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”

Author: Phil Choong

PhD student in the Department of English at Indiana University. Working between critical and literary theory, rhetoric, and pedagogy.

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