“Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric” — John Poulakos

In this essay, Poulakos offers a Sophistic definition of rhetoric and identifies five key terms and concepts — rhetoric as art, style as personal expression, kairos (the opportune moment), to prepon (the appropriate), and to dynaton (the possible) — which should be credited to the Sophists as they can clearly be seen at work in the fragments of their remaining texts. Poulakos writes that according to common elements in Sophistic texts, rhetoric can be thought of as the art which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appopriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible. Noting the clear value of the rhetorical situation, the Sophists also link rhetoric as moving an audience from a space of actuality to one of potentiality.
Poulakos writes “The Sophists conceived of rhetoric primarily as a techne (art) whose medium is logos and whose double aim is terpis (aesthetic pleasure) and pistis (belief). Style is an important part of techne because as Artistotle later said, “the way a thing is said does affect its intelligibility” (57). Poulakos also says Sophists were linguistic craftsman who thought style revealed one’s unique grasp of language and expressed one’s personality.
Temporality was also key in Sophistic use of rhetoric—“kairos dictates what what is said must be said at the right time”—as was the concept of to prepon (61). What is said must conform then to both audience and occasion. Opportune and appropriate responses indicate Sophist’s recognition that truth is situationally derived in particular rhetorical situations.
Lastly, Poulakos points out the prominent role possibility plays in Sophistic rhetoric. Their fondness for or emphasis on possibility certainly is aligned with their notion that there is no one certain truth—only possible ones—and is especially evident in the style in which both “Encomium of Helen” and Dissoi Logoi were written.

In this article, Poulakos obviously has relied on close reading to arrive at both the definition of rhetoric he puts forth and the key terms and concepts he identifies. Like Enos, he briefly discusses was scholarship has already been produced about the Sophists and makes the obvious claim that we have an incomplete picture of the Sophists and their contribution to rhetoric. While it is clear that Enos has done is homework by naming and discussing some of the scholarship on Sicily that has been conducted, I am not as convinced Poulakos has done his homework solely because he begins with Hegel, who was the first to rediscover the sophists, but then only footnotes other scholars who have done work with the Sophists rather than take a bit of time to discuss their findings. Therefore, as his reader, I am not really certain what contemporary conversation he is joining and am not convinced he has serioualy taken into consideration what other scholars have uncovered about the sophists.

As for the end of his essay, he does a fine job emphasizing what contributions his essay attempts to make—establishing and articulating a more coherent notion of Sophistic rhetoric and reinforcing the idea that our contemporary notions of rhetoric originated with the Sophists. Originally printed in Philosophy and Rhetoric in 1983, this essay might have truly been a landmark essay for Poulakos’ identification of key Sophistic rhetorical practices, but in reading this essay nearly 25 years later, it is difficult to believe (and I don’t mean to be demeaning here) this essay was truly a landmark. Perhaps, that feeling of disbelief is simply because what Poulakos claims to have “discovered” comes from only fragments of texts. Do we really know enough about the sophists to make such big claims?

I am also curious about the lasting value of this kind of article where we attempt to push a definition based on close reading and identification of key rhetorical concepts. Poulakos took a big risk here in pushing forward a definition. I’ll be curious to see how this definition was received and what discussion this article sparked in our field, if any. Perhaps, that is what I am noticing here. Because this article seems to kind of come out of nowhere, where does its conversation lead???

Afternote: after reading the other articles for this week, it is clear that Schiappa and Jarratt read Poulakos’ article, but it seems they agree that he makes great leaps with his claims.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to ““Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric” — John Poulakos

  1. lpagnew

    I appreciate the observations you’ve made about the article–and the questions you’ve raised about methodology. These are the types of issues we’ll be bringing up in this week’s class, and I plan to share your observations with everyone tomorrow. You can read the summary of our class session to discover what conclusions we reach!

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