The quarrel between philosophy and rhetoric is to a large extent a product of the educational rivalry that took place in the fourth century; the protagonists of this rivalry were Plato and Isocrates. We cannot be sure that the individuals that later tradition describes as orators in fact defined themselves in this way; In fact, we cannot rule out that the term orator was invented by Plato himself in the course of the relevant educational rivalry.

Early rhetoric

According to a widespread view (traced back to Cicero, Brutus 46), rhetoric begun in Sicily, in the first decades of the fifth century B.C., and was tied to the judicial needs that arose after the Tyrants’ fall; But also that the development of rhetoric is related to the democratic institutions, as well as to the broader intellectual life, of Athens, which, in the middle of this century, became a meeting point for the so-called Sophists, experts in speech making and teaching. Most prominent among them was Gorgias, the author of the Encomium to Helen, which is regarded as the first manifesto of rhetoric. The text is dominated by the idea that the listener of a rhetorical speech functions in a passive way (if Helen was persuaded, the responsibility is not hers: speech is described as a powerful master who, having the smallest body, brings about the most divine deeds). It is quite likely that men like Gorgias were not interested in the moral consequences of their work: what they advertised and taught was no more than a tool that one could use for any goal one wished.

Plato’s criticism


Some decades after his death, Plato devotes to Gorgias the dialogue which attributes to him the first extant definition of rhetoric. According to this definition, rhetoric is the artificer of persuasion, in fact of belief-instilling, as opposed to didactic, persuasion. Some scholars have argued that not just the definition, but the very term ‘rhetoric’, is invented by Plato, who uses it in order to mark the distance that separates philosophy from the teaching of people like Gorgias, in the time of Socrates, or of people like Isocrates (the most obvious target of the dialogue’s polemic), in the time of Plato himself. Sharing the broader prejudice against the demagogues that one finds among many of the critics of the Athenian Democracy in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, Plato presents Gorgias as a man who has not thought through the moral presuppositions of the art he professes to practice; and he presents Gorgias’ followers as flatterers, people who are driven by the experience they gain as they observe what is appealing to their audience. Plato’s distinction between didactic and belief-instilling persuasion indicates his own reaction against the statesman of the Athenian Democracy (this reaction is particularly prominent in the Menexenus), including even Pericles, who, according to Thucyides, instructed his audience.


Compared to the earlier Gorgias, the Phaedrus, a text that belongs in the group of Plato’s later dialogues, presents a more compromising attitude toward a kind of rehabilitated rhetoric. Here rhetoric is not primarily associated with assembly speeches (as was the case in the Gorgias); Socrates in the Phaedrus describes rhetoric as a kind of leading of the soul through words, in the course of which the orator is required to know the nature of the particular interlocutor (this requirement ties in with the dialogue’s interest in the study of the psyche as well as of erotic love) as well as of that of the subject under consideration. In fact it seems that Plato turns on the intellectual artillery of image and paradigm in order to argue that the plausibility that is obtained through the arguments from probability [eikos] must rely on the existence of a higher reality, which is reflected on the eikota in an internally consistent way. By stressing the dependence of rhetoric on philosophy, Plato wishes to undermine the value of logographers such as Lysias (it is Phaedrus’ admiration for a speech written by Lysias that triggers the discussion of the particular dialogue) or Isocrates (the enigmatic reference to his name marks the end of the dialogue).

Many scholars of ancient philosophy see the Phaedrus as a bridge that connects Plato to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. And yet the requirement for knowledge of the soul of the addressee, as well as the critique of writing that comes a little before the end of the dialogue, suggest that this reading is unsatisfactory: dominant in Plato’s approach is the value he gives to personal interaction, which could never be replaced by a written text. On the other hand, it is clear that this kind of criticism does not leave Plato’s own work immune.

Plato as a rhetor

Just as the criticism of poetry, so also the criticism of rhetoric leads us to an aporia, concerning Plato’s own attitude as an author. It is plausible to suggest that his own texts have a rhetorical function: addressing a new kind of audience that reacts to arguments in a distanced, sober manner (this is a feature that, according to Plato’s criticism was missing from the exercise of rhetoric in the context of the institutions of the Athenian Democracy), the dialogues exercise a protreptic role: even if they do not turn their listener into a philosopher, they still direct him toward the values and the way of philosophical life.

Appropriation of the techniques of persuasion

Plato’s attitude toward the art of rhetoric and its rehabilitation through the terms that he himself sets in his dialogues, allows him to assimilate its techniques, beyond the more obvious realm of his writing capacity. Thus the main speaker of the Timaeus, having no access to certain knowledge on the subject matter, will turn to the artillery of rhetoric and resort to a likely account [eikos logos] in order to account for the making of the cosmos; While the concept of the preambles, the introductory rhetorical argumetation through which citizens are persuaded to obey the law will be singled out as the most original contribution of the Laws.

Author: Chloe Balla
  • Yunis, H. Taming Democracy. Models of Political Rhetoric in Classical Athens. Ithaca, NY and London, 1996.
  • Yunis, H. "The Protreptic Rhetoric of Plato’s Republic." Ferrari, G. R.F. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic. 2007.
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