Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Defining Moment

One of the most famous debunkings of rhetoric is found in Plato's Gorgias, and it is one philosophers like to ask me about. However, as I hope to show you, Plato doesn't debunk rhetoric in this dialogue, he simply chastices Gorgias and his followers for how they use rhetoric. But in order to win the debate, Plato uses tricks of definition, where he pretty much sets up artificial boundaries for what an art is and makes sure to place rhetoric firmly on the outside of it. Here's an example of how you can do this: "You claim to be a Christian. Christians generally believe in x, y, and z. You do not believe in z, therefore you are not a Christian but a heretic." The one who pushes for a definition obviously here has the greater power. In politics this same power-play can be seen when a Republican is accused of being a RINO (Republican in name only) which is very hard to refute since the one who makes the accusation also has the power to define what it means to be a "true Republican." The same power of definition is used by the left to label someone as "racist," "out of touch" or "Wall Street puppet."Here is an example of someone who definitely wants that power.

Socrates displays the rhetorical power of definition as he consistently challenges the explanations made by Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles about rhetoric until the definition is narrow and yet ambiguous enough for him to attack and discredit what Gorgias is practicing. Socrates sets some of the conditions for this victory early on, as he asks Gorgias to give brief answers, thereby of a necessity forcing oversimplified explanations to some complex questions. But the main condition for Socrates winning is that he is able to compare the work of the rhetorician to the arts of production, such as doctor, money-maker, and trainer, thereby forcing Gorgias to situate rhetoric within a category where it does not belong. This is then easily refutable, allowing Socrates to define rhetoric according to his preferences.

            The key passage which decides this outcome is on page 90, where Socrates challenges rhetoric by comparing it to medicine, training, and money-making and asks, “what is this thing that you say is the greatest good for men, and that you claim to produce?” Gorgias answers, “the ability to persuade” (91) and, when challenged further, that it is “the kind of persuasion . . . which you find in the law courts and in any public gatherings . . . and it deals with what is just and unjust” (92). After a few more questions, Socrates sums this point up: “Thus rhetoric, it seems, is a producer of persuasion for belief . . . in the matter of right and wrong” (92). Rhetoric must now 1. Produce the guaranteed outcome of persuasion like a sculptor produces a sculpture, and 2. Deal specifically with the subject matter of justice. These few lines have set the main tendencies in motion that will bring this dialogue to its now almost inevitable conclusion. The strongest defense Gorgias can muster comes on page 93 where he claims that rhetoric is a “neutral” art such as “boxing, wrestling, or fighting in armor,” and as such merely increases faculties innate in humans which can be used for good or evil. However, Gorgias has already undermined this point by claiming to produce persuasion about what is just or unjust. This clearly has ethical implications, which Socrates pursues until Gorgias submits that someone who produces persuasion about what is just or unjust first needs to know about the subject matter and be a just man himself. This then leads to the absurd conclusion that no unjust man could ever become a rhetorician or do rhetoric. 
Rhetoric as a producer of persuasion concerning justice is the most essential definition which Socrates is able to use in his favor. If rhetoric is able to produce persuasion about just and unjust, then this can be censured since it would seem to overrule judgment. Consequently, this definition is the first thing Aristotle refutes in his Rhetoric. Instead of accepting Socrates’ idea that all arts must only deal with one specific subject matter, Aristotle compares rhetoric with the art of dialectic: “Rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic. For both treat of such things as are in a way common for all to grasp and belong to no delimited science” (66). Rhetoric and dialectic are both general arts practiced by all people to some degree, and they can be improved by instruction and practice although they are used in many areas towards many separate outcomes. He also rejects the notion that all arts must produce something and that rhetoric is the production of persuasion: “Its function is not persuasion. It is rather the detection of the persuasive aspects of each matter and this is in line with all other skills” (69-70). In the same way, probably referring back to Gorgias, he claims medicine is not the ability to produce health but rather the art of knowing what may help someone feel better and what may not, and administer accordingly.

As the argument stands, without the help of Aristotle, Gorgias can no longer argue the case that rhetoric is a neutral art which simply increases abilities. Polus and Callicles go on to defend rhetoric by appealing to the power it brings as something inherently good for individuals, but none of these are difficult to refute on ethical grounds. Because rhetoric was defined as persuasion about what is just or unjust, Socrates correctly points out that this is really the realm of justice, and that in claiming to be about justice, without the knowledge of it, rhetoric is an impostor with form but without sound content. Thus, the only use Socrates initially assigns to it is that of flattery: tempting men to give in to the basest parts of their nature and seeking more to please than to edify.
However, Socrates seems to imply later on that it is the contemporary use rather than the nature of rhetoric which he has most distain for. He says man should “be the first accuser either of himself or of his relations, and [should] employ his rhetoric for the purpose of so exposing their iniquities that they may be relieved of that greatest evil, injustice” (109), and repeats the point at the end: “Rhetoric is to be used for this purpose always, of pointing to what is just” (138). In essence he agrees that rhetoric is neutral and can be used for either good or evil. 

So remember, the next time you hear someone being called something: "Who defined what that term means in this context?" and "What case could be made for this person not fitting into that category if 1. you look at other actions they have taken or 2. if you could make a different definition." Be aware of the defining moment.