Response to Edwin Black’s “Plato’s View of Rhetoric” and Charles Kauffman’s “The Axiological Foundations of Plato’s Theory of Rhetoric”

Working against the notion that Plato’s definition of rhetoric is inconsistent in Gorgias and Phaedrus yet in consensus that a single theme exists in Gorgias and Phaedrus, Edwin Black is determined to elucidate how rhetoric is defined in both of Plato’s texts.  Black points out that Plato is himself determined to reveal the nature of a thing designated by a certain term because Plato is interested in uncovering the series of propositions that comprise an existential class or the true form of a thing through dialectic.   Black explains that most scholars associate Socrates’ equation of rhetoric and cookery as a denouncement of rhetoric.  Black argues, however, that Plato is not denouncing all rhetoric, however.  Just Gorgian rhetoric, which represented commonly held definitions of rhetoric during that time.  Black reiterates that Plato is attempting to uncover the true form of rhetoric in Gorgias and Phaedrus and he attempts to do so through the usual process of dialectics—collection and division.  More specifically, while Gorgias is about refuting a Gorgian definition of rhetoric, Phaedrus is a constructive definition of rhetoric, which interpreted together constitute a consistent definition of rhetoric.  Black argues that while dialectic is the scientific method of choice, rhetoric is the psychological application of it. Essentially, in Phaedrus Plato broadens rhetoric’s definition to include the influence of all men, not just audiences of forensic and deliberative oratory. 

 

Black also discusses the distinctions Plato makes between conviction or belief, which can be changed through persuasion, and knowledge or intelligence, which is based on certitudes about real truth.  Black broaches the question of what role rhetoric might play in Platos’ doctrine of politics, which is based on absolute, certain, and universal truths of the abstract nature of society.  Black claims Plato sees rhetoric as one of the only means of social control that a statesman can exercise; the other, coercion.  Since Plato seems to deem the common man as “ignorant,” using rhetoric to simplify and present complex truths is acceptable.  Rhetoric, in Plato’s eyes, is also educational, however.  Rhetoric can help young men learn philosophy; they can be persuaded in other words to study philosophy through exposure to rhetorical study.  For these reasons, Plato valued rhetoric.  He simply did not value Gorgian rhetoric or sophistic rhetoric. According to Black, Plato thought rhetoric had a more value for both the state and the individual, and unlike Aristotle who deemed rhetoric as neutral, Plato deemed morally based rhetoric as the true rhetoric.

 

Black’s articles is clever.  Kaufman begins by acknowledging the critical presuppositions with which he is writing in order to make clear his revisionist stance.  He then attempts to locate the true nature of rhetoric in Gorgias and Phaedrus through mimicking the  very process that Plato used in his dialectical inquiries—collection and division.  He collects commonly held assumptions about what Gorgias and Phaedrus is about and identifies the diverse interpretations that have been made about this text.  He then offers a divisive interpretation of Plato’s definition of rhetoric through a close reading of the text.   

 

Kauffman extends Black’s interpretation of Plato’s theoretical contribution to rhetoric.  Kauffman support’s Black argument that Plato broadens the definition of rhetoric beyond the courts and legislature.  Kauffman also explains that Plato believed in two kinds of knowledge:  doxa (opinion resulting from senses) and episteme (knowledge of the real, of true forms).  According to Kauffman, the sophists were only concerned with doxa—the appearance of the senses, the appearance of knowledge.  True rhetoricians would be concerned with passing on true knowledge and justice because true knowledge necessitates ethical responsibility of being just.   The soul, according to Plato, is divided into three elements–rational, spirited, and appetitive—the rational part of the soul being divine and mortal while the appetitive is base and harmful and the spirited being an ally of one or the other.  The rational part should govern the soul and if so governed, then the person is just.  Similarly, the state, an extension of the individual, should be governed by lovers of wisdom if it is to be just.  The common citizen is ruled by doxa and thus needs the rational governing philosophers to make wise laws.  Like Black, Kauffman interprets Plato as believing in the utility of rhetoric to persuade the appetite driven polis to behave more justly.  The true art of rhetoric, based on episteme, was useful then in Plato’s opinion for making the state polis happy and just.

            Kauffman explains dialectical inquiries a bit differently than Black—the examination of all assumption in order to discover episteme.  “It is the function of the dialectician to discover the intelligible, to name its elements, to discover the relationships between the elements, and to ensure that language reflects this reality” (111).    According to Kaufman, “dialectic is Plato’s method for rhetorical invention” (111) and “rhetoric depends on dialectic for its language, content, and method” (111).  They are two complementary arts of use by the statesman.

            Because rhetoric is used by statesmen to enforce social control, Plato’s rhetorical theory is repressive and totalitarian.   As Kauffman explains, “in Western, democratic political systems, rhetoric has traditionally been employed to help human beings discover the political, legal, and ethical choices they confront as individuals living in a society and to help people to make the best choice when they are confronted with several alternatives” (112).  Yet, Kauffman interprets Plato’s rhetoric as demanding “homogenous opinion” and dictating all aspects of community life (112).  Justice is achieved through rhetoric, in Plato’s eyes, because individuals operating according to their doxa are brought under authoritarian control of Philosopher kind.  The state determines what is just and a rhetor can lie, deceive, and censor in order to maintain a just society.  This type of rhetoric, which does not involve choice-making or value probability and argument, is the repressive, totalitarian “democracy” Plato envisions.  Because of these characteristics, Kauffman claims Plato’s Rhetoric is a far cry from Aristotle’s.  The biggest difference, perhaps, is that while Aristotle thought citizens could be persuaded because they are rational, Plato thought citizens needed to be instructed and morally guided, which was the job of rhetoric.  Also, while all citizens could employ rhetoric in the mind of Aristotle, Plato only thought those philosophers with episteme could practice rhetoric. 

            Like Black, Kauffman also plays with the dialectic process by identifying four characteristics of rhetorical theory.  In essence, through this dialectic process, Kauffman attempts to dispel common assumptions and reveal the true nature of Plato’s rhetorical theory.  Ironically, Kauffman’s conclusion that Plato’s rhetorical theory is repressive and totalitarian and thus needs “enlightened criticism” is tainted with the elitist perspective that Plato’s rhetorical theory is accused of.  I wonder if this ironic “elitist” positioning, this judgment about the “unenlightened” criticism that has previously been enacted, is a deliberate rhetorical strategy employed to spark more intense scholarly debate or is an unintentional move that reveals a “scholar king” who possesses the intelligence to enlighten the ignorant masses of their misinterpretations…..{no offense, Kauffman!}

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Response to Edwin Black’s “Plato’s View of Rhetoric” and Charles Kauffman’s “The Axiological Foundations of Plato’s Theory of Rhetoric”

  1. I hope it does indeed work to destablize the “scholar king”… but I have to give Kauffman credit for his 1982 courage in proposing the suggestion of debunkment!

  2. hi,
    I’m not sure what this blog is intended for, but it seems to me that you have misunderstood what Kauffman was attempting to do with this extremely important article. It takes you two paragraphs to acknowledge Kauffman’s central argument that ‘Plato’s rhetorical theory is repressive and totalitarian’. You don’t, however, seem to acknowledge the significance of this argument – and its implications for contemporary political philosophy.

    At other points it seems that you ascribe views to Kauffman that actually belong to Plato – which the article is not presenting in a n uncritical light. e.g. you state: ‘According to Kauffman […] True rhetoricians would be concerned with passing on true knowledge and justice because true knowledge necessitates ethical responsibility of being just.’ This is Plato’s view – and Kauffman does a very good job of exploring what, exactly, Plato meant by justice: he means that rhetoric ‘must work to further the established order’ (Gorgias 504, 527; Phaedrus 270b; Statesman 304a; Laws 938a-b).

    On occasion you also seem to be claiming Kauffman’s conclusions as your own. For example you state: ‘The biggest difference, perhaps, is that while Aristotle thought citizens could be persuaded because they are rational, Plato thought citizens needed to be instructed and morally guided…’ This is taken almost verbatim from the conclusion on p.115.

    Finally, your parting shot – that Kauffman’s ‘“enlightened criticism” is tainted with the elitist perspective that Plato’s rhetorical theory is accused of’ – is completely off the mark. Here he is using enlightened in opposition to repression; it is part of the political vocabulary of the left, not of the elite. He uses it as a synonym for progressive, or libertarian, which you would have appreciated if you had understood the dominant argumentative thread of the article.

    best wishes
    John

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