Plato, “Phaedrus”

Plato. Phaedrus

Plato doesn’t appear to like rhetoric: or rather, in his embrace of an ideal, absolute, and transcendent truth, rhetoric takes on a particular role: to lead souls to this truth. However, often the goal of leading to truth is obscured by people’s inherent need for connection.

For example, Plato distinguishes between the discourse of lovers and nonlovers. As he writes, “the nonlovers, since they have control of their feelings, are likely to choose what is really best, rather than to court the opinion of mankind” (141). Lovers, on the other hand, often have “their own judgment…obscured by their passion” (142). Here, lovers represent those who use discourse as a way to enact influence through flattery, desire, lust, and beauty—in other words, the lover is one who uses rhetoric, or the arrangement of discourse, toward inauthentic appeals. The nonlover, on the other hand, is one who makes assessments untethered by inauthentic desires or pulls toward the beautiful, but rather looks toward logic, reason, and Truth to guide decisions. However, Socrates points out that the Love is akin to godliness—the nonlover is a mortal, human product. He equates love to madness, but madness is the result of a person’s memory of witnessing a glimpse of Reality.

This kind of two pronged approach to discourse leads Plato to discuss the soul as “the composite nature of a a pair of winged horses and a charioteer” (149). Socrates offers the idea of a charioteer with two horses rising toward the realm of the gods (or Truth about the nature of reality). However, while one horse is of good and helps the charioteer to glimpse Truth, the other horse is evil and becomes an obstacle to achieving Truth. This battle exists for all man so thus the mind can strive toward Truth, but can never attain it. It is in light of this struggle that rhetoric is concerned with leading souls as close as possible to such truth. Plato defines Rhetoric as follows: “is not rhetoric in its entire nature an art which leads the soul by means of words, not only in law courts and the various other public assemblages, but in private companies as well?” (157). Plato offers two points on the nature of rhetoric: (1) rhetoric is a methodological means of describing Truth in order to lead others closer to it—an orator must produce discourse that resembles truth, unmasking Truth that may otherwise be disguised; and (2) rhetoric can be used in private as well as public spheres. As he later writes, an orator “tries to produce conviction in the soul” (163).

He outlines the role of the soul in rhetoric—he offers three areas that will concern the true rhetoric teacher:

  1. “describe the soul with perfect accuracy and make us see whether it is one and all alike, or, like the body, of multiform aspect;”
  2. say what its action is and toward what it is directed, or how it is acted upon and by what;
  3. classify the speeches and the souls and will adapt each to the other, showing the causes of the effects produced and why one kind of soul is necessarily persuaded by certain classes of speeches, and another is not” (163).

In sum, since the central function os speech is to leads souls by persuasion, it is imperative to classify the various forms of the soul, to gain knowledge about these classes.

Plato’s embrace of absolute Truth also gives me the distaste of heteroglossia: when a word can hold two meanings, the ambiguity is misleading; Plato writes, “he who is to develop an art of rhetoric must first make a methodical division, and acquire a clear impression of each class, that in which people must be in doubt and that in which they are not” (158).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s