"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


What Would Plato Say?

August 26th, 2015 by

I’m getting ready to teach a Humanities course this fall on Classical Greek Rhetoric. I am excited, but at the same time, as I re-read some wonderful, classical texts that seem now to come from another world, I can’t help but to pay attention to the news these days. As I read the paper, I’m wondering how much of this is worth bringing into classroom discussions.

Complicating this decision is the certainty I feel that at least one of the headliners would like the attention he would get.

As for names that are worth repeating, my course this fall will involve many, but not all, of the usual suspects that come up in a discussion of Ancient Greek Rhetoric: Gorgias, Plato, and Aristotle will all be there. Because I believe that Sophocles’ play Antigone is also a play about rhetoric, I am including this in our discussion. In doing this, I am hoping that my course will allow my students to address some prejudices we hold about rhetoric at the same time that we see new ideas.

The Many or the Few
One of the first debates we will encounter is one that is represented in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias. Much of this dialogue seems to have Plato with his thumb on the scales, tilting it against the idea that rhetoric is an honorable pursuit. One place this seems to happen occurs when Socrates asks if the truth is better served in a speech given before a large crowd of people, or if it is best approached through a talk between a few people.

It is clear from the opening of the dialogue that Socrates already knows what he thinks and prefers talking in small groups to speeches, since earlier in the dialogue he has asked Gorgias and his followers not to engage in long-winded discourses but instead to simply “answer the question.”

Gorgias and his friends have trouble doing this, and they begin with the idea that truth, whatever it may be, is best served in a speech given before masses of people. Socrates, of course, pretty much wins the debate without really allowing the sophists to explain their own terms—what is truth? Can we know it? how can language communicate truth?—terms that would complicate the picture.

And if rhetoric only involved a speaker before a large crowd, I would agree with Socrates that in a large crowd, passions are likely to get in the way of really thinking about issues. This all leads me to ask the following question: What would Plato say about our political system in which our candidates run for office by giving mostly lengthy speeches about what they plan to do if elected?

Would he say that we have gotten what we deserved? Would he say that people who support a current candidate, a billionaire/reality TV show star, saying that their candidate “is refreshing” or “saying what most people are thinking” are really deceived? This current candidate plans to send eleven million people back where he thinks they came from. More recently he has said he would be “humane” about it. And he would build a wall between our countries and make the Mexican government pay for it.

The System and the Cartoon
The billionaire candidate has gotten a lot of attention. He has excited a lot of people. He may even be taken seriously at the Republican National Convention. But have we really thought about what he has said? Or do we just think that he said what he did to get attention, and we won’t hold him responsible for his campaign promises?

When I have thought about his statements, I have been reminded of two things: First, he seems like a politician a ten year old would make up; and second, he has me remembering Dr. Wilber Daffodil-11 Swain, the politician Kurt Vonnegut made up for his late ’70s novel, Slapstick.

The thing is, though, that I liked Swain, who ran on the slogan “Lonesome no more,” and who created legislation that would require every American to belong to a government-fashioned family. That way, everyone had relatives and connections to support him or her. Lonesome no more.

The thing that bothers me the most about our current cartoon candidate is that voters who like him seem to think that he will avoid our political process and yell at people to get things done, sort of the way he is seen on his TV show. But that won’t work, and why would we want it to? Why would we want a president who skips democratic processes to get what he wants? Another name for that is tyranny.

What would Plato say? I’m not sure he would like a great deal of what we do. He would prefer reasoned debate—but not the kind that we have every four years in front of millions of people. Even on our televised debates, candidates are never required to “answer the question,” not the way that Socrates does in his dialogues.

I happen to agree that we should make it so that our politicians are not controlled by big money interests. And sometimes I agree with the reactions of voters who don’t feel represented by candidates in our current system. I’m just not sure that I would be fairly represented by someone only because he claims to be coming in from the outside to clean things up.

It seems that we should grow up. The processes we have are cumbersome and adult, but the system can work.

One thing seems fairly certain. We won’t get money out of the system by electing a billionaire.

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Comment by Brad on August 29, 2015 at 2:07 pm

These are very thoughtful questions and comments regarding our current political life. I agree that Plato would find much of our discourse distasteful, and may even point to it as a reason to avoid democracy. Even so, I am hopeful (perhaps naively) that thoughtfulness will prevail in our democracy. Further, as George Will has recently said, those who are angry that nothing is being done in Washington (as far as they can tell) should be angry with James Madison who designed a system that would favor reason over passions.

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