Photo edited by Web Investigator – In the pursuit of truth: Martin Luther King addressing residents of Watts, Los Angeles in 1965. Photo Getty
Plato said we ought to be suspicious of persuasive speakers and the appeal to emotions. But rhetoric can be a civic good
Philosophers have had a longstanding problem with rhetoric. The standard view of the quarrel is well-known: philosophy is a truth-directed activity concerned with reasoned argument, while rhetoric is uninterested in truth and concerned merely with persuasion. This view is often traced to Plato, but it is too crude. As Plato himself recognised, philosophers need to present their ideas in persuasive form if they are to gain acceptance, and there are uses of rhetoric that can further our commitment to truth rather than frustrate it. The power of an effective speaker to captivate an audience is apt to arouse our suspicion in democratic politics, yet we should also acknowledge that the practice of rhetoric can serve a civic purpose. The real question here is what distinguishes good rhetoric from bad rhetoric.
Plato was deeply interested in this question. Although a concern for truth pervades his thought, this is not the main or the most important problem he has with rhetoric in his dialogues. To understand Plato’s critique, we need to read it against the backdrop of a deep mistrust of persuasive speaking that he shared with his contemporaries following Athens’ loss of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta in the late fifth century BCE. Apart from the huge death toll and casualties suffered by the city, the loss had a monumental impact on the Athenian psyche. In the Laws, usually regarded as Plato’s last work, he has his Athenian Visitor state that ‘[E]very Greek takes it for granted that my city loves talk and does a great deal of it, whereas Sparta is a city of few words, and Crete practices cunning more than talk.’
No doubt there were many factors that contributed to Athens’ loss of the war, but if there is one thing we can point to above all, it is the fact that the Athenian people themselves were persuaded by charismatic statesmen and generals of the period to undertake a series of disastrous military campaigns. As many writers – historians, tragedians and comedians alike – would lament during and after the war, it was in large part the Athenians’ ‘love of talk’ that led to their defeat.
Athens’ downfall provides us with a cautionary tale in our own era. While it would be wrong to reject a persuasive speech simply because the speaker fails to belong to our preferred political party, it would be equally wrong to think that we should accept every speech that strikes us as persuasive. Adolf Hitler’s Nuremberg Rallies of the 1920s and ’30s were highly effective propaganda tools in consolidating power for the Nazi Party and influencing the views of the German people, but the wider effects of his ability to fabricate a redeemed Germany were devastating for the country. The principle here is simple: good rhetoric is not reducible to persuasive rhetoric. Persuasion might often be the goal of the rhetorician, but if rhetoric is to serve some civic good, it must serve the people on whom it operates. Plato was the first to observe that persuasion cannot in fact be the proper end of rhetoric, since it is an open question how it serves the interests of an audience to have their views influenced by a persuasive speech.
In his Gorgias and the Phaedrus, Plato therefore takes a different approach to the value of rhetoric. Together, these two works put forward a comprehensive theory of when and how a persuasive speech qualifies as good rhetoric. The Gorgias is best interpreted as a critique of the conventional practice of rhetoric. In this dialogue, Socrates argues that the chief purpose of conventional rhetoric is not (properly speaking) persuasion, but flattery. His point is that the practice of persuasive speaking typically achieves its effects by satisfying the pleasures and desires of an audience…