BMCR 1997.07.04

1997.07.04, The Birth of Rhetoric: Gorgias, Plato, and their Successors

, The birth of rhetoric : Gorgias, Plato, and their successors. Issues in ancient philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. viii, 197 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780415146425 $55.00.

Robert Wardy’s new book discusses the struggle between rhetoric and philosophy over the proper meaning of persuasion. Wardy explores whether argumentation, including both the appeal to the passions of the orators and the appeal to reason of the philosophers, can be more than just an inherently amoral manipulation of the soul to the greater glory and power of the speaker. The book is not without its merits, but its defects combined with its frequent belligerence do much to obscure them.

The book consists of five chapters, an introduction and an epilogue. The first two chapters deal principally with the texts of Gorgias. Chapter 1 discusses On What is Not in the context of Parmenides’On Nature. Chapter 2, the best in the book, offers an exegesis of the Encomium of Helen. Chapter 3 discusses Socrates’ encounter with Gorgias in Plato’s Gorgias, with some attention to the remainder of the dialogue. Chapter 4 discusses the status of persuasion in rhetorical theory after Gorgias, in Plato’s Protagoras, Isocrates, Cicero’s De Oratore, and Aelius Aristides’To Plato: In Defence of Rhetoric. In Chapter 5, a version of which is also available in a collection edited by A. Rorty, 1 Wardy expounds the paradox that Aristotle lays out deceptive modes of persuasion and invalid arguments and shows their effectiveness in rhetorical practice, and simultaneously claims that “what is true and what is just are naturally stronger than their opponents” ( Art of Rhetoric 1355a24). It is as though truth ought to win out, but Aristotle is willing to do his part to see that it does not. In the epilogue, entitled “Does Philosophy have a Gender?”, Wardy takes issue with feminists like Lorraine Code and Genevieve Lloyd who claim that the ideal of rationality that has regulated Western philosophy functions to exclude women and the feminine.

Having summarized Wardy’s argument I will now honor his invitation to respond to it, “Reader, I await refutation” (see 148-9). I will largely confine my comments to Wardy’s treatments of Gorgias, Plato, and Isocrates. Wardy begins by stating (correctly) that the problem of rhetoric is a historical problem (1). Rhetoric means something to us “Westerners” because it meant something to the Greeks. To understand what it could be for us we must return to the classical controversies about its substance and status. 2

Yet, as Wardy points out, rhetoric rapidly became “what philosophy is not.” Indeed “philosopher” with anything like its present and narrow meaning, as distinguished from “wise man” or “sophist,” postdates the profession of an art of rhetoric by such figures as Gorgias. To understand rhetoric historically we would have to understand philosophy historically. We cannot assume, as Wardy does, that the pre-Socratic philosophers possessed “the unique self-conception that by the fourth century was called ‘philosophical'” (9). What “philosophy” was, both then and later, is the most important question of the history of philosophy. To offer an answer to it is to try to complete that history as a scholarly activity, and seems to presume a complete account of the possibilities of philosophy for us as well. Of course, where Hegel failed, Wardy does not succeed either. More to the point, Wardy does not realize what success would require.

Wardy makes great claims for his analysis of Gorgias’s “On What is Not” in chapter 1. Unfortunately, this analysis is unsuccessful. “Gorgias,” he writes “unmistakably challenges us to respond to On What is Not against one quite specific and revolutionary philosophical backdrop, that of Parmenides’ great argument.” Parmenides claimed that not-being could not be said or even thought, while Gorgias replies that what is cannot be apprehended, thought, or said. Parmenides wants us to believe that only speech about beings can be true, while Gorgias denies that speech is ever about anything.

Now there is an important figure for scholars of classical philosophy who saw that the problem of distinguishing rhetoric or sophistic 3 from philosophy requires that we bring together the sophists’ denial that speech has truth or being with Parmenides’ denial that not-being can be said or thought coherently. To put rhetoric in its proper place as “what philosophy is not,” this writer claims, we must overthrow Parmenides and say how “not-Being is.” That figure is Plato, in the Sophist, but Wardy nowhere alludes to those portions, the major portions, of that dialogue. Wardy aims to understand Gorgias by the device of comparing sophistical speeches about not-being with Parmenides’ speech on Being. This device was invented by the great partisan of philosophy in its confrontation with rhetoric. It is thus not too much to ask that a scholar use that device in a more sophisticated fashion, so as to assuage the reader’s concern that both reader and author have been seduced, yet again, by “the spell of Plato.”4

Wardy’s exegesis of On What is Not seems to hinge on the distinction between speech (or logos) that does not refer and speech that does not represent. Wardy claims on the authority of G. E. L. Owen and G. Evans that the phrase “what is not” does not refer to anything, (16). 5 Yet “the notion of logos bereft of representative content is itself nonsense” (19). What, then, does “what is not” represent? Since I cannot answer this question, I cannot understand what Wardy is trying to say.

Fortunately, Wardy leaves these mysteries behind him in his discussion of the Encomium of Helen. His object here is to show that the Encomium hinges on the abolition of the distinction between persuasion and compulsion. Helen was nonetheless compelled, if she were persuaded to yield by the speech of Paris Alexander (35ff). But if rhetoric can compel, if “logos is a great dynastes,” Wardy asks, how is the power of rhetoric any more democratic than the spears of the dynast’s bodyguard? Modern apologists for rhetoric emphasize the link between the art and its paradigmatic occasion, public speech in a democratic assembly. Wardy forces these apologists to recognize that if rhetoric is an art, not a practice, it participates in the very undemocratic distinction between the skilled artists and the unskilled many. Worse, as an art of manipulation through persuasion, rhetoric threatens the very possibility of an unmanipulated, uncoerced, sovereign many. This is the most important and the best demonstrated point in Wardy’s book.

Commenting on section 14 of the Encomium, Wardy writes that “Gorgias elicits an analogy between rhetorician and doctor, logos and chemico-magical agent: Plato will both insist on a sharp distinction between healing doctor and amoral wizard, and deny that the rhetorician deserves comparison with the doctor properly understood” (46). Wardy is no doubt thinking of the many mentions of medicine in Plato’s Gorgias (see e.g. 456a-c, 464b-466a). Yet what would he make of the celebrated passage about free doctors, who use persuasion that “comes close to philosophizing” ( Laws 720), or Socrates’ invocation of the charm of Zalmoxis in the Charmides ? A law free of enchanting, charming, wizardly rhetoric seems to be simply impossible, at least for the Plato (or the Athenian Stranger) of the Laws. A more sophisticated approach might wonder, then, whether Socrates in the Gorgias is simply speaking straightforwardly for Plato in condemning rhetoric as mere flattery and no art.

Wardy’s exegesis of the Gorgias moves around two different points. First Wardy makes a sharp distinction between rhetoric and dialectic (60). Second, he claims that dialectic aims to establish its points for the sake of knowledge revealed in the impersonal logos, while rhetoric produces a speech that is the speaker’s to achieve his own ends in persuading his audience (64). In distinguishing rhetoric and dialectic, Wardy seems to give a technical and peculiar sense to every use of dialegein, for example when he translates Socrates’ complaint about Polus at 448d8-10 as “he seems to me to have had more exercise in so-called rhetoric than in dialectic” (60). Socrates does not use dialektike but dialegein; he is not claiming that Polus is uninitiated in some philosophic mystery, but that Polus is a bad conversation-partner because he does not answer questions from his interlocutor.

In attempting to bring out the impersonality of dialectically formed logos, Wardy obscures Socrates’ insistence that his interlocutor, Polus himself, would be the only suitable witness to the truth of his claims (472bc). Perhaps, as Wardy claims, Socrates wants Polus’s agreement because in dialectic understood technically “no one will pay more serious attention to my beliefs than my dialectical partner, but again this is a curiously impersonal sort of intimacy, since they are of overwhelming interest not only because they are mine, but because they are currently the only resource we have available for mutual progression towards the truth” (76). Much in Wardy’s language here appeals to Vlastos’s highly refined interpretations of dialectic and elenchus. One could more simply posit that Socrates cares about Polus’s beliefs because one does not converse with someone except on the understanding that his or her opinions matter. Wardy’s replacement of “conversation” by “dialectic” (and perhaps “public speaking” by “rhetoric”) appears misleading, and so demands a justification that he does not supply.

In chapter 4 Wardy aims to show how the principal figures of rhetorical theory after Plato responded to Gorgias’s claim that persuasion is simply manipulation and Plato’s response that rational argument is something more. Examining Isocrates, Cicero, and Aelius Aristides, Wardy’s main point seems to be that the threat of a perfectly manipulative rhetoric faded as the political deliberation that an art of rhetoric threatened to subvert was displaced by armed Imperial might.

Wardy expounds Isocrates’ claim in the Nicocles that the logos of internal deliberation is identical with that of external persuasion (94-95). Thus, Wardy’s Isocrates claims, rhetoric is no more manipulative than simple prudent thinking. Wardy never manages to take Isocrates seriously, speaking of that orator’s “vapidity” and “heroic mediocrity.” Yet through his definition of philosophia (e.g. at Antidosis 270-1, a passage that Wardy discusses), Isocrates aspires to set the standard for his own evaluation. That does not mean that we have to accept that standard, but it does mean that judging Isocrates by comparison with Gorgias or Plato’s Protagoras is a somewhat trickier business than Wardy seems to realize.

Wardy’s chapter 5, on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, seems to me to be largely successful. Wardy shows the problematic relation between Aristotle’s epistemological optimism that, to use Mill’s sarcastic phrase, truth has a unique power of persuasion denied to error, and his enumeration and explication of the methods by which an orator can make his audience take probabilities for truths and lies for probabilities. Aristotle’s concept of dialectic stands between sophistry and demonstrative argument, and Wardy brings out well how the spirit of seemingly philosophical dialectical contest is not wholly elevated from eristic disputation. For those of us who were educated to understand what Aristotle meant by dialectic without the mediation of edifying interpretations of the role of dialectic in Plato’s Socratic discourses, Wardy’s conclusions will appear less surprising.

In the concluding epilogue Wardy takes on feminist critics of Western philosophy, who claim that the philosophers’ ideal of reason have in fact been exclusively male, either because of these philosophers’ masculine predilection for abstraction or their manly hostility toward the emotions. Wardy claims that the fundamental question ought to be “the methodological issue of whether philosophy’s characteristic appeals to reason are themselves predicated on objectionable, gendered attitudes” (140).

Yet good arguments do not appeal to Reason, but put forward reasons. If philosophers are constantly concerned with Reason with a capital “R,” this would seem to be part of their general game where the first question and often the only question of philosophy is what philosophy is and who is a philosopher. Wardy’s argument as a whole often plays that game of exclusion: e.g. Sartre’s “status as a philosopher, let alone a major one, is open to doubt” (189 n. 15). Perhaps, as Michèle Le Douff argues, the historical exclusion of women from philosophy as institutionalized in the West shows that the very notion of a definition of philosophy, and in particular, the definition of philosophy as the only self-defining and self-critical mode of discourse, is itself an unjustified compromise of the philosophic attitude. 6

Our concern with the power and limits of persuasion, for example, ought to lead us to spend more time on the question of what modes of persuasion work and when each can legitimately be used, and less time on distinguishing between “philosophic” and “unphilosophic” modes of argumentation, as if that were most important moral question that faced us “speaking beings.” Thought through, Wardy’s sometimes interesting if frequently flawed project leads us from questions of regulative ideals of reason back to the technical study of rhetoric.

One final point: When Wardy moves to a consideration of Plato’s Gorgias, he begins with a long statement on the proper methodology for reading Plato. I take no great exception to the methodological principles that Wardy sets out, in part because I did not learn them from him. Consider the following passages:

If Plato has a philosophical message to convey, the general principle that direct communication of information is vastly superior to indirect immediately dictates that the dialogue was a bad vehicle for his purposes.

Evidently the conclusion to draw is that Plato has no message, no “philosophy” to impart. Yet how can this be, when so many and such distinguished thinkers down the ages have identified themselves as adherents of Platonism? The beginning of an answer is to be found by considering an obvious analogy. No literary critic of any sophistication would dream of attributing the words or sentiments of a character in tragedy to the tragedian himself. True, there were those in antiquity and later ready to convict Euripides of advocating faithlessness because his Hippolytus protests against the necessity of keeping a fatal promise, once its implications become clear to him; but they thereby succeed only in convicting themselves of a basic misunderstanding of drama. Analogously, no philosophical critic should contemplate attributing to Plato himself what any interlocutor, including Socrates, expresses. The only course open to readers aspiring to take Platonic dialogues with the seriousness they deserve is to regard them as fiction; and to produce fiction is not merely a way of smuggling in a coded message, whatever detractors might suspect (Wardy 1996, 53-54).

In none of his dialogues does Plato ever say anything. Hence we cannot know from them what Plato thought. If someone quotes a passage from the dialogues in order to prove that Plato held such and such a view, he acts about as reasonably as if he were to assert that according to Shakespeare life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing… Could it be true that Plato, like his Socrates, did not assert anything, i.e. did not have a teaching? (Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago, 1964), pp. 50-51, and see p. 59).

Wardy’s passage seems to me to be carefully crafted to make Strauss’s point 7 without repeating Strauss’s language, and without referring to Strauss’s works, or those of his students. Euripides for Shakespeare, fiction for drama, message for teaching. If Wardy does not mean to make Strauss’s point he should tell us where he differs, just as a contemporary scholar who argues that Plato was a proto-totalitarian must tell us where his or her argument differs from Karl Popper’s. It is hard to believe that Wardy or his editors have never heard of Strauss or his claims about the proper way to read a Platonic dialogue. 8 If they have not, today this cannot be counted as a significant merit. 9

1. Essays on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, ed. A. Rorty (Berkeley, 1996).

2. All this is unexceptionable, though only if the “West” is taken to include the Eighth and Ninth Century Christian and Islamic translators and commentators of Syria and Iraq who preserved classical philosophy when Constantinople was torn by the iconoclastic controversy and Western Europe was barely literate.

3. I am compelled here for reasons of brevity to adopt Wardy’s confusion of the two. Wardy apparently believes that rhetoric and sophistry are not different in the challenge that each poses to philosophy (90). This thesis of the fundamental identity of rhetoric and sophistic is stated, however, rather than argued.

4. At 167 n. 8 Cole is attacked on the grounds that “in philosophy, he fails entirely to see Parmenides’ centrality.” One cannot escape the suspicion that Wardy has learned of the all-important centrality of Parmenides from the Sophist.

5. Wardy admits, however, that to explain how such a statement can achieve meaning in the absence of reference is “no easy matter.” Surely Wardy’s own speech in this matter neither speaks nor denies, but, at best, gives signs.

6. See Michèle Le Douff, “Long Hair, Short Ideas,” in The Philosophical Imaginary, tr. Colin Gordon (London, 1989); and Hipparchia’s Choice, tr. Trista Selous (Oxford, 1991).

7. Barring a certain obscurity in Wardy’s concept of “fictionality.” Wardy opposes what he calls the “fictional character” Gorgias (55) of the dialogue to the writings of the real Gorgias. Yet Plato’s Gorgias is no more a fictional character than is Thucydides’ Pericles, even if the speeches of the Platonic Gorgias are wholly fictional.

8. Strauss was not the first scholar to emphasize that Plato’s dialogues ought to be read as dramatic works: for a discussion of the literature see e.g. Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato’s Meno (Chapel Hill, 1965), pp. 3-10. Wardy, however, refers to no other scholar in his methodological discussion, a passage of about five pages.

9. Wardy’s discussion of the importance of the opening words of the Gorgias, “in war and battle” (57), is similarly disquietingly familiar to those at all read in Straussian scholarship. See for example Arlene W. Saxonhouse, “An Unspoken Theme in Plato’s Gorgias : War.”Interpretation 11 (1983):139-169.