In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus (a version of its translation available here), Socrates discusses the merits of rhetoric as the art of speaking. He wants to establish whether rhetoric, as practised and taught in Athens by the orators at the time and understood as “a way of directing the soul by means of speech” (we could say – persuading), is indeed an art, noble and just, or rather “an artless practice”.
It is, of course, clear from the outset what the conviction of Socrates is. The value of this dialogue lies in Plato’s use of it as an instrument to guide the way – the logical argumentation – that leads to the position held by Socrates. Namely, that rhetoric as it was known in Athens of the day is indeed an artless practice and those claiming to teach it as an art of speaking and writing are ignorant of the true nature of their subject. This is key. The fundamental position from which Socrates starts and to which he returns, albeit in a more extensive manner, is that “someone who is to speak well and nobly” should “have in mind the truth about the subject he is going to discuss”.
The dialogue begins in earnest when Socrates’ interlocutor Phaedrus objects that, from what he has heard, a successful orator does not need to know what really is just, good or noble, but only what will seem so to those listening to him, for his goal is to persuade (direct their souls by his speech, as Socrates poetically puts is), and persuasion needs not to proceed from the truth, but merely appear to do so. I don’t think that Socrates or Plato who wrote the dialogue were so naive to deny this. Most of us have experienced one public figure or another who manages to come across as very persuasive, regardless of whether their message is true or not.
It does not take the truth to persuade us. We need to believe that what we’re hearing or reading is true. People do not like to feel deceived. However, if a claim seems true to us, we will find it very hard not to believe it. Whether such practice of rhetoricians of Socrates’ Athens is “artless” or art of persuasion, depends on perspective. It is not surprising that for Plato and Socrates, philosophers or “lovers of wisdom” as they were, anything that distorts or plays with the true nature of things, or, even worse, does not care about it at all, falls far too short of the main virtues of being just, true and, therefore, noble. Measured by the standard of a philosopher, rhetorical speeches given by orators at law courts or in political gatherings do not bring one closer to wisdom, to the truth.
Thus, students of rhetoric are not equipped with reliable methods of learning the truth, methods like dialectic that Socrates praises in the dialogue. The philosopher believes that if one follows the path of logical argumentation (the dialectic), it will necessarily lead to the recognition of truth and to distinguishing it from mere opinion. The importance of this for the philosopher cannot be understated. This core belief characterises much of philosophy and its search for certain knowledge.
Nowadays, we would probably say that such rhetoric as Socrates discusses in the dialogue cannot be called a science. Perhaps some would even call it a pseudoscientific project, especially if it aims to deceive with false certainty. But ‘science’ as a concept arrived on the scene long after Socrates and all other Greek philosophers were gone. So maybe it is in this sense that we should understand Socrates’ criticism of rhetoric – or the art of persuasion – as an “artless practice”. Art being only that which brings its student and practitioner closer to the truth, that noble value, offering a sound theoretical foundation in proper thinking instead of ‘how-to-in-X-steps’ type of shortcuts.
This is the end of part 1 of a 3-part series on the topic. Next week in part two I will explore in more detail some of the ideas that can be gathered from Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus on what can be considered the art of thinking.
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