Socrates and the Concerns of Rhetoric

     Sometimes being a good rhetorician means being able to answer questions and carry on a conversation, not simply stating your side of an argument or making a good speech. Socrates, the great philosopher, is perhaps the best rhetorician I can think of. Plato, his student, wrote several dialogues where his mentor carried on conversations with fellow Athenians, in an attempt to both gain wisdom and evoke philosophical thought.

     One dialogue in particular is directly related to the concept of rhetoric, in fact, it’s directly mentioned and analyzed. In his conversation with Gorgias, Socrates first asks with what is the nature of rhetoric concerned. After a rudimentary answer and further probing by Socrates, it is determined that rhetoric is concerned with discourse and in fact an art that works primarily through the use of words. But, it is then asked, “what is that quality in words with which rhetoric is concerned?” Gorgias’ answer is that the words of the words of rhetoric relate to the greatest and best of human beings. Well.. that doesn’t sit too well with Socrates, never a fan of ambiguous answers.

     It is right after this statement that Gorgias describes, “What is there greater than the word which persuades the judges in the courts, or the senators in the council, or the citizens in the assembly, or at any other political meeting?-if you have the power of uttering this word, you will have the physician your slave, and the trainer your slave, and the money-maker of whom you talk will be found to gather treasures, not for himself, but for you who are able to speak and to persuade the multitude.” A fair description, I would think… Ultimately, Gorgias views rhetoric as the ultimate form of verbal power, a sentiment that I much agree with.  

     Further into the conversation, Socrates and Gorgias talk about the responsibility one has when they hold power and about the just and unjust. Gorgias makes it clear that while the rhetorician has a great amount of power over the multitude through the use of discourse, he should never use verbal persuasion unjustly and never seek to defraud someone just because he can. I agree with this conclusion, because with power comes responsibility. Philosophically, it doesn’t only matter that you can articulate your opinion or beliefs persuasively, you should have a good/just motives and good/just ideas to spread. The rhetor, at any time, should seek to use his persuasive verbal capabilities to spread good wisdom, make substantial changes, and never persuade somebody to something unjust simply because you can.

     To conclude the conversation, Socrates seems a bit sarcastic about the meaning of rhetoric the two have come to. He states, “The rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?” Well, I guess this is true. A person who has mastered verbal skills can rant and rave about a topic they are actually clueless about, persuading an equally ignorant audience and delivering some type of message. However, this pseudo-rhetoric is not really the type that really concerns those who strive to develop better persuasive communications skills…. what’s the point? Again, being a good rhetorician means understanding the right time and place and audience to make a good argument/point clear. If you don’t even yourself understand what you’re talking about, why use rhetoric at all?

     Lessons and summary: First, understand rhetoric is used primarily through the use of words, but not always. Understanding setting, mannerisms, the rhetor themselves (credibility), context, etc. are all crucial elements to persuasively communicating. Secondly, a good rhetorician must also have a good message and a good motive. Persuasive power should be justly used, and not to simply discredit other arguments for the sake of verbal combat. Lastly, realize that being a good rhetor means that you can communicate ideas that you might actually be ignorant about, but again, rhetoric isn’t simply argument.

Learn about what you’re persuading and use good judgement.

 Just because you know someone’s listening and you know how to say something doesn’t mean you’re a good rhetorician. 


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