I have never shared the vitriol in Plato’s dialogues for rhetoric. I understand why he goes after people for holding what he considers to be untenable positions, particularly if they are teachers or otherwise influencers of others. But only insofar as they hold beliefs which don’t accord with his own or if they appear to have a methodology or agenda that is antithetical to the Truth.
In the first part of the Gorgias, Plato’s Socrates undertakes to do something unusual: rather than disabuse someone of the idea that they know X or Y, he tries to show that an entire sphere of human endeavor – persuasive speech – is morally bankrupt. If practiced in the wrong way, that is. I believe he is wildly off the mark here and in puzzling through this, I came to a better understanding of why I disagree with Plato on this point.
Socrates’ position is something like this:
* The Art of Rhetoric does not require you to know about the subject matter about which you speak (or write)
* In that sense it is not really an ‘art’ as art (in the sense of ‘craft’) requires one to have knowledge of the subject matter in question
* Having knowledge is a prerequisite for virtue
* Rhetoric is instead really a talent for persuading people not by arguing from knowledge or truth but by telling them what they want to hear
* Telling people what they want to hear instead of the truth does not improve them aka make them virtuous
* Rhetoricians are not virtuous in what they do both in view of their lack of knowledge and the outcome of their actions
There are some nuances in his argument and it twists and turns, but I think this is a fair representation of his complaint. Gorgias, for his part, does a terrible job defending himself. I found myself yelling at my text numerous times while reading. Plato, in order to create a (no pun intended) rhetorical structure that fits Socrates’ normal discourse structures the discussion as one around the aim or nature of rhetoric. And Gorgias replies in typical fashion, failing to parry Socrates’ thrusts and ultimately helping to put the rhetoricians in an untenable position.
Socrates seems to be concerned here with a very specific problem and incorrectly generalizes from a specific type of case to a broader set of cases. The case he has in mind is one where someone who knows is up against someone who doesn’t know. The latter is a rhetorician and presumably there is some issue of public or an individual’s interest at stake about which they are debating. If the rhetorician wins the public or individual will be poorer for it.
A common example used in the dialogue is that of the physician. The physician knows what is best for the body but if faced with someone with greater powers of persuasion, may lose influence over someone’s health, even if that other person had no knowledge of bodily health. We must imagine (and Socrates says as much at one point) that the physician is prescribing exercise, fish, nuts and dark greens and rest. The rhetorician, appealing to what the individual wants to hear, prescribes a paleo diet, moderation in indulgences and medication to ameliorate the effects of lifestyle. [We must put aside our current use of "physician" which describes someone who knows almost nothing about health or nutrition and instead treats disease guided by pharmaceutical companies.]
I think we can all agree that this would be a use case in which the rhetorician would be considered as lacking virtue in the sense that Socrates means. But the example is not particularly nuanced and it conflates rhetoric with something else – fraud. Rhetoric as a persuasive tool is about getting people’s desires aligned with a specific action, idea, opinion, object or whatever – regardless of the truth or merit of the thing. The problem is with the way rhetoric is employed, not with rhetoric itself.
A few requirements need to be laid out to be fair to Socrates’ worldview:
- The debate cannot be between two people that know. In the Platonic world, knowledge is singular and aligns with virtue. Two physicians would not have dissenting opinions and so would not disagree. Nor would one advocate something against what s/he knew was correct aka good.
- People, whether in general or in most cases, desire what they perceive to be good rather than the actual good. That is because they don’t know (ignorance), not because they know but prefer otherwise (see above – knowledge aligns with virtue).
So the issue hinges on how you deal with ignorance: do you play to it or try and bring someone out of it? In other words, do you flatter or do you educate? And Socrates’ position is that rhetoric = flattery = persuasion from a position of not-knowing. There is something else [anti-rhetoric] = education = persuasion from a position of knowing. Rhetoric convinces but leaves people ignorant. [Anti-rhetoric] convinces and leads people to knowledge.
Let us assume in the example above that the individual in question is ignorant of the correct course for bodily health. Let us also assume that s/he listens to the physician. We must say that they were convinced by the arguments, reasons and evidence provided by the physician. [Whether they gain knowledge or simply 'recover' it like the slave boy in Meno is immaterial here.] Somehow the individual was motivated to listen to the one with knowledge; was disposed to be educated.
The implication that rhetoric is flattery, appealing to what the individual wants v. what is good, cannot mean that rhetoric is simply temptation, appealing to desire without arguments, reasons and evidence. Rhetoric and education employ the same methods. What matters is the outcome, idea, action or object at stake. Whether it is true or good, or not.
Now suppose that the rhetorician believes that what s/he is arguing for is true. S/he is wrong, but believes it nonetheless. We assume that the physician knows that his/her object is true. In this case, it would be hard to say the rhetorician was acting immorally. If two people are acting in the same way towards two different ends, both believing they are right but only one is, we are less inclined to say that the one that is wrong lacks virtue.
I’m not sure Socrates can allow of this kind of case. He assumes that the rhetorician acts from a lack of knowledge and knows as much. This – acting as if you know when you are aware that you don’t – is fraud, dis-ingenuousness, misrepresentation or some other act of bad faith. And this is really what he is after, people who influence others but do so out of bad faith. Rhetoric, as persuasive speech, is not the problem. Bad people are the problem.
I’m not sure if this poses a problem for his greater thesis about the connection between knowledge and virtue. The individual in the example above does what is bad for their bodily health out of ignorance. But their ignorance is twofold: both of the good and that they know that they don’t know the good. The ignorance of the rhetorician is first order only. His/her duplicity requires awareness of the lack of knowledge while conversely, knowing means that you know that you know.
Rhetoric as persuasive speech is unobjectionable. Educators are orators are rhetoricians as well as those Sophists Plato hates so much. What Plato in the form of Socrates really dislikes is ignorance of the truth, but not the ignorance of the mob. That is ignorance that as well as ignorance of. Plato is after those who are ignorant of and know they are. Simply put, he hates those that know better. He could have said as much without dragging the noble art of persuasion through the mud.