Plato on the Rhetoric of Philosophers and Sophists

Plato on the Rhetoric of Philosophers and Sophists

by Marina McCoy

Marina McCoy explores Plato's treatment of the rhetoric of philosophers and sophists.See more details below


Marina McCoy explores Plato's treatment of the rhetoric of philosophers and sophists.

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Cambridge University Press
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Plato on the rhetoric of philosophers and sophists
Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-87863-0 - Plato on the Rhetoric of Philosophers and Sophists - by Marina McCoy




This book explores how Plato separates the philosopher from the sophist through the dramatic opposition of Socrates to rhetoricians and sophists. In one way, its thesis is simple. Plato distinguishes Socrates from the sophists by differences in character and moral intention. In the broadest terms, Plato might agree with Aristotle’s claim in the Rhetoric that what defines a sophist is “not his faculty, but his moral purpose” (1355b 17–18). In another way, the problem is difficult, for the philosopher and the sophist share many characteristics in how they speak and act; these similarities are not superficial but go to the very heart of what Plato presents as philosophy, sophistry, and rhetoric. The tendency of contemporary scholarship has been to emphasize the distinctiveness of Socratic or Platonic philosophy in terms of a technical method separable from rhetoric.1 One reason for this assumption is that Socrates seems to point toward the possibility of such a method in the Gorgias in his contrast between the political art and merely imitative rhetoric (Gorgias 464b–466a). However, when one turns to other dialogues, the relationship among philosophy,rhetoric, and sophistry becomes murkier. The Phaedrus seems to show philosophy and rhetoric as compatible, while Book One of the Republic presents a sophist with an intellectual position about justice alongside Socrates, with arguments that can seem sophistical. Plato’s Sophist defines the sophist but, at one point in the dialogue, the Stranger equates “noble sophistry” with a practice that sounds much like Socrates’ questioning activity (Sophist 230b–c). Plato’s Apology opens with Socrates’ claim that he is not a clever speaker, but he then goes on to rely upon numerous forensic and rhetorical techniques. Even in the Gorgias, Plato’s voice must be distinguished from Socrates’ voice as Plato uses the Gorgias in order to raise as many questions about philosophy and its value as he does about sophistry and rhetoric. The relation of philosophy to rhetoric and sophistry is complex.

   Additionally, the contrast between philosophy and sophistry is a theme that permeates many Platonic dialogues. If one considers the number of dialogues in which Socrates finds himself conversing with a sophist, a professional rhetorician, or one of their followers (e.g., Euthydemus, Gorgias, Protagoras, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Republic); in which Socrates discusses sophists or a particular sophist (e.g., Apology, Theaetetus); or in which the definition of the sophist is abstractly compared with other related enterprises (e.g., Sophist, Statesman), the list is long. If one notes that the term rhetor was commonly used to refer to any speaker in the Athenian Assembly – adding political works to the debate – then few dialogues would seem not to contribute to a discussion of the issue.2 Still, there is no unified account in the dialogues of a specific set of characteristics that define either the sophist or the rhetorician. The Sophist itself claims that the philosopher and the sophist are difficult to distinguish (Sophist 216c), and the variety of definitions given – as well as the dramatic contrast between the Eleatic Stranger’s method of philosophizing and that of Socrates, now silent at his feet – illustrates its difficulty as well.3 The lack of a clear definition of philosophy in the dialogues makes a clean and easy separation of philosopher from sophist all the more difficult. Plato seems less concerned with offering definitions of the philosopher and sophist than with opposing through dramatic conflict the person of the philosopher, Socrates, to a number of different sophists and rhetoricians.

   In this book, I examine the distinction between the philosopher and the sophist in six of Plato’s dialogues, with particular attention to the differences between philosophical and sophistical rhetoric. My argument focuses on three interrelated theses. First, I argue that Plato’s treatment of Socrates in conversation with sophists and rhetoricians indicates that he thought that the distinction between philosopher and sophist was difficult to make. There is no single method or mode of discourse that separates the philosopher from the sophist. One cannot simply say that the philosopher is logical while the sophist is illogical, that the philosopher uses pure reason with no attention to rhetoric while the sophist persuades apart from reason, or that the philosopher has a successful method of speaking while the sophist lacks one. Nor are the sophists consistently presented as disinterested in knowledge or as morally corrupt. The meanings of the terms philosopher and sophist are disputed at the time that Plato is writing; for Plato, the claim that Socrates is a philosopher rather than a sophist is a normative rather than merely a descriptive claim. At times, Plato’s dialogues even express some ambivalence as to whether the distinction can be made as clearly as the character Socrates himself wishes to make it. Careful attention to the multiple layers of Plato’s dialogues reveals a Socrates who sometimes looks more like his opponents than he would like to admit and vice versa.

   Second, I argue that philosophy, as Plato understands it, includes important rhetorical dimensions. While at times Plato associates the sophist with the rhetorician, he also presents Socrates’ philosophical practice as rhetorical.4 While the term rhetorikê was a relatively new term at the time Plato wrote, and its meaning shifts from dialogue to dialogue, when I use the term rhetoric here, I mean its broad, contemporary sense of “the means used to persuade through words.” My definition of rhetoric here is deliberately general, for Socrates does not limit his use of rhetoric to one or two devices; his rhetoric is guided by the particular needs of the soul of the person with whom he is speaking. Socrates is interested in persuading his audience and not always or exclusively through affecting the intellects of his interlocutors. For example, Socrates often attempts to affect others’ senses of shame, anger, confusion, happiness, pleasure, and displeasure. In the Republic, Socrates seems as interested in making Thrasymachus feel flustered and ashamed as in disproving his claims about the nature of justice.5 This is because the goal of Socrates’ argument is to affect a person as well as to prove a thesis. Socrates also uses techniques common to sophists and rhetoricians such as eikos (probability argument), êthopoiia (portrayal of character), antithesis, cross-examination, and parallelism. In addition, he is ready to use myths, poetic interpretations, images, and other devices in order to affect his audience.

   To an extent, Socrates’ philosophical practice is continuous with the rhetoric of others whom Socrates would not consider philosophical. For this reason, a single definition of philosophical rhetoric that distinguishes it from sophistical rhetoric is not possible. The rhetoric that a philosopher must use is determined not only by the content of his subject matter but also by the audience to whom he speaks. While later philosophers such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine took pains to distinguish and to separate the rhetorical elements of speech from dialectic or philosophical discovery, we find no such clean separation in the Platonic dialogues. Instead, we find a close connection between philosophical practice and rhetoric. At times, Socrates’ questions seem to be designed to refute or to defend the content of some specific thesis but, more often than not, we find that something else is also going on: for example, Socrates examines the soul of the person whom he is questioning or hopes to affect the thumos of his interlocutor rather than his intellect alone. I argue here that Socrates’ rhetorical practice, and his very concept of philosophy, relies more upon phronêsis and kairos than upon a technical approach to philosophical method. Plato, too, exhibits this sort of rhetorical attentiveness to the particulars. As author of the dialogues, Plato separates Socrates from the sophists by dramatically juxtaposing them in different circumstances. Plato uses elements of forensic speech, tragedy, comedy, sophistical set pieces, and other Greek genres in his dialogues in a way that affects our own perception as readers of Socrates and his opponents.6 One cannot offer a comprehensive definition of “Socratic rhetoric” or “Platonic rhetoric” because what constitutes good philosophical and rhetorical practice changes, depending on the topic and audience. Philosophy and rhetoric are closely interrelated. The content of thought and its discovery and formal expression in speech are intertwined.

   Third, I argue that Plato differentiates the philosopher from the sophist primarily through the virtues of the philosopher’s soul. One consistent thread in Plato’s differentiation of Socrates from the sophists is how Socrates embodies moral virtues. The difference between the philosopher and the rhetorician is not to be found in a distinctive technique or method, in the absence or presence of rhetoric, or in some sort of foundational knowledge. Instead, Plato’s ultimate defense of philosophy is to be found in the philosopher’s person – that is, in his character and the orientation of his soul to the forms. Dialogues such as the Gorgias, Republic, and Phaedrus contain extensive descriptions of the virtues of the philosopher, but these accounts have too often been ignored as secondary to questions of method. However, for Plato, these virtues are closely connected to the proper expression of ideas in speech. For example, the Gorgias focuses on not only knowledge but also goodwill (eunoia) and frankness (parrhesia) as central to the evaluation of what constitutes good logos. The Phaedrus distinguishes between different types of souls, each oriented toward different goods, some of which are higher than others; good rhetoric is connected to loving the forms and one’s partner in conversation. The middle books of the Republic focus overwhelmingly on the soul of the philosopher and the characteristics that both separate and make him apparently close to the sophist. Above all, Socrates’ questioning is guided by his love of and his desire to care for the souls of those to whom he speaks.

   A central defining characteristic of the philosopher is his desire for the forms. However, this theoretical commitment to the forms should not be understood primarily as a matter of having the correct metaphysics or as a positive epistemological state. That is, it would be a mistake simply to say that the philosopher knows the forms while the sophist does not. Instead, these dialogues emphasize the philosopher’s desire for the forms as his primary connection to them; his quest for better knowledge of them stems from his love. This love of the forms has consequences for the philosopher’s character. Plato closely connects moral virtues such as wisdom, courage, openness to criticism, and self-knowledge to the love of a transcendent good outside of oneself. Moreover, the philosopher’s love of the forms affects how he speaks to others – ultimately, in order to guide others to love and to seek the forms as well. In this sense, the philosopher’s theoretical stance ought to be understood in terms of the more primary meaning of the Greek term theoria as a kind of a vision of the world and oneself in relation to that world. His theoretical commitments are part of his character and identity as a person. However paradoxical it may seem, the philosopher is characterized by a love of the forms that precedes his knowledge of them. In other words, the philosopher is someone who is “turned toward” the forms as the object of his love; his stance is a moral rather than simply an intellectual position. Such a position helps to explain the inseparability of rhetoric and philosophy, moral virtue and intellectual virtue. Plato suggests that the understanding of our own desires grounds our theoretical outlook on the world and, in turn, our rhetoric is guided by our moral-theoretical vision.

   While Plato evaluates rhetorical practice on the basis of these virtues of character, character is difficult to discern from the outside. To put it simply, who we are determines how we speak, but it is difficult to discern the character and motive of a speaker from his words alone. For example, Socrates might be genuinely concerned with improving his interlocutor but seem to others only to be interested in winning the argument. It is especially difficult to show intellectuals who already reject the philosopher’s commitments that the philosopher’s intentions are really the best. For these reasons, Socrates at times appears to be sophistical and the sophists at times appear to be philosophical.

   Plato’s dialogues do not sweep aside these complexities but rather present with care the problems inherent in distinguishing philosophical from sophistical practice. Plato is not only aware of the potential confusion of the philosopher and the sophist: at times he also even heightens the difficulty, instead of resolving it, in order to further explore the nature of philosophy. Plato’s dialogues do not always present a clear and decisive victory for philosophy over rhetoric or sophistry from the point of view of the sophists themselves. More often than not, figures such as Protagoras, Gorgias, and Polus walk away from conversation with Socrates not at all persuaded that the life he advocates is better than their own. The sophists and rhetoricians with whom Socrates argues do not even seem to understand what Socrates’ real aims are: Callicles in the Gorgias calls Socrates a “demagogue” (dêmêgoros) (Gorg. 482c); Polus says that Socrates takes delight into leading others into inconsistency (Gorg. 461c); and Thrasymachus says that Socrates refutes others out of a love of honor (Rep. 336c). Protagoras more generously suggests that someday Socrates will become famous for his wisdom (Prot. 361e), but his implication is that Socrates is above all striving for a good reputation. If Socrates’ opponents in the dialogues all too often have a hazy sense of what he is doing in his discussions with them, Plato as author does not immediately and decisively clear up the problem for us. Instead, the dialogues force us to consider the value of philosophy in contrast to sophistry in a more nuanced way. In this sense, Plato as dramatist acts as a philosopher as well, using rhetoric to draw his own readers into questioning the value of philosophy, so to encourage the development of virtue in his readers.


Before beginning an inquiry into how Plato understands philosophy, rhetoric, and sophistry, it is worth considering how his contemporaries approached the problem. Some commentators have argued that Plato was so concerned to separate the sort of rhetoric associated with sophistry from that associated with philosophy that he invented a vocabulary in order to assist him in this enterprise. Although modern readers often associate the term sophist with something along the lines of a clever argumentative individual with no concern for the truth, the reality is that the meaning of the term sophist (sophistes) was rather fluid in the fifth and fourth centuries. As Kerferd has argued,7 the term sophist was originally applied to poets, musicians, rhapsodes, Pre-Socratic philosophers, and traveling teachers of “excellence” (aretê ). Aristophanes’ Clouds groups Socrates together with the sophists, while Plato’s Apology attempts to separate him from them. Socrates himself, without a hint of irony, calls Diotima the ultimate sophist (hoi teleoi sophistai) in the Symposium (Symp. 208c).8 The term sophist was used to describe, more narrowly, teachers of excellence who took fees for their services as they traveled; and, more widely, intellectuals who put a priority on the value of speeches for living well; or, most broadly of all, a “wise person.” The shift from the broader and more positive sense of the term to a more negative and limited one seems to have taken place gradually over the course of the fifth century.

   Schiappa has argued that Plato most likely coined the term rhetorikê, a term found in the Gorgias and Phaedrus (although, surprisingly, not in the Protagoras or Sophist), while the fragments of the historical sophists contain only more general terms such as rhetor, or logos and legein. He suggests that Plato may also have invented the terms eristikê, dialektikê, and antilogikê as part of this endeavor to distinguish philosophy from sophistry.9 While Schiappa is right that Plato played a formative role in developing the terms philosophia and rhetorikê, he was not alone in his attempts to use such language to defend a particular rhetorical practice vis-à-vis other rhetorical practices in Athens at the time. Not only Plato but also Isocrates and Alcidamas lay claim to the title of philosophy and criticize sophistry. All three compare and contrast philosophy to rhetoric and sophistry. Alcidamas even uses the term rhetorikê in his essay, “On Those Who Write Written Speeches,” a speech roughly contemporaneous with Plato’s writing.10 However, what each author intends by the term philosophia is quite different and, in some cases, perhaps not even identifiable as philosophy from the standpoint of a modern reader.11 Alcidamas writes an extensive defense of the greater value of the spoken word over written speeches, associating philosophy with those who devote themselves to becoming good speakers and sophistry with those who pursue writing. For Alcidamas, both rhetorikê and philosophia are terms that apply to a life devoted to learning to become a better speaker; written speeches only distract or impede a person from pursuing this life of excellence. In contrast, Isocrates disagrees openly with both Alcidamas and Plato about the best rhetorical activities. Isocrates is not only a leading competitor of Plato’s in offering a distinct kind of moral and political education. He is also a competitor for the very title of philosopher and repeatedly makes normative claims about the true nature of philosophy, which he associates with his own rhetorical practice. For Isocrates, the practice of philosophia is something more akin to being a steward of culture, being well educated in cultural traditions and then using those traditions in writing and in speech to contribute back to the polis.12 For Isocrates, philosophia is concerned not with abstract ideas but rather with speeches oriented toward making others act in concrete and specific political situations. Philosophy ought to concern itself with “noble” projects, while sophistry is overly concerned with abstract arguments over useless matters. Good rhetoric presents a clear course of action to follow and preferably addresses those with the power to effect change. One finds no role for the transcendent in Isocrates’ conception of philosophy.13 Plato’s attention to the forms as objects of knowledge and his concern with general and abstract truths, not always connected to historically located political concerns, separate Isocrates and Plato.14 But if Plato does not always treat rhetorikê as a political practice, he is the exception to the rule: for most Greeks, a rhetor would have called to mind a speaker in the Athenian Assembly, and the practice of oratory automatically would have been taken to mean public discourse.15 When Socrates suggests to Phaedrus that the domain of rhetorikê includes both public and private discourse, Phaedrus is puz- zled, for this is the first time he has ever heard of such a thing (Phaedrus 261a–b). For the ancient Athenians, rhetoric is understood primarily as a civic art.16

    Nonetheless, Plato and Isocrates share more in common with each other than with their predecessors. Like Plato, Isocrates was a follower of Socrates, although Isocrates also studied with Gorgias. As is true in Plato’s case, Isocrates is known primarily as the author of written works rather than as a speaker; yet, both write works in close imitation or adaptation of dramatic or oratorical forms. Isocrates goes out of his way to deny that he is a “rhetor ” (To Philip 1; To the Rulers of the Mytilenaens 7.5). He also distinguishes himself from the sophists, whom he sees as concerned with useless and abstract matters such as “deposits” or “humble bees and salt” (Panegyricus 188–189; Encomium to Helen 12). Isocrates wants his philosophical education to help others to become better citizens or leaders; Plato in the Republic sets out a similar role for philosophers of the best city.17

   Moreover, there is a moral core to both Isocrates’ and Plato’s visions of education, even if their understandings of how we discover justice are different. Isocrates argues that speeches ought to help us to become more just, and he does not view justice as completely relative to opinion. While we must rely upon opinion (doxa) rather than knowledge (epistêmê ) – since epistêmê is beyond human beings to acquire in political matters – Isocrates also links speech to practical wisdom (Antidosis 255; Nicocles 7).18 Wisdom is not the mere ability to persuade a crowd but must include intelligence and good judgment as well. A good speaker must possess experience as well as have a natural talent for speech and good training; he must understand the past well enough to aid him in good deliberation.19 While typically Plato has been seen as holding knowledge far above opinion, Socrates’ reliance on his interlocutors’ opinions as the starting point of inquiry (e.g., in the Gorgias, Protagoras, and Charmides) and his reluctance to make knowledge claims (e.g., denying that he is a teacher) suggest the importance of opinion in good argument in Plato’s thinking as well.20 Isocrates sees philosophy as linked to everyday affairs, but the dramatic form of Plato’s dialogues also consistently connects philosophical argument to dramatic and political events contemporary with the characters – for example, the setting of the Gorgias is Gorgias’ visit to Athens to persuade the Assembly to send troops to protect his polis. Isocrates’ and Plato’s rhetorical practices overlap in important ways, but they are competing with one another for the title of philosopher rather than rhetor or sophist.

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