Friday, January 19, 2018

1 Rhetoric in the Phaedrus

Phaedrus read Lysias’ speech, Socrates gave his two speeches on love, and the two decided to enquire into the nature of bad and good speaking and writing. Socrates asked: ‘Then does not a good and successful discourse presuppose (Ar’ oun ouch huparchein dei tois eu ge kai kalôs rêthêsomenois) a knowledge in the mind of the speaker of the truth (tên tou legontos dianoian eiduian to alêthes) about his subject (hôn an erein peri mellê̢;)?’ Phaedrus answered: ‘What I have heard is (Houtôsi peri toutou akêkoa) that the intending orator is under no necessity (ouk einai anankên tô̢ mellonti rêtori esesthai) of understanding what is truly just (ta tô̢ onti dikaia manthanein), but only what is likely to be thought just by the body of men who are to give judgement (alla ta doxant’ an plêthei hoiper dikasousi); nor need he know what is truly good or noble (oude ta ontôs dikaia kai kala), but what will be thought so (all’ hosa doxei); because persuasion comes from that and not from the truth (ek gar toutôn einai to peithein all’ ouk ek tês alêtheias). (259e4-260a4, tr. R. Hackforth, except the last clause – 260a3-4 – translated by C. J. Rowe; see the preceding post.)

Phaedrus’ ‘what I have heard’ might suggest just a hearsay that is not to be taken seriously. But Socrates’ ‘Not to be lightly rejected, Phaedrus, is any word of the wise; perhaps they are right: one has to see (“Outoi apoblêton epos” einai dei, ô Phaidre, ho an eipôsi hoi sophoi, alla skopein mê ti legôsi). And in particular this present assertion (kai dê kai to nun lechthen) must not be dismissed (ouk apheteon, 260a5-7; translated by Hackforth)’, although tinged with irony, suggests that it is not just a hearsay; it expresses the main tenet of the contemporary rhetoric.

Socrates lets speak tên tôn logôn technên  – ‘the art of speech’ (Hackforth), ‘the science of speaking’ (Rowe): ‘I never insist on ignorance of the truth on the part of one who would learn to speak (egô gar ouden’ agnoounta t’alêthes anankazô manthanein legein); on the contrary (all’), if my advice goes for anything (ei ti emê sumboulê), it is that he should only resort to me after he has come into possession of truth (ktêsamenon ekeino houtôs eme lambanein); what I do however pride myself on is (tode d’ oun mega legô) that without my aid (hôs aneu emou) knowledge of what is true will get a man no nearer to mastering the art of persuasion (tô̢ ta onta eidoti ouden ti mallon estai peithein technê̢,  260d5-9, tr. Hackforth).’ But Socrates hears ‘certain arguments’ (akouein dokô tinôn logôn) alleging ‘that she is lying (hoti pseudetai), and is not a science (kai ouk esti technê) but an unscientific knack (all atechnos tribê); of speaking (tou de legein), saith the Spartan (phêsin ho Lakôn), a genuine science (etumos technê), without a grasp of truth (aneu tou alêtheias hêphthai) neither exists (out’ estin) nor will come to exist in the future (oute mêpote husteron genêtai, 260e3-7, tr. Rowe)’. He asks the arguments to come and persuade Phaedrus ‘that unless he engages in philosophy sufficiently well (hôs ean mê hikanôs philosophêsê̢) he will never be a sufficiently good speaker either (oude hikanos pote legein estai) about anything (peri oudenos, 261a4-5, tr. Rowe)’. And so ‘the arguments’ ask Phaedrus: ‘Well then, will not the science of rhetoric as a whole be a kind of leading of the soul by means of things said (Ar’ oun ou to men holon hê rêtorikê an eiê technê psuchagôgia tis dia logôn), not only in law-courts (ou monon en dikastêriois) and all other kinds of public gatherings (kai hosoi alloi dêmosioi sullogoi), but in private ones too (alla kai en idiois) – the same science (hê autê, 261a7-9, tr. Rowe) that is concerned with great issues and small (smikrôn te kai megalôn peri), its right employment commanding no more respect when dealing with important matters than with unimportant (kai ouden entimoteron to ge orthon peri spoudaia ê peri phaula gignomenon;)? Is that what you have been told about it (ê pôs su tauta akêkoas; 261a9-b2, tr. Hackforth)?’ Phaedrus answers: ‘No, I must say, not absolutely that (Ou ma ton Di’ ou pantapasin houtôs): a science of speaking and writing is perhaps especially employed in lawsuits (alla malista men pôs peri tas dikas legetai te kai graphetai technê̢), though also in public addresses (legetai de kai peri dêmêgorias); I have not heard of any extension of it beyond that (epi pleon de ouk akêkoa, 261b3-5, tr. Rowe).’

Phaedrus’ answer to ‘the arguments’ indicates that the definition of the science of rhetoric proffered by the arguments is a new definition. But why is this definition given by ‘the arguments’ and not by Socrates himself? I believe that the answer lies in Socrates’ self-professed ignorance: ‘I don’t think I share in any science of speaking’ (ou gar pou egôge technês tinos tou leein metochos, 262d5-6, tr. Rowe)

Christopher Rowe says in the ‘Introduction’ to his edition of the Phaedrus: ‘[Socrates’ two speeches on love] belong to the local deities who inspired him – or to anyone, rather than to him, since he knows nothing (235b [correctly 235c]), and has no share in any ‘science of speaking’ (263d [correctly 262d]). This is a transparent ploy. The speeches are of course his; and they show him to possess just that expertise as a speaker which he disclaims. On the other hand, they do not imply his possession of the sort of expertise which really matters, i.e. about the subjects with which they deal; what is claimed of them is only that they point us – perhaps – in the right direction, not that they are full exposition of the truth. In this sense, Socrates’ disavowal of knowledge stands.’

[At this point I must interrupt, for I cannot see how Christopher Rowe can say that Socrates’ speeches ‘do not imply his possession of the sort of expertise which really matters’ when I think of the definition of the soul as the prime self-moving mover (245c5-246a2) or of the introduction of the theory of Forms residing in the ‘Plain of Truth’ (to alêtheias pedion, 248b6) in Socrates’ second speech.]

Christopher Rowe says further on: ‘The speeches include a large number of central Platonic ideas – the second is almost a roll-call – which are also prominently represented in other dialogues, in a recognizably similar fashion; and what is said about these ideas here in the Phaedrus will then presumably apply equally to the same ideas as they appear elsewhere. In other words, Plato will in part be using the dialogue in order to comment on the nature and value of his own output as a writer.’ (PLATO Phaedrus, Aris & Phillips Classical Texts, second edition, Oxford 1988, pp. 9-10).

I could hardly find a more striking example of the profound difference that separates Rowe’s view of the Phaedrus as one of Plato’s latest dialogues and my view of it as Plato’s first dialogue.

Plato points the reader’s eyes to the Plain of Truth with the words ‘Of that place beyond the heavens (Ton de huperouranion topon) none of our earthly poets has yet sung (oute tis humnêse pô tôn tê̢de poiêtês), and none shall sing worthily (oute pote humnêsei kat’ axian). But this is the manner of it (echei de hôde), for assuredly we must be bold to speak what is true (tolmêteon oun to ge alêthes eipein), above all when our discourse is upon truth (allôs te kai peri alêtheias legonta). It is there that true Being dwells, without colour or shape, that cannot be touched; reason alone, the soul’s pilot, can behold it, and all true knowledge is knowledge thereof (hê gar achrômatos te kai aschêmatistos kai anaphês ousia ontôs ousa, psuchês kubernêtê̢ monô̢ theatê nô̢, peri hên to tês alêthous epistêmês genos, touton echei ton topon).’ (247c3-d1, tr. Hackforth)

I can enjoy with Plato the joy he experiences in presenting his readers for the first time with the sight of the Forms, whereas Christopher Rowe cannot but see the passage as a roll-call, for in his view ‘the Phaedrus is certainly later than the Republic and other middle dialogues like the Phaedo and the Symposium; certainly later than the Timaeus’ (op. cit. p. 14), in which the Forms are prominent. And I can fully appreciate the daring with which Plato presents the Forms as entities ‘to which a god’s nearness makes him truly god’ (pros hoisper theos ôn theios estin, 249c6, tr. Hackforth). Plato could not speak of the Forms like this after Socrates was sentenced to death for introducing new deities; since the Phaedrus was written after Aristophanes’ Frogs but before the Thirty took power, as I have argued, Plato as the author of the Phaedrus was protected against any accusation of impiety by the general amnesty introduced by the democrats after their victory over the Thirty. In the Republic, in which the Forms are presented very boldly in the central books, Plato ‘covers his tracks’ by making the god the creator of the Form of the bed in its last book (597b-c). (Concerning Plato’s ‘covering his tracks’ in Republic X see my posts of August 4, 6, and 13, 2016 devoted to Bertrand Russell on ‘The theory of Ideas’ and Plato’s Republic.)

I do agree with Rowe that Plato’s frequent references to Socrates’ ignorance are ‘a ploy’. Face to face with Aristophanes’ very public invective in the Frogs against Socrates and against himself (as the one who sat by Socrates after having thrown away mousikê) Plato had to defend them both by giving full sway to philosophy as the highest mousikê, to which Socrates inspired him. This he did by expressing his own view of love, of truth, of the Forms through the mouth of Socrates, while paying due respect to Socrates’ philosophic ignorance.

Let me return to the definition of rhetoric as ‘leading of the soul (psuchagôgia) by means of words’ (261a8). What is meant by psuchagôgia, ‘leading of the soul’, is indicated in the following discussion. Socrates asks Phaedrus: ‘Tell me (su d’ eipe), what is it that the opposing parties in the law-courts do (en dikastêriois hoi antidikoi ti drôsin;)? Isn’t it just speaking in opposition to each other (ouk antilegousin mentoi;)? … On the subject of what is just (Peri tou dikaiou te) and unjust (kai adikou;)? … So the man who does this scientifically (Oukoun ho technê̢ touto drôn) will make (poiêsei) the same thing appear to the same people (phanênai to auto tois autois) at one time just (tote men dikaion), but at any time he wishes (hotan de boulêtai), unjust (adikon;)? … And in public addresses (Kai en dêmêgoria̢ dê) [‘to the city’ (tê̢ polei), left out both by Hackforth and by Rowe] he will make the same things appear at one time good (dokein ta auta tote men agatha), at another the opposite (tote d’ au t’anantia;)?’ (261c4-d4, tr. Rowe)

The rhetorician who mastered rhetoric as psuchagôgia ‘leads the soul’ of his audience in whatever direction he wants to. What is new in the definition proffered by ‘the arguments’ is the insistence that rhetoric performs its role not only in the law-courts and public assemblies, but in private discussions too (alla kai en idiois sullogois, 261a9): ‘Then the science of antilogic is not only concerned with law-courts and public addresses (Ouk ara monon peri dikastêria te estin hê antilogikê kai peri dêmêgorias), but (all’), so it seems (hôs eoike), there will be this one science – if indeed it is one – in relation to everything that is said (peri panta ta legomena mia tis technê, eiper estin, hautê an eiê), by which a man will be able (hê̢ tis hoios t’ estai) to make everything which is capable of being made to resemble something else resemble everything which it is capable of being made to resemble (pan panti homoioun tôn dunatôn kai hois dunaton), and to bring it to light when someone else makes one thing resemble another and disguises it (kai allou homoiountos kai apokruptomenou eis phôs agein, 261d10-e4).’ This is Rowe’s translation. Hackforth translates this passage as follows: ‘So contending with words is a practice found not only in lawsuits and public harangues (Ouk ara monon peri dikastêria te estin hê antilogikê kai peri dêmêgorias) but (all’), it seems (hôs eoike), wherever men speak we find this single art, if indeed it is an art (peri panta ta legomena mia tis technê, eiper estin, hautê an eiê), which enables people (hê̢ tis hoios t’ estai) to make out everything to be like everything else , within the limits of possible comparison (pan panti homoioun tôn dunatôn kai hois dunaton), and to expose the corresponding attempts of others who disguise what they are doing (kai allou homoiountos kai apokruptomenou eis phôs agein).’

As Hackforth notes, ‘the Greek is elliptical and difficult’. Phaedrus himself does not understand it. ‘What sort of thing do you mean (Pôs dê to toiouton legeis;),’ he asks. Socrates explains: ‘I think it will be clear to us if we direct our search in this way (Tê̢de dokô zêtousin phaneisthai): does deception come about more in the case of things which are widely different or in those which differ little (apatê poteron en polu diapherousi gignetai mallon ê oligon;)?’ – Phaedrus: ‘In those which differ little (En tois oligon).’ – S.: Now (Alla ge dê) when you are passing over from one thing to its opposite you will be more likely to escape detection if you take small steps than if you take large ones (kata smikron metabainôn mallon lêseis elthôn epi to enantion ê kata mega).’ – P.: ‘Certainly (Pôs d’ ou;).’ – S.: ‘In that case the person who intends to deceive someone else, but be undeceived himself, must have a precise knowledge of the resemblance and the dissimilarity between the things that are (Dei ara ton mellonta apatêsein men allon, auton de mê apatêsesthai, tên homoiotêta tôn ontôn kai anomoiotêta akribôs dieidenai).’ – P.: ‘Necessarily (Anankê men oun).’ – S.: ‘So will he be able (Ê oun hoios te estai), if he is ignorant of the truth of each thing (alêtheian agnoôn hekastou), to identify the resemblance, whether small or great, which the other things have to the things he does not know (tên tou agnooumenou homoiotêta smikran te kai megalên en tois allois diagignôskein;)?’ – P.: ‘Impossible (Adunaton).’ – S.: Then clearly those who hold beliefs contrary to what is the case and are deceived have this kind of thing creeping in on them through certain resemblances (Oukoun tois para ta onta doxazousi kai apatômenois dêlon hôs to pathos touto di’ homoiotêtôn tinôn eiserruê).’ – P.: ‘It does happen that way (Gignetai g’oun houtôs).’ – S.: ‘So is there any way in which a man will be expert at making others cross over a little by little from what is the case on each occasion, via the resemblances (Estin oun hopôs technikos estai metabibazein kata smikron dia tôn homoiotêtôn apo tou ontos hekastote), leading them away towards the opposite (epi t’ounantion apagôn), or at escaping this himself (ê autos touto diapheugein), if he has not recognised (ho mê egnôrikôs) what each thing that is actually is (ho estin hekaston tôn ontôn;)?’ – P.: ‘No, never (Ou mê pote).’ – S.: ‘In that case, my friend, anyone who does not know the truth, but has made it his business to hunt down appearances, will give us a science of speech which is, so it seems, ridiculously unscientific (Logôn ara technên, ô hetaire, ho tên alêtheian mê eidôs, doxas de tethêreukôs, geloian tina, hôs eoike, kai atechnon parexetai).’ (261e5-262c3, tr. Rowe)

As I was reading and typing this, Plato’s Apology came to my mind in which Socrates defines the excellence of a rhetorician (rêtoros aretên) as speaking the truth (t’alêthê legein, 18a5-6). Rhetorician’s excellence conceived as speaking the truth is completely missing in the introductory discussion of rhetoric in the Phaedrus. True, the rhetorician must know the truth about the things of which he is to speak, if he is to proceed scientifically (technê̢), but he must know the truth not in order to convey it to his audience, but in order to be able to persuade the audience that something else is the truth, something that only resembles it – if this is what he wants to do: ‘So the man who does this scientifically will make the same thing appear to the same people at one time just, but at any time he wishes, unjust, and in public addresses, he will make the same things appear to the city (tê̢ polei) at one time good, at another the opposite (261c10-d4).’ I cannot see how Plato could have propounded this concept of scientific rhetoric at any time of his life except in the days in which his desire to become engaged in politics was the strongest, which were the days that followed the naval battle of Arginousae, the last great battle that the Athenians won by efforts that rekindled the best aspects of the Athenian democracy (cf. Seventh Letter 324b 8-325a5).


In the Athenian democracy politicians could achieve their political goals only by their rhetoric. The inseparability of politics from rhetoric dominates Plato’s discussion of rhetoric in the Phaedrus

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