the Academy.

Gerald Press goes a step further than Arieti, recovering some of the philosophic aspects of Plato’s writings but positioning the dialogues as enactments, emphasizing the ways in which these texts include emotional engagement along with intellectual engagement. This approach does not deny the philosophical aspects of the dialogues, but also moves against the dogmatic Platonist reading that has predominated. In Press’s reading of the dialogues, Plato presents his audience with a fictional world that has resemblance to the real world; similar to the works of Dante, St. Thomas More, or Cervantes who all include themselves in their texts or make reference to the real world in constructing their fiction, Plato is also exercising his audience’s imagination, making an experience. This exercise in imagination and creation resonates with Poulakos’ assertion last week that rhetoric begins with the actual and moves towards the possible – if we accept Press’ reading, Plato begins in the real world as we know it, but quickly moves the reader into a possible way of seeing, knowing, and being. Here, the science fictional quality of rhetoric that we noted last week becomes even more explicitly pronounced.

This approach enables several important things. Firstly, it creates a distinction between Plato’s own thought and philosophy and Platonism as it has been employed. According to Press, it retains the idea of the dialogues as theory, but theory in the register of visions rather than doctrine. It is a presupposition that philosophy creates doctrine that has led to the dominance of Platonist readings, but from this perspective we might see that “What the dialogues show us is that for Plato, philosophy is also a matter of attitudes and practices; philosophy is a way of life, as the Hellenistic schools correctly saw. It is not only thoughts and ideas; philosophy is also a matter of feelings and images, doubts and hesitations, moral and political purpose, continuing engagement with others, perpetual reflection, dialogue.” Press’ reading is the most hospitable for me personally, with my own commitment to Pierre Hadot’s thesis in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life (like this collection of essays, also published in 1995) that sees Socrates’ teachings as spiritual exercise rather than dogma.

The last text we covered for this week, and the one I’m having most trouble making a smooth transition to, is Mere Rhetoric’s episode on Aspasia, a female rhetorician from classical Athens who is mentioned by many authors but from whom we have no surviving writings. The podcast mentions Aspasia’s status as a foreigner from the fringes of Athenian society; like Gorgias, another outsider to Athenian society, Aspasia was nevertheless central to the practice of rhetoric in Athens and remains a figure of interest in the discipline’s history. As someone coming to rhetoric who did not start there, and also as someone who did not originate in mainstream American society, it’s heartening to see that my field has always been led by outsiders coming in and re-shaping the ways we publicly engage and discourse.

The podcast also touches on Aspasia’s status as a hetaera, something of a cross between a geisha and prostitute, before she became the lover and wife of Pericles, and a teacher and speech writer. She may even have been Socrates’ teacher, or at least an inspiration for what is now known as the Socratic method of inquiry. However in Menexenus, Plato has Socrates draw a connection between Aspasia as a rhetor and Aspasia as a prostitute, suggesting that neither the teacher of rhetoric nor the prostitute is faithful to one but instead has dealings with many.

This accusation is interesting to me not just for the link drawn out in other dialogues between ethics, teaching, and sexual desire, but also more contemporary conversations on how to teach reading and writing. In her essay “Reading as Kissing, Sex with Ideas,” Kathryn Bond Stockton provocatively depicts reading as an act of penetration, in which words get inside us and infect us with their ideas. In other essays, Stockton brings this model of reading more directly into the classroom, encouraging both teachers and students to make a “fertile mess” of and with the texts.

How to ethically serve as both source of infection and midwife, how to dialogue with others and envision with them possible worlds – these are continuing concerns from antiquity to the present. Join me next week as we dive deeper into Plato’s Gorgias.


Texts for this week:

  • Plato – Lysis, Ion, Theaetetus, Sophist, Gorgias
  • James Arieti – “How to Read a Platonic Dialogue”
  • Gerald A. Press – “Plato’s Dialogues as Enactments”
  • David Roochnik – “Socrates’ Rhetorical Attack on Rhetoric”
  • Mere Rhetoric podcast – “Aspasia”

Other texts referenced:

  • Marshal McLuhan – Understanding Media
  • Pierre Hadot – Philosophy as a Way of Life
  • Kathryn Bond Stockton – “Reading as Kissing, Sex with Ideas: Lesbian Barebacking?”, “Surfacing (in the Heat of Reading): Is it Like Kissing or Some Other Sex Act?”

History of Rhetoric, Week 1: The Sophists

To begin reading a history of rhetoric, it makes sense to begin with the Sophists of Ancient Greece, many of whom helped found the discipline and provided the heuristics that guide the instruction in and practice of rhetoric to this day. This week, we read Gorgias’ “Encomium of Helen,” nominally a praise of Helen of Troy, but actually perhaps closer to a defense of Helen and a commentary on rhetoric. In this speech, Gorgias undertakes to rehabilitate Helen’s reputation, freeing, in his words, the accused of blame and the ignorance of her accusers. To accomplish this, Gorgias demonstrates Helen’s blamelessness in her abduction, whether the cause was fate/the gods, violent assault, persuasive speech, or even the power of love.

What’s most conventionally interesting and takes up most of Gorgias’ speech is his account of how persuasive speech constrains and beguiles the listener. To speak in this manner is a violation of soul rather than body, and the blame ought to fall similarly on the perpetrator, rather than the victim. In her podcast Mere Rhetoric, Mary Hedengren notes the paradoxologia at work in Gorgias’ speech – while he is warning his listeners of persuasive speech’s hypnotic power, he is himself employing persuasive speech to do so; what’s more, Gorgias may not even necessarily believe what he says, as he notes at the end that “I wished to write a speech which would be a praise of Helen and a diversion to myself.”

John Poulakos’s article “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric” helps us to situate Gorgias and the Sophists in the rhetorical tradition. For myself, and probably many others who have been initiated into philosophy through Plato and particularly his Socratic denunciation of Sophistry, poetry, and fun mimesis, Poulakos helped to provide a transformational perspective on rhetoric’s origins. It’s not difficult to see why Plato was so opposed to the Sophists, as they seem to represent and practice much of what he was writing against – the Sophists concerned themselves with the timely, emphasizing contingency and becoming over the sort of fixed being that Plato espoused. The application of rhetoric, from the Sophists’ perspective, must be situational and therefore can be difficult to teach or learn, since so much of its application depends on the moment of speaking and the audience to whom one speaks. Poulakos also argues that a typical Sophistic rhetorical move would be to start in the actual but move the listener to the possible.

Poulakos also claims that a common misunderstanding of the Sophists is to see their work as epistemological, seeking after truth. This is clearly not the case, as Plato argues and as Gorgias himself would likely agree, since their arguments are contingent and can be changed to suit the occasion or need. But rather than condemning the Sophists and leaving it at that, we can instead see that their work is instead concerned with aesthetics, emphasizing the style and manner of speaking. I wonder what implications this perspective on Sophistic rhetoric has for the intersection of art and politics? I’m thinking here of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which issues a warning that is similar to Plato’s, though less explicit, about art’s potential to be co-opted for insidious political ends. Poulakos goes a long way toward showing me a different way of thinking about the Sophists and the application of rhetoric to public life, but leads me to wonder to what extent we can consider rhetoric as an art that is also politically engaged.

Throughout Poulakos’ article, his emphasis on movement from the actual to the possible brought to mind some of the critical approaches to science fiction, particularly Darko Suvin’s notion of cognitive estrangement as an essential affect of the genre, encouraging ways of thinking that are potential and other. From this angle, rhetoric seems very science fictional – and science fiction altogether rhetorical.

Finally, I notice that both Gorgias and Poulakos foreground the speaker’s power, but leave little room for the listener’s own critical agency. The listener must be taken into account when making a speech, but both authors seem to presume that unless the speaker has made a grave miscalculation as to the kairos or to prepon, the audience will be totally convinced. As someone coming to the history of rhetoric from an English studies background, I’m suspicious of this schema and want to hear more about the agency of the audience/listener/reader; literary studies over the past couple decades but especially in recent years has been embroiled in debates over methodology and reading practices, the ways we ethically perform scholarship through reading and writing. One critical aspect of this debate that seems to bear on the issue of audience agency is that speakers in the debate have tended to emphasize the dialogic nature of scholarship, first as we read a text and then as we in turn speak about it. I’m invested in trying to bring rhetoric and literary studies more closely together through this particular issue, so this is something I’ll be tracking throughout these blog posts, looking for suggestions of how a rhetorically-oriented English scholar can negotiate this debate.

Texts for this week:

  • Gorgias – “Encomium of Helen”
  • John Poulakos – “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric”
  • Mere Rhetoric podcast – “Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen”

Other texts referenced:

  • Walter Benjamin – “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”