Introduced the Phaedrus to my undergraduates this week. They had more difficulty with it, I think, than the Gorgias. Next week, the graduates get a stab at it.
Most of my interpretation of the Phaedrus stems from two works: Richard Weaver’s famous essay on the three speeches and my mentor’s essay on whether or rhetoric is fully denounced in the dialogue. As such, I think the three speeches represent different kinds of ethical rhetorics (as Weaver does) – a piddling neutrality (Lysias), a base rhetoric (Socrates’s first speech) and a philosophical rhetoric (the Great Speech) – but I also think the dialogue needs to be read in light of Isocrates’s work, which it may respond to, and the comparatively restrictive definition of rhetoric and rhetors in classical Athens. Plato wasn’t a rhetor; we can call him one if we so wish retroactively, but only with knowledge of the equivocation.
I’ve been thinking that I may not assign the Phaedrus in the future for either class as unlike the Gorgias, it can be summed up relatively quickly, and there is so much else to cover in the meantime. The main thing to take away from it is that Plato finally gets around to showing, via the Great Speech, the persuasive technique behind his philosophy; we get to see what a “philosophical rhetoric” linked to transcendent truth would look like as opposed, directly, to the “baser” speeches in the dialogue. The existence of such a creature is hinted rather broadly at in the Gorgias, but not delivered.
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).
There’s an interesting piece on William Lane Craig here at the Chronicle: it reminds me strongly of a piece that the NYT did on Rush Limbaugh years ago.
Both men are of interest to me as a rhetorician because of the power of their speciousness. Craig is a master of the Gish Gallop and other debating maneuvers, which I first noted after listening to a debate between him and Richard Carrier. His modus operandi is both predictable and devastating. I have to wonder why anyone accepts a debate with him when the odds are so heavily weighted in his favor; Craig is an apex predator of sorts, almost perfectly adapted to his statement/rebuttal/rejoinder environment.
The only effective defense against his tactics would seem to be either disengagement or incredulity (either of which he can dispatch as intellectual bluster!)
Another person Craig reminds me of other than Limbaugh is Ayn Rand, who still has followers. Both are dangerous entities to encounter as an undergraduate, who may lack (although some have) the philosophical depth to recognize what is specious reasoning and how what is specious reasoning can be persuasive despite its nature.
In an earlier post I noted that The Centrality of Style was available online; now, it is available in print.
I sent off another article today, so I’m feeling relatively productive. It’s collaborative and my first, I think, piece that is solely about professional writing, rather than the multidisciplinary stuff that I usually produce.
Exams are almost over. It’s getting hotter and the lawn needs cutting more and more. We have a mini-vacation planned, to go see Paul McCartney in Memphis later this month; then it’s back to work to teach a summer session before the real vacation begins.
Well, basically none of the crowdsourcing efforts of the Internet ultimately helped catch the two bombers. If anything, they complicated matters, although one could argue that they sped up slightly the release of the images of the principle suspects. There is a lesson to be learned here, though it’s not clear in my mind yet. Professionals and facts over amateurs and supposition, perhaps?
It’s about time for me to write proposals for CCCC (May 6 deadline) and RSA (July 1 deadline). I haven’t been to either in some time and I am a little concerned at the moment, as I don’t feel I have much to propose.
This 4chan and Reddit finger-pointing stuff seems promising – creating multiple narratives out of still pictures of men with backpacks that SEEM damning. The FBI just released its own video mashup, of course (official version here at the FBI website) from what appears to be store surveillance video. It’s too early to say what will come of all this, but our ever-increasingly videographical society appears to be ready for its closeup. If the Boston bombers are caught via these means, it’ll be a simultaneous victory for justice and continuous public surveillance.
The Centrality of Style, edited by myself and Star Medzerian Vanguri, is now online at WAC Clearinghouse. Congratulations to all the authors! The print edition by Parlor Press will soon follow.
I watched CNN with family last night until it was clear Obama had won. I found it particularly funny that the fellow walking through the counties on CNN, John King, well before the projected victory, managed to find so many different ways to communicate that Romney had lost – without saying it out loud. It’s very difficult for the governor to win, it’s hard to see a way forward, etc. It reminded me of Erasmus’s exercises on saying the same thing in dozens of different ways.