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.
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.
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?
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.
It expresses thought or opinion. It may be used in an attempt to express truth or to persuade and convince others.
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.
In the Garden of Eden, there stood two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil.
The Tree of Life is that of direct experience, life as we perceive it through the five senses. It is felt through the body, and the center of its intelligence is the heart.
The second tree perceived solely through the mind, and through the tool of language & logic.
Language is a tool which divides. Each word cuts through the real, splitting it into binaries. Hot & cold, men & women, light & dark, and of course, good & evil.
Another name for this tree could well be the Tree of Death. We need look no further than the fruits it often bears.
When we begin to label one element of binary as “good” and it’s opposite as “evil”, we know we are dealing with the fruit of this tree. In reality, nothing is wholly good or wholly evil. Humanity, and the universe of which we are a part, is a complex, multi-dimensional reality impossible to encapsulate in one word or phrase.
Too often, when we crown ourselves or our egos the arbiter of all that is Good, we dissociate from the messy reality of being a human being in interconnected web of relationships and roles. This often leads to the violence we see in the world around us. Convinced of our essential goodness, we turn a blind eye to the evil we can do.
It is for eating from this Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil that we were cast from the garden.
To return is not as difficult as we may have been told. We can always return to the Tree of Life. It has never stopped bearing fruit; all we need to do is look towards the sky and reach for it.
Centered in our hearts, with our eyes toward heaven and our feet on the ground, we can begin to live again. We can live with love, with connection, beyond the mind and into the beautiful, messy complexity of what it means to be a human in this vast, infinite universe.
The Tree of Knowledge is not our enemy. When we are in right relationship to it, it can often lead us in the direction of truth. But the final step is often to reach and jumó into the void, that space between thoughts and beyond words.
It is in this space that we can feel the divinity of spirit and the force of life. It is a choice we can make, every second of every day.
When in doubt, you can ask choose to step outside of yourself and ask your mind what it believe to be true.
You can then repeat this process, and ask yourself, “What does my heart know is true? What are the sensations in my body telling me? How do my five senses contribute to this?”
There’s no need to commit to any outcome ahead of time. Just practice switching between centers of awareness. Experiment with it, and see what happens. Move towards life, and watch as your experience begins to shift. You might be amazed at what you see.
I finally got around to starting Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (find it here as a PDF). I’ve been wanting to read it since a professor of mine mentioned it in a class a year or two ago.
So far I’m only into the first few pages of the novel, but I would already recommend this book to anyone, if only for the brilliant introduction. It’s a wonderful contemplation of the goals and methods of science fiction and literature in general.
Le Guin says that there are two types of science fiction, those which are extrapolative and those which are thought-experiments. Le Guin isn’t interested in writing extrapolitive fiction–it only carries things to its logical extreme, and “almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”
Instead, Le Guin wants to write thought-experiments. Contrary to popular belief, these thought experiments of science fiction don’t attempt to predict the future; rather, they describe the present, according to the experience and imagination of the author.
That’s what all fiction tries to do, she says: it describes the present reality. How? It attempts to tell the truth by creating a vast web of lies, invented people, places and events that never existed except in the mind of the author.
Later, Le Guin raises an interesting point regarding the supposed purpose of language. She says, “Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only in so far as it has one single meaning, points to one fact which is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and—ideally—quantifiable.”
This hints at an age-old philosophical debate, which asks if it is possible for language to truly express reality. For centuries, the entire field of rhetoric has been looked down upon because it would seem that this is not always the case. Plato, for example, distrusted rhetoric, believing it did not always lead to truth, but was more often could be used in the service of dishonesty and lies.
Underlying these assertions is the assumption that words should have a tight and unbreakable bond with what they refer to. The purpose of rhetoric, at least according to Plato’s Phaedrus, is to lead the soul to truth. Aristotle took up a related view, which is that there is a deep reality that underlies our varying experiences of it.
This created the “common sense” view that most people hold of reality: to most, it obviously exists “out there” in the external world. We can experience and know reality through our senses, and words are only useful in that they convey this deep reality to other people.
However, in this past century, the concept of a deep reality that exists objectively has come under fire. With the advances in quantum physics, we became aware that we cannot separate the measured from the measurer. The instrument used “creates” reality just as much as the object being observed.
This isn’t just abstract theory, fun to think about but impractical or even useless in the real world. It’s actually quite the opposite. Our epistemology is absolutely critical to the way we think about and respond to people and events around us. According to Robert Anton Wilson, Aristotelian certainty and assurance of an underlying, objective truth plays a huge factor in every single one of the major conflicts which have occurred in our world, are occurring now, and (most likely) will occur in the future.
Seems like a stretch? Think again. An epistemology that asserts an objective reality that has an independent existence is divisive: it splits the world into those who are “right” and those who are “wrong.” Religion and ideology depend upon us being right, with an accurate appraisal of the real, against those who are “wrong,” apparently either deluded fools or evil antagonists.
Wilson is brave enough to propose an alternative with disturbing ramifications (to many). If we accept a constructivist view of the world, where truth is created by the observer instead of being simply discovered, we might have to accept that our enemies have never been wrong the way we have always believed. When there is no deep reality, there is no “Truth” as commonly believed, only a variety of experiences of the world that vary according to who we are.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin
Going back to Left Hand‘s introduction, Wilson would probably join Le Guin in opposing those philosophers that are desperate to find certainty in language. Not only is there no certainty in language, there is (most likely) no certainty in what we know as reality, period. Le Guin invites us to be wary of those who need “one single meaning” from our words and our world.
Le Guin is on the side of the artist, the visionaries who intuit a different kind of truth, who have a flexible idea of what the fabric of this truth consists of. It is the artist who opens the way for a multiplicity of meanings, which gives us the freedom to claim our experience as valid and real for us as individuals.
Perhaps Wilson and Le Guin would agree that the world needs more artists, people who have the ability to cast doubt on our certainty and self-righteousness. If we ever hope to resolve our conflicts on any scale, we need this consciousness of the variety of truths that exist among us.
BONUS: Read this commencement address Ursula K. Le Guin delivered to Mills College in 1983! Discussed in this address are the differences between what the author calls “men’s language” and “women’s language.”
Men’s language is “the language of power,” of dominance. In other words, of certainty, of binaries of right/wrong (among others).
She calls on us to abandon our fear of women’s language. We need to be comfortable with uncertainty, and even failure. We need to find hope in the darkness: “What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.”
In sum, it’s a beautiful exploration of the different perspectives men and women tend to have, on two (of probably many) varieties of epistemology and their consequences.