Gorgias and the morality of rhetoric

Kyle asked:

Gorgias explains that it’s not the teacher’s fault if the student misuse the power they acquire from oratory of from his teachings. Socrates says this is an inconsistency in his argument regarding oratory. What exactly is the inconsistency? What does Socrates think about the inconsistency and how would he fix it, or what statements would he change to correct it?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Let’s say I am a gun smith; I make revolvers, pistols, rifles etc. Am I responsible for people who buy my wares and go out and shoot other people dead in a fit of anger? They are supposed to use these weapons responsibly, i.e. for self-protection or hunting, not for murder and terrorism. Moreover, I am licensed to make and sell firearms and the law keeps a pretty stringent eye on my adherence to the legal requirements involved in my trade.

The predicament is, however, whether I am engaged in an intrinsically immoral trade. Well, extend the argument to people who use a kitchen knife or the belt of their trousers for criminal purposes. Can the makers of these implements be blamed for this alienation of purpose on the part of their owners?

That’s pretty much the gist of the fuss around rhetoric in the Gorgias. It is true that swords and daggers are never mentioned, but the enquiry treats rhetoric in an analogous way, as an instrument of discourse capable of being used for good as well as bad intentions. The debate arose from Gorgias’ absolution of the purveyors, which now tempts Socrates, in search of an either/or formula, to reify rhetoric — i.e. to debate its merits as an objective phenomenon rather than as an attribute of persons. This is the “inconsistency”; but it turns out to be an evasion, for in itself rhetoric is simply the collective name of an assortment of loquacious devices of which some speakers have more and others less, so that any definition of it remains arbitrary. In fact, it escapes Socrates throughout this dialogue that he is actually dealing with language use, which means that lying and cheating are not unique to rhetoric, but are common to everyone who knows how to speak. I don’t think I’m alone in my negative interpretation of the dialogue, namely that in any such context we are forcibly referred to the subjects of intercourse, not to the language. It is the speaker who draws attention to himself if he avails himself of rhetorical devices; and in such a situation we do not evince amazement at the virtuosity of the rhetoric, but of the speaker.

Accordingly Socrates, quite unnecessarily, drew a blank with his endeavour. He should have looked to himself and acknowledged that his own verbal virtuosity was the fruit of studies with Prodicus, a sophist like Gorgias. Then, instead of his flapdoodle with objectivity, he might have recognised in good time that the oratorical skills taught by the sophists handed their students a double-edged sword. Accordingly his reification is as questionable a rhetorical device as he castigates in others; but no-one in the dialogue is alert to this trick. Therefore his conclusion from sundry comparisons including truth and falsehood, knowledge and ignorance, cookery and medicine etc. serve only to draw attention to his earnest, but misguided effort and the ludicrous suggestion that the one good use for rhetoric is to punish evil doers for all eternity, by using their name and deeds to hold up their shame to all posterity.

In any case, the consummate riposte to this dialogue is inadvertently given by its author. Plato himself was the living exemplification of rhetorical power even during Socrates’ own life time and the perfect specimen against himself as Socrates’ mouthpiece. To be fair, he was always on the side of the angels and proselytising for “the good of the cause”. But he does not credit the reified rhetoric with it, because he knows better.

And so back to the beginning. I don’t recall Socrates’ judgement on swordmakers, but I feel sure he would not castigate them as war mongers. We in turn feel that a gun in the hands of Wyatt Earp is a good thing, as a foil to those who have, but should not have, guns in their hands. Likewise we feel that rhetoric is a good thing coming from the mouth of Martin Luther King, as opposed to the trashy prattle we have to endure from political candidates during election campaigns. In all cases of speech being used in persuasion it is not, therefore, the rhetoric that is in question, but the person who speaks. It is his/her mind, character, veracity and acumen that is on exhibit in those moments. But this slant on the investigation is missing, by and large, from the dialogue; which is precisely the reason that Socrates can find no way of “fixing” the problem other than his aforesaid conclusion.

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