Edward Schiappa — “Sophistic Rhetoric: Oasis or Mirage?”

Writing in response to Poulakos’ attempt to define a “sophistic rhetoric,” Schiappa argues that “sophistic rhetoric” is nothing but a mirage, needed to address contemporary conjunctures, but because of the lack of sufficient evidence, a practice that is rather invalid, pedagogically unsound, and borders on anachronism. Ouch!!!Schiappa argues that for one, it is impossible to identify a common perspective or set of practices from a narrow group of people identified as the sophists. The Greeks defined sophistry as wisdom across a broad range of disciplines and so should we. To define a “sophistic rhetoric” seems silly in Schiappa’s eyes because rhetoric wasn’t even a word used until Plato coined it. Plus, not only is it impossible to pinpoint who the sophists were but also to pinpoint a set of practices soley used by these specific people identified as sophists. Also, to say sophists practice emancipatory rhetoric in the name of democracy is inaccurate since the sophists taught aristocrats. Schiappa further claims the attempt to define a “sophistic rhetoric” is simply an unneeded move to romanticize the rhetorical tradition in order to address pressing contemporary features. Lastly, he says when attempt to distinguish sophists from other scholars, we only contribute to the reification of the Plato/Sophist binary.

Schiappa’s article is very convincing because he goes point by point to discredit the need for and the existence of “sophistic rhetoric.” Beyond making this important disruption in contemporary scholarship, Schiappa reminds us to be careful of the histories we try to create and to interrogate our reasons for recovering certain historical practices. Schiappa also reminds us about the limitations of rewriting history from fragments of texts. I don’t think Schiappa would discourage this methodology, but I do think he would warn us of making too big of claims from fragments of evidence. I wonder how Poulakos’ article would have been received if he: one) showed evidence he had done more work with secondary texts (I didn’t point this out in my comment to his article, but in some ways his article reveals the limitations of only working with primary texts.), which would have given him more credibility. Also, if two) he had taken smaller risks with his claims. As Schiappa points out, we need to be careful of creating historical mirages to address contemporary issues in our field. We must take risks but perhaps be more humble about our discoveries….

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Edward Schiappa — “Sophistic Rhetoric: Oasis or Mirage?”

  1. lpagnew

    It is interesting to examine Schiappa’s article against the arguments for re-examining sophistic rhetoric that we’ve read this week. I noted that you seemed to find Schiappa persuasive in your reading of Jarratt’s essay, but suggest here that his critique might be less compelling in our assessment of Poulakos’s argument if particular features in that article were revised. What types of secondary sources would you find valuable in strengthening this article? What risks did you find most problematic?

  2. legries

    I think I was suspicious of Poulakos’ argument because he made several vague claims that I teach my own students to avoid such as “As some of their artifacts reveal,” “As the historical record indicates,” In recent years, the above position has been espoused by many students and teachers of rhetoric,” “the story of the Sophist’s preoccupation with style is too well-known to be recounted here,” and “Since the time of the Sophists, the area over which this definition extends has been covered with rigor far greater than I can muster.” I guess all of these vague claims just seem to add up in my eyes and weaken his credibility. .

    Another point I am noticing is that the secondary sources or other scholars Poulakos does draw on are footnoted to a great extent. If you look at say, Vitanza’s article or Crowley’s or the others, many more sources are cited within the article. This makes me ask the question, is it necessary to draw on other scholars and give credit to these scholars within the article rather than in footnotes in order to establish our own credibility?

    I wonder why I don’t trust Poulakos just because he footnotes rather than gives credit to other’s arguments in his actual essay? Would I think differently of his essay had he conducted a partial literature review or at least given credit within his sentences to those scholars he is drawing on?

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