Historical Rhetorics/Plato's Battle Against an Oral World

Chapter One: Plato's Battle Against an Oral World edit

  • Plato, Republic Book VII

In his Preface to Plato, Eric A. Havelock addresses a problem that has plagued contemporary humanists for centuries: how does one interpret Plato's utter rejection for poetry, literature, and the imaginative arts in Book X of the Republic? Against the general trait to ignore Book X, or treat it as hyperbolic, Havelock asserts that the rejection of the oral poetic tradition is the overwhelming goal of Plato's entire philosophic enterprise. It should be noted that Plato's reservations against epic and lyric poetry are not confined to Book X, or even the Republic, but can be found throughout a number of his other works (including Ion).

Such a claim might sound preposterous to modern readers. Since Petrarch and the Renaissance (and intensified by the Romantic rejection of industrialization and urbanity), the high arts have chiefly served to resist mainstream cultural interpellation. Havelock, however, demonstrates that, for the ancient world, the poetic-oral tradition was the chief interpellative agent. In short, we recognize a link between poetry and social criticism. Not so for Plato who sees the mimetic power of art as preventing the development of discrimination (see Book II of the Republic 50). Plato sought to continue Socrates' mantra of "know thyself" and saw poetry (with its religious implications) as a major impediment to such an objective. Dialectic philosophy divides us into individual interlocutors; poetic performance unites us (from Plato's perspective I might better say assimilates us) into a homogenous unthinking "we."

Similar to Havelock, Walter J. Ong demonstrates how the technological development of alphabetic writing helped to first generate an autonomous sense of subjectivity. Plato is one of the first philosophers to praise autonomy. The collective cultural songs prevented this [literate] process of individuation. Of course, a number of critics, including Ong and Havelock themselves, have noted the underlying irony concerning Plato's suspicions toward writing. Plato failed to recognize that the autonomy/individualism he valued was, at least in part, a function of the new communicative medium--one that afforded both spatial and temporal distance between interlocutors. Ong succinctly concludes that logical components of dialectical reasoning would not be possible without the objectifying power of alphabetically enhanced memory. But Plato's transcendental Idealism isn't just reliant on literacy as a methodology (that is, providing a material form for thought that enables more complicated and sustained engagement with an idea, more precision, etc). Rather, Plato's very idea of an Idea, his divorcing of the Real True Form from the imperfect material substance, likely owes something to the very nature of the written sign and its two parts: the signifier and the signified.

A core component of Plato's dialectical methods required stabilizing thought from the transience of time (kairos is not an especially prominent topic in Plato nor in the rhetoric of his student Aristotle). In Presence of the Word Ong writes:

Plato’s ideas were the polar opposite [of the engaged sense of time and place particular to the oral-aural human lifeworld]: not events at all, but motionless “objective” existence, impersonal, and out of time. Forming the ultimate basis of all knowledge, they implied that intellectual knowledge was like sight—despite Plato’s well-spoken protests, discussed here later, in favor of the spoken word in his Seventh Letter and in the Phadreus. Basically, the Greek word idea means the look of a thing. It comes from the same root as the Latin video [I see], which yields the English “vision” and its cognates. (33-34)

We will later return to the epistemological and ethical implications this preference for sight and vision. From Havelock's perspective, Plato represents one of the first philosophers to preference alphabetic autonomy, and his Republic can be seen as creating a curriculum and pedagogy around this new technology. Such an education would require a complete abandonment of the old ways and values. Havelock asserts:

The psyche which slowly asserts itself in independence of the poetic performance and the poetised tradition had to be the reflective, thoughtful, critical psyche, or it could be nothing. Along with the discovery of the soul, Greece in Plato's day and just before Plato had to discover something else--the activity of sheer thinking. (Preface to Plato 200)

Havelock later describes the discovery of the thinking soul as a shift from "I am Achilles" to "I am thinking about Achilles." The profound social and cultural transformations engendered by this proto-Cartesianism cannot be understated.

Considering Havelock and Ong, then, one can form a more contextualized tenor for Book VII's famous "allegory of the cave"'s metaphorical vehicle. What holds society locked in place, those shadows dancing on the walls, is the oral-poetic tradition--Plato's nemesis in Book X. The reason Plato says so little about the "masters" is that they don't, in reality, exist. What holds us in place is not a despotic tyrant--rather it is a despotic tyranny enacted through our collective "song." We sing ourselves to sleep. From Plato's perspective, rhetoric (particularly the performative style of rhetoric ascribed to Gorgias) is a civic manifestation of this lyric tyranny. In Book VI of the Republic, Socrates argues to Adeimantus that the worst teachers of the worst customs are connected to public life ("assemblies, courts, theaters, army camps" (492b). Similar complaints echo throughout the Apology and the Gorgias. But the chief antagonist to philosophical reason is the ancient poetic and lyric traditions that, as Havelock notes, prevent oral humans from attaining the intellectual and moral autonomy that contemporary Western man takes for granted (Muse Learns to Write 4).

It is important to recognize, in preparation for the next chapter, that Plato's critique of rhetoric centers around how it helps to maintain the anti-epistemic, profoundly uncritical, mimetic force of orality. The sophist, as it were, merely sings another song--one that duplicitously seems to recognize the possibility of individual action (say, voting in a democracy) yet usurps individual power in the name of the social group. It is on these grounds that Socrates condemns Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles in the Gorgias, and it is in light of them that he refuses to prostrate himself in the Apology. Consider Plato's vivid and damning description of "sophist" educators in Book VI:

Not one of those [...] whom the people call sophists [...] teaches anything other than the convictions that the majority express when they are gathered together. Indeed, these are precisely what the sophists call wisdom. It's as if someone were learning the moods and appetites of a huge, strong beast that he's rearing--how to approach and handle it, when it is most difficult to deal with or most gentle and what makes it so, what sounds it utters in either condition, and what sounds soothe or anger it. Having learned all this through tending the beast over a period of time, he calls this knack wisdom, gather his information together as if it were a craft, and starts to teach it. In truth, he knows nothing about which of these convictions is fine or shameful, good or bad, just or unjust, but he applies all these names in accordance with how the beast reacts--calling what it enjoys good and what angers it bad. He has no other account to give of these terms. And he calls what is compelled to do just and fine, for he hasn't seen and cannot show anyone else how much compulsion and goodness really differ. (493a-c)

The sophistic rhetorician, then, is an echo chamber, who feeds the beast what it wants to hear. But I also want to highlight how from Plato's perspective rhetoric coerces "I"'s into a "we." Dialectical philosophy, stimulated and carried forth by an other's active and interruptive voice, collects "I"'s into an ongoing agonistic conversation. It holds them as individuals, each accountable for thinking on his/her own. It is only through such active conversation that we can avoid the assimilative pitfalls of orality (though, as a sophist, I would point out that the dialectical exchanges of Plato's dialogues often transform his interlocutor into an empty shell and repetition of "yes Socrates, no Socrates, why don't you explain that for me Socrates," calling into question the authenticity of dialectical exchange).

In Republic VII, the subjects Plato selects for learning all stress abstraction over sensual perception: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, and (eventually) dialectic. With a few subjects, including astronomy and music, Plato is careful to insist that they are studied for their ability to summon abstract problems rather than studied either as perceptible bodies (in the case of astronomy), for their harmonious beauty (the case of music), or practicality (the case of geometry) (see 522-525). Plato repeatedly insists that education should not be a mere gaining of sight (see particularly his distinction between the visible and the intelligible at 532). This is, of course, connected to Plato's rigorous commitment to Being and opposition to becoming, stated in several places throughout Book VII. There, and in Apology as well, there is a disdain--or, if that is too strong a word--an aversion to the material world and to the arts that seek to govern it. Plato maintains that a student must study in these realms until the age of 30 before they are introduced to the dangerous, but necessary, art of argumentation. After five years of intensive training in argument, careful to avoid any sophistic or eristic defiencies, a student is prepared for dialectical examination. By age 50, those completing dialectical examination are deemed fit to rule. Later, we can ask why Plato is so skeptical of argumentation?

Overall, Plato's metaphysical conception of logos inspires a political utopia. Plato argues that true philosophers care only for the pursuit of a "good and rational life" (521). Philosopher kings, far from desiring power, must be compelled to rule. Anyone who wants to rule is clearly unfit for the job (see VII 520e).

It is also important to stress that the education laid out in Book VII maintains Plato's virulent anti-democratism. Much like the red pill in Wachowski brothers' Matrix, this is not an education for everyone. Only a select few, educated from birth, can ever hope to achieve (what Kant will call a few centuries later) "enlightenment" (one can recognize traces of this attitude in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics; for while Aristotle champions the work of politics in the pursuit of virtue toward happiness, he also laments the base, animal masses who take no pleasure in higher pursuits). The four qualities of the philosophic mind are explicitly covered in Book VI: "courage, high-mindedness, ease in learning, and a good memory" (490c). The final two are self-explanatory; "courage" is simply the ability to dare go against the sophistically-appeased "oral" beast. "High-mindedness" requires some explication. Echoing the sentiments expressed by Socrates in his Apology (addressed next chapter), the proper philosophic mind devotes no attention to material or earthly concerns. Such mindsets are described between 486a-c as slavish, petty, boasting, and even cowardly. Included in the high-minded orientation is a disregard for the value of one's life (and here the allusions to the Apology are strongest). Here we see support for Ong's "dehumanization" of Plato's ideas, since even human life (transient as it is) is seen as inferior to the dedication required to experience the transcendent, metaphysical Ideas.

Finally, in terms of conceptualizing the role of rhetoric (or in this case, philosophy), in terms of education, Plato emphasizes that, while the philosopher must remain distinct from the crowd, s/he has an obligation to return to it and courageously engage members of the public in dialectic whenever possible. One might consider this pedagogical mandate as a precursor to the critical pedagogy by in large introduced to Rhetoric and Composition by Freire and intensified by cultural studies in the late 1980's and early 1990's (particularly in the work of people such as James Berlin and Henry Giroux).

Works Cited

  • Havelock, Eric A. The Muse Learns to Write / Orality and Literacy From Antiquity to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1988.
  • Havelock, Eric A.. Preface to Plato. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1963.
  • Ong, Walter J. Presence of the Word / Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1967.
  • Plato: Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.