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?”

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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