Why it is important to have a healthy suspicion of rhetoric

In his Phaedrus Plato defines rhetoric as a pharmakon, a Greek word with many potential meanings but that is most commonly translated to mean “drug.” In this context it is very important to note that the drug can have both positive and negative effects, and to have a positive effect it must be used by someone who understands both what it does and the context in which it is being used. To Plato this drug is also unavoidably artificial; it should only be used when absolutely necessary and should never be relied on. This drug’s only purpose should be to put an individual on the road back to health and, once healthy, the individual should have no further use for it.

This demonstrates a change of opinion from Plato’s earlier works. In his Gorgias he shows his full distain for rhetoric, calling it nothing but a “knack” that flatters its audience and provokes them to believe in appearances rather than reality. This change is because he believes that he has found a way to distinguish good rhetoric from bad. Good rhetoric is founded on truth and is delivered by someone with knowledge on the subject, whilst bad rhetoric is delivered by someone whose aim is to deceive and manipulate.

Regardless Plato believed that we should still be suspicious of rhetorical devices at all times; even good rhetoric should only be employed to encourage the understanding of those less knowledgeable and cast away at the earliest opportunity. As Wittgenstein said, “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)”

It is intriguing that in the modern day rhetoric has become so accepted whist remaining, for the most part, unquestioned. This is partially because rhetoric has become a term meaning the art of discourse itself, so it cannot be condemned entirely unless one is to condemn discourse as well. Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” is a more specific description. Rhetoric is the act of making an argument persuasive, regardless of how true it is for the individual speaking or how honest the speaker’s intentions are. Very few people now are as suspicious of rhetoric as Plato would have thought necessary. His philosophy is very focused on finding truth and truly understanding life to whatever extent possible.

The Form of Truth as a literal concept may not appeal, but I find his emphasis on ignoring the deception of others and finding personal truth very compelling. Most people would admit that they value truth and do not want to be deceived, nor do they want anyone to try to deceive them. It is odd then that so much value and even trust is placed in rhetoric when it is used so easily and frequently to deceive. In politics, the media and advertising, it has gotten to the point where many people will happily make a decision on rhetorical encouragement alone; tendencies like this are likely to have destructive consequences. It is essentially the act of placing your trust in someone or something that is untrustworthy. Even the best argument and speech should always be stripped down to its bare truths and analysed. In this way it can become the proverbial ladder that can lead to a better personal understanding.

Jeremy Coward

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