Abstract

This aim of this discussion is to provide a denotation for rhetoric according to Plato, discuss his reconciliation with Sophistic rhetoric, and consider his views from a Biblical perspective. Because Plato uses the Sophist’s definition of rhetoric as the negative denotation of Philosophy, it is essential to explain Sophists’ rhetoric first. Allowing Plato to have something to refute, and with which to struggle to redefine also puts focus on his motives for doing so. While it is clear that the Sophists’ use of rhetoric was as described as immoral and self-serving, Plato works to capitalize off of the persuasive value of rhetoric while reasoning that the additional focus on the search for truth, its connection to morality, and a foundation of spiritualism better the meaning of rhetoric and allows for a just use of rhetorical practices. Through the use of Socratic discussion, Plato’s dialogue, “Gorgias,” allows his teacher, Socrates, to speak for him. It is through a series of claims made by Socrates that tempt the reader to equate Plato’s efforts with Biblical Truths. Plato’s use of his type of rhetoric, in this case leaves the reader with a series of questions regarding his lack of exact reasoning in his most potent, though emotional claim tied to the preservation of the soul. It is likely to this reader that Plato intended to do so, that is to continue his dialogue by encouraging it to continue and causing it to become a longstanding discussion of Truth.

Sophistic rhetoric dismisses all truth by stating indignantly, “What of you?”; Plato’s philosophical rhetoric searches for Truth while pleading, “Where are you?” Plato warns his readers that rhetoric serves only to cloud our judgment, manipulate our moralistic values, defer our focus away from what is right and just, and ultimately destroy our souls. It is only through the use of rhetoric that is founded in transcendental truth and intended to improve the chances of our salvation that Plato finds value in this systematic use of language that relies heavily on the art of persuasion. Is his preferred method of rhetoric Biblical? Was Plato prepared to discuss and teach Truth comprehensively in the Biblical sense of the word? It is tempting to believe so, but this writer still has questions. Though Plato’s redefined and reconciled use of rhetoric has value in its moralistic and spiritual approach,  isn’t it more founded in fear than in love?

Plato fears the power of rhetoric as used by the Sophists. In “Gorgias,” we find that smaller arguments lead to his most passionate, that we must fear for our souls and that rhetoric is the path to our damnation. Plato defines rhetoric per his understanding of how it was used by the Sophists-as a systematic manipulation of beliefs used for personal and political gain, one in which the truth is either absent, or arbitrary, and always considered irrelevant. He viewed rhetoric as the negative denotation of Philosophy, the title of which he wore proudly. Just as the Sophists used rhetoric to suit their preferences, so did Plato by accepting and utilizing its power to change minds. To reconcile with this truth, Plato turns rhetoric’s purpose for use and its relationship to the truth to what he wanted for himself and for the others-the singular goal of saving our souls by teaching us how to govern ourselves so that we could also be better prepared to guide others.

To devalue the Sophist’s manipulation of rhetoric,  Plato uses reason and spirituality to criticize it and refuses to categorize it as an art-something that is worthy of and can and should be taught. In Plato’s dialogue, “Gorgias,” he uses a character representing his teacher/mentor, Socrates, to denote rhetoric as sycophancy.  “I call this sort of thing flattery, whether in relation to the body or to the soul or to anything else, whenever anyone ministers pleasure without regard for the better and the worse…” (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001, p. 122) “and I say that this sort of thing is a disgrace…because it aims at the pleasant and ignores the best; and I say it is not an art, but a habitude since it has no account to give of the real nature of things it applies, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them. I refuse to give the name of art to anything that is irrational” (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001, p. 98). His explanation of the proper use of rhetoric, however, may not appeal to all and runs the risk of weakening his argument in the mind of his readers, were it not based on such high, moral grounds-an valid emotional appeal, ironically. Plato adamantly prefers philosophy, based on reason and truth to rhetoric, and later claims it “noble -the endeavor that is, to make citizens’ souls as good as possible…whether it proves more or less pleasant to one’s hearers” (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001, p. 123). He is uninterested in whether or not the recipient is flattered, let alone satisfied as long as reason and the truth include themselves with rhetoric as a result of moralistic motivations. If God’s Truth defines faith as the opposite of reason and has no reliance on it, can we explain this part of his argument as Biblical? Or are we to admit that at times we use reason to justify our faith?

Does Plato successfully join faith and reason in his adaptation of rhetoric? For Plato, the concept of reason is attached to transcendental truth,  which he claims is vital for a healthy soul, and prevents damnation. He uses logic to prove the soul’s value. Plato argues that the soul is of more considerable significance than the body in that the body’s sole interest is in its earthly gratification (a reasonable argument). In the same dialogue, Socrates states that “Flattery [Sophist rhetoric according to Plato] is for mere gratification and pleasure and not good for the soul” (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001,p. 122). the best source of strength is goodness” [not our ability to manipulate others through rhetoric and the ignorance of truth].  “Rhetoric leads to the pursuit of pleasure, which weakens strength. It is only good when it enables just punishment on self or a loved one. It maintains the health of the soul, which is the greatest good” ( Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001, p.80).

Plato reasons here that the soul runs the body and that rhetoric is simply a branch of flattery that is destructive to both. The reference to sacrifice may lead the Christian reader to think of Jesus at this point. He sacrificed his body for our soul. Did Plato know of Jesus’ sacrifice when he wrote these dialogues? Could that have been a Biblical reference when it refers to the New Testament? If history is correct, it cannot. Is it still a Biblical perspective if Biblical knowledge of Jesus’ sacrifice was not available for the writer at the time? Or is it reasonable for us to connect the two? Is this an example of a “transcendental truth” that Plato claims we know before we are born?

Plato’s interest in transcendental truth furthers the temptation to claim a direct correlation between Plato’s view of rhetoric and Biblical teachings. Plato informs us that rhetoric can be mastered and used for his described form of a greater good only when its planted firmly on moral grounds-that is grounds fertilized by our search for Truth as we knew it before we were born. According to Plato, “transcendental truth exists and is accessible to human beings. We can recognize things because we knew them before our birth when our souls were with the divine. We have just forgotten them” ( Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001, p.80). Admittedly this argument relies more heavily on faith than on what we call reason and maybe a more complicated selling point for nonbelievers as it seems to fall back on itself. Does Plato mask this truth through his subtle use of rhetoric? Is the reader too busy keeping score in the verbal boxing matchings of his portrayed Socratic discussion to notice that no reasonable direct evidence is provided that proves we knew more before we were born than we do now? Perhaps some of us just missed those points in our readings, or maybe it calls for a modification of the term “reason” or claim as we use them today?

Plato’s definition of rhetoric and his search for truth and the preservation of the soul is undeniably attached to the fear of damnation and a Philosopher’s mission to save our souls. While this may be considered an admirable feat, is it that much different than a Sophist’s quest to get what he wants for himself and others, or to satiate his appetite and alleviate his fear of losing control of any given situation contextually judicial (but not limited to those in entirety)? Perhaps we should simplify Plato’s message and apply his summative advice to live a just and virtuous life, keep our souls healthy, and remember that all in power are [or at risk of becoming] corrupt, (Bizzell & Herzberg p.138) and that includes ourselves and the potential power that we have over one another. The rest we can leave to God’s word.

References:

Bizzell, P., & Herzberg, B. (2001c). Gorgias. In P. Bizzell & B. Herzberg (Eds.), The

rhetorical tradition: Readings from classical times to the present (2nd ed., pp.

42-44). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.