Socrates and Phaedrus: Art of Thinking and Practice of Persuasion (Part 2 of 3)

Last week I published the first part of this 3-part series. This is the second part of the article where I continue by exploring in more detail the ideas that can be gathered from Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus (a version of its translation available here). Of course, there are many insights that can be gleaned. The one I will focus on is this: the differentiation that Socrates makes between a true art of speech and something that he calls an “artless practice” of speechmaking. Taken more abstractly and pertaining to the process of thinking as such, it is the difference between a “systematic art” and an “empirical and artless practice”.

Photo by Monica Silvestre from Pexels

The example of the latter discussed in the dialogue – rhetoric – was very common in ancient Athens and it was taught for a fee to students willing to master “the art of speech” as a crucial skill if one hoped to get ahead in the political life of the city-state or be successful in the court of law. In both instances, the goal was to persuade the public, to steer its opinion in the direction that happened to be advantageous to the speaker at the given time and in the given situation. In other words, the truth or its pursuit was not the goal for these rhetoricians. 

However, it is common knowledge today just as it was in those distant days that people are unwilling to believe an outright lie. We do not like to feel deceived. So, the safest way to persuade us, as I am sure an instructor in rhetoric in Socratic Athens would say, is to dress one’s message in as truth-like clothes as possible. What is truth-like? Whatever seems like the truth to us. That, in turn, is something that is closest to our already held and accepted beliefs about the true nature of things. 

Turning to modern terminology, we all are susceptible to confirmation bias – seeking out and believing that sort of information that confirms something we already believe to be true. This works best if combined with authority bias. We are more likely to believe a claim made by an authority figure than someone whom we do not hold in such high esteem. This is what the most widespread form of persuasion is based on – our own natural cognitive biases. 

Viewed from this angle and if that is how rhetoric was practised in ancient Athens, then Phaedrus is right in objecting to Socrates that one does not need to know the truth about the subject of one’s speech, one only needs to know what the majority of people will most readily accept as truth, and act upon that to persuade them. It seems to me, however, that Plato’s Socrates is making a slightly different point in this dialogue. 

Clearly, Plato held a critical view of this practice of rhetoric and it is evident from the stinging remarks Socrates makes when endeavouring to analyse the merits of rhetoric. Being philosophers meant to hold the truth as the top priority, to follow it as one’s sole guiding star (even up to a death sentence in the case of Socrates). It wasn’t just a profession, a job, it was a calling. As such, it reveals a certain hierarchy of values. 

Socrates praises the dialectic – logical argumentation – as the systematic art, it is “the way to think systematically about the nature of anything”. By this method alone, he holds, one can hope to achieve clarity and true knowledge. One must start with a clear definition (what is the nature) of what one wants to examine, the subject of one’s thought, speech, writing etc. In other words, one must proceed according to the steps of the method that we might today call structured thinking

From this, it is clear that art and artful practice of something are meaning-loaded concepts for Socrates and Plato. A practice must be deserving to be called an art. In order to deserve it, there must be harmony in it. Harmony as the highest level of order was a crucial value in Ancient Greek culture. It is present throughout various myths and is contrasted with chaos and hubris – the destructive qualities of excess that disrupt the true beauty that is harmonious order. 

One of the manifestations of this love for harmony among the Greeks was their utmost respect for musicians and sculptors who could create such harmoniously balanced works of art that they were surely inspired by the gods. Another expression of such divinely-ordered beauty was considered an athlete’s body with everything in just the right proportions. 

Art, therefore, was not a word to be used lightly (perhaps just like ‘science’ nowadays). For something to be artful meant it had to be in a perfectly balanced order. This applied to speeches, writing and thinking just as it did to music, song, sculpture and body. Socrates shows he shares this conviction by stating: 

“But surely you will admit this much: Every speech must be put together like a living creature, with a body of its own; it must be neither without head nor without legs; and it must have a middle and extremities that are fitting both to one another and to the whole work”. 

Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus 

This can only be achieved by the means of systematic art, by what I referred to above as structured thinking where everything starts from defining the nature of the subject and continues with each part following logically from another, all of them linked in a coherent whole. Only such an approach, for Socrates, can allow us “to use speech artfully”. 

This is the end of part 2 of a 3-part series on the topic. Next week comes the final part. In it, I will conclude the topic (for now) with a couple of examples of our cognitive biases from communication research and my own experience. 

keep exploring!

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