It would be easy to imagine that the conversations of ancient Greek philosophers, while certainly of historical interest, might have little relevancy to our lives today. Such an assumption would, however, be a mistake. As I read through the four assigned pieces this week, I saw affirmed again and again that old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The issues that occupy Socrates and his partners in conversational debate still have resonance today—in fact, perhaps now more than ever.
I am thinking in particular of the ethical issues attached to the practice of public rhetoric that are discussed between Socrates and his curmudgeonly friend Callicles in the Gorgias. The issues Plato opens up therein can still be seen in operation every day on cable news shows featuring political pundits and commentators, all attempting to persuade listeners to their particular partisan viewpoints. As Gorgias asserts, the great power of rhetoric is to persuade the multitudes on any subject, but not all persuasion is founded in truth. Some depends merely upon marshalling a parade of supporters, while other persuasion relies upon arguments that exploit the hearers’ ignorance of the topic’s subtleties. Today such attempts to influence the public include strategic sound bites and talking points built upon focus groups and polling results.
Perhaps such manipulative techniques account for Socrates’ characterization of rhetoric, not as an art, but as an experience in flattery and gratification that has great potential to perpetuate injustice through deception: “A man may delight a whole assembly and yet have no regard for their true interests.” The hearing side of the rhetorical equation, too, bears responsibility. As true today as in ancient Athens is Socrates’ observation that people tend to admire those who satisfy their immediate desires, even as that pandering contributes to their long-term detriment. But when the “crisis of disorder comes,” they “blame the advisors of the hour.” I can hardly imagine a more accurate description of the present political and economic situation in which our nation now finds itself.
To avoid such a situation, Socrates advocates ethical standards for public rhetoricians and defensive tools for their audiences: illuminate iniquity rather than conceal it; aim to make better citizens rather than simply garner support; be aware of the differences between knowledge and belief, virtue’s reality and its appearance. Surely wisdom we can still use.
In light of the enduring power of the dialogues of Socrates and his associates I find it peculiar that in the Pheadrus, Socrates himself lays down an equally influential teaching about the nature of writing as compared to speech. Is the moment when Socrates casts the written word as a degraded mute image of living speech the literary genesis for what Derrida later calls logocentrism and phonocentrism? How ironic this assertion of Socrates that we possess today only through the medium of writing—this moment, the seed of hundreds of years of philosophical debate which would have been lost forever without Plato’s pen to record it in writing.