Socrates and I.F. Stone on Rhetoric

In Chapter 7 of his remarkable book, The Trial of Socrates (Little Brown, 1988; Anchor Books, 1989), I.F. Stone wrote,

“. . . in the Gorgias, the most intemperate of all Plato’s dialogues, Socrates takes so low a view of rhetoric as actually practiced that no student of his would care to be caught engaging in it.  He compares the art of the orator to that of the pastry-cook and equates rhetoric with flattery.  Socrates says to Gorgias, one of the most famous teachers of oratory in his time, that rhetoric is ‘a pursuit that is not a matter of art, but showing a shrewd, gallant spirit which has a natural bent for clever dealing with mankind.’ Socrates adds, ‘I sum up its substance in the name flattery. This practice, as I view it, has many branches, and one of them is cookery, which appears indeed to be an art’ but is only ‘a habitude or knack . . . rhetoric [is] another branch of it, as also personal adornment and sophistry.’

“This is so sweeping that one blushes for Socrates. It seems to be name-calling rather than serious analysis. Socrates here, as so often, treats his subject from an either-or rather than a more-or-less point of view.  Not all the oratory in the assembly and the law courts was base flattery.”

(Quoted from page 91 of the Anchor edition; brackets and Italics are Stone’s)

One might indeed blush for Socrates–and for Plato, author of the Gorgias. One might also enjoy a good chuckle if one realizes that Socrates, at least the flattering portrait of Socrates created by Plato, and Plato himself are obliged to use rhetoric to present a critique of rhetoric.  In the section of the Gorgias from which Stone quotes, for example, Socrates uses well known rhetorical or argumentative techniques such as analogy and pathos.  He uses pathos when he suggests that no student of his would (should?) be caught engaging in it. (This is, to be fair to Socrates, Stone’s paraphrase.)  Socrates develops an analogy–not a very helpful one, really–between rhetoric and cooking.   The analogy allows him to create the famous rhetorical “straw person”: once rhetoric is equated with cooking, it is easily knocked over, like a straw person.

An irony larger than the fact that Socrates and Plato use deploy rhetoric to critique rhetoric is that, at least according to Stone, Socrates could have used a tenet of democratic society, free speech, to get himself acquitted, or at least to avoid the death penalty:

“If we look at Plato for a moment as a dramatist, with Socrates as his tragic hero, we can see that it would have been out of character to write a scene in which Socrates invoked free speech and Athens honored its traditions by setting Socrates free. Plato’s hero lived and died by his principles.  The historical, like the Platonic, Socrates would have found it repugnant to plead a principle in which he did not believe; free speech for him was the privilege of the enlightened few, not of the benighted many. He would not have wanted the democracy he rejected to win a moral victory by setting him free.”  (Quoted from page 230 of the Anchor edition).

From another perspective, however, Socrates may have been paying rhetoric a compliment by comparing it to cooking.  For example, in a world (to use the language of Hollywood movie-trailers) where Rush Limbaugh says, to millions, “Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society [“The 35 Undeniable Truths” (18 February 1994)],  and “Great that you called. The one observation you can make about this whole business, because he proved it. I mean, it’s — the growth of government started like crazy when women got the right to vote. Which just proves: Size does matter to ’em” (June 2, 2008),” then one form of rhetoric, talk-radio, has probably sunk well below the level even of inept cooking. On the other hand, well known corporations still advertise on Limbaugh’s show, so they must like Rush’s cooking:


2 Responses to “Socrates and I.F. Stone on Rhetoric”

  1. wildbillhaltom Says:

    Indeed, Plato so overstates his case that a very useful distinction between higher and lower political arts may be lost amid the hyperbole.

    Each of us encounters routinely those who use language with far more cunning than conviction. Such Machiavellians rely on one meaning of “influence” — flattery, cajolery, truckling, poltroonery, buffoonery, sycophancy — to counterfeit a higher kind of “influence” — genuine suasion based on that shared interests or goals. As each of the bloggers at this site has noted already, Frank Luntz is interested in “words that work.” This is an infernal use of political language to which Plato/Socrates referred. It is usually a low art practiced by lowlifes to the benefit of the highest bidders.

    But Frank Luntz and other spinners compared to whom or to what? The higher arts of language and suasion do not obscure or stultify but reveal. They are the stuff of revelation. At the least, the better rhetoric is a long con in which the con artist was the first one conned. What Luntz and Limbaugh do is the short con in which the con artists must be vigilant for the moment at which to flee the scene for other campaigns, venues, or topics.

    Is it worth more than a pause to reflect that Socrates, in the “act” of condemning base flattery and clever cajolery, flatters and thereby cajoles his pupils? May we read in Izzy Stone’s summary a self-deprecating Socrates who, like Rush Limbaugh from time to time, knows that his own act is shtick? Is this another form of Socratic irony? If so many for so long had not regarded Plato as a stirring idealist, might we acknowledge Plato as a satiric showman and Platonic dialogues as burlesques in which a highfalutin idler spoofs sophists and cynics through sophistry and cynicism?

  2. O. Says:

    Indeed, although philosophers have claimed primary interest in Plato’s dialogues, more than a few English professors have wondered whether the dialogues should be viewed first as drama, also known in some circles as schtick. The ostensible opponents of Socrates in the dialogues often seem to be playing a role parallel to that of the Washington Generals in the old Harlem Globetrotter games. “Socrates has prevailed again? Amazing!”. . . Interestingly, Limbaugh won’t even allow a faux opponent on his show. At least Hannity had Combs–and managed to lose to him more often than he was supposed to have done. . . . Socrates as flatterer: excellent point.

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