Fall rhetoric

I’m teaching four classes this fall – two sections of Business and Technical Report Writing, one section of History of Rhetoric, and a graduate course in Rhetorical Theory & Criticism. All of these I’ve taught before, but not in this particular configuration. In particular, I have not taught undergraduate rhetoric and graduate rhetoric at the same time. As such, it seems worth my time to take extra time to reread some canonical texts this semester and search out some new secondary readings.

For example, take the Gorgias, a foundational text for rhetoric if there ever was one. Both classes read it, but for different reasons. The undergraduates read it to complete a section of the historical puzzle of classical rhetoric and to put in an oar on the rhetoric vs. philosophy question. The graduates read it for the same reasons, but they are somewhat better prepared to read both with and against the text; I’m also slowly introducing them to rhetorical criticism, so the text also has to be read in that light.

My elevator pitch understanding of the Gorgias is that Plato first teases out what rhetoric is through debate with Gorgias (it’s mere flattery or a knack rather than an art), why it is bad with Polus (rhetoric aims for the pleasant rather than the good), and lastly with Callicles, why it is bad for the soul (bad acts, namely inflicting pain, i.e. rhetoric, scar the soul, which the dead will be judged by). The aforementioned interlocutors attempt several defenses, all of which fall before Socrates’s questioning, but none of them – particularly Callicles – seem convinced of Socrates’s arguments. They give up rather than keep trying, much like Socrates’s real-life dialectical adversaries probably did.

Reading the secondary lately has brought up three points I should mention. One is Bruno Latour’s observation that Callicles and Socrates both fear the demos;  it is only their solutions to the problem of the polloi that differ. For  Callicles, the weak are simply crushed; for Socrates, they are mollified by philosopher-kings.The second is that Socrates’s argument against Callicles is stronger than commonly thought (Jenks). Furthermore, Callicles’ entire hedonistic position can be construed as being artificially weakened by Plato (Klosko).

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