Plato V Sophists  (or, philosophy v rhetoric)

Plato 427 – 347 BC

Rhetoric’s issues – power, manipulation, relationship to truth

Plato’s view: rhet has potential for harm and for good – thus there is a sense of moral responsibility here, and Plato sees this morality as an essential, universal good that must be discovered through language.


Irony: Plato’s arguments against rhetoric are fine examples of efficient rhetoric.  Geo Kennedy calls Plato a “Consummate rhetorician” for this very reason.  His treatment of the sophists in his Gorgias is relentless.


As we can see in contemporary political debate (dialogue?), Plato’s views on rhetoric’s potential for good and harm set up a historical forum where this binary opposition will continue to create dialogue.  We might go so far as to see this forum as the meeting point between the physical and the metaphysical and the tertiary situations relative to their interaction.


Plato’s own position on rhetoric and philosophy are discovered in his dialogues using the character of Socrates as a means to put his own ideas across


Gorgias: Plato debates three contemporary rhetores

Primary questions: (Herrick 54)

What is the nature of rhetoric?

Does rhetoric, by its very nature, tend to mislead?

What happens to a society when persuasion forms the basis of its law and justice? 


Plato’s main concern with the Sophists is that their rhetoric does not provide an adequate view of justice



The art (techne) of anything is based upon the knowledge of some class of objects.  Plato’s Soc  asks Gorgias “with what class of objects is rhetoric concerned?”

Plato (through his Socrates) discerns the difference between pistis (mere belief) and episteme.  P’s Soc claims that Sophists are interested only in belifs and opinions about  justice and not justice itself . . .


Plato’s main concern about the sophists (56):



In response to Pous:

Plato’s Soc sees rhetoric (sophistic) as a knack rather than a true art – a skill that one has come by naturally rather than through study of what the truth really is


Health/body metaphor:  True health brings good sound strength while false health allows people to feel good through flattery


Further more all of the true arts work to support one another.  Real

health allows all parts of the body to support and maintain the entire unit


The four true arts of health (57-58)


The Sham Arts:


Finally rhetoric can be seen as the restorative for sophism, a way to “fall back and regroup” when a persuasive tactic designed for personal power fails.  Thus rhetoric is a sham art designed not to find the truth of justice, but to help generate an “agendized” “good” relative to the desires of the strongest speaker.



Callicles:  Simply cannot be persuaded to question the moral validity of Sophism – he’s a lost cause


Outcome of Gorgias:


The outcome of Gorgias is debatable.  Did he “win”?  Or did he simply make his point with a rhetoric as deep and self-promoting as the very people he attacks?  One might see the main difference between Plato and the Sophists as the difference between absolutism and relativism – a comparison that has large implications regarding our own contemporary political landscape . . .