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THE PITFALLS OF RHETORIC

A book is not harmless merely because no one is consciously offended by it. (T. S. Eliot)

The sophists are ultimately nihilistic, I think. And nihilism ultimately collapses back into silence. You don't refute a sophist, you quiet them down. By reducing them to the silence from which they came is the best you are likely to do with a sophist, with only one or two exceptions to that rule. But that pretty much is the way it works. The sophist tends to make language break down as well, because language is something that is common or shared ( social ). When you try and isolate yourself both morally and politically and linguistically (as a sophist does), the result is silence : a collapse of discourse. That is why the sophist prefers rhetoric and long speeches to the dialectic. The sophist never wants to get involved in the dialectic, there is too much give and take - too much community.  TTC   M. Sugrue

The function of poetry (or rhetoric) is to obtain for everybody, one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will to affect its purposes by other means. The limits of the autonomy of the will to which the practice (expression) of poetry (or rhetoric) corresponds are in the most general sense – death and the barriers which prevent access to other minds. Such limits of the human will become our fundamental concern and drive our turn to poetry, become the mortal reasons why writers begin writing, speakers in poems begin speaking, and readers become readers of poetry in a particular class of situations. Very concretely, the turn to poetry is driven by the collapse of fundamental communicative systems (dialectical) of other kinds –“London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.”
Poetry (or rhetoric) is driven into existence and conserved because they address and to some extent constitute the reconstruction of the human world – the restoration of that rejoicing in communicability fundamental to our or any humanity after catastrophic destructions figured as the collapse of communicative systems. Poetry (or rhetoric) is the communication system of the last resort...Alan Gossman
 

The rhetoric-dialectic dichotomy is examined here to illustrate upon the pitfalls of rhetoric when it is used only for a narrow point of view of a single person, and this point was first taken up by Socrates, who has been mistaken to attack not only the Sophists, but rhetoric as well.  Although Socrates did not put down on paper his ideas, but was done by others who heard him, especially Plato, his wisdom in questioning the Sophists about their rhetoric through a dialog between them ( dialectic ) has been ridiculed in a popular book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, leading to the conclusion that by so doing, Socrates had turned Western philosophy  away from the good towards some non-existing thing called truth ( which according to some is merely a species of the good ). But when the ideas that a man presents have universal applicability that cuts through time and place are attacked unfairly when he is no longer around to respond to the attacker, then the psyche, the shadow of that person stirs from the world of the dead into the living, present world.

It is well known that Socrates did not write anything directly because one of his convictions seems to have been that the written word tends to be misinterpreted by other people when the person is no longer present to defend, clarify or respond to their expressed ideas and views. Plato is thence credited for putting whatever Socrates said to paper, and also added his own philosophy to it, but did not make it clear as to which ideas are his own and to what extent he modifies or changes the ideas of Socrates. But to bracket all three Philosophers  in the same class as "dialecticians" who destroyed the "rhetoricians", the Sophists, is a serious error. The Sophists were mostly professional people who took money for teaching the wealthy an "art of writing persuasive speech" or rhetoric, so that the wealthy could advance their prospects in politics or the law courts.  Another mistake of Sophists is equating rhetoric with "aręte", which is synonymous with "excellence" and worse if this is stretched further to call the teachers of rhetoric, the Sophists as the teachers of excellence, and those critical of the Sophist's methods and means ( not to speak of their ends) as destroyers of excellence.

Because language is ambiguous, and you just want to concentrate upon the ambiguity and not to get to the truth, what you get is a philosophical mish-mash that doesn't mean anything. Any idiot can do it. And then they ( Sophists )wanted to sell these skills. For them language is just a vehicle to get what you want, the process a kind of techne that can be taught to whoever pays them money. The Sophist says what he thinks the other person will believe rather than what is true. Socrates will say what is true regardless of whether you believe it. The Sophist teaches for money, Socrates teaches because it is good for you and does not accept money. There is a big moral difference between the two.....TTC  M. Sugrue

There may have been many criticisms of Aristotle, but rarely anyone  who has taken on Socrates, perhaps because no one felt confident enough to do so, but more so because Socrates proposed no theories or doctrines of his own - only the method of rigorous inquiry through a dialog ( dialectic ) by first putting into close scrutiny one's own held beliefs.

There is one give away : the rhetoric of Sophists fails before the rigorous inquiry of Socrates, but this failure is not acknowledged and that is what compounds the error. If the rhetoric of the Sophist cannot effectively counter the "word traps" of the dialectician Socrates, then that art of rhetoric is certainly lacking the strength or power to counter the art of the dialectic or else the "artist" that uses the method is incompetent or is not motivated or inspired enough, or just simply lacks the talent or drive. But this failure of the rhetoric of the Sophists is indicative of both the limitations of rhetoric as well as the skill and motivations of the Sophists. And no method by itself is enough for a work of "virtue". And just how does the method of rhetoric - that too the persuasive method relying only on the relative truth of one person take precedence over the more rigorous dialectic method of finding a common truth between two or more people.  Are the self-styled gods of rhetoric beyond all questions common to mankind ?

The contention here is not to prove that the Sophists were totally wrong, but basically ignorant about the limitations and the potential abuses of rhetoric; also that their own rhetoric is poor, and that they had not been able to resolve the problems created by their megalomania.

The difference between being and seeming is crucial to all the dialogs. In some ways the source of philosophy is to be found in the distinction between the way things appear to be ( seeming) and the way things really are ( being). This distinction is very important to Philosophy, but is not at all important to the sophist. The sophist says : I don't care if I seem to persuade you or I really persuade you, so long as you act as if I have persuaded you, it's nothing to me.
Notice that in all the dialogs none of the sophists spend any time in defining any terms. Sophists thrive on ambiguity. Socrates however is going to move from words to definitions, that is, from symbols to meanings because he thrives on real, articulate knowledge, knowledge that is held together logically by a logos ( account or reason ). Socrates rises to the challenge, a challenge that he has set up by luring the sophists into the argument ( about justice). We have to have a radicalized concept of justice and to prove that justice is good in and of itself, that justice is good as an end, not as a means.      TTC M. Sugrue

One of the worst mistakes of the Sophist rhetoric is the mystics fallacy : that all of reality cannot and must not be defined, or in short  :  is un-definable. The logical offshoot of this is that the glaringly obvious follies of man can be conveniently dumped in the hazy and mystical un-definable garbage bin. The even more serious fallout is that all definitions are ridiculed as frivolous and all concepts are treated as illusory. And the most serious fallout is that by including everything in an un-definable something, the crucial distinction between the definable and un-definable is lost sight of, without which no meaningful discourse can take place, whether rhetorical or dialectical, rather these categories are themselves meaningless in an un-definable  universe, that consists of One and One only, that we are supposed to inhabit, but which we are not even aware of ( according to the Sophist- Mystic).

The sophistry which insane remorse is every instant capable of producing, no dialectic is able to overcome. (Soren Aabye Kierkegaard )

This is not to say that all of their rhetoric is bad, but to firstly point out that rhetoric and dialectic are not necessarily opposing methods of discourse; as also that there is no sharp distinct and dividing line that differentiates the two, for both are processes of linguistic communication, the rhetoric leaning towards the artistic, and the dialectic leaning towards the rational, finally linguistic discourse can be both artistic as well as rational in content and effect, and that is the perfection of discourse, difficult but attainable, and the ultimate goal of human communication. That's about the only distinction that can be made. To say that the rhetoric is only emotional in content, and the dialectic only rational is incorrect, and if Socrates had implied this he is to be rightly condemned for this. But that's not so, and that is why some people completely miss the entire relevance of what Socrates was trying to say through his inquiry into basic ethical concepts and that rhetoric by ignoring the rational, makes all ethical concepts come under the hazy un-definable "everything"  and thus easily abused. In the end, Socrates brilliantly defends his life's work in his trial, and demonstrates it perfectly in action by not escaping from Athens, and in accepting his death with a kind of grace never seen in civilization.

Nobody knows more thoroughly than Socrates himself that the charges against him were indeed lies - perjured testimony coming from envious and predictable sources. But he is not going to leave Athens, for he is not going to break the law. Why not ( break a law unjustly applied)? Because he recognizes that the rule of law is the corporate or public expression of human rationality itself. Law is the rational means by which the corruptible man might minimize the corruption. Decades later Aristotle will say : The Law is reason without passion. It is the application of reason not to benefit this person or that person, but rather for the benefit of justice itself. So until the very last, Socrates is the teacher, now instructing his melancholy friends on this obvious fact. Here he says that I have devoted my entire life to the cause of reason, and now because of my own particular situation is compromised, am I to abandon all that I stood for, all that I taught, all that I believed ? Am I supposed to run like a thief in the night? And then what would my life have meant ?.....TTC. D. Robinson

The philosopher is a man who has studied how to die. He knows how to die, he is not afraid to die. He is afraid to do that which is wrong. Socrates in his trial is analogizing himself to a tragic hero, and this trial has been a tragedy. Except that the tragic hero in this case who is going to his death doesn't have a tragic flaw. So this dialog (The Apology) is a new and improved tragedy, and Plato is going to be last and the greatest tragedians. Here we are going beyond tragedy to a new and finer kind of  tragic hero, a tragic hero of knowledge, not violence, and a new and finer kind of tragic poet in Plato. He creates a new and hybrid work of art that will do the things that tragedy and epic and lyric and comedy used to, and will allow us to supplant the original Greek tragedy, comedy and epic, with a new and superior art form which gives moral knowledge, not moral ignorance.   TTC   M. Sugrue

Socrates does at the last point in his life (Phaedo) give us a gesture towards which we might move - a gesture towards the eternal, a gesture towards the end point, the 'telos' of human life. ...  TTC   M. Sugrue

Now if rhetoric was the only infallible method by which the good and the excellent were to be attained, then Hitler was an angel descended from heaven with his rhetoric that excelled, and which he deployed to the hilt to tell endless lies not only to the world, but also to the very people he claimed  to represent and to whom his rhetoric appealed, and who, because of his excellent rhetoric, never even bothered ( to some extent even now ) about his lies because the thrust of his rhetoric excluded the possibility in the minds of his subjects that he could ever even lie to them. But then, according to the Rhetorician, why give a damn about the Truth when we have the excellence of Hitler's rhetoric that rapes the Truth, but just because it is rhetoric, takes precedence over Truth ?

If all that is required for "Virtue" or "Arete"  is rhetoric and only rhetoric, then Hitler was an unsurpassed master of this  "Excellence". Here is an example of this "Excellence", a classic case of rhetoric at its heights used for the manipulation of the masses by some brilliant observations on mass psychology :
The psyche of the broad masses is accessible only to what is strong and uncompromising. Like a woman whose inner sensibilities are not as much under the sway of abstract reasoning, but are subject to a vague emotional longing for the strength that completes her being, and who would rather bow to a strong man than dominate a weakling - so the masses prefer a ruler to a suppliant, and are filled with a stronger sense of mental security by a doctrine that brooks no rival than by liberal teaching which offers them a choice. They have very little idea of how to make such a choice and are prone to feel they have been abandoned. They feel little shame at being terrorised intellectually......they see only the ruthless force and brutality of its utterances to which they always submit in the end. ( Adolf Hitler )

It can be argued that the rest of the Western world did not buy Hitler's rhetoric, and that may be somewhat true, but it must be countered here by the fact that the rest of the Western world were indifferent and kept silent until Poland was attacked, and then too, remained passive until France was attacked. It is almost certain that the Western world would have done nothing if Hitler would have attacked and occupied countries that had not been colonized by the other Europeans, and it is also certain that German people's political resentment and unrest was mainly due to their not having a sufficient "living space" like the other European nations had acquired through their "adventures" in the new worlds as well as their colonies in the old world. Where was Germany's rightful share in the loot ? That was the underlying reason for both World War 1 as also subsequently in the rise of Hitler to power. He sensed this resentment amongst the Germans against the rest of the Europeans and exploited it to the hilt to come to power even with a minority. And then the explosive combination of power and rhetoric ensured the consolidation of his power and his continuation till the very end. Once his rhetoric had permeated through to the common German's mind, even the intelligent Generals were unable to break his complete hold over the mass of German people, and although many of them came to realize his game and came to know that he lied to them again and again ( they used to listen to BBC radio to know the latest news ), they could do nothing. Such is the destructive power of rhetoric when truth is subtracted from it and the method or means are all that count to achieve the ends of ambitious, shameless people. And this is exactly what Socrates fought against when he tried to defend "virtue" from being traded by the wealth motivated rhetoricians, the Sophists.

This analysis however should not be taken to conclude that the Sophists were villains and rouges that needed to be locked up in jail, but that their selling of the art of rhetoric was ethically flawed and that Socrates was right in questioning the motivations as well as the ends of their art, and that such an art had no place in the governance of an efficient state, because if the Sophists had their way, the wealthy and not the talented would form and dictate all laws and policy - obviously those laws and policies that would serve their ends - that of accumulation of more and more wealth in the hands of few at the cost of the exploitation of the rest. And this is exactly what has indeed happened in nation after nation - rhetoric has proliferated in the nationalistic politics of our time but the dialectics of our time have failed to have a critical impact upon the social, political conditions of the modern age. Even in literature, barring some exceptional playwrights like Wilde an O'Neill, the format of the dialogues like those of Plato were abandoned in favor of the story or novel form which is more rhetorical in its typical presentation.

To presume that rhetoric is the one and only ultimate discourse means that no meaningful dialog that brings about agreement between human beings can take place. To presume that no agreements are necessary is to bring in the reign of chaos. To presume that any agreements between a privileged few (or of one kind ) can ever lead to a just order is the worst deception. 

Once a man like Gorgias is reclaimed by the dialectic, he finds out who he is, because identity is constructed linguistically or symbolically. So the opening question : who is Gorgias?  is answered in the end. Gorgias is the rhetorician and the rhetorician is the physician's helper and assistant. He does what the physician can't do, which is persuade. That is not the physician's job. The rhetorician is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to make the Athenian state a good state. We find out here then that the logos is superior to mythos, and dialectic is superior to rhetoric. But mythos cannot be banished from the city altogether, and must be subordinated towards the good and in order to do that we have to have rhetoricians with if not true knowledge, then at least true opinion. And Gorgias has been given true opinion, because he has a good example before him in what a true dialectic education would look like. In which we find that there is hope even for the most corrupt and depraved of men. And if there is hope for them then perhaps the dialectic offers a way out of the mess of contemporary or ancient political activity. TTC  M. Sugrue.