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Plato, Rhetoric, and Love

In reading Gorgias and Phaedrus by Plato, I am struck by simultaneous desires to both applaud and condemn him. I find the dialogic approach that Plato takes in his writing to be somewhat manipulative and one-sided, with his discursive hero – a constructed version of Socrates – always presented in the best possible light while opponents are fed lines that will make them eventually appear as fools. I find myself wishing that Plato had been able to theorize about his own theories, as it seems to me that he has fallen into the trap of not being able to think outside of his own box. Just as “conceptual maps can blind us if one way of seeing the world becomes the only way of seeing the world,” so the map used by Plato is “the one true way” of viewing reality, to the exclusion of all other possibilities in Plato’s writing (Porter 128).

For Plato, divine knowledge exists, and though it is not accessible by humans directly, the philosopher can access this knowledge and lead people toward it. In fact, they have a divine obligation to do so, thus as a philosopher, Plato justifies his verbal bullying of all other epistemological positions in pursuit of a higher truth to which he ostensibly has greater access than the average person. In both Gorgias and Phaedrus, the topic of rhetoric arises – what it is, what it encompasses, what it excludes, its uses, limitations, and pitfalls – where it is clear that it is, or should be, subordinate to Plato’s vision of philosophy.

In Gorgias, Plato sets up rhetoric within a dualist framework, where rhetoric is compared to discussion (88), knowing is compared to believing (92), and what is pleasant is opposed to what is good (121). When asked by Polus what art Socrates deems rhetoric, he declares, “None at all” (96). For the protagonist Socrates[1], rhetoric is akin to a form of flattery, a counterfeit branch of politics, and the ethics of the rhetorician are questionable at best (95-7). While I understand the concern that Plato seems to be expressing, that it is possible to persuade people to actions that are unjust, harmful, or against their interests, his rhetorical modes of persuading readers to that understanding are suspect themselves. Plato seems to say that the best use of rhetoric is in the service of knowledge and virtue, but he posits these as knowable, stable categories rather than rhetorical concepts that are subject to alteration depending upon time and place. For Plato, his versions of these categories are the true, correct ones and all other thinkers who do not agree with him are cast as fools with questionable ethics. While I agree with the concerns he has, his use of rhetoric to persuade through this dialog is very unconvincing to me. If anything, the character of Socrates comes off as manipulative, using what Wayne Booth would call “rhetrickery” in order to discredit other ways of approaching rhetorical skill or the idea of rhetoric itself.

In Phaedrus, three speeches are offered on the idea of love, moving from the lowest to highest forms of argument, rhetoric, and conceptions of love itself. Again, Plato organizes his views around dualities – the body versus soul, the beautiful versus the ugly, the low versus the high, truth versus uncertainty – sometimes employing metaphor to illustrate his points, comparing “the soul to the composite nature of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer” (149). Again, rhetoric is shown on the low end of the binary ladder, where its best (or only ethical?) use is in the service of truth, philosophy, and the highest forms of love as Plato sees them.

To me, the dualisms of Plato are the most frustrating aspect about reading his philosophy. Given that he uses Socrates as a narrator for these dialogs, I often find myself wondering if 1) Socrates himself may have seen beyond these dualistic ways of thinking but that Plato could not or if 2) the thinking of Socrates remained within a dualistic framework during his life but that Plato saw a hint of something non-dual but feared writing such a thing down or if 3) the hints at a non-dual framework sometimes suggested but never explored in Plato’s writing are an accident, perhaps reflecting remnants of other epistemologies that he mentions only to reject or ignore them.

The type of love discussed in Phaedrus is, to some extent, reminiscent of tantric ideas from Eastern thought[2] where love, and even sexuality, are thought to be the gateways to the divine. Though there is some vague discussion of what types of sexual behavior are unacceptable (154), these ideas are not elucidated in-depth in Phaedrus. Again, there is a duality assumed between higher forms and lower forms of love, with that pertaining to complete physical abandon always placed in a subordinate position. I found Diotima’s speech very interesting in light of this interest in comparative ideas, as “her notion of immortality, reveals several features that are inconsonant with dualistic interpretations of Plato” (Swearingen 31). In the speech given in Symposium, there is (apparently) a way of reading it that posits a less dualistic split between the body and soul, intercourse and discourse, sexual and divine love. This perspective “serve[s] as a corrective to many readings of Plato’s thought that characterize it as hyperidealistic and anti-body” (Swearingen 47). I am interested in exploring Diotima’s speech more directly, as it is exactly this sort of non-dual perspective that I sometimes find hinted at in Plato but either 1) rejected or 2) not explored fully. Hints of these epistemic positions are exactly what interests me in early Western thought, as I find traces periodically in extant literature, but never any type of full or comprehending elucidation. I wonder where these frameworks went or how they were lost or “spoken over” by dominant ways of thinking. These are the places I want to explore, to see what is there, and what might have once been.


[1] I consider Socrates a speaker for, or protagonist of, Plato, as this is not necessarily the historic “real” Socrates speaking, but rather a constructed, narrative Socrates taking a role within Plato’s writing.

[2] I really dislike making a distinction between “Eastern” and “Western” thinking, as this seems to further inscribe a binary that I do not see, but for the moment it is the only terminology that will make sense to an outside reader.

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One comment on “Plato, Rhetoric, and Love

  1. I’m mulling over all of the dualisms too. It seems like this is an effective way to argue (i.e. to “win” arguments in an agonistic sense), but puts unnecessary barriers in place to expand thought. Like you, I’m also trying to disentangle who/what Socrates represents in terms of Plato as the author of a literary piece.

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