Seeming and Being in Plato's Rhetorical Theory

Seeming and Being in Plato's Rhetorical Theory

by Robin Reames

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The widespread understanding of language in the West is that it represents the world. This view, however, has not always been commonplace. In fact, it is a theory of language conceived by Plato, culminating in The Sophist. In that dialogue Plato introduced the idea of statements as being either true or false, where the distinction between falsity and truth rests on a deeper discrepancy between appearance and reality, or seeming and being. 

Robin Reames’s Seeming & Being in Plato’s Rhetorical Theory marks a shift in Plato scholarship. Reames argues that an appropriate understanding of rhetorical theory in Plato’s dialogues illuminates how he developed the technical vocabulary needed to construct the very distinctions between seeming and being that separate true from false speech. By engaging with three key movements of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Plato scholarship—the rise and subsequent marginalization of “orality and literacy theory,” Heidegger’s controversial critique of Platonist metaphysics, and the influence of literary or dramatic readings of the dialogues—Reames demonstrates how the development of Plato’s rhetorical theory across several of his dialogues (Gorgias, Phaedrus, Protagoras, Theaetetus, Cratylus, Republic, and Sophist) has been both neglected and misunderstood.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226567150
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/23/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 355 KB

About the Author

Robin Reames is associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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The "Cosmetics" of Sophistry

Seeming and Being in the Gorgias

The Gorgias dialogue is widely recognized as Plato's harshest condemnation of both rhetoric and sophistry. It is where he ultimately concludes that neither is "a technê but a knack, because it can give no rational explanation of the thing it is catering for, nor of the nature of the things it is providing, and so it can't tell you the cause of each. And I don't give the name technê to something which is unreasoning" (465a; T. Griffith 2010, 30; translation modified).

Perhaps less widely recognized than the harshness of the criticism, however, is the fact that the dialogue also marks the moment in the Platonic corpus where rhetoric and sophistry most explicitly are associated with seeming and appearance, and therefore distanced from being and reality. This association with seeming (and alienation from being) arises from "the most famous passage in the dialogue" (Kennedy 1994, 37): the analogy at 464b–466a in which Socrates distinguishes between two kinds of technai (a word that means "arts," "sciences," or perhaps more accurately, "strategic and ordered ways of doing and making things"). These are technai that concern political life (psychê politikên), and those that concern bodily life (sômati). He further divides these into two branches: one dealing with the healthful maintenance of the polis and the body — legislation and gymnastic — and the other dealing with curing ills in the polis and the body — justice and medicine. He then matches each of these four technai with a false counterpart, which deals not in true maintenance or healing, but simulates maintenance and healing by means of "flattery." These false counterparts may seem to be the thing they simulate, but in fact are not. We might imagine this analogy as a grid:

Maintenance Cure
Sophistry is the false counterpart of legislation, rhetoric of justice, cookery of medicine, and "cosmetics," "self-adornment," or kommôtikê of gymnastic.

Upon initial investigation, the "falseness" of sophistry, rhetoric, cookery, and cosmetics seems to be a species of the familiar Platonic distinction between appearance and reality. As E. R. Dodds explains, "The most important element in the present passage is the distinction of principle which Plato draws between 'scientific' and 'unscientific' procedures (see 465a2–5). It is one form of that distinction between being and seeming, inner reality and outward appearance, which runs through the whole of the dialogue from this point" (1959, 227; emphasis mine). Here, Dodds effectively summarizes more than a century of scholarship on the dialogue: rhetoric is relegated to an inferior status, and that status is determined by rhetoric's relationship to seeming or appearance and consequential divorce from being and reality. Brian Vickers makes the same point: "Binary oppositions were extremely common in Greek thought, of course, but their function in Plato's hands is to relegate rhetoric to the inferior, the lowest possible category" (1988, 113). In other words, gymnastic is healthful maintenance of the body, or so the story goes, while cosmetics seem like healthful maintenance. Legislation is healthful maintenance of the polis, while sophistry only seems like healthful maintenance, and so forth. The false practices deal in "images or reflections" (Kennedy 1999, 62), appearances, opinion, or what seems to be, and not in reality, knowledge, or truth.

As modern readers, when we encounter the Gorgias dialogue (and in particular the analogy regarding rhetoric and sophistry), this distinction seems natural to us. That is, we presume a natural demarcation of that which seems to be from that which is, and moreover, we presume that that which only seems to be is not that which is. But as I explain in the introduction, for the Greeks by contrast, including for Plato and Gorgias, this demarcation was far from obvious. Rather, it is in these very texts that the distinction was forged in the first place.

The larger aim of this book is to reevaluate the history of rhetoric-as-appearance, and to trace both its sophistic roots and the process by which it was reduced to something privative and derivative (mere appearance, in opposition to truth, reality, and being); the smaller aim of this chapter is to dismantle the anachronistic concept of appearance that reduces appearance to mere seeming or semblance, particularly where this reduction concerns rhetoric, and particularly at the crucial point in the Gorgias dialogue where this association has been most influential and severe: in the analogy between sophistry and rhetoric, cosmetics and cookery. The guidance offered by Heidegger on this point requires that we adjust the question we pose to the Gorgias: we are no longer concerned with where to slot rhetoric, as an enterprise either for truth and reality or falsity and unreality. Rather, we are concerned with how rhetoric functions in the original delimitation of true and false, the real and the unreal. Moreover, we are interested in how rhetoric as such makes possible the original delimitation.

The focus of this chapter isolates a single term within the analogy that I believe has determined the fate of the analogy as such, and by association, the dialogue as a whole. I will begin by explaining the difficulty as well as the importance of the term kommôtikê, commonly translated as "cosmetics" or "self-adornment." I will outline the reasons why this translation is inadequate, if not misleading — a point of particular concern since the general interpretation not only of this analogy but of the dialogue as a whole is inflected with an implicit opposition between seeming and being on the basis of this single term. None of the other seven terms carries a connotation of appearance or seeming. Through "cosmetics" alone, rhetoric and sophistry anachronistically are handed over to seeming and appearance, and therefore dissociated from being and truth. The importance of this term is manifest through its collateral damage — all the terms are presumed to derive their falseness through an association with seeming and appearance and their consequential dissociation from being and reality.

However, I suggest that Plato constructed this term not, as is commonly believed, from Greek terms referring to hair care and self-adornment (komaô) but from an Egyptian term referring to gums and unguents (kommi). This seemingly minor translation adjustment creates ripple effects throughout the dialogue, since it pulls us away from a presumed Platonic distinction between seeming and being, and toward a historical economic problem of profligate consumption that imperiled Athens, making Socrates's analogy concerning rhetoric and sophistry more in line with the larger themes of political justice and temperance that are the focus of the rest of the dialogue. Ultimately, by challenging the translation of kommôtikê, I suggest that the analogy is transformed from a distinction between seeming and being into a distinction between foreign profligacy and domestic austerity. This transformation discharges the vulgarization of appearance as mere appearance and mere seeming that have long infected and hampered our understanding both of Platonic thought and of early rhetoric.

In what follows, I summarize the place of the analogy within the dramatic structure of the dialogue as a whole. I then discuss the interpretive problem that arises from the traditional interpretation of kommôtikê as "cosmetics," "hair care," and "outward adornment": the common interpretations that attribute kommôtikê to komaô (the presumed root for the neologism) fail to account for Plato's bizarre insertion of a double ITLμITL (or µµ). I then propose an alternate interpretation, which links kommôtikê not to komaô, but to the Egyptian term for "gum," kommi, used in the production of perfume, a costly and exotic but also much-demanded good in fifth-century Athens, emblematic of Athens's thirst for foreign and expensive luxury items. Finally, I explain how this adjusted interpretation is supported by the dramatic context of the Peloponnesian War, explicitly referenced throughout the dialogue. I develop the latter two points through reading the Gorgias alongside two contemporaneous texts: Xenophon's Symposium and Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War. The result, a seemingly minor translation adjustment of a single term, enables a more unified reading of the dialogue as a whole, where the critiques of rhetoric and the critiques of Athenian greed can be knitted into a single critique of the acquisitiveness that led Athens into a war of imperial domination. The effect is that the Gorgias can no longer be read as a text about rhetoric and sophistry as such. Rather, it is a critique of the specific practice of rhetoric in fifth-century Athens, which exploited Athenian greed in order to provoke imperial reach.

The Gorgias Dialogue and the Role of the Analogy

At the opening of his 1959 commentary, E. R. Dodds poses the question that hums as an undercurrent to any investigation of this dialogue: How is rhetoric rendered in the Gorgias? The centrality of this question is inescapable, given the fact that, since antiquity, the Gorgias has carried the second title Peri rhêtorikês, or "Concerning rhetoric." Indeed, if R. G. Hoeder's (1957) hypothesis is correct, that the second title originated with Plato himself, then we are correct to seek to understand how it is that rhetoric unites the diverse and sometimes meandering themes of the dialogue that are seemingly irrelevant to rhetoric as such, including war, justice and injustice, freedom and slavery, wealth, power, desires (both satiable and insatiable), moderation, and the ultimate "ends" of life.

An initial reading of the Gorgias might lend the impression that it is one of the less puzzling Socratic dialogues, and certainly one that presents less immediate resistance than the other dialogues considered in this study. Unlike the Protagoras, where we struggle to account for Socrates's manifestly unvirtuous and duplicitous behavior toward his interlocutor, here he is direct and sincere even as he is harsh. Unlike the Phaedrus, where the myth ruptures the conversation and the textual unity, the myth in the Gorgias is woven subtly into the texture of the discussion and provides an important moment of illumination. Unlike the Republic, where the conversation protracts, meanders, and maintains a bland docility, often dulling and blunting the intrigue, the conversation in the Gorgias remains compact, contentious, and lively throughout, keeping the reader alert amid the fray, and never stalling out in lengthy and digressions. And unlike the Sophist, which moves through a series of distinctions and divisions that grow increasingly abstract and paradoxical, the numerous Socratic distinctions and discriminations in the Gorgias remain sensible and concrete, never branching into abstraction or metacategorization.

Moreover, the thematic development of the dialogue is mirrored by dramatic shifts, so that the dramatic structure supports the content structure. These developments and shifts are marked by three turns in the conversation, from Gorgias to Polus to Callicles. Beginning with Gorgias, the interlocutors set out to define rhetoric — this ineffable thing at which Gorgias excels, prompting Socrates to wonder: "Faced with phenomena like this, it comes across as something supernatural, a divine power" (456a; Waterfield 1994, 19; translation modified). Once Socrates leads Gorgias to the contradictory view that the rhetorician both can and cannot use this supernatural power for immoral purposes, Gorgias's student Polus steps in and changes the direction of the discussion (461a–b). Polus accuses Socrates of using sophisms with Gorgias, and the focus shifts from Gorgias's definition of rhetoric to Socrates's. It is at this point that Socrates offers the crucial analogy, defining rhetoric and sophistry by comparing them to cookery and kommôtikê (464e–465b), and then moves to his discourse on the uses and misuses of this power, leading to his famous claim that suffering wrong is superior to doing wrong (469c). In the final turn of the conversation (481b), Callicles steps in to challenge as stridently as he can Socrates's moral vision, bringing Socrates ultimately to link the exercise of power with the aims of self-satisfaction and acquisitive pleasure, and the moral life to the practice of selfdiscipline and restraint. Ultimately, this calls into question the ultimate aims of life, which cannot be defined as the mere prolongation of life (511b–c) since the ultimate end of life is death. The close of the Gorgias reverberates with the sound of the Phaedo, where Socrates claims that philosophy is ultimately a preparation for death.

The crisp structure of the dialogue can't entirely overcome the difficulties caused by these radical shifts in topic. After all, the final meditation on death as the end of life (in both senses: where life ends, but also the ultimate telos of the living) is thematically quite far removed from the question concerning rhetoric introduced at the beginning of the dialogue. As James Doyle has pointed out, this poses a problem for contemporary scholarship on the Gorgias, since there is virtually no unifying account of the "important connections" (2006, 93) between rhetoric and the other themes in the dialogue. More often, studies tend to focus on one topic in the dialogue rather than on how the disparate topics ought to be woven together. This leads translators to conclude that the dialogue doesn't even seem really to be about its professed topic (rhetoric) but is about something different entirely, aimed not at a local audience but a universal one. And Gorgias scholarship tends to puzzle over not the relation between Socrates's view of rhetoric and the other themes of the dialogue, but the fact that the view of rhetoric in the Gorgias runs so contrary to the view in the Phaedrus — a seeming contradiction that some commentators attribute to the dating of the dialogues, indicating that Socrates's or Plato's view of rhetoric softened over time. The tentative relationship of these other topics to rhetoric itself poses a problem in any approach to the rendering of rhetoric, since it works to seemingly pull the discussion away from the theme identified both in the second title and in the initial analogy. Where connections have been discussed, the readings are relatively straightforward, implicitly suggesting that the dialogue is exceptionally and uncharacteristically nonparadoxical — a reading that any seasoned reader of Plato should view with suspicion.

Despite the disunities in our readings of the dialogue, it is no surprise, given the prominence of place of the analogy, that it has had enormous impact in the history of ideas and the disparagement of rhetoric. As Robert Wardy suggests, "The Gorgias falls little short of the Republic in the continuous influence it has exerted on Western intellectual and political history" (1996, 56). The impact for rhetoric is well known: Kennedy writes that the Gorgias is "the earliest example of the identification of rhetoric with flattery and deceit, a view that has recurred throughout western history" (1999, 66). Consequently, we are driven alongside Gorgias himself "to the humiliating admission that the master of oratory lords it only over those who do not know: ever since, philosophers have approached the wiles of rhetoric with circumspection, while its self-professed champions have indignantly denounced Plato's defamation as a piece of shoddy rhetoric" (Wardy 1996, 57). The analogy alone, once and for all, defines rhetoric as having the appearance of truth but not knowledge or truth as such, and this in spite of our incomplete understanding of how the analogy coordinates with the other themes under discussion.

Given both its pride of place and its hefty impact on the history of ideas, this analogy is worth careful attention, as well as extensive quotation. As I summarize briefly above, Plato's initial division is between those technai that concern political life (psychê politikên), and those that concern bodily life (sômati): For these two things I say there are two technai: the one which looks after the life of the polis I call politics; as for the one which looks after the life of the body, I can't give you a single name for it, just like that. And though the care of the body is a single science, I say it has two subdivisions — gymnastic and medicine, while the counterpart to medicine is justice. ... Now, there [are] these four sciences, two taking care of the body and two of the psychê, and always with a view to what is best. (464b–c; T. Griffith 2010, 30; translation modified)


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Table of Contents

Introduction Literacy, Dramatic Form, Metaphysics: Rereading Plato’s Rhetoric Orality, Literacy, and Rhetorical Beginnings
Martin Heidegger and the Critique of Metaphysics in the West
Literary-Dramatic Interpretations of Plato
Sophists and Sophistry in Plato
Plan of the Book
1 The “Cosmetics” of Sophistry: Seeming and Being in the Gorgias The Gorgias Dialogue and the Role of the Analogy
The Problem of the Double Mu
The Kommi in Kommôtikê: Athenians and Luxury
War: The Historic Context and the Thematic Unity of the Gorgias
2 The Oral Poet and the Literate Sophist: Divine Madness and Rhetorical Inoculation in the Phaedrus Rhetorical Disunity in the Phaedrus
The Speeches in Contrast
The Palinode as Epic: Themes, Formulae, Symbols
Writing and Rhetoric
3 Heraclitean Opposition and Parmenidean Contradiction: Pre-Socratic Ontology and Protagorean Sophistry in the Cratylus, the Theaetetus, and the Euthydemus Heraclitean Etymologies and Protagorean Relativism in the Cratylus
The “Man-Measure” Doctrine and Heraclitean Flux in the Theaetetus
The “Impossibility of Contradiction” and Parmenidean Nonbeing in the Euthydemus
4 Sophistry without Measure, Dialectic without Rhetoric: The Interpretive Dispute in the Protagoras Antilogic, Eristic, Dialectic, and the Protagoras
Socrates versus Protagoras: Simonides’s Poem in Its Dialectical Context
Socratic Sophistry, Eristic, and Antilogic in the Interpretation of Simonides
5 The Rhetoric of Mimêsis: Sophistic Imitation and Seeming in the Republic Mimêsis as Language
Mimêsis as Falseness
The Dubious Metaphysics of Mimêsis
6 Imitators of Truth: The Rhetorical Theories of Onoma and Rhêma in the Sophist and the Cratylus The Stranger’s Method of Division and the Sophist’s Heracliteanism
Louis Bassett and the Problem of Onoma and Rhêma
Onoma,Rhêma, and the Logos of Mimêsis
Onoma and Rhêma, Logos and Mimêsis in the Sophist

Epilogue The Past and Future of Plato’s Rhetorical Theory


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