Rhetoric: An Outsider's View

Part I

Whereas scholars of Rhetoric are inclined to view Literatary Study with a critical eye, I -- a Literary Study person through and through -- have been increasingly excited about saying "Yes!" to Rhetoric. Here I'd like to define what I mean by "Rhetoric," in case it isn't what contemporary Rhetoricians mean by the term, and to explain why I endorse the discipline.

One of the commonplaces about the term "Rhetoric" has been that it is used as a pejorative term opposing Truth-seeking speech and writing. In the context of Classical dialogue, Socrates is taken to be the noble-hearted Truth-seeker, and his most representative opponents have been termed "Sophists." As contemporary Rhetoricians frame this point, Sophists have long been wrongly understood in the popular imagination as scoundrely con-men who are self-evidently far less noble than someone like Socrates. Seeking to rectify historical judgment, contemporary Rhetoricans elevate figures like Gorgias--himself one of the godfathers of Sophistry--into a position of (at least) moral equivalence with Socrates, if not a position of moral superiority.

Gorgias interests me very much, and I want to cautiously argue--no, not even argue, but suggest--that contemporary Rhetoricians have misunderstood Gorgias, and have created an opposition where none existed. He's a winner, I'll suggest -- but not for the reasons you think. Here's one of the centrally important excerpts from Plato's Gorgias dialogue (Socrates is using the Physician as an example of an expert, a person of knowledge):
Soc. But if [the rhetor] is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gor. Certainly.

Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?

Gor. No.

Soc. And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gor. Clearly.

Soc. Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?

Gor. In the case supposed:-Yes.

Soc. And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Gor. Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?
Gorgias, who is often (I think) understood as a kind of jovial dandy, admits in this section that the rhetor need have no expertise of any subject except the art of rhetoric. And if the rhetor have that single expertise, he will not be in any way inferior to the experts (for example, physicians) who have acquired knowledge. Socrates, straining himself, manages to get Gorgias to admit that a) the rhetorician is ignorant of the knowledge of the physician, but, b) that the rhetorician may be more persuasive with others ignorant of the knowledge of the physician than the physician himself.

For example: Imagine a person with an acute pain in the lower back walks into a doctor's office where Gorgias has been invited as part of an experiment. After the patient describes his symptoms, the physician taps on his back a little bit, maybe runs a blood test (whatever) and concludes that the person is suffering from kidney failure. The physician tells the patient as much. Then it's Gorgias' turn. Gorgias, more persuasive than the physician, but having no idea what is causing the patient's pain, pronounces that there's nothing to worry about -- he gives a small discourse on the nature of the immune system (borrowing vocabulary from the physician himself and something he saw on the Discovery Channel, or whatever)... and the patient is convinced that Gorgias is right.

I am hopeful that this scenario seems improbable -- that you suspect nothing of the kind would ever have happened. That Gorgias simply would have deferred to the doctor in such a case. I'm convinced Gorgias would have done that, as almost any sane human would do. This part is important, though: does everyone agree that Gorgias wouldn't just "make shit up" to win an argument about a person's health? My question is: why do we read it that way? What motivation lies underneath Gorgias' deference?*

All of this is begging a question about expertise and its more ambiguous cousin, authority. Both terms are related to the underlying question of whether knowledge is possible. Socrates uses the example of the physician because it is fairly self-evident, in that case, that the answer is "Yes, knowledge and expertise are possible in the field of human health." But Socrates makes a leap after the excerpt from the dialogue above. He continues,
Whether the rhetorician is or not inferior on this account is a question which we will hereafter examine if the enquiry is likely to be of any service to us; but I would rather begin by asking, whether he is as ignorant of the just and unjust, base and honourable, good and evil, as he is of medicine and the other arts; I mean to say, does he really know anything of what is good and evil, base or honourable, just or unjust in them; or has he only a way with the ignorant of persuading them that he not knowing is to be esteemed to know more about these things than some. one else who knows?
But the same question ought to remain: is it possible to be an expert, to have knowledge, of Justice and Goodness? I believe (correct me if I'm wrong) this is the point where contemporary academic Rhetoricians would object... that is, they would answer, "No, this kind of knowledge cannot be mastered but can only be negotiated, created and encoded in the processes of language." Let's come back to this.

Part II

The list of Classical martyrs to Philosophy include:
  • Socrates (hemlock)
  • Zeno (who, failing in his attempt to kill the tyrant Demylus, "with his own teeth bit off his tongue, he spit it in the tyrant's face."
  • Empedocles (throwing himself into a volcano)
At my small, traditionally-Baptist University in North Carolina, when I teach Walt Whitman, I often ask my students about the similarities between Whitman's language and Jesus'. I ask them to imagine a Jesus who was never crucified, but who was only a wisdom-teacher. I ask them whether his crucifixion elevates his ideas. "Yes," they often say. "Jesus' ideas are more authoritative than Whitman's because Jesus was persecuted to the point of death for his ideas, and never wavered." I often counter by saying, "Yes, but isn't it the willingness to die for an idea, rather than the death itself--" And sometimes I add, "And 'the terrorists' are often willing to die for their ideas... does that make their ideas authoritative?"

The list of modern (Renaissance and later) philosophers who died for their ideas is not as well known to me. I can't think of any. The list of post WWII philosophers who died for their ideas... again, can't think of any. The number of academic philosophers who died for a conference paper is almost certainly zero. My point here is that Philosophy used to be something worth dying for, and has by now become a diversion of the bourgeois. Somewhere along the way, the thread was lost. All of this makes Classical Philosophy seem much more closely associated with early Christianity (think of Jesus and his disciples as social philosophers) than it has to do with contemporary academic Philosophy.

Part III

Peter Kingsley, in his 2003 book Reality (a book I've mentioned before), makes an extensive study of three giants of the Classical world: Parmenides, Empedocles... and Gorgias. Kingsley is convinced that Parmenides was much, much more like a shaman than he was like Jena-Paul Sartre or Martin Heidegger. Read the short wikipedia page about the term Iatromantis, a Greek term used to describe Parmenides' social function. Please spend some time understanding this term. Understand this claim. Picture in your head what your average village Iatromantis looked like, the ways he probably talked, etc. It's important that you refuse to accept this view of Parmenides if you don't want to be persuaded by what follows... an Iatromantis' techniques included, among other things, sitting at the edge of a cave while one of their clients went inside and lay down for three days, perfectly still. It was called "Incubation," and it was intended to bring about a serious transformation in the client (I'm not going to call it "spiritual" or "psychological" or "ideological" or anything).

Further, Kingsley argues that Parmenides' famous poem makes it absolutely clear that something has been lost in translation over the years: after all, would the "father of logic" (as Parmenides is known) really write something like this:

I will do the talking; and it's up to you
to carry away my words once you have heard them.
What I will tell you is which roads of inquiry,
and which roads alone, exist for thinking.
The one route, that is, and is not possible not to be,
is the way of Persuasion; for Persuasion is
Truth's attendant. And as for the other,
that is not, and is necessary not to be:
this, I can tell you, is a path from which no news
returns. For there is no way you can recognize
what is not--there is no travelling that path--
or tell anything about it.

This is, as Kingsley points out, absurd in its vagueness, and utterly unlike anything written by Locke or Hume or Kant or others whom we think of as Philosophers. Kingsley shows that Parmenides intended the poem itself to be the pedagogue... which is to say, the poem gives its readers the pure experience (not notion, or idea, or understanding) of mystery. Parmenides' poem is all about the reaction it causes in its readers. It is about audience. It may be recognized as a (ahem) sophisticated kind of rhetoric.

In the course of his poem, Parmenides makes it clear that he is contending that there is only One thing in the universe. Then Kingsley turns to Empedocles, a man who "argued" contrary to Parmenides that the state of Oneness Parmenides describes is only a momentary part in a huge cosmic cycle of separation and reunion, Strife and Love, always repeated. Empedocles has his own poem (strange that these ancient Philosophers should use poetry as a vehicle, no?), and according to Kingsley, Empedocles writes his poem for precisely the same reason that Parmenides wrote his: to cause a certain effect in the reader. Before moving on, Kingsley notes that Empodocles' death sort of caused by his convictions.

So here are two Granddaddies of Philosophy arguing (apparently) different things, with Kingsley claiming that their arguments are only superficially important compared to the influence these arguments have on the reader. Kingsley's Empedocles, like Kingsley's Parmenides, was much more like a shaman (or maybe a zen teacher) than he was like a contemporary academic Philosopher or Rhetorician or Theorist. Both said what they said to produce an effect in their listeners. Kingsley writes,
For Empedocles' teaching is, after all, something that has to believed. After experiencing death while still alive you have to bring that understanding back into life, or what people call life... First, madness has to be experienced; then controlled. And to do this is to discover all kinds of sanities, of ways for operating skillfully in the world.
To discover all kinds of sanities. I like that. Think of it as the "end" of Parmenides & Empedocles' teaching.

And, for a moment, as the "end" of Gorgias' teaching. Kingsley's last target is Gorgias -- and he presents him as another in that immensely important sequence: Parmenides (shaman), Empedocles (guru), and Gorgias (as Zen instructor?!). And I'll tell you the truth, when I turned to that page describing Gorgias that way my jaw-bone about fell off. I had expected anything but that move. Gorgias? The charismatic dandy who sold his speechifying for ten dollars on the corner market? Couldn't be. After all, Gorgias is the hero of my Rhetorician friends, who claim him as the godfather of their discipline, who uniformly dismiss as unserious all occultist/preternatural narratives like this.

To quote from Kingsley again:
Ancient writers quite often mention in passing that Empedocles had a successor. To quote the words of one author who neatly summed up the situation as a whole: "Parmenides was the teacher of Empedocles who was the teacher of Gorgias." (Kingsley's source is Olympiodorus, a sixth century philosopher who delivered and recorded a lecture on Gorgias)
And just to be clear, Kingsley's not saying anything (yet) that should offend anyone... he writes,
That [this tradition] should run from Parmenides, a "Monist," to the "Pluralist" Empedocles is bad enough; but that it should run from them to Gorgias is far worse. At least Parmenides and Empedocles were both philosophers. And yet Gorgias has come to be considered something very different from any philosopher... He used to be known as a sophist. In fact he was sometimes even referred to as the father of the sophists. And however much individual scholars might try to shift or redefine the dividing line between sophists and philosophers, the division still stands.
But Kingsley suggests that even Gorgias' difference is only apparent, only superficial. Kingsley argues that Gorgias, like Parmenides and Empedocles before him, was all about producing an effect on his listeners... a specific effect: it is to cajole us into not realizing or understanding, but experiencing that everything we think we know is an illusion. [What if you have been that listener all along, and your teachers have been saying whatever they needed to say--quoting Jesus, Foucault, Kant, Gorgias, whoever--to get you to experience that effect? No... it couldn't be.]

Kingsley finishes his argument with a few chapters on kairos -- first explaining what it means, and then explaining that it could lead a speaker to say apparently contradictory things at different times because the listeners in different times might need to hear different things in order to have that experience. Kingsley's Gorgias was precisely like a zen teacher, trying to "unstick" his listeners from their intellectual constructs.


Obviously, Kingsley can't "force" his interpretation of Gorgias onto anyone. Feel free to reject it and continue thinking you know who and what Gorgias was. But I do want to return to two earlier points: 1) the question of motivation: why wouldn't Gorgias just "make some shit up" to win an argument regarding healthcare, and, 2) the question of the stakes of philosophy.

Regarding #1: my answer is that contemporary interpeters of Gorgias who think of him as a playful jester-like figure with no aims at all can make no explanation for why no academic Philosophers have died for Philosophy in a long time.

Concerning #2: Philosophy used to be worth dying for because some philosophers may have deemed the aim of giving that experience of "unknowing" to others to be that important.

I return to Socrates, most hated rhetor of them all, who discovered a new way to produce the highly prized effect in his listeners:
And so, Glaucon, I said, we have at last arrived at the hymn of dialectic. This is that strain which is of the intellect only, but which the faculty of sight will nevertheless be found to imitate; for sight, as you may remember, was imagined by us after a while to behold the real animals and stars, and last of all the sun himself. And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible.
Interestingly, Kingsley rejects Plato and Socrates as the duo who first ruined the project of Philosophy... who first began transforming it into the de-clawed jellyfish it is today. But I include them -- I see that Socrates' "hymn of dialectic" was precisely that experiential undoing of the claims of knowledge produced by Gorgias' verbal tricks and by Empedocles' and Parmenides' poems. In my judgment, Rhetoric needs no defense insofar as it participates in this tradition.

One thing to think about, before I retreat, though: it may well be that kairos demands a generation of Ricard J. Sheeeehn's and Dunder Blacksleys (you know who I'm talking about) in order to produce the overwhelming experience of unknowing in a generation of young people. It may even be that what it takes to produce the effect is saying you have no ends at all, and do not intend to produce any effect in your listeners. The final question should be this: what effect are contemporary disciplines like Philosophy, Rhetoric, Theory, and (yes) Literature having on the public? Could they have more impact if they were more... Iatromantic? Does Derrida "work better" in the image of Sartre or in the image of the Oracle of Delphi? To change a person's vocabulary is a minor feat. To give them the freedom to act differently, to change their haircut or start playing the oboe -- is perhaps a greater feat. For those contemporary academics who have considered these questions carefully, I have great respect, regardless of what their performance looks like... but for those who claim, even to themselves in the secret recesses of night, to have no ends in mind for their listeners -- well, I've got a poem or two I'd like them to read.


*By the way, if you don't read Gorgias this way, and instead assume he would just flippantly disregard the best interest of the patient to win an argument, then the rest of the Gorgias dialogue ought to put to rest any possibility of taking Gorgias seriously as an ethical person or thinker. Obviously.


pure_sophist_monster said...

What's to stop the physician from making shit up? Believing that he/she shouldn't? Being persuaded not to? "Truth" is protection against neither "falsehoods" nor "power."

Casey said...

What's to stop the physician from making shit up? Seriously?

It's a combination of expertise and conscience, I suppose. And the fact that the physician doesn't have to make shit up -- he knows something about the nature of reality. Are you denying the existence of expertise, Sophist?

Be a little less cryptic for me -- I'm not sure I understand your point.

Or don't. I mean, whatever.