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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Jul 31, 2015

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.