Plato's View of Rhetoric

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Plato’s view of rhetoric—Ability and deception versus the genuine art Both written by the famous Greek philosopher Plato, Gorgias and Phaedrus share a recurring theme -- the discussion of the art of rhetoric. Through the discussions among Socrates, Gorgias, Chaerephon, and Polus in “Gorgias”; and Phaedrus and Socrates’ heated dialogue in Phaedrus, I noticed Plato’s favour towards the art of rhetoric and his disapproval against the deceptive rhetoricians. In this essay, I will explore Plato’s positive stance on rhetoric as an art and his disapproval towards the rhetoricians who, according to Plato, either lack the knowledge of identifying the truth, or are too obsessed with seeking pleasure instead of presenting the truth, and prove the argument that Plato thinks highly of rhetoric as an art, but this particular art is degraded by the incapability of the orators to carry out the art effectively.

To present my argument clearly, several terms need to be defined. Rhetoric “is one single art that governs all speaking” (Plato, Phaedrus 261E). To perfect the art of Rhetoric, one needs to master dialectic and oratory skills. Dialectic skills include the breaking up of arguments into smaller parts, making the contents clear and consistent, and building up the small bits into a whole argument again. Oratory skills incorporate the appeal towards the audience.

Many people argue that Plato is not in favour of rhetoric. Indeed, Plato spent large parts of his speeches criticizing rhetorical speakers. In Phaderus and Gorgias, Plato accused the rhetoricians for having two major faults in tainting the true art of rhetoric. They are: the deception they practice and the lack of understanding of the material and the audience. Deception is present mainly because of three things: Rhetoricians’ aim towards pleasure over truth, the difficulty to draw the line between two similar concepts, and the ignorance of the audience. An example to demonstrate the complexity of separating truth and false is presented in “Phaedrus” is: unlike “iron” and “silver”, which people will refer to as the same thing, “just” and “good” often leads to different interpretations. (Plato, Phaedrus 263A) In “Gorgias”, the debate over belief and knowledge demonstrates that it is hard to define the “true” and “false” belief. The difficulty and the disability of the rhetoricians to draw this line often results in deception, where the audience is driven to receive “beliefs” from the rhetorician instead of “knowledge”. The second factor contributing to deception is the ignorant nature of the audience. In Gorgias, Socrates claims that an unaware crowd will be won over to the rhetoric speaker instead of the real expert because of the practice of persuasion. The lack of knowledge of the audience creates an opportunity for rhetorician to practice deception towards their favour. (Gorgias, 459)

The third reason why rhetoricians tend to deceive their audience is their priority to please the audience instead of presenting the truth. This, Plato argues, is why “one who intends to be an able rhetorician has no need to know the truth about the things that are just or good”. A Rhetorician does not necessarily know the truth, but how to persuade, which brings to the conclusion that rhetoric is an artless practice. In Phaedrus, Plato compares the case of convincing somebody that a donkey is a horse by praising the donkey; to the practice of speaking in law courts where rhetoricians direct the souls by means of speech. This demonstrates the wrongdoings of rhetoricians mixing the bad with the good in order to draw their audience on their side. And since people only care about being convincing, those who write Arts of Rhetoric are “cunning”, and rhetoricians only require the spirit of dealing with people-- “pandering” .This brings to Plato’s conclusion in Gorgias: rhetoric is a knack and not an art because it has no rational understanding of the nature of the things...
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