Historical Rhetorics/Sophists Old and New/*Poulakos, John. "Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric." ''Contemporary Rhetorical Theory.''

Poulakos insists that rhetoric must be understood as an active, artistic enterprise, rather than reflected on as a conceptual science. Rhetoric, for Poulakos, is about actually doing the thing, not just talking about the thing in the abstract. Poulakos defines rhetoric as “the art which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible.” This is not the ability to see means of persuasion—it is the ability to identify the right moment for persuasion, and to use persuasion to make possibility become actuality. A rhetor’s goal is to present an audience a new way of understanding the world, thereby provoking a thoughtfully examination long-held assumptions. Done effectively, this provocation creates a space where possibilities can become realities. Poulakos uses the term kairos to describe the kind of rhetoric advanced by the sophists, and explains that it is the ability to seize an opportune moment in an appropriate way in order to create new possibilities.

According to Poulakos, it is the sophists, rather than Plato and Aristotle, who taught their students to be in tune with their audience, and learn to say the right thing at the right time. For example, he notes that Gorgias encouraged students to speak extemporaneously, and condemned written speeches for being fixed to a single hypothetical audience. This is a far cry from Aristotle, who preferred speech that was like writing and therefore “more exact,” or more focused on logic and truth. To Aristotle, delivery was mere ornamentation that turned a speech into entertainment and a speaker into a performer, thereby distracting from the truth and facts of a speech.

The sophists, however, intended for their speeches to force their audiences to reexamine previously held assumptions regarding truth, rather than to present a particular notion of truth. It is for this reason that sophists did not view delivery as ornamentation or distraction, but the very essence of the art of rhetoric. It is the way words are said, more than the words themselves, that engages an audience. A speech without engagement falls on deaf ears; a speech with engagement moves audiences to action. It is also for this reason that Poulakos views the sophists and their work as key to understanding how rhetoric actually works.