We’ve got a number of things to address in today’s class:
- First, I want to introduce four terms to help us think about philosophy, rhetoric, and language
- Second, we need to discuss the Ong reading
- Third, I want to go over my cursory introduction to the Ancient Greek rhetoric
- Fourth, my quick guide on how to read theory and the homework
Four Terms Germaine to a Discussion of Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Language
- In short, metaphysics is our sense of what exists “beyond” the physical world. It also asks how we can approach said beyond.
- Ontology is the most complex of these three terms, since it can have different meanings in different contexts. Loosely, it answers the question “what is real?” How do we know what is real is real? Often (after Aristotle), the West approaches ontology via categories and classifications. As Ong notes, classification is a ramification of literacy. Thus, we can conclude that Western ontology is correlated–if not caused–by the development of literacy.
- Ontology is often the attempt to identify what something is.
- Epistemology is the study of knowledge. What is knowledge? Is it itself a thing? How can we know something? To what extent can we know something? Epistemology traces its origins back to Plato and Socrates. And, again, Ong show us that the development of literacy radically alters epistemology
- Ethics addresses the processes through which we make decisions and navigate problems and (and other people).
- It is important to differentiate ethics from morality. Ethics deals with general principles (process), while morality seeks to produce concrete mandates (products). Note that this is my way of parsing the terms, and would likely be challenged by others.
Let’s talk about Ong’s best sentences.
Here is a link to my stock lecture on Ong.
A Cursory Introduction to a Few Folks Central to the History of Rhetoric
Here’s a quick overview of the theorists we will be working with over the next few weeks.
Socrates’ nickname was the gadfly, a Greek term for agitator or tormentor. Socrates’s philosophic method involved asking someone questions until you could lead them to a contradiction. The purpose of Socrates’s philosophy often wasn’t to discover the Truth, but rather to reveal our essential ignorance. Socrates: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” Plato has Socrates repeat this sentiment in his famous Apology: “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know, so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know” (22d).
It is hard to know exactly what Socrates believed on many topics because he was not a writer–in fact, his most famous student, Plato, documents his suspicions toward literacy and writing in the Phaedrus dialogue. We do know, however, that he was skeptical of politics, especially of those who crafted political and legal speeches. Additionally, he was skeptical of democracy, since he did not believe the typical person had the intellectual or spiritual character required to lead. We do know that, after a despotic period in Greek history, the people of Athens tried Socrates for “corrupting the youth.” He was (in part due to his own obstinance) condemned to death–but he chose to die a martyr to Truth rather than give into “rhetoric.”
Without doubt, Plato is the most important philosopher in the history of Western thought. Alfred North Whitehead offers this quip:
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.
Most of this importance can be traced down to his prolific writing–and to the effects that the act of writing had upon his thinking. We might say that he is the first literate thinker, and thus, serves as the foundation for 2000 years of literate culture (hence the Ong reading).
Plato never forgave the death of his teacher–and that death drives his disdain toward rhetoric (see especially his Gorgias dialogue. In that dialogue, Plato records (?) Socrates’ comparison of rhetoric in terms of “pastry baking.” This is a long passage, worthy of examination:
And now I will endeavour to explain to you more clearly what I mean: The soul and body being two, have two arts corresponding to them: there is the art of politics attending on the soul; and another art attending on the body, of which I know no single name, but which may be described as having two divisions, one of them gymnastic, and the other medicine. And in politics there is a legislative part, which answers to gymnastic, as justice does to medicine; and the two parts run into one another, justice having to do with the same subject as legislation, and medicine with the same subject as gymnastic, but with a difference. Now, seeing that there are these four arts, two attending on the body and two on the soul for their highest good; flattery knowing, or rather guessing their natures, has distributed herself into four shams or simulations of them; she puts on the likeness of some one or other of them, and pretends to be that which she simulates, and having no regard for men’s highest interests, is ever making pleasure the bait of the unwary, and deceiving them into the belief that she is of the highest value to them. Cookery simulates the disguise of medicine, and pretends to know what food is the best for the body; and if the physician and the cook had to enter into a competition in which children were the judges, or men who had no more sense than children, as to which of them best understands the goodness or badness of food, the physician would be starved to death. A flattery I deem this to be and of an ignoble sort, Polus, for to you I am now addressing myself, because it aims at pleasure without any thought of the best. An art I do not call it, but only an experience, because it is unable to explain or to give a reason of the nature of its own applications. And I do not call any irrational thing an art; but if you dispute my words, I am prepared to argue in defence of them.
Pastry baking, as I say, is the flattery that wears the mask of medicine; and cosmetics, in like manner, is a flattery which takes the form of gymnastic, and is knavish, false, ignoble, illiberal, working deceitfully by the help of lines, and colours, and enamels, and garments, and making men affect a spurious beauty to the neglect of the true beauty which is given by gymnastic.
I would rather not be tedious, and therefore I will only say, after the manner of the geometricians (for I think that by this time you will be able to follow):
cosmetics : gymnastics :: sophsitry : legislation
pastry baking:medicine:: oratory : justice
And this, I say, is the natural difference between the rhetorician and the sophist, but by reason of their near connection, they are apt to be jumbled up together; neither do they know what to make of themselves, nor do other men know what to make of them. For if the body presided over itself, and were not under the guidance of the soul, and the soul did not discern and discriminate between cookery and medicine, but the body was made the judge of them, and the rule of judgment was the bodily delight which was given by them, then the word of Anaxagoras, that word with which you, friend Polus, are so well acquainted, would prevail far and wide: “Chaos” would come again, and cookery, health, and medicine would mingle in an indiscriminate mass. And now I have told you my notion of rhetoric, which is, in relation to the soul, what cookery is to the body.
In the Sophist dialogue, Plato’s Socrates maintains that rhetoric/sophistry is an art of acquisition, that it fails to create anything (219c, 226). This is an important point–one that gets at the very heart of the philosophy vs sophistry debate in ancient Greece. Is there a real world out there to which we have access? Or is the world made real through language? In short: nature or culture? Platonic philosophy seeks to (re)present the world in its pure, transcendental, universal, static, True form–in other words, it seeks to strip away the misgivings of culture to return to the natural. From such a position, rhetoric can often be interpreted as mere “bullshit,” political nonsense that intends to manipulate and control us, and thus keep us further separated from the Truth.
As I said in the introduction, Plato never forgave the execution of his teacher, and it left him extremely opposed to democratic government. His long treatise, the Republic, calls for an extended intellectual oligarchy.
Historians note that, though they have come to dominate Western history, Socrates and Plato were not the cheif intellectual movement of their day. In fact, Socrates’ diatribe above was part of a project by Plato to discredit competing philosophical systems and promote his own school and thought. One reason why Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have come to dominate the philosophical tradition is that we have large amounts of their thought recorded in writing. As we shall see this semester, the same cannot be said of the sophistic philosophers.
Protagoras was one of those philosophers. History has only handed to us a few brief fragments of his works–recorded by other philosophers and historians. Protagoras’s most famous fragment comes from Sextus:
Protagoras, too, will have it that of all things the measure is man, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not, meaning by ‘measure’ the standard of judgment […] And for this reason he posits only what appears to the individual, thus introducing relativity… Now what he says is that matter is in a state of flux […] He says too that the reasons [logio] of all the appearances are present in the matter, so that the matter is capable, as far as lies in its own power, of being everything that appears to everybody. Men, however, apprehend different things at different times according to their various dispositions.
We will read about Gorgias more later this semester. For now, I want to highlight Gorgias’s treatment of rhetoric. Like Protagoras, we have very few Gorgian fragments (although instead of single lines, we have whole essays). His most famous piece is his “On Helen,” in which he invents arguments for why Helen should not be held accountable for causing the Trojan War. In his defense, he offers the following description of the powers of language (logos):
Speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinest works: it can stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nuture pity. I shall show how this is the case, since it is necessary to offer proof of opinion of my hearers. I both deem and define all poetry as speech with meter. Fearful shuddering and tearful pity and grievous longing come upon its hearers, and at the actions and physical sufferings of others in good fortunes and in evil fortunes, through the agency of words, the soul is wont to experience a suffering of its own. But come, I shall turn from one argument to another. Sacred incantations sun with words are bearers of pleasure and banishers of pain, for, merging with opinion in the soul, the power of the incantation is wont to beguile it and persuade it and alter it by witchcraft. There have been discovered two arts of witchcraft and magic: one consists of errors of soul and the other of deceptions of opinion. All who have and do persuade people of things do so by modling a false argument. For if all men on all subjects had both memory of things past and awareness of things present and foreknowledge of the future, speech would not be similarly similar, since as things are now it is not easy for them to recall the past nor to consider the present nor to predict the future. So that on most subjects most men take opinion as counselour to their soul, but since opinion is slippery and insecure it casts those employing it into slippery and insecure success
Isocrates founded the most prominent school in ancient Athens–in fact, much of our idea of education today can be traced back to his padeia. Isocrates was among the first to argue that language, logos, rhetoric established humanity, rather than plagued it.
Isocrates viewed Socratic and Platonic philosophy–and its search for transcendental Truth–as an overly abstract project. Such intellectual work failed to live up to his litmus test: will this help me in the courts, the forums, or in everyday life? He saw rhetoric not as an exercise in duplicitousness or as pastry baking, but rather as a civic commitment to making decisions in real time. Responding to Plato, he writes:
They characterize men who ignore our practical needs and delight in the mental juggling of the ancient sophists as ‘students of philosophy,’ but refuse this name to those who pursue and practice those studies which will enable us to govern wisely both our own households and the commonwealth–which should be the objects of our toil, of our study, and of our every act. (343)
Isocrates was Gorgias’s student–and while he doesn’t share his (sophistic) love of agitation and awe, he does share his commitment to democracy and acting with uncertainty.
Aristotle was Plato’s student, and a prolific writer. His works–more even than Plato’s–form the basis of Western metaphysics, philosophy, ethics, and politics. We will discuss Aristotle in greater detail in the coming weeks; for now, I will say that while Aristotle is skeptical toward his mentor’s transcendental leanings, he shares with him a prioritization of truth (logos) and a dubiousness toward rhetoric and the linguistic arts.
This weekend I would like you to read Plato and make contributions to the Rhetorical Theory Reading Grid.