Category: Plato in 80 entries

Plato and Rhetoric

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. 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 in the time of Plato himself.

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; 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 as well as of that of the subject under consideration.

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, 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. 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.

Author: CHLOE BALLA
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