Rhetoric

Plato

Of all the Ancient Greek philosophers, Plato was the one which had the most influence on subsequent ideas around the role of rhetoric and philosophy. A student of Socrates, he went on to found a school called The Academy, and was known for skepticism about the value of rhetoric.

This skepticism or mistrust of rhetoric likely had much to do with the circumstances surrounding the death of his mentor, Socrates, who was condemned to death by the Athenian court. Plato came to view rhetoric as merely a tool for manipulation. According to him, “Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.”

In this view, rhetoric was not concerned with truth but with persuasion. This was based on the idea that presentation and style mattered more than truth when it came to rhetoric. This put rhetoric is opposition to dialectic, which involved two parties presenting arguments in a discussion with the goal of determining the truth.

Plato was adamant about the opposition between rhetoric and dialectic, and that dialectic was a valuable practice which led to truth, while rhetoric was less honorable and concerned only with persuasion, often resulting in lies.

I’ve never agreed with his take on rhetoric, to be honest. From my understanding, rhetoric and dialectic are much more similar than Plato would admit. In a future post, I’ll get into more detail on the different ideas various philosophers had about the purpose of rhetoric and dialectic.

For now, I’ll say this about Plato: he had an idealistic viewpoint on what constituted truth, and believed that a rhetorician must first KNOW (philosophy) before he is to CONVINCE (rhetoric). Truth was determined through dialectic, or argumentation. Rhetoric was a tool to persuade or deceive, and therefore hardly worthy of the true philosopher.

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Rhetoric

The Sophists

The Sophists were among the first teachers and theorists of rhetoric in Ancient Greece.

They made their living traveling from city to city, teaching the citizens the art of argumentation.

Having experienced a wide variety of local habits and customs during their travels, they saw truth as being relative in nature. They rejected any idea of objective truth or eternal values, favoring instead the position that “truth” was negotiated through language and determined by culture.

As a result, they were looked down upon by their now more famous contemporaries, Plato and Aristotle. This meant they would be regarded with similar contempt by students of philosophy during the many centuries to come.

However, recent decades have seen a renewed interest in the Sophistic movement. As Susan Jarratt, a respected researcher on this subject, notes, the Sophists anticipated the contemporary rhetorical theorists’ recognition of the gap between the sign and the signified, or the word and what it is supposed to mean.

Gorgias especially was ahead of his time in his understanding of language and reality.

I personally am a big fan of Gorgias, especially this famous quote of his: 

“Nothing exists; even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.” 


So what’s the point, then? Why even bother talking anymore? Should you just stop reading this now?


Well, I can’t say I actually know what Gorgias meant. 

But I’m not sure it’s meant to be taken 100% at face value.

And I think that’s the entire point. It is meant to inspire humility around our use of language. 

I don’t believe it’s wise to be a fanatic believer in any truth or dogma. Unlike Plato, I believe the world is too complex, too infinite to be limited to what we can say in words.

We can’t let ourselves get hooked on the belief that we are in possession of the only Truth, of the one Right way to think or be. It’s dangerous. This arrogance of thought is at the root of all zealotry and much of the world’s violence.

The point is not to reject all attempts at understanding, but to recognize them as just that: attempts, not absolutes.

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Rhetoric

What is Rhetoric?

According to Aristotle, rhetoric “is the art of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.”

Most modern and contemporary definitions tend to take this classical definition of rhetoric as their starting point.

For example, Kenneth Burke, one of the 20th century’s greatest rhetorical theorists, gave this explanation of rhetoric: “it is rooted in an essential function of language itself… as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.”

Here, we can see three of the core elements which comprise the field of rhetoric today. In contemporary theory, the study of rhetoric is not contained to persuasion or argumentation, but also encompasses ideas regarding the nature of language itself.


THE 3 KEYS OF RHETORIC

What is Rhetoric?

  1. SYMBOLIC

It is representational. It uses symbols such as letters, images, gestures, etc. that stand for something else. There is not always a direct, 1-to-1 relationship between the symbol and the meaning behind it, with different people perceiving different connotations and meanings for a given symbol.

2. COMMUNICATIVE

It expresses thought or opinion. It may be used in an attempt to express truth or to persuade and convince others.

3.SOCIAL

It occurs in the interaction between people. It involves a rhetor, or speaker, and an audience who will receive and evaluate their message.


So why study rhetoric and magic?

Many of you, I’m sure, have heard the phrase “thoughts become things.”

It is a well-known concept that you attract what you think about [known as the Law of Attraction].

“For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”


If you believe in magic and manifestation, it is wise to also examine your thoughts and the words used to express them.

Human beings are something like a projection machine, and the words and images inside of us are the film. The outer environment is simply the screen that holds the pictures we have chosen to display in front of us.

This means that the study of language and rhetoric can help us become more conscious and intentional about our words and what we will create with them.

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