Rhetorical Tradition Notes: 

Can be seen as declaration of educational principles.  Plato condemns false rhetoric

–dialogue that depicts Sophist’s role in Greek society and questions the value of rhetoric.

–Gorgias is set up to dialogue with Socrates about abstract terms, of which in actuality Gorgias would not have believed to be appropriate unless explored within specific social contexts.  Gorgias has disadvantage in dialogue because he is not given adequate time to speak and his defender, Polus, is weak.

–Socrates argues rhetoric should only be used for common good; otherwise, it destroys rhetor’s soul.

–Callicles, who supposedly embodies Athenian political opportunism, claims rhetoric gives rhetor mental strength, which is not evil.

–Socrates maintains rhetoric is only useful when used to bring about just punishment upon oneself or a loved one; correction maintains healthy soul, which is the greatest good.

–in dialogue, relation between rhetoric and knowledge also discussed:

–Gorgias claims rhetoric concerned with political and judicial deliberations, which only have probable, uncertain answers.

–Socrates claims rhetoric only deals with belief in Gorgias’ eyes then.  Rhetoric can only induce belief then and not convey true knowledge.  Therefore, mastering rhetoric does not require mastering moral knowledge.

–Socrates:  cosmetics, cookery, and sophistic (political oratory) , and rhetoric  VS.  gymnastics, medicine, legislation, and justice.

–Socrates:  belief, probability, conventional, conformity, and rhetoric  VS.  truth, knowledge, certainty, independence, and transcendence and philosophy

 Class Notes from Fall 2006: 

Plato is following the Sophists and looking at them

As symptom of larger cultural issues.


Plato sees himself as a reformer and trying to initiate

Change, and he sees sophistic rhetoric as part of

The problem.


Sophists are hip now; Plato is not among rhetoricians.


What is compelling about his criticism of rhetoric?


What are his most significant charge against rhetoric?


He reduces rhetoric through certain words he uses:


Habitude, semblance, flattery, knack


Depicts rhetoric as friviloous.  Thinks discipline doesn’t have content.

Sees rhetoric as service.


Appearance is problem; connects to pleasure of body; the physicality

Is bad; points out mind/body split; rhetoric is about surface

Appearances and not as productive in searching for truth.


Amoral is immoral in his eyes.

Always think goal of rhetoric is search for just and a truth


He is so manipulative even though he doesn’t think of him.

He is creating fictional accounts in order to make his own truths.


He is extremely skillful and manipulative in his own rhetoric.

Is  dialogue a popular genre?  Plato is duplicating Socratic method.


Literary practice as a rhetorical practice.  Leading the witness.

Dialectic method comes alive.  He uses logic to “arrive”

But is he really arriving????


What are two possibilities of using language to construct



Rhetoric is geared toward helping you discover your solutions

Plato sees rhetoric as not having role in logically arriving

At truth, but he sees rhetoric at presenting truth that is already



Gorgias:  audience as spectator which indicates that

He sees audience as unimportant in developing a truth


Audience isn’t part of process.


Rhetoric as enchantment.


We can’t forget he is trying to bring ethics back

Into politics.


He is suspicious of the ways in which rhetoric is used

By politicians


What is wrong with Karl Rove?  Karl Rove as Platonist as sophist?


He wants to further an agenda based on a truth but he is like

Sophists in that he manipulates language and distorts it

To win his audience over.


Certainty does come into play. 


There are social justice Platonists and Sophists.

Pursuit of contingency is difficult.


Platonic—argument is pre-constructed??

Sophist—argument is constructed in view??


Does quality of argument relate to conclusion you reach?

If rhetoric is tool to discover truth, than quality of argument is

Is determined differently than if you are trying to prove

An argument. 

 Reading Notes from June 2007: 

Socrates wants to find of function of art of rhetoric and what exactly rhetoric is according to Gorgias.  Also, what does Gorgias consider himself to be in terms of a career -87


From the start, Socrates associates rhetoric with “beating around the bush” and/or “avoiding the question,” which is what Polus does when asked what Gorgias professes to be-88


Gorgias claims his art is rhetoric and he is a rhetorician and teaches others the art of rhetoric – 88


Socrates asks Gorgias to answer in brief responses, which automatically is a manipulative move – 88


Socrates asks what rhetoric cocerns.  Gorgias says “with speech.” –88


Gorgias says rhetoric is concerned with greatest good, which is that which gives freedom to mankind and dominion to single persons in their societies , which is THE ABILITY TO PERSUADE WITH SPEECHES  90


Socrates ask well, is rhetoric only art that is concerned with persuading?  No, so what kinds of topics do rhetoricians persuade audience of? -90


Gorgias says those topics that are of concern to law courts and in any public gathering – and what is just and not just  – 91


Socrates now moves into discuss of knowledge vs. belief.


Gorgias distinguishes between the two.  


Socrates says then that Gorgias believes in two kinds of persuasion—one that induces belief without certain  knowledge and one that induces knowledge.


Socrates asks then that rhetoric is not concerned with instructing what is right and wrong.


Gorgias agrees and says rhetoric has power to induce belief in an audience about any topic one is knowledgeable about.  Gorgias says rhetoric is not evil; those that abuse use of rhetoric are evil.  Rhetoricians have responsibility to use their talent and wit fairly.  Cannot blame teachers who teach those to use rhetoric and then abuse it (defending Sophists here) -93


Socrates believes it is evil to have false opinions (94).  How elitist!


Gorgias says he has power to teach anyone who wants to learn how to be a rhetorician – and can persuade an ignorant audience about a topic better than an expert in that very field 94


Socrates is suspicious that power of rhetoric does not depend on truth – 95


Socrates equates good with knowledge and ignorance with evil –95


Socrates kind of tricks Gorgias when he switches from concrete careers to abstract qualities.  For example:  a man who has learned building is a builder just as a man who has learned what is just is just.  Neither is true though….  95


Socrates is leading the question here, as Polus makes clear. -96


Rhetoric to Socrates is “made art,”  a certain habitude of producing a kind of gratification and pleasure. Actually it is mere a FORM OF FLATTERY and A COUNTERFIET OF A BRANCH OF POLITICS.  -96-7


Socrates distinguishes between body and soul.  Politics has to do with the soul and gymnastics and medicine have to do with body.  Socrates think that it is immoral or unjust for carnal pleasure to guide one’s actions.  He equates rhetoric with the body, with carnal pleasure.  -97


Socrates equates power with good for oneself; thus orators only have small powers -99


Socrates does not think rhetoric can help you arrive at truth -103

Socrates—“truth is never refuted” – 104  but Socrates discusses abstracts outside of context.


Socrates tells Callicles that in order to be a fit partner for probing the truth, he must speak according to his own convictions -117


Socrates talks in such absolutes – 119


True art of statemanship is not rhetoric….135

  Comments to June’s Reading: 

Before reading “Gorgias” for the second time, I read over my class notes from our Ancient Rhetorics course last fall and thus while reading “Gorgias” this morning, I kept in mind that Plato was trying to bring an ethics back into politics, which he thought was corrupt in part because of the Sophist’s unethical use of rhetoric.  I could not help, of course, but think of our current administration and the rhetoric employed for what I deem to be unethical practices.  In light of feeling much anger and frustration at what I interpret to be a plethora of corruption in our current administration, I can’t help but read “Gorgias” more compassionately.  Last fall, when I read “Gorgias,” I remember being really frustrated with Plato for his negative accusations against and reduction of rhetoric, the manipulation of his own rhetoric, his unabashed certainty in the possibility of arriving at truth through language, etc.  Reading “Gorgias” this time in context of his own feelings toward the politics of his own era as well as my own feelings toward the politics of my era, I understand his frustration with rhetoric and what he considers the immoral or amoral use of persuasion for political aims.  In light of this reading, he raises a number of compelling questions about rhetoric:  what role does truth, justice, and morality play in rhetoric?  What role does rhetoric play in corrupting democracy?  Who do we hold accountable for the “immoral”/”amoral” use of rhetoric, which privileges the lives of the minority of elite citizens?


These questions are especially interesting in light of Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason.  I haven’t read his book yet, but according to a New York Times book review “Mr. Gore’s central argument is that ‘reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions” and that the country’s public discourse has become “less focused and clear, less reasoned.’ This ‘assault on reason,’ he suggests, is personified by the way the Bush White House operates. Echoing many reporters and former administration insiders, Mr. Gore says that the administration tends to ignore expert advice (be it on troop levels, global warming or the deficit), to circumvent the usual policy-making machinery of analysis and debate, and frequently to suppress or disdain the best evidence available on a given subject so it can promote predetermined, ideologically driven policies.”  In other word, it seems Al Gore is accusing the Bush administration of discounting truth and instead employing rhetoric to induce certain beliefs based on the administration’s own self interests.  


I can’t help but hear Plato echoing in the words of Gore and wonder if we as a society are so suspicious of the possibility of “reason, logic, and truth” in language that we have lost trust in language itself and thus politics in general.  At the same time, however, I can’t hope but also hear the “sophists” echoing in the words of Gore when he claims the current administration has launched an “unprecedented and sustained campaign of mass deception” on matters like Iraq, which has made “true deliberation and meaningful debate by the people virtually impossible.”  In making this call, like the “sophists,” he points out the powerful, magical nature of this administration’s rhetoric to deceive the American public.  Is Gore a sophist or Platonist then?


Perhaps, it really doesn’t matter, but I do think much of the American contemporary public would empathize with Plato’s distrust of rhetoric.  That is not to say, I am buying into Plato’s accusation that Sophist’s were teaching a deceitful ar or that I buy into Plato’s interpretation of rhetoric itself.  I just wonder if giving up on the ability of language to convey any truth at all is having or going to have detrimental consequences for our “democracy,” if we ever did or still have one…..Just as Plato’s notion that the function of language is to arrive at truth seems extreme, so is the notion that certainty or absolute truth is unavailable to humans.  Even though down deep, I don’t believe language has the capability of constructing or finding certainty or truth, I wonder what consequences we will have to (continue to have to) face if we accept this belief to be “true” in and of itself….  



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