Mere Rhetoric

Gorgias podcast




Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, terms and movements who have shaped Rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and I have--




Big news! Thanks the generous support of the University of Texas Humanities Project, you may notice that this is a beautiful recording. We’ve got a real microphone and not just my iPhone and a real editor and not just—me. So it sounds nice, yeah? That means we’ll be rerecording and rebroadcasting Vintage Mere Rhetoric in this snazzy, cleaned up and impressive new form as well as recording all our new episodes this way.




Tell us what you think about the new quality and suggest new episodes, because summer reruns are what?—the worst. Our email address is mererhetoricpodcast, all one word, at gmail. I totally read every email I get and it can change how the series goes, so that’s internet fame for you.




For instance, remember how listener Greg Gibby recommended we do a series or a countdown and now we’re counting down the villians of rhetoric?






In our “Villans of rhetoric” series we met the taxonomy-obsessed Peter Ramus and the monarchy-loving Thomas Hobbes. We heard arguments against rhetoric by a cast of Renaissance naysayers of smooth sayers and the Enlightenment criticism of rhetoric. Now we have the number one villain of rhetoric on today’s show.




Okay, so here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, who is the villainous villain of rhetoric? Well. Socrates.


P-what? Yes, the guy featured in the Phaedrus, which not only defended rhetoric, but suggested a broader application of rhetoric, one that includes the private as well as the public stage. But while Socrates wants a more inclusive rhetoric in the phaedrus, in the Gorgias, he vehemnetally opposes the exclusive, political or demonstrative forms of rhetoric.




Gorgias is a dialogue writing by plato, which, like all dialoges is named after the main interlocutor, in this case the great sophist, Gorgias. Gorgias was a rock star rhetor. He gave sold-out performances of speeches that were counter intuitive. We’ll talk more about Gorgias in the future, but for now all you need to know is he was fabulously wealthy because of his rhetoric and people wanted to make gold statues of him. So there you have that.




When Socrates confronts Gorgias about his field, he’s taking on THE rhetor of the day.


Socrates interrogates Gorgias in order to determine the true definition of rhetoric, framing his argument around the question format, "What is X?" (2).[1] He asks, "…why don’t you tell us yourself what the craft you’re an expert in is, and hence what we’re supposed to call you?" (449e). He also challenges Gorgias on the immorality of rhetoric. Socrates gets Gorgias to admit that “effecting persuasion in the minds of an audience” is the only function of rhetoric (13).  There’s no sense that rhetorical thought can lead to any discovery or invention itself—which is quite different from the view of rhetoric as private as well as public and inspirational; the view of The Phaedrus.  So, rhetoric relies on duping the non-expert, over an expert (459a).  This creates immoral power differences. How can a teacher teach students to mislead people?




While it is true that rhetoric is amoral, it is not true that rhetoric is necessarily immoral. The best analogy of what rhetoric is in this dialogue is that of the boxer.  This is the example that Gorgias uses to defned teaching rhetoric—the trainer of the boxer isn’t responsible for making someone a bruiser and a bully because that boxer could also use his skills to defend women, children and small animals.




Gorgias is correct that the teacher is not ultimately responsible for the student’s morality. But additionally, the ability to fight well is one that, especially in Greek culture, was one that was without intrinsic right or wrong. It is right that people who can fight should fight to defend their country, their family, or a weak innocent. It is wrong that a person should use that same set of skills to harm the previously mentioned groups, in fact the action becomes treason, abuse and bullying, respectively. But fighting can also be neither good nor bad, as in the case of boxing exhibitions and competitions, which is only fighting for entertainment. With rhetoric, it is similar.




Another metaphor Gorgias and Scorates argue over is that of cookery. Socrates says that rhetoric is like good cooking, which makes things pleasant to the patient, instead of medicine, which tastes terrible, but is healthy. Nutrition arguments aside, Socrates doesn’t think about how if cookery could make medicine taste better, the people who need to take medicine would be more willing to do so. And while cookery’s capacity to do real good may depend on medicine, without cookery medicine might not be able to do any good if the patient is entirely unwilling to take it. This is the smaller argument for rhetoric that Socrates eventually makes. His view of rhetoric is that it “isn’t concerned with all speech” (7), isn’t the “only agent of persuasion” (15), and is only about serving other, deeper knowledges. Socrates concludes that rhetoric can maybe be okay as long as it is “used in the service of right,” like an appendage or ornament (527c).




At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates made him promise that he would engage in dialogue (Socrtate’s speacialty) and not launch into speechmaking, which is Gorgias’ strong point. As usual,, though, Socrates dominates the conversation while insisting Gorgias is restricted to yes or no statements. It’s kind of playing dirty.


Eventually Gorgias gets either bored or frustrated and just leaves Scorates—who can blame him? That leaves Socrates to debate with Gorgias’ disciples, who are less principled than their teacher.




First he talks with Polus


Polus states that rhetoric is indeed a craft, but Socrates replies, "To tell you the truth, Polus, I don't think it's a craft at all" (462b). The dialogue continues:


"POLUS: So you think oratory's a knack?


SOCRATES: Yes, I do, unless you say it's something else.


POLUS: A knack for what?


SOCRATES: For producing a certain gratification and pleasure" (462c).


Socrates continues to argue that rhetoric is not an art, but merely a knack: "…it guesses at what's pleasant with no consideration for what's best. And I say that it isn't a craft, but a knack, because it has no account of the nature of whatever things it applies by which it applies them, so that it’s unable to state the cause of each thing" (465a).


Callicles is a Neizche  in embryo. He argues that might makes might and that suffering wrong is worse than doing it. He says enslaving people, killing and pillaging is only by convention shameful, and it is not wrong by nature. Nature says that if you can take it, you should take it. Pretty much he’s a bully.




There’s an argument implied by the way that Socrates begins by debating someone who is benevolent, if a little spacy and then by following his students and colleagues discovers that those who follow rhetoric’s precepts eventually descend into immoral cruely.






This dialogue had HUGE influence on the attitudes towards rhetoric. All the good platonists said, “nope, I can’t like rhetoric—it’s tricky and not universal and leads to tyranny.” In fact, most of our villians of rhetoric have directly mentioned Socrates as a source for why rhetoric is immoral, or else they have alluded to his same arguments about the lawlessness, fickleness or violence of rhetoric. Strangely, a lot of Socrates’ claims later show up in Phaedrus’ mouth, so he ends up contradicting himself later in the Phaedrus.




Also Aristotle and Cicero will have to respond to the claims that Socrates makes in the Gorgias about the social use of rhetoric—Cicero especially demands the kind of expertise in other topics that Socrates claims is missing. To be fair, Socrates’ complaints against rhetoric seem valid. But just that he’s attacking what we might see as the very worst of bad rhetoric, which leaves him open to change his position in the Phaedrus to accept a new definition of rhetoric.






Direct download: 01_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Gorgias_Edit_2.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 9:28am CST


“Today,” I.A. Richards begins his 1936 lectures, rhetoric “is the dreariest and least profitable part of the waste that the unfortunate travel through in Freshman English! So low has Rhetoric sunk that we would do better just to dismiss it to Limbo than to trouble ourselves with it--unless we can find reason for believing that it can become a study that will minister successfully to important needs” (3). this is just what Richards sets out to do in a series of lectures at Bryn Mawr that eventually became the thin book The Philosophy of Rhetoric.


For Richards, a literary scholar by training and one of the founders of the Close REading and New Criticism, rhetoric had been for too long about disputes and argumentation. Instead he proposes that rhetoric should be “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies” and investigation in “How much and in how many ways may good communication differ from bad?” To this end, the proposes a sort of philological rhetoric, one where there is to be “persistent, systematic, detailed inquiry into how words work that will take the place of the discredited subjuect which goes by the name Rhetoric” (23). This description may rankle contemporary rhetoricicans. We like argumentation, and resist the idea that what we should be doing sounds like the very work schoolmarmn sentence diagramming, but Richards recognized that the way words work cannot be divorced from society.


But Ricahrds also broadened the idea of what rhetoric could be--not just strict argumentation, but an exporation of all language. “Perausion is just one of the aims of discourse” he writes. “It poaches on others.” This opens up rhetoric to more than argumentation, and Richards’ focus on words, words, words does not come at the expense of thinking about meaning.


In fact, he derides what he calls the Proper Meaning Superstitution, the fallacious ida that “a word has a meaning of its own (ideally, only one) independent of and controlling its use and purpose for which it should be uttered” (11).

Instead “What a word means is the missing parts of the contexts from which it draws its delegated efficacy” (35). It’s all context.


In order to illustrate the importance of context, Richards gives the example of the metaphor, one of the four master tropes. He separates the metaphor into its two parts: the tenor and vehicle. the tenor is the thing behind the metaphor and the vehicle is the means of conveying it. So if I said love is a battlefield, love is the tenor and battlefield is the vehicle. That girl is a firework. girl is tenor, firework is the vehicle. So far so good? So metaphors, Richards says, “may work admirably without our being able with any confidence to say how ti works or what is the ground of the shift.” Richards gives his own, slightly outdated example “If we call some one a pig or a duck, for example, it si little use looking for some actual resemblance toa  pig or a duck as the ground. We do not call someone a duck ro imply that she has a bill and paddles or is good to eat” (117). Little venture into canniblistic imagry there, I.A., but, of course, we call someone a duck becuase they are “charming and delightful”--or we could call someone a duck if we were a little more british. But the duck example highlights that while some metaphors work because of a “direct remblance” between the tenor and the vehicle and sometimes because of a similar attitutude to both--love is like a battlefield because there are similar feelings to being at war and being in love. This all sounds like a lot of poetics, but it demonstrates Richards concern for the very small elements of communication.


Words are vitally important, down to the detail, for Richards. “Words are the meeting points at which regions of experience which can never combine in sensation or intuition, come together. They are the occasion and the means of that growth which is the mind's endless endeavor to order itself. That is why we have language. It is no mere signalling system. It is the instrument of all our distinctively human development, of everything in which we go beyond the other animals." (131)


Ultimately, he envisions a philosophical restructuring of rhetoric were “we may in time learn so much about words that they will tell us how our minds work” (136). Further, he goes on “It seems modest and reasonable to combine these dreams and hope that a patient persistence with the problems of Rhetoric may, while exposing the causes and modes of the misinterpretation  of words, also throw light upon and suggest a remdial discipline for deeper and more grievous disorders; that, as the mall and local errors in our everday misunderstandings with language are models in miniature of the greater errors which disturb the development of our personalities, their study may also show us more about how these large scale disasters may be avoided (136-7). The man who pioneered New Criticism proposes a New Rhetoric beyond argumentation.


for all that, you won’t read much rhetorical scholarship pulling on Richards. Back in 1997, Stuart C Brown pointed out that while most rhetoric students read the Philosophy of Rhetoric, or at least excerpts of it, rhetorical scholars don’t really pay much attention to Richards. Maybe they have a word or two of “faint praise” and ackowledge him as part of our tradition, but they don’t spend much time on him. Brown thinks this is a mistake and that Ricahrds “ established the basic argument for establishing a truly new rhetoric” (219) By acknowledging the multiplicity of meanings, the instabliity of langauge, Richards opens up space for rhetorical interpretation. Brown makes an indepth defense of the value of Richards’ work. But still, 1997 was a long time ago and Richards still hasn’t come to the forefront as a rhetorical influence.


that being said, we’ll get to spend a little more time with Richards, because next week we’re going to talk about Richard’s other major work--the Meaning of Meaning--so get ready to get hipster about your rhetorical theoretians next time on Mere Rhetoric.

Direct download: Richards_Philosophy_of_Rhetoric.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 1:11pm CST

When I was a kid, I bickered a lot with my brother Dave. Dave is three years older than me, which meant he was farther along in school and knew more things. This bothered me, so if he said something, I said the opposite. If he said that hippos were more dangerous than lions, then I had to prove that lions were more dangerous than hippos. If he said that indoor games were better than outside, I have to prove that outside were better than inside. Sometimes, like boxers circling eachother, we would switch positions and suddenly I was arging for hippos and indoor games and Dave was arguing for lions and outdoor games. It must have driven my mother crazy, especially on a long Sunday afternoon, but it turns out that what Dave and I were do has a long tradition in rhetorical education. We just didn’t have a word for it yet—dissoi logoi.




Dissoi logoi means “contrasting arguments” in Greek. You can sort of tease that out from the root word for “dissent” and “logos.” It goes really really far back, and we don’t know who came up with the first time, but the idea is that you argue your opponent’s position to better understand your own. There are two ways to practice dissoi logoi. One is the way I did as a 7 year old, by having an interlocutor and then switching positions. This method works great for school kids all learning together and you can see this practice in speech and debate classes even today. You research and write and then argue your heart out and then after you finish, the teacher holds up their hands and says, “Okay, switch.” When I argued what Dave would said, I’d know how to respond to his arguments, because I have heard his arguments.




The other way to practice dissoi logoi is to do it all yourself. You run through all the arguments on one side and then you run through all the arguments on the other side. You’re arguing with yourself in a sense. There’s a philosophical and cynical view to the practice of dissoi logoi. If you’re cynical you might say that this is an example of the relativism of the sophists at the worst. This is what people hate about lawyers and sophists—they don’t really care about the argument, but they only care about the language and winning, so they could arguing one thing just as impassioned as the other. It looks like you are two-faced or insincere if you can switch from caring deeply about one side and then, on the turn of a dime, care just as deeply about the other side. But the philosophical perspective sees dissoi logoi as an exercise for coming at a truthier truth. In fact, another term for dissoilogoi is dialexis, and the term is related to dialectic—the opposing forces method of getting at truth espoused by Socrates, Plato and other heavy hitters of classical Athens.




The practice of Dissoi Logoi is articulated in a text called the Dissoi Logoi, which was found at then end of a much later manuscript, and wasn’t published until the renaissance.  It was proably written around 425 BC, based on its references to historical figures and style of writing. The Dissoi logoi looks like student notes, which is what a lot of rhetorical tezts are, but there’s no way of saying it was one thing or another for certain, and we don’t know whose class the author was sitting in. It kicks off by saying that good and bad “are the same thing, and that the same thing is good for some but bad for others, or at one time good and at another time bad for the same person.” All of this is to say that some actions have different moral weight, depending on who you are and under what circumstances you engage in them. Then follows a series of examples—in sports, a certain outcome will be good for one team, but bad for the other; shoddy workmanship is bad for customers and good for the manufacturers, etc. The same event could be good or bad depending on who experiences it. Then there’s a list of the circumstances which are shameful in one setting and praiseworthy in another, like ow for Spartans, girls would walk around bare armed or naked while Ionians would never. You can kind of imagine a list of examples from an instructor. And some of the examples seem awfully sensational—not just regular suicide, murder, exhibitionis, and adultery, but drinking from your enemies’ skulls and eating your parents and cross dressing and incest. It’s all these off-color examples that make me think the Dissoi Logoi was an educational text—nothing gets kids’ attention like sex and violence.




And as a bit of a tangent, the question of education comes up explicitly at the end of the tract, where the question is asked whether wisdom and moral excellence can be taught. The author takes care not to claim that wisdom can be taught, but dismantles the arguments against such an education and argues for the ideal of the person who can “converse in brief questions and answers, to know the truth of things to please one’s cause correctly, to be able to speak in public, to have an understanding of argument-skills and to teach people about the nature of everything” (8.1). Oh, if that’s all an education takes… But it sounds a lot like the education  which Cicero describes in the dialogs on the Orator.




It doesn’t seem like a big stretch to say that two thinkers could have independently come up with the idea that the best education would be to know everything, but there’s also a possibility that the ideas of the dissoi logoi made it over to Roman thought. But heading back the other way, there may have just been a common ideal floating around in the Greco-Roman world. So did the Dissoi Logoi influence Cicero?




Yes, I think, and no. Whatever one Dave doesn’t think.


Direct download: dissoi_logoi.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 10:38am CST