It’s been a while

by b socha

I am re-reading Plato’s the Gorgias. I want to write a little on the power of social relations and appearance in the Platonic dialogues and perhaps unpack more of Socrates’ critique of the public figure.

It’s a common attack, when an interlocutor is losing in a Platonic dialogue, to say that Socrates has been steering the conversation in such a way as to justify his own original position and expose the contradictions in another’s argument. The cause for the interlocutor’s concessions on this front are often of a social nature, concerned with saving face and avoiding humiliation.  For example:

POLUS: Honestly, Socrates! Do even you really believe what you are now saying about rhetoric? Or do you imagine–just because Gorgias was embarrassed not to go on and agree with you that the rhetoric expert know what things are just, beautiful and good, and said that if he didn’t know it to start with, he himself would teach him, and then from this agreement some inconsistency perhaps found its way into what he was saying–which is what you love, when it’s you who’ve led people on into that kind of questioning–since who do you imagine is going to deny that he knows what things are just himself and that he can teach them to others? It is real boorishness to direct the conversation into those channels.

This comes just as Gorgias has admitted that knowledge of what rhetoric is about or gives knowledge of is given and learned immediately, or experientially by the person who is learning from he who is teaching. More explicitly, the clear and self-evident end of rhetoric is the end of power. This end is known when the student can utilize speech for his own ends. Then, Gorgias had just conceded, that rhetoric should not be used unjustly, which was a contradiction to the statement that it could be anything but the illumination of the just.

Polus jumps into the conversation. With typical verbosity, he defends the self-evident truths of rhetoric. These self-evident truths of rhetoric are of a sharply socially contingent character. Notice that Polus races to aid the pride of Gorgias by admitting what should be taken for granted in most other conversations. Polus deploys another common sense measure against Socrates, highlighting that no rhetoritician knows the just, beautiful and good apart from the (implicit) end of power.

Why does Polus jump to the fear of Gorigias’ humiliation? Georgias himself noted that he went on in the dialogue out of a social compulsion not to be embarrassed in front of the Athenians, not because he was interested in rhetoric that produced knowledge. This is the breaking point for Socrates’ critique of the social nature of ruling and teaching those who will rule.

Socrates orchestrates these frustrating scenes that cause a speaker to undermine his own position in a way that will expose his pretensions of social control as actually constituting social flattery and subservience to the audience. The early interjection from Polus and Socrates’ manipulation of social convention are echoed later in the dialogue, when Callicles concedes that power is predicated on the thing that he hates, which is convention and flattery.

At the heart of Socrates’ social manipulation is to teach the lessons of rhetoric that Gorgias and, more importantly, Callicles, cannot know: rhetoric that is knowledge producing and immanently instructive.

Earlier in the dialogue, Georgias concedes that the knowledge of what he taught was self-evident. In his argument, teaching rhetoric without knowledge isn’t bona fide rhetoric, and the great rhetoritician conflates philosophy with rhetoric when he says that he teaches men what they can advise on. Socrates merely points out that men cannot advise on the building of walls and dockyards when they have no knowledge of walls and dockyards, but only of words. Taken out of its figurative context, Socrates is arguing that the powerful man who does not examine what the good life is cannot advise the city on how it should be best configured.

Skill of persuasion is a meaningful enterprise. No one can claim more victories or hardships from it than Plato’s Socrates. But it must be a persuasion toward producing knowledge and not merely power. As we find out in the beginning of the Gorgias there is no false and no true knowledge. And if there is no false and no true knowledge, only true knowledge, then that skill of persuasion used in Gorgias’ rhetoric for knowledge-that-is-power cannot be knowledge, since it does not know itself. Therefore, all persuasion that is not rooted in self-examination and contradiction is not only the antithesis of philosophy (which Gorgias fancies himself a practitioner) but also of statecraft and justice.

Unfortunately, this conclusion, which is Plato’s ultimate compulsion to the reader and the leaders he wishes to educate, is hostile toward, if not antithetical to, state power that is oriented toward the heroic figure rather than the public man. When I finish the dialogue, I will write more on Socrates’ argument that he is the sole genuine practitioner of politics.