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Democracy and Rhetoric: In Conversation with Plato

What is the connection between democracy and rhetoric? Professor of English and Rhetoric Emeritus Jerry Murphy and Professor of Classics Carey Seal facilitated a discussion on this and more. The event was sponsored by Rhetoric@Davis, a consortium of faculty and graduate students devoted to a deeper understanding rhetoric in the university and the wider community.

On November 5th, Professor Murphy gave a talk entitled “Plato’s Dialogues and the Birth of Rhetoric;” Professor Seal pulled threads from this talk on which to elaborate on a November 26th meeting. The starting point was an analysis of four of Plato’s Dialogues expounded upon by Professor Murphy: the Gorgias and Phaedrus, which are the Dialogues most to do with Plato’s thoughts on rhetoric; and the Ion and Protagoras. Why were these the four selected? Professor Seal posited that thinking about this question would help shed light on Plato’s project on rhetoric.

Ion is a conversation in which Socrates asks a series of questions that eventually uncover the other person pretending to knowledge he can’t sustain. According to Professor Seal, “the main effect is unmasking fraudulent pretensions to wisdom, and thus “clearing away epistemological deadwood.” Ion, therefore, is an attack on the cultural authority of the Homeric poems underpinning Greek thought. In the Dialogue, Plato reveals through Socrates that Ion is not an authority of the matters treated in the Homeric poems–and even Homer himself was not. Rather, the value of the Homeric poems was as a channel to a divine madness. Grouping these Dialogues together shows “Plato’s critique of rhetoric is a broader assault on cultural foundations of the Athenian thought-world.” Plato, then, sought to dethrone Homer as the avenue whereby claims of knowledge are asserted.

“The Protagoras has the most sympathetic thinking about democracy that we have from the ancient world,’ Professor Seal explained. In the Dialogue, the speech by Protagoras was intended to give an intellectual rationale for democracy, a defense against its many critics. Protagoras’ thinking revolved around the myth that the gods gave animals means of defense, but gave no such means to humans. After realizing the error, the gods gave humanity one gift: a sense of justice. Protagoras connects this with a capacity for political life and the responsibilities and duties people have to one another. Plato did not endorse this view, even as he gave Protagoras ample space on which to express it; Professor Seal connects Plato’s attack of democracy to what he does with rhetoric in the Gorgias.

What is the connection between Plato’s animus against both rhetoric and democracy in Athens? Democracy in Athens seemed to have allowed unique conditions where rhetoric could flourish. Professor Murphy explained that the claim boiled down to the need for an ability, not knowledge. Socrates viewed this as a problem. “Plato is looking at what is happening in the real world,” Professor Murphy explained. “If you have a democracy in which people can represent themselves or represent ideas, who is to curtail their efforts to ‘enchant the souls’ of the listeners?” People like Gorgias claimed orators could speak on any subject without knowledge. One example is relying upon speakers to explain how to build buildings, rather than architects. Professor Murphy explained that anchors on the Sunday evening news offer the same, demonstrating an ability to explain things which they do not know through experience. Rhetoric is, therefore, a means to learn today so we can talk tomorrow. Through the character of Socrates, Plato demonstrated that some oratorical practitioners simply could not explain what they were doing.Plato tried to ask questions that make it possible to have the answers, rather than the other way around.

One attendee asked about the lack of separation between mind and soul in Greek thought, and why there was the assumption of knowledge and ethics as being the same. Professor Seal articulated that the moral philosophy of Socrates and ancient thinking is encapsulated in eudaimonism, which “does not distinguish between being good and being in a state of flourishing. There was no such thing as a conflict between the right thing to do and what was best for you.” Wrongdoing, then, has more negative implications for the person doing wrong because the well-being of their psyche is under threat, and the psyche is more important than the body. “The distinction between mind and soul is a modern one.”

Plato in his middle Dialogues challenged Socratic conceptions of the soul, which contend that the soul can have intellect or ignorance. Plato instead conceptualized the soul as having intellect, “fighting spirit” and appetites. Appetites were the nexus between soul and body and thus the lowest parts of the soul, while the intellect is the highest. “Plato in his middle works creates a psychology that allows for the possibility of knowing what the right thing to do is, but because the intellect isn’t fully in control of the other parts of the soul, there’s a possibility that you can nonetheless do something bad,” Professor Seal explained.

Another attendee commented on the danger of placing emphasis on intent instead of impact. Both conceptions–of Socrates and Plato alike–maximize the ill-effects of doing wrong on the one who did wrong rather than on the victim of that wrongdoing. A third attendee discussed the role of the listeners and how Socrates and Plato viewed them in their thinking about rhetoric. Professor Murphy stated that Plato ends up not liking rhetoric very much, but that it is important to talk about. “There’s an inscription in fifth-century Greece. It states: ‘he who does not study rhetoric will be the victim of it.’”

Email Rebekka Andersen (randersen@ucdavis.edu) to be placed on Rhetoric@Davis’ list and receive event notifications, including the upcoming winter quarter discussion on Aristotle.

–Ashley Serpa, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and PhD Candidate in History

This page was last updated: November 27, 2018



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