What’s in a Name? A Reflection on Language, Rhetoric & Dialectic

Until the time Plato began teaching, it is likely that the art associated with persuasive speaking in law courts and legislative assemblies had no technical name. Those who taught the skills of persuasion called themselves sophists, wise ones, and purported to teach wisdom in the form of powerful words. In Plato’s Gorgias, for example, Gorgias, sophist extraordinaire, not only boasts of being able to answer any question to his inquirer’s satisfaction, but to do so in as many or as few words as the inquirer would wish.

Sophists like Gorgias weren’t cynical hypocrites, either. In his Encomium of Helen, Gorgias attributes great power to persuasion, calling it a powerful lord; saying that it could enchant like an incantation; and arguing that it could overpower the mind and body like a drug.

In the wake of the tyrannical rule of the thirty tyrants of Athens and amidst the contemporary instability of the democratic tendencies to fall prey to demagogues, Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates a rather potent theory of sophistic “art” in his dialogue, Gorgias. Scholars of ancient rhetoric (e.g. Schiappa in Protagoras and Logos and Cole in The Origins of Rhetoric) have argued that it was Plato who first coined the term “rhetoric” to refer to the systematic teaching of the sophists, and that his Gorgias is the earliest dialogue where he enlists this theory to set his own teaching over and against the sophists.

In Gorgias, Socrates defines rhetoric as a part of flattery which he defines as an experience (a knack, a habit) in producing a kind of delight and gratification. Flattery as an experience or habit is contrast with art, which relies upon demonstrable knowledge. The parts of flattery are four: two of the body (cookery and cosmetic) and two of the soul (rhetoric and sophistry). Flattery is a semblance or counterfeit of art insofar as it promises what only art can deliver. Medicine is that art which heals bodies that are sick, whereas cookery (i.e. the “art” of making tasty foods) offers pleasure that gratifies the body, but cannot produce health. Similarly, Gymnastic is that art which develops the body toward its full potential, whereas cosmetic only causes the body to appear beautiful, or young, or vigorous without actually producing these things.

Studying the art of persuasion gives us a glimpse into the world-shaking possibilities that the subtlest shifts in meaning can make.

Like the arts of medicine and gymnastic, which attend to the health and potential of the body, Justice and Legislation are those are that attend to the health and potential of the soul. The deserts meted out by Justice heal a sick soul while laws wisely given by legislation direct the soul to its full potential.

Here is where Plato’s coining of the term Rhetoric serves him as a compelling idea and opposing counterpart to his own art (dialectic), for it rounds out the dialectical divisions of his definition of flattery corresponding to body and soul. For there is only one art of speaking in law courts (i.e. places of justice) and assemblies (i.e. places of legislation), and that is sophistry. The term “rhetor” designated a public speaker prior to Plato (even as far back as Homer) and during his time meant a politician who put forth motions in law courts or assemblies. However, adding the suffix –ike (thus, art of the rhetor) seems to be Plato’s own creation.

Plato’s own admission that sophistry and rhetoric are easily jumbled together may be covering for the novelty of his term. The upshot of Plato’s coinage is that it allows him to formulate a complete theory of verbal flattery for the soul to match the arts of verbal care for the soul. Justice (like medicine) and Legislation (like gymnastic) are counterfeited by Rhetoric and Sophistry. Rhetoric allows a man to avoid the punishment of justice in a court of law by making him appear innocent or just while he is not. Sophistry allows a man to enact laws leading to false goods while making them appear really good.

Throughout the dialogue, not only does Socrates interrogate Gorgias’s own understanding of what he teaches, not only does Socrates put forth his own suppositions about what rhetoric teaches, but Socrates also offers (by way of demonstration) an alternative method, a true art of persuasive discourse: dialectic.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Plato’s evaluation of rhetoric, one has to respect the deftness with which he crafts his argument. He does not rely simply upon negative characterizations, but weaves a beautifully complete theoretical picture of the forms of persuasive discourse, good and ill.

Plato’s skill reminds me of another re-appropriation of terms in Classical times, namely, Christ and the Apostles’ adopting and adapting the term ekklesia to provide a robust vision of an alternative citizenship to the ubiquitous Roman Empire.

While any normal Greek-speaking Roman in the 1st century would consider ekklesia just a common word for any political assembly (the way rhetor would have been seen as the common term for a public speaker in Ancient Greece) the Christian use of the term to designate citizens of the Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ, the Household of faith, and so on allowed them to not only show that the political citizenship offered by Rome was a “semblance” of what it meant to be fully human, but also contrast it with the political citizenship within the City of God (so practically portrayed in the life of Christians in Acts, but also fearfully displayed following the banner of King Jesus in Revelation).

Studying language, and in particular studying the art of persuasion, gives us a glimpse into the world-shaking and world-making possibilities that the subtlest shifts in meaning can make upon people’s understanding. The beauty of Plato’s Socratic critiques of sophistry continue to tempt men to make rhetoric a byword for flattery among many, and if students of the classics could rediscover something of the Apostles’ beautiful turn of term ekklesia, we might escape the malaise and “dumpsterfire” offerings that most contemporary Westerners consider to be the only political citizenship offered by the modern nation-state.

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