Sunday, June 08, 2008

Rhetoric and Dialectic in Plato

This was a paper I wrote in 2002. It is a fairly typical discussion of Plato's Republic in relation to the rhetoric/dialectic controversy and nothing very interesting happens in it. However, for all it's typicality, it is still more or less right, just boring. So in this respect, it might be a useful rehearsal for those who aren't familiar with Platonic scholarship (some of which is in a lot of ways assumed in many of my other writings).

In the Republic, Socrates (as Plato’s mouthpiece) is attempting to define what justice is when he begins to describe a city. His hope is that if he can find justice writ-large in the city, he can then find what justice between individuals is. In this section of the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, Socrates uses an interesting rhetorical device: description/re-description. Socrates takes a description by Glaucon and re-describes it in his own terms. This simple rhetorical stratagem becomes interesting and problematic in light of Plato’s apparent relation to rhetoric in the Republic and elsewhere. We find that Plato continually disparages rhetoric and, in particular, its teachers, the Sophists. If we place Plato’s rhetorical device of description/re-description within a larger context of the nature of rhetoric and dialectic, we will find that Plato has an inherent tension between his espousal of dialectic and his use of rhetoric for which he never accounts. This tension produces two different definitions of dialectic: one as universal dialectic, the other as contingent dialectic. Plato espouses the first, but is continually in use of the second.

After Socrates and the others decide to find justice in the city, Socrates begins his “origin of cities” argument. He begins by saying that, “Society originates … because the individual is not self-sufficient, but has many needs which he can’t supply himself.”[1] (369b) Thus, the city or community is created out of necessity. People cannot survive on their own, so they form small communities to aid each other in survival. But then Socrates introduces the division of labor, the notion that people should specialize in that which they are best suited. “Quantity and quality are therefore more easily produced when a man specializes appropriately on a single job for which he is naturally fitted, and neglects all others.”[2] (370c) This inflates the population of Socrates’ formally small city of five into a community of many. This is Socrates’ healthy city or, in Solon’s sequence, the city of wealth or olbos.

Glaucon, however, interrupts and identifies this city as the city of pigs. (372d) The sequence of events that occur here is important. Socrates paints the picture of the city, Glaucon identifies it as the city of pigs, and Socrates then re-describes it as his healthy city. Glaucon then describes his luxurious city as having citizens who “recline in comfort on couches and eat off tables, and have the sort of food we have today.” (372d) Then, Socrates re-describes this city (“it will want couches and tables” (372e)) as a city with a fever, the city of koros. Socrates even quips, “With our new luxuries we shall need doctors too, far more than we did before.” (373d)

The struggle in this section is over who gets to identify the current description. If Glaucon had his way, Socrates’ healthy city would be a city fit for animals. Glaucon, clearly, is portrayed as an anti-primitivist. A tolerable, livable, civilized life begins with luxury. Socrates, on the other hand, is here portrayed as a primitivist, preferring a small, simple community and life. But this is simply one stage in a much larger argument for justice. Due to his superior dialectical agility and acumen, Socrates, as always, wins and moves on with his argument.

The rhetorical device used in this struggle proves interesting when sat side by side with Plato’s apparent distaste for rhetoric. In Book 6, Plato uses the allegory of a ship at sea to describe why philosophers are not the most important men in a state, in particular a democracy. The ship of state allegory is characterized by its three participants: the captain, the crew, and the navigators. Plato describes the captain as “larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short-sighted, and similarly limited in seamanship.” (488a-b) The crew spends all of its time “milling round the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm.” (488c) The true navigators, on the other hand, spend all of their time studying the weather and the stars. For this they are laughed at and reviled by the other crew. The allegory is simple: the captain is the voting populace, the crew represents the people running for office, and the true navigators are the philosophers. Where the philosophers actually know how to run a state, the crew is merely intent upon being put in charge to run the state. To do so they concentrate on trying to convince the captain to let them.

The moral of the story is that rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is bad because it allows ignorant people to sound like they are not ignorant. The crew can convince the captain to let them navigate, not because they know how to navigate, but because they portray themselves as knowing how to navigate. The ship of state allegory does not stop there, though. The crew are masters of rhetoric and the true navigators are masters of dialectic (as philosophers modeled after Plato). The implication of the allegory is that rhetoric is bad because it supersedes the dialectic.

The tension between Plato’s distaste of rhetoric and his use of it becomes all the stronger as we find that Plato uses rhetorical methods all the time. In fact, a fortiori, Plato’s most famous pieces of philosophy are rhetorical in nature. The dialectic is the rigorous method of reasoning upon which one can find the true definitions of things, thereby discovering its Form. For Plato, it was the sole method by which truth was attained. But here we have Plato consistently using analogies, allegories, metaphors, and narrative themes to great effect.

The purpose of the Republic is to find the Form of Justice. As has already been pointed out, Plato hopes to,

“find justice on a larger scale in the larger entity [the community], and so easier to recognize. I accordingly propose that we start our inquiry with the community, and then proceed to the individual and see if we can find in the conformation of the smaller entity anything similar to what we have found in the larger.” (368e-369a)

Plato wants to find something similar in community-justice to individual-justice. The entire argument of the Republic is cast in the form of an analogy between the two kinds of justice. An analogy is not a form of rigorous argumentation. An analogy is a pictorial or metaphorical mode of thinking.

Plato also uses allegories everywhere. There’s the allegory of the cave and ship of state in the Republic[3], the allegory of the charioteer in the Phaedrus[4], and, its been argued, the entire Phaedrus as a whole.[5] Allegories are clearly not included in the dialectic. Allegories are stories or narratives that carry a second metaphorical meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words. Plato also uses simpler metaphors as in the origin of cities argument. The “city of pigs” is not literally a city filled with pigs. Though this metaphor is introduced by Glaucon, Plato re-describes the metaphor in terms of the sickness or health of a city and ends with the metaphorical doctor of the city, in the form of the philosopher-king.

Finally, and most ambiguously, is Plato’s relation to writing. Christopher Norris, in Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, points out that in the Phaedrus writing is,

“the dangerous ‘supplement’ which lures language away from its authentic origins in speech and self-presence. To commit one’s thoughts to writing is to yield them up to the public domain, to risk being misconstrued by all the promiscuous wiles of interpretation. Writing is the ‘death’ that lies in wait for living thought, the subtle agent of corruption whose workings infect the very sources of truth. Plato’s case against rhetoric is therefore of a piece with his attitude to writing. Both are seen as the rebellious servant to a master (truth or dialectic) whose authority they flout by setting themselves up as alternative paths to wisdom.”[6]

But here we have Plato’s vast body of writing. And not only did Plato commit his own thoughts to writing, he committed the thoughts of his beloved master, Socrates. The strength of this ambiguity between Plato’s professed distaste for writing and the existence of his own writing takes on new proportions when we consider the fact that Plato is no slouch when it comes to writing. Plato is considered an unexcelled Greek writer. The Republic is not only a series of metaphors and allegories within an overarching analogy, the entire narrative of the Republic is framed in a katebasis motif. As Voegelin says, “The first chapter of the Republic sets the dialogue into motion. Its opening passage … assembles symbols that recur in its course. And the first word, kateben (I went down), sounds the great theme that runs through it to its end.”[7] The theme suggests that saving knowledge is attained in another world and that one must go there to receive it. In the Republic, Socrates goes down to the harbor and engages in the argument for true knowledge of justice and so then returns with his friends back up to Athens.[8] This theme is even mirrored in the allegory of the cave.[9]

All of this suggests that Plato and Socrates were both distrustful of rhetoric and concurrently quite good at it. Many scholars have pointed out that Socrates is actually quite closer to his professed enemies, the Sophists, practitioners and teachers of rhetoric, then Plato would have liked. W. T. Jones says, in The Classical Mind, “[Socrates] must have seemed to his fellow citizens more like a Sophist than anything else.”[10] In the Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, Eduard Zeller says,

“Socrates had much in common with the Sophists; first a critical attitude towards everything that seemed to be founded merely on tradition; further the chief object of his thought—man as knowing, active, social being; thirdly, that in his philosophic reflections he always started from experience.”[11]

But as Paul R. Helsel says, “Socrates was born among the Sophists, he was educated by the Sophists, he used the method of the Sophists, but Socrates was not a sophist.”[12] The difference is that the Sophists did not believe in an ultimate truth, but Socrates (or, at least Plato’s Socrates) did.

The interesting inconsistency of Plato’s distaste for rhetoric and his use of it becomes even more problematic in light of this last statement: “he used the method of the Sophists.” This seems to obscure the line between dialectic and rhetoric, the method of Socrates and the method of the Sophists. The line blurs even further when we take into account Golden, Berquist, and Coleman’s rendering of Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus in The Rhetoric of Western Thought. They characterize the Gorgias as a study of false rhetoric. “Rhetoric … was a pseudo-art of appearances rather than a vehicle for conveying truth.”[13] In the Phaedrus, on the other hand, Plato articulates “true rhetoric.”

“The second or ‘true rhetoric’ he himself exemplified. The rhetoric he embraced was truthful, self-effacing, and real. Plato’s noble lover [true rhetorician] was part philosopher, part logician, part psychologist. He must know the truth. He must be a master of dialectic, the Platonic instrument for the discovery and dissemination of the truth.”[14]

The problem with this description of “true rhetoric” is that it sounds exactly like the dialectic. In a systematic diagram of Plato’s true rhetoric, Golden, Berquist, and Coleman define rhetoric as “the art of winning the Soul by discourse” and that “it’s one and the same for every type of speaking.”[15] If that is not Plato’s definition of dialectic, then classicists have been translating dialektikē wrong for a long time.[16] Alongside this seeming equivocation of rhetoric and dialectic come the claims of Socrates and Plato being rhetoricians themselves.[17] So what exactly is going on here? The difficulty in placing Socrates and Plato as rhetoricians or not exists because of equivocations in defining dialectic. There are, in effect, two definitions co-existing at the same time: Sophistic dialectic and Platonic dialectic.

Sophistic dialectic is closely aligned to the original translation of the word dialektikē: the art of conversation or discourse. Following Protagoras’ famous saying, “Man is the measure of all things,” Sophistic dialectic depends on who the conversers are. Because of this, it is also contingent upon the conversers’ cultural background and place in history. Two Greek men from 440 BCE are going to have a much different dialectic then two American men from 2002 CE. Sophistic dialectic is a contingent, historicized dialectic. Definitions produced by the dialectic are stipulative, nominal definitions. Dialectic, in this light, is usually thought of as a branch of rhetoric.[18] Platonic dialectic, on the other hand, is the sole method towards universal truth. It’s “one and the same for every type of speaking.” It’s “the only procedure which proceeds by the destruction of assumptions to the very first principle, so as to give itself a firm base.” (533c-d) Platonic dialectic is a universal, eternal dialectic and is properly thought of as a branch of logic (or vice versa).

With these two concepts we can see two things happening in the Platonic dialogues. When a Sophist enters into an argument with Socrates, he is arguing contingently. He uses all of his rhetorical skills and abilities to win and, if he were to win, the position that won wouldn’t be ultimate “Truth”, but rather simply “true” of this particular moment. When Socrates enters into an argument, he also uses all of his rhetorical skills and abilities to win. However, the position Socrates is ultimately arguing for is the enshrinement of the Truth. Socrates is entering into a contingent dialectic to enshrine universal dialectic. Along the way, Socrates began to distinguish between good rhetoric and bad rhetoric, good dialectic and bad dialectic. Good rhetoric became simply dialectic and bad rhetoric became rhetoric. And because Socrates was so good at the branch of rhetoric known as dialectic, he won. At the very least, this is bad faith on the part of Socrates.

It is in this light, in the context of a battle over the definition of rhetoric and dialectic, a battle of competing descriptions of rhetoric and dialectic, that we should view his use of the rhetorical device of description/re-description. For, if viewed in this light, we can see Socrates using the same rhetorical tricks and gambits as that of his enemy, the Sophists, all the while denying its use and instead placing the success of his victories on the mantle of dialectic. As Norris says of Nietzsche:

“The dialectical method of eliciting ‘truth’ from a carefully contrived encounter of wisdom and ignorance was – according to Nietzsche – no more than a rhetorical ploy. Its persuasiveness, however, was such as to monopolize for itself all claims to reason, dignity and truth. … Behind all the big guns of reason and morality is a fundamental will to persuade which craftily disguises its workings by imputing them always to the adversary camp. … If anything, the sophist comes closer to wisdom by implicitly acknowledging what Socrates has to deny: that thinking is always and inseparably bound to the rhetorical devices that support it.”[19]

In this sense, dialectic is a tool of repression in the rhetorical game of persuasion. Dialectic forces people down one path of argumentation. Socrates’ game is to get his opponent to accept the opening points of his argument, force his opponent through a labyrinth of logic, and any objection he re-describes to either discredit it or force his opponent back into the labyrinth, thus fueling Socrates’ own argument. Norris describes a scene where

“Socrates is shown running circles of argument round one of their [sophists’] number in Plato’s dialogue The Gorgias. Here dialectic wins out, as always, by placing its questions with strategic skill and forcing the opponent into a position of weakness on Socrates’ terms.”[20]

This isn’t to say that the Sophists aren’t engaged in the same program. They also enter into the dialectic in the hopes of winning. However, their ultimate goal is not the enshrinement of some universal truth. Their goal is contingent upon the moment, as per their understanding of rhetoric and dialectic.

If we interpret dialectic the way Plato would want us to, as the logic of universals, the path to the Forms, then conflict occurs with other pieces of Platonic argumentation. However, if we interpret dialectic in Plato as a branch of rhetoric, as simply the historically contingent discourse of a particular time and place, then the problems with Platonic allegory and metaphor disappear, but we are left without universal Forms, which are instrumental to Plato’s systematic philosophy. Thus we have two descriptions of dialectic. If we take dialectic as the universal method towards truth, we must reject Plato as a practicioner because of his continued aberrations into rhetoric. However, if we take dialectic as a branch of rhetoric, contingent upon its every use, a description that Plato seems to, in some sense, have understood in his equivocation of rhetoric and dialectic in the Phaedrus, we will see how Plato was attempting to enshrine a method of truth by any means at his disposal. The use of description/re-description in the opening sections of the Republic is just one of many examples.

[1] All quotations of the Republic are from the Desmond Lee translation.

[2] It should be noted that this is the first appearance of Plato’s conception of justice. Compare “… a man specializes appropriately on a single job for which he is naturally fitted, and neglects all others.” (370c) with Plato’s ultimate construction “… justice consists in minding your own business and not interfering with other people.” (433b) The common principle to both is that a person should mind their own business and do their own thing. Plato seems to want us to believe that this justice is then naturally emergent, but, argumentatively speaking, it is not good policy to use what you are trying to prove in the proof, i.e. from a dialectical standpoint, Plato is begging the question. This becomes apparent at 374a when Glaucon asks if the people could not fight for themselves if attacked by another state. Socrates replies, “Not if the principle, on which we all, yourself included, agreed when we started constructing our state, is sound. And that was, if you remember, that one man could not do more than one job or profession well.” (374a) It is quite clear, at this point, that Plato is constructing a dialectical argument for justice. And since Plato’s professed method towards truth, in general, is the dialectic, this provision in the “origin of cities” argument becomes suspect. He is supposed to be proving his principle, not assuming it. However, as a rhetorical description of the origin of society, it proves effective or, at the least, relatively inoffensive.

[3] Book 7 and 6 respectively.

[4] 246a-247b

[5] James L. Golden, Goodwin F. Berquist, and William E. Coleman, The Rhetoric of Western Thought, (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1976), 20

[6] Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, (New York: Routledge, 1982), 63

[7] Eric Voegelin, “The Way Up and the Way Down”, in History-208 Course Packet, (Spring 2002), 139 (originally in the third volume of Voegelin’s Order and History)

[8] ibid.

[9] In the allegory of the cave, the katebasis theme is reversed so that the prisoner breaks free and travels up out of the cave, receives knowledge, and then travels back down to the cave, rather than down to the harbor for knowledge and up to Athens to spread it.

[10] W. T. Jones, The Classical Mind, (New York: Harcourt, 1952), 110

[11] Eduard Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, (New York: Meridian Books, 1955), 118

[12] Paul R. Helsel, “Early Greek Moralists,” in History of Philosophical Systems, ed. Vergilius Ferm, (Paterson: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1961), 89

[13] Golden, Berquist, and Coleman, 20

[14] ibid., 25

[15] ibid., 26

[16] “Dialectic, in fact, is the only procedure which proceeds by the destruction of assumptions to the very first principle, so as to give itself a firm base.” (533c-d) The main thing to stress here is that dialectic is “the only procedure” and the first principle spoken of is the Form of the Good which orients the Soul.

[17] This includes Nietzsche’s attack, being “not to deny the potential aberrations of rhetoric but to argue, on the contrary, that Socrates himself is a wily rhetorician who scores his points by sheer tactical cunning.” (Norris, 61)

[18] Take for example, dialectic’s submersion under rhetoric in The Aims of Argument: A Brief Rhetoric: “The ancient Greeks called argument as inquiry dialectic; today we might think of it as dialogue, or serious conversation.” As a branch of rhetoric, dialectic becomes one of many avenues of inquiry, though for Plato, dialectic was the only avenue towards truth.

[19] Norris, 60-1

[20] ibid., 60

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