Some believe Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus work together as a kind of unconventional palinode – Plato counters himself not in a single work but over a span of two books. He deliberately paints rhetoric and philosophy as two distinct creatures in Gorgias but later refutes those concepts in Phaedrus by showing a possible duality to rhetoric. Through Plato’s example of the charioteer, divine eros, and other passages, it will be attempted to show how Plato’s Socrates believes in the possibility of a new kind of rhetoric. This new creature can be seen as a winged hybrid that takes the best from Sophistry and Socratic inquiry, fluidity and rigidity, philosophy and rhetoric to form a skill that achieves what all prior disciplines had since lacked.
A brief history of ancient Greece prior to Plato will better help explain the ground in which Gorgias was sown. The polis included everyone in society – one had to be a beast, god, or slave to be excluded from it. With the advent of democracy it became more crucial for every member of the polis to be able to defend themselves before a panel of citizens. A king would not decide the individual’s fate but rather their own members of society. However, concepts such as burden of proof and ‘innocent until proven guilty’ did not exist back then, for a conviction did not rely on proving what actually happened but instead what could have happened. Probability was more important than fact because this was a culture of common sense and not empirical knowledge. Since academia was less accessible to most people, common sense, folklore, ideologies, and probability was the more prized & valued cultural currency.
This is when a group of thinkers entered Greece who became known as the sophists. They claimed to be able to teach anyone how to persuade the polis in favor of either side of an argument because sophists believed that there is no one objective truth. Usage of probability allowed more flexibility than empirical facts. Truth is relative, facts do not matter, winning the audience to your side of the argument is the ultimate goal. For sophists, rhetoric simply meant persuasion.
Plato’s Gorgias disagrees with this arbitrary, goal oriented use and definition of rhetoric. It was written in a period when sophistry became the ability that everyone highly coveted for the right words could save or ruin a life. However, one of the main objections Plato raises in Gorgias is that in spite of its popularity, sophistry cannot teach rhetoric to anyone because it is not a demonstrable science, art, or techné (technique). It is simply a knack, because if sophist rhetoric “has no rational understanding of the nature of the various things it applies to or the person to whom it applies,” it should not be considered a reliable resource (Gorgias 32). Self-awareness is critical to Plato. The sophist is not aware of how its own process of persuasion works, but relies more on instincts and knack:
Oratory seems to me to be a pursuit which has nothing to do with art, but which requires a shrewd and bold spirit naturally clever at dealing with people. The generic name which I should give it is pandering… A sort of knack gained by experience… Pandering pays no regard to the best interests of its object, but catches fools with the bait of ephemeral pleasure (Gorgias 29-32).
Hence lies the primary danger of sophist rhetoric: its key intention is to serve the self and not the “best interest of its object.” It does this by pandering to the base interests of humans, such as ephemeral pleasure, or by any means necessary to not be convicted. Thereby it catches people off guard and traps them with the bait of temporary success – a castle built on foundation of sand of ignorance. This chain of short term victories was drawing masses of people toward sophistry without realizing the long term consequences of this lure. Socrates and Plato fear that societal decay was inevitable if the masses do not understand why they do what they do. But sophistry is not quite concerned with that. The choice of the word “dealing” with people brings to mind as if dealing playing cards, or a business deal – an arrangement where moral integrity is not first priority. “Bait” and “catch” seem to indicate sophist rhetoric as a kind of fishing, where the polis is a helpless audience, and the usage of “catches fools” might equate some of the public with the intelligence of fish too. The risk is that sophistry appears to be a reliable, time tested source of information for it panders to the inclinations of its varying audience. The probable facts and tactics can change with every crowd for, like beauty, sophist rhetoric only has a surface patina of appeal and sincerity but nothing beneath. They both are a bodily pleasure that never quite reach the heart of the matter, the soul. Plato argues that beauty and this rhetoric should be despised precisely because of its tempting yet hollow nature (Gorgias 28). He believes the alternative to all this is philosophy.
Socratic enquiry, which Plato was a follower of, became the bedrock of philosophy. This meant to enquire and examine everything until one reached an irrefutable kernel of truth. This truth could not be changed by sophist subjectivity for there could only be one truth. Because self-awareness was paramount to Socratic enquiry, the goal for every individual was to live an examined life. Nothing is to be taken for granted. Unlike sophistry where the aim was to win your point, the moral goal of philosophy was to gain knowledge of provable, carefully analyzed facts, and then share that enlightenment with the polis, which ultimately would bring agency into the hands of the masses (Naddaff). The best way to reach this destination was to avoid the bait of beauty and all bodily pleasures and focus on the more lasting features of knowledge and soul. The shift for from sophistry to Socratic philosophy was that what was once a knack now became a deductive science, art, techné. Its objective moved from self-interest to a more universal interest. A philosopher was to seek and defend a universal truth whether or not it aligns with his personal interest or not.
The palinode enters the scene in the second half of Phaedrus, which retracts the Socratic view Plato claims in the first half of the book, as well as in most of Gorgias. Instead of seeing beauty as only an inferior vice of bodily pleasure that one must refrain from, he divides beauty and eros into two kinds: a good divine eros, and a base eros. Socrates is said to have claimed that if gods can fall in love, and because love is a kind of divinity itself, divine eros cannot be bad. Instead, it is the user who should be blamed. Love can be used to negative ends by “parading their dangerous falsehoods and preening themselves over perhaps deceiving a few silly people and coming to be admired by them” (Phaedrus 25). Love does not deserve a blanket negative judgement just because of its manipulation by a few over a few. In fact, love brings a kind of joy and purpose to living. It is a godly thing, therefore a pure force.
… as a breath of wind or some echo rebounds from smooth, hard surfaces and returns to the source from which it issued, so the stream of beauty passes back into its possessor through his eyes, which is its natural route to the soul; arriving there and setting him all aflutter, it waters the passages of the feathers and causes the wings to grow, and fills the soul of the loved one in his turn with love. (Phaedrus)
The passage describes how something beautiful can help the soul. The love that is extended outwards can reverberate and reach back inside. Divine eros and soul are not in competition, like stated earlier, but can form a unique harmony. It can “water” the body, like nourishing a parched field. The soul is “aflutter,” roused to a state of heightened presence. It can give the one possessed by divine love “wings,” which is associated with flight, skies, realm of the gods, the unimaginable. The choice of words convey a very romantic side of Socrates that has not been seen before. It shows that divine eros, the one initiated by a philosophical kind of love, can bolster humankind. What Plato means by philosophical love is a balanced form of love, where nothing is in excess. This can be better explained with the example of the charioteer.
Plato conjures an example of a charioteer who rides two horses. One horse is of good stock, which we might associate with the soul, self-restraint, and philosophy. The other horse is of bad stock, which could be associated with sophist rhetoric, unbridled bodily pleasure. These horses are in constant opposition to one another for each wants to do something very different. The charioteer must find a way to tame both these horses and be the one in charge (Phaedrus 31). The best way to do that is for the charioteer to experience divine eros. This is the best of both worlds. It allows the lover to adore a beloved, but through moderation, a kind of detached attachment. His love must not be in such excess that he forgets the purpose of his movement – Socratic enquiry, to live the examined life. This measured indulgence will help fuel the individual but never overwhelm. Another way to see the horses would through psychology. The good horse may be the philosophical super ego: determined yet rigid in its attempt at righteousness. The bad horse may be the id: subjective rhetoric that is self-serving and hedonistic. That charioteer is the ego: trying to accommodate both the forces without suppressing either, a fine balance that takes practice but is achievable.
This attempt by Plato to bridge the rigidity of old philosophy with the effective fluid allure of old rhetoric is a noteworthy idea. The bridge that finally brings them together is divine eros. Love is constructed as a kind of medium to reach the soul. But rhetoric, too, is simply a medium to reach the soul with the message of philosophy. So perhaps love has the potential to purify intentionality of the rhetor and thereby create a new kind of hybrid rhetoric. The intentionality of this is philosophical inquiry and good for the polis, but whose approach to reach them could be through the effectiveness of rhetoric. And what fuels and ties them together is love.
It brings to mind the writings on each side at the temple of Apollo at Delphi: 1) Know thyself, 2) Nothing in excess. These lines perfectly capture the heart of this new philosophy’s attempt at moderation and working through one’s own human limits. Humans are meant to love, but it does not have to be decadent. Rhetoric does appeal to masses, but it does not have to be corrupt. Philosophy can be righteous, but it can also be beautiful. What Phaedrus tries to sketch is a practical outline for a more cohesive tomorrow.
Naddaff, Ramona. Lecture. Rhetoric 103A. UC Berkeley, Berkeley. 1 Oct. 2015.
Plato. Gorgias. Trans. Walter Hamilton and C. J. Emlyn-Jones. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.
Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishers, 1995. Print.