I once had a philosophy professor who told my class, with all the authority and reverence he could muster, that…
“As of right now, you are all philosophers. The days of winning arguments by simply screaming louder than your opponent are over.”
I usually don’t like to call myself a philosopher. I think there are a lot of negative assumptions that go along with that title. People tend to imagine “philosophers” as that one weird guy who goes to parties just to sit in a corner and chain smoke cigarettes. I’m not saying that’s fair, it is just the consensus I’ve gathered over the years.
I also don’t refer to myself as a philosopher because, despite what some might think, I never really had any aspirations to pursue philosophy as a career. I considered it for a time. When I expressed this idea to a friend of mine he replied by telling me, “You really ought to do that. It will work out great because they just opened a big philosophy warehouse right down the road.”
Well, the jokes on both of us. There wasn’t any philosophy warehouse down the road, but I still managed to find a job where I deal with philosophy on a weekly basis.
All joking aside, I do understand what my professor was trying to get at that day. You and me, dear reader, are philosophers in our own way. Our aim is truth, making others see truth, not berating our colleagues until they admit defeat. When you get right down to it, arguing in the right way, for the right reasons, at the right time, is really all philosophers do.
This brings us to the all important saying-it’s not how you say it, it’s what you say.
At least that ought to be the saying.
All of this leads me rather conveniently to our topic of the day. Today we will talk about the platonic dialogue Gorgias. This dialogue, once again, pits the Father of Western Philosophy, Socrates against an Athenian character who simply cannot see the error of his ways.
The dialogue explores, among other things, the nature of rhetoric, the morality of possessing rhetorical skills, and the difference between truth and belief.
Gorgias, the dialogues namesake, is an Athenian rhetorician. His job consists in shaping any who come before him into persuasive, eloquent speakers; the type who can bring round to their side anybody who listens. Anybody but Socrates it would seem.
Socrates, the curious kind of guy that he is, begins to question Gorgias on the definition of “rhetoric” and a “rhetorician” . Socrates proposes that if we were to ask for a definition of a physician, we could say that a physician is one who is knowledgeable of the art of medicine and possesses particular skills of healing.
Similarly, Socrates would like to know of what type of practice a rhetorician partakes in. Gorgias proposes that rhetoricians, obviously, are involved with rhetoric! This answer, at least according to Socrates, is ambiguous.
Certainly a mathematician or a business man or a teacher would partake in the practice of rhetoric as well. However, their true art is not rhetoric in itself. These types of men are concerned with understanding mathematical relations, money-making, and instilling knowledge respectively.
The dialogue continues in this manner until Gorgias, having been prompted slightly by Socrates, comes to admit that the final aim or art of a rhetorician is persuasion.
AHA! Now we are getting somewhere.
Socrates seems to like where the conversation is going, but he prods a bit more. On what matters do the rhetoricians attempt to persuade people on?
Gorgias proposes that the rhetorician persuades on the most grand and most important topics within society. That is to say that rhetoricians concern themselves with the matters of politics, legislation and, most importably, justice and injustice.
“I answer, Socrates, that rhetoric is the art of persuasion in courts of law and other assemblies, as I was just now saying, and about the just and unjust.” -Gorgias (Plato’s Gorgias)
Now we are really getting somewhere, don’t you think? Socrates certainly thinks so.
We are now getting to the crux of the argument. Socrates asks if there is such a thing as belief and if there is such a thing as knowledge. Gorgias consents that yes, this is true.
Socrates then asks if there is such a thing as a true belief and such a thing as a false belief. Gorgias consents that there is. Then Socrates asks if there is such a thing as true knowledge and false knowledge. Gorgias concludes that this can not be. Knowledge, by its very definition, must be true knowledge.
Socrates then asks if the rhetorician, whose job is to persuade people on matters of justice or injustice, inspires in people knowledge or belief without knowledge. Gorgias admits that he can only inspire belief and cannot instill true knowledge.
“Then rhetoric, as would appear, is the artificer of a persuasion which creates belief about the just and unjust, but gives no instruction about them?” -Socrates (Plato’s Gorgias)
Socrates then asks Gorgias if an understanding of justice and injustice is a prerequisite to becoming a rhetorician. That is to say if a boy, who was ignorant of justice, came to Gorgias, would Gorgias teach the boy the art of rhetoric, the art of persuading the ignorant on matters of justice when he himself does not know justice?
Gorgias, who is perhaps a bit taken aback by this questions, concludes that, if that were the case, then he would simply have to teach the boy of justice and injustice.
You might have already figured out Socrates beef with Gorgias and the speech makers of Athens. Socrates criticizes Gorgias because it would seem that he would be willing to teach anybody rhetoric whether or not that person was knowledgeable of justice.
It would seem then that rhetoric alone is not a moral endeavor. Socrates believes that without knowledge, without philosophy, rhetoric alone is not an art at all. It is a form of flattery, a way to coax the uneducated into accepting a position that is not necessarily correct, moral, or even just.
Rhetoric without knowledge is like the blind leading the blind. More specifically, it is the ignorant leading the ignorant.
And that brings us right back round to our original point. Say it with me now…
It’s not how you say it, it’s what you say.
I wouldn’t consider myself particularly cynical, but I do believe there is a rather unhealthy tendency to emphasize style over substance, presentation over content.
I would encourage you to remember that in a world where everybody has an opinion and in an age with technology that allows everybody’s belief to be heard, the plausibility of an assertion is not judged by how many people agree with it. The validity of an argument is not gauged by how loudly it is being hurled at you.
And that, dear fellow philosophers, is really all I have for you today. Speak again soon.