The Struggle of Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy: Europe’s Ambivalent Heritage
The New Europe at the Crossroads (Part IV)

August 11, 2000
M.A.R. Habib
Rutgers University

In its origins, rhetoric was an integral part of the political process in ancient Greece, especially in Athens and Syracuse of the fifth century B.C. It has long been acknowledged that rhetoric has profound and perhaps intrinsic ties to the political system of democracy. The ability to express oneself independently and articulately, whether in speech or in writing, has always been held to be one of the foundation stones of democracy. The mastery and control of language lie at the heart of the political process, and this centrality is most profoundly evident in a political democracy.

Modern Europe’s inheritance from classical rhetoric is profound and pervasive. Rhetoric has played a central role in politics and law; its influence in education is still visible in its continued domination of the teaching of composition. Moreover, it has recently exercised a renewed impact on the vast area of cultural and critical theory, spanning numerous disciplines. This rhetorical heritage, however, has been countered by a long tradition of philosophy which has seen itself as devoted to the rational pursuit of truth, the definition of the good life and happiness; in short, the mainstream European philosophical tradition has tended to reject rhetorical considerations of style, passion, effect on audience, in favour of an emphasis on content.

This paper will trace the conflict of philosophy and rhetoric back to its locus classicus, viz. Plato’s dialogues Georgias and Phaedrus. It will attempt to define the central intellectual and political issues of the conflict. Finally, I will suggest how in much European thought, rhetorical and philosophical elements exist in an uneasy harmony.

Given that public speaking and public discourse were so vital in ancient Athens, there emerged a group of professional teachers of the art of rhetoric. The enterprise of these first teachers or Sophists was to teach the art of rhetoric for use in the courts, the legislature, political forums as well as for philosophical reflection and debate. The influence of the Sophists became so pervasive that rhetoric came to assume a central role in Greek education. It would be misleading to view the Sophists as having brought rhetoric to Athens; they were merely responding to the heightened importance of rhetoric in a Greek world where democracy was evolving in some city-states.

The Sophists’ apparent monopoly on the art of speaking, however, did not go unchallenged. Given the overwhelming importance of rhetoric in Athenian public life, it is hardly surprising that this art was subject to abuse. The actual speeches presented in Athenian lawcourts and political assemblies often diverged considerably from the rules laid down by the Sophists, relying excessively on passions, prejudices, the pity of the judges and indeed any manner of persuading the audience. The Sophists nurtured in their students an ability to argue both or many sides of a case; they were consequently accused of training people in “making the worse cause appear the better” by a clever use of language and in thereby sacrificing truth, morality and justice to unabated self-interest. Aristophanes satirised the Sophists in his comedy The Clouds. A more serious, and permanently damaging, challenge was issued by Socrates as represented in Plato’s dialogues, especially in Gorgias and Phaedrus.

Plato’s Gorgias is worth considering in some depth since it evokes several contexts which may help us to pursue the profound ramifications of classical rhetoric. The initial dialogue occurs between Plato’s spokesman Socrates and the famed rhetorician Gorgias, whose disciple Polus eventually takes over on his behalf; finally, Socrates continues the debate with an aspiring and cynical young politician Callicles. While Socrates employs his conventional dialectical strategy of question and answer in an ostensible attempt to investigate the nature of rhetoric, it is clear by the end of the text that his entire argument is premised on a sharp opposition and contrast between the spheres of philosophy and rhetoric.

Early in the dialogue, when Socrates hears of Gorgias’ presence at his friend’s house, he wishes to know who Gorgias “is;” in other words, what his profession or area of expertise is. Again and again, he insists on asking, what is the object of rhetoric? What is its province? What is it about?
When Gorgias responds that the province of rhetoric is speech, Socrates rejoins that several areas of inquiry are concerned with speech, and that speech is merely the means employed by rhetoric: his earlier question as to what is the object of rhetoric has still not been answered. Gorgias explains that rhetoric procures freedom for an individual and political power in a community. What is rhetoric? Gorgias offers a neat definition: it is “the ability to use the spoken word to persuade – to persuade the jurors in the courts, the members of the Council, the citizens attending the Assembly – in short, to win over any and every form of public meeting of the citizen body” (Gorgias, 452e).

Socrates, however, is still not satisfied. He grants that rhetoric is an agent of persuasion of an audience; this, indeed, is its whole aim. But what is it persuasion about? What is its sphere of operation? He rejects Gorgias’ lame assertion that this sphere is the distinction of right and wrong: there are two kinds of persuasion, maintains Socrates, one which confers conviction without understanding and one which confers knowledge. Rhetoric, he insists, leads to conviction without educating people as to right and wrong (p. 17). Still on the theme of conviction, the argument takes another turn: Socrates suggests that when we require advice in a given field, we seek out a specialist in that field. On the contrary, rejoins Gorgias, in a public forum, it is the rhetoricians whose opinions prevail over the specialists or professionals. The rhetorician will be more persuasive in front of a crowd. Socrates cleverly turns this appeal to a mass audience against rhetoric: the rhetorician will indeed persuade a crowd if the crowd consists of non-experts. He will not be more persuasive before an audience of experts. Hence the rhetorician is a non-expert persuading other non-experts. He never need know the actual facts of a situation; he needs no expertise, merely a persuasive ploy.

It is at this juncture that Socrates either wilfully or unwittingly misunderstands the nature of Gorgias’ response: rhetoric, says Gorgias, is itself the area of expertise. Socrates’ entire approach posits rhetoric as content, as a field of inquiry which must refer to a definite range of objects. He fails to understand Gorgias’ implication that rhetoric is a form, that it has no intrinsic content, that its lack of content need not be viewed as emptiness but as a means of systematising and controlling any type of content whatsoever. It is premised on a recognition that no content, whether political, philosophical, scientific or literary, is inherently persuasive or even inherently meaningful until it is 
organised such as to maximise its reception by an audience. In other words, no text can exist somehow in a vacuum of self-relation; every text occurs within a context which will overdetermine its relation to an audience, and its meaning is part of this relation.

It is precisely this relational status of meaning and truth which Socrates attempts to suppress. His impugnment of rhetoric’s intrinsic appeal to an audience is underlain by Plato’s notion of truth as transcending human opinion. In the lawcourts, says Socrates, rhetoric relies on producing a large number of eminent witnesses; but such argument or refutation is worthless, he says, in the context of truth. Socrates accuses rhetoricians of changing what they say to suit the whims of their audiences whereas the views of philosophy, he says, never change. Socrates affirms that the only audience he needs to convince is his direct adversary; failing this, he can be secure only in the knowledge that he has spoken truly (p. 64). In effect, suggests Socrates, the rhetorician and the politician are forced to pander to the existing power structure and the views of the majority; the overlapping function of rhetoric and politics is the assimilation of one’s views to those which prevail in political practice.

What is disturbing about Socrates’ argument is its explicit rejection of the notion that rhetoric is a rational pursuit which might be based on knowledge. He insists that there is no expertise involved in rhetoric, and that it requires merely a mind good at guessing, some courage and a natural talent for interacting with people. In general, he classifies rhetoric as a branch of flattery, along with imitative arts such as poetry, music and tragedy; flattery is indifferent to encouraging good action; it simply promises to maximise immediate pleasure, and is based on knack not expertise because it lacks a rational understanding of its object.

The sharp opposition between philosophy and rhetoric in this dialogue is highlighted by the harsh rejoinders of Socrates’ political opponent Callicles: philosophers, he claims, do not understand the legal system or politics or human nature; they are hidden in private discussions instead of openly expressing important ideas; Socrates himself, taunts Callicles, could not deliver a proper speech or defend himself in a court – he’d end up dead! (pp. 67-74). Of course, Callicles’ words are prophetic: Socrates does indeed eventually refuse to speak like a rhetorician at his own trial and, indifferent to the opinions of the many, he does end up dead. Callicles’ other accusations about philosophers simply go unanswered by Socrates, who arrives at his own conclusions in an eminently non-dialectical fashion, notwithstanding his expressed intent.

Socrates’ argument moves in a different register from that of Callicles. Callicles’ concern is wholly pragmatic: how to persuade actual assemblies and courtrooms. Socrates’ idealistic critique of rhetoric is precisely that it is based on nothing more than practical expediency. It is founded on no underlying principles of goodness or of the purpose and function of individual and communal life. The ultimate purpose of all activity is the good, and all else should be a means toward this end (p. 93). Socrates equates goodness with order; the universe is an ordered whole and our ideal in the community should be justice, self-discipline and happiness (pp. 105-106). If rhetoric is to be used, its motivation must be moral; it should improve people, and alter the community’s needs for the better rather than pandering to already existing needs (p. 120). It must aim not at the appearance of truth and goodness but at their reality (p. 134). What Socrates is effectively doing here is not to redeem rhetoric in a desirable form but to transform it beyond recognition into philosophy. The only justifiable way for rhetoric to survive is to take on the essential characteristics of philosophy.

This call for rhetoric to extinguish itself and to rekindle itself as philosophy receives further specification in Plato’s Phaedrus. Here, Socrates defines what he takes to be the conventional understanding of` rhetoric: it is generally held to be “a universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments; which is practised not only in courts and public assemblies, but in private houses also, having to do with all matters, great as well as small, good and bad alike, and is in all equally right, and equally to be esteemed…” (p. 305). Moreover, a professor of rhetoric “will make the same thing appear to the same persons to be at one time just, at another time, if he is so inclined, to be unjust” (p. 305). Indeed, the whole art of rhetoric, insists Socrates, is contained in the claim of rhetoricians such as Tisias and Gorgias that truth is not important; what matters is conviction, which is based not on truth but probability. It is probability, therefore, which the orator should keep in view; and such rhetoricians define probability as “that which the many think” (p. 320).

Again, Socrates turns their own argument against the rhetoricians. If probability is engendered by the likeness or appearance of truth, it follows that the rhetorician, especially the rhetorician who wishes to deceive his audience, must have knowledge of the truth. The better his knowledge of the truth, the more easily he can present appearances of the truth (pp. 306, 321). The speaker must therefore know his subject: he must know how to understand scattered particulars as expressions of one idea, or how to perceive the One in the Many; he must be able to divide and classify those particulars and know how to generalise; he must be able to discern the nature of the soul and the different modes of discourse which might affect different natures (p. 326). In short, for Socrates there is no real art of speaking divorced from truth (304). Once again, rhetoric is permissible provided it dons the vesture of philosophy; provided that it impossibly reconfigures itself according to a conception of truth which is alien to its very nature.

The notion of truth which rhetoric must inevitably harbour is truth as consensus. Even if its ostensible aim is persuasion or conviction, such persuasion can be achieved rationally on the basis of argument whose overall end is to give the appearance of approximating truth. To argue a case is never a matter of ostensive definition; it is never a matter of simply putting people in possession of the facts; not only do the facts need to be interpreted but what count as facts in the first place are the results of interpretations. Facts themselves are interpretations from various viewpoints. In fact, the very possibility of rhetoric is premised on the absence of truth as anything but an ideal limit. All that is possible is appearance of truth or approximation to truth; any actual truth which transcended the viewpoints on the interpreters would eliminate the need for rhetoric. Rhetoric originates and is workable only in a democracy. In a democracy, truth is not merely relative, it is necessarily absent or non-existent as content; it can subsist only as a point of view which is forced to confront its limitations in collision with another point of view. There is no truth to measure it against, only perhaps degrees of comprehensiveness and coherence with solidified interpretations which have achieved conventionally the status of facts. But there must be an element of externality which brings into relief the limitation of a given viewpoint. The danger of this democratic situation is that the majority could affirm something to be true which is false.