Tag Archives: Plato and rhetoric

On the Ideal and Fragile Reality of American Democracy (Part 4)

Wednesday, September 20 – “Democracy has this advantage over other forms of government,” Woodruff writes in …

Chapter Eight: Reasoning without Knowledge:

“It is designed to work as well as possible on the basis of fallible reasoning. In democracy, there is always a critic around, always a competing leader with argumentative policy. More than that, democratic ways actually promote the kind of reasoning that we need to use when knowledge fails” (pp. 175-6).

“Knowledge does not always fail, of course. Sometimes we know very well what an outcome will be, or at least we are able to predict with a high degree of probability: Plato restricted the word ‘knowledge,’ and allowed it only for people who know something so well and so deeply that they can never be refuted. The reasoning that government requires, however, yields results that are always open to refutation, always to some degree uncertain.

“Some uncertainties are better than others…. the intellectuals behind First Democracy cultivated rhetoric and good judgment for their power in sorting out the better uncertainties from the weaker ones” (p. 176).

“Greek speakers in the age of democracy aimed at something called eikos, usually translated as ‘probability.’ Because this has nothing to do with numerical probability, I prefer to translate it as ‘reasonable expectation’” (p. 177).

“First Democracy encouraged debate. But I must admit, also, that the Athenian people sometimes shouted down unpopular views, and this is the fault to which democracy is prone, as Plato pointed out. When the majority acts like a tyrant, it is cruising to be destroyed by its own mistakes – mistakes that serious debate might have prevented” (p. 180).

“Rhetoric, as practiced in the age of democracy, brought together the main themes of reasoning without knowledge. Teachers of rhetoric aimed at achieving eikos (reasonable expectation) in their speeches, at bringing forth good judgment in their students, and at leaving them with the ability to argue both sides of a question. Plato attacked all three aims. Rhetoric was a major target of the opponents of democracy, because it was large, obvious, and easy to hit. Besides, it was widely enough practiced that the public knew plenty of bad practitioners.

“Rhetoric (according to Plato) is the art of persuasion, in any context in which words are used. Plato’s most famous attack on rhetoric is a dialogue called Gorgias, in which he shows Gorgias and two of his followers defending rhetoric and its uses. Because teachers such as Gorgias claim to teach nothing else, they isolate rhetoric from all substantive knowledge on any subject, isolating rhetoric even from ethical training. Plato shows Gorgias claiming that rhetoric is purely a formal tool, entirely neutral as to whether its uses are good or bad.

“For two main reasons, this account of rhetoric cannot be right. First, any tool invites certain uses; when you give people tools you are inviting them to use those tools. If all you do is teach your students to win arguments, you are teaching them to win at all costs. So your teaching is not morally neutral. You are teaching that winning is good, and nothing else matters. So rhetoric cannot be morally neutral, and Plato’s Gorgias must be wrong. Second, Gorgias is unusual. If we set him aside, we see many teachers of rhetoric who did not regard their subjects as purely formal. Most of them did not isolate rhetoric from other areas of instruction. Protagoras seemed to think that in teaching the art of words he was teaching good judgment. Only Gorgias claimed to teach nothing but the art of words” (pp. 182-3).

This, in fact, is why Professor Rivers places rhetoric at the center of all the disciplines, since the understanding and communication of all of them depends on the ability to use words well. The spectacle of Donald Trump addressing the United Nations this week with bellicosity and ignorance, leaving even his own chief of staff, John Kelly, holding his head in dismay, is witness to the truth of this principle. The advisability of making war or privileging diplomacy cannot be argued effectively without effective and informal (and honest) rhetoric, nor can the maths and sciences, behind which we put all our financing (or did, before the present war on science, which, in its honest forms, is in process of being defunded, hijacked by ignoramuses and ideologues – who are, often enough, the same people).

Rhetoric, as Woodruff demonstrates, does not always win the day. So, while popular sentiment distrusted fancy speaking, it did not, as the opponents of democracy feared, give an automatic advantage to orators. It “did not put special powers into the hands of wealthy people” (a disingenuous argument, anyway, as its promulgators were generally the wealthy enemies of democracy). “It simply is not a special power. Rhetoric has more to do with setting up the conditions for good judgment than with persuasion” (pp. 184-5). Likewise, Woodruff adds: “The danger of demagoguery has been overstated by the enemies of rhetoric. History shows that masters of rhetoric do not manipulate people with consistent success. Again, the main point is that rhetorical debate is not a device for manipulation. By bringing out the best points on both sides, rhetoric serves the cause of good judgment” (p. 185). Do not blame the defense attorney, who was just dong his job, if the prosecutor does not make his case, as Professor Rivers writes in context of the O. J. Simpson trial.

Likewise, Protagoras’s habit of teaching his students to argue both sides of an argument was not a matter of “making the weaker argument stronger,” as his critics said (by which they meant, “making the wrong argument win”), but has to do with what I always taught (or tried to teach) my English students: that “the ability to make equally good arguments on both sides of an issue would help them account for a wide range of factors before making decisions” (pp. 186-7).

Most importantly: “Do not confuse the rhetoric of debate with lying. But leaders often lie about what is and isn’t known, in hopes of quelling debate.

“Lies are not a consequence of debate; they usually come from fear of debate. Before a debate has developed, the authorities weigh in with false stories – for which they declare they have secret sources” (Trump, for instance, with his reckless accusation of massive immigrant voter fraud, designed to stir up  fear to allow further restrictions on the vote: the true voter fraud) “– and so foreclose the possibility of open discussion.”

“Lies in politics are an old story, but do not blame them on rhetoric. Blame them on human credulity or our tendency to believe authority. But counter them whenever possible by campaigning for open discussion. Lies act on the market of ideas as subsidies do on commodities – they undermine our ability to choose on a rational basis” (pp. 188-9).

And now we are almost done with this accounting. Next: Education. Then: An Afterword that asks the vital question: “Are Americans Ready for Democracy?”

 

Thursday, September 21 – “Paideia is the kind of education that makes for better citizens, or (as we would say now) for better human beings,” Woodward writes in …

Chapter Nine. Education (Paideia).

“To the Athenians, ‘better’ meant ‘having more arete,’ and arete meant ‘excellence’ or ‘virtue.’ Athenians believed that good education would make young people better able to use good judgment, to live reverently, and to make decisions with justice” (p. 193).

The point about “making for better citizens” is an important part of what I have tried to convey in much of my post-2000 short fiction and essays. Even prior to my studies with Tom Rivers, I think I always thought of the English classroom as, in part, a civics classroom; that is surely what I had when I taught persuasion and began by showing the kids the documentary Incident at Oglala, presenting them with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” and inviting the Greywolfs [friends at the time: neighbors and parents of one of my Spanish students: I write of them in my recent collection of old newspaper columns / essays, Confabulating With the Cows] as living representations of those ideas.

“First Democracy assumes that the community can teach the virtues that sustain it. Plato and Socrates rejected that assumption; to make matters worse, they rejected much of what Athens was trying to teach and many of its teaching methods as well. Socrates died over those differences. His view was based on a bad analogy between goodness and technical skill. A good community won’t make you a better doctor, but it can help you become a better person” (p. 195).

Protagoras, as represented in Plato’s Apology, schools Socrates on the nature of the education that Athenian children get from their community: “Starting from early childhood, and for as long as they live, they teach and admonish their children … fighting hard to make the child turn out to be as good as possible … when they send the child to school, they put much more weight on their concern that the children learn good conduct (eukosmia) than that they learn to read and write or play music.

“The teachers take this to heart. When the children have learned the alphabet and are ready to read, then the teachers put works of good poets before them and require them to learn by heart poems that are full of good advice, and stories and songs in praise of good men of old. Musicians do much the same … try to foster Soundness of Mind, and they keep the youngsters out of mischief. Then they set the poems to the music of the lyre, and make sure that rhythm and harmony dwell in the souls of the children, so that they will grow more gentle and their speech and their behavior will improve as they gain grace in rhythm and harmony, for all human life needs the grace of harmony and rhythm” (pp. 196-7).

            Continuing, after some further words on the civic instruction they get from the city, “Protagoras completes his point with a stunning analogy between language and ethics,” Woodruff writes:

“But as it is, Socrates, you’re spoiled: all of us are teachers of arete so far as we are able, and you don’t make any notice of us. It’s as if you were looking for a teacher of the Greek language [in Greece]; you wouldn’t notice a single one.”

Or, as Woodruff paraphrases: “Specialized teachers of Greek are not required because Greek children learn Greek from everyone. In the same way, the children learn Athenian standards of behavior from those around.”

Protagoras concludes his rebuke of Socrates thus: “‘If any one of us is even a little bit better at helping others advance toward arete, he should be welcomed. I believe that I am one of these, that I do a better job than others do in helping a person become fine and good, and that I am worth the fee I charge’” (pp. 198-9).

Reading this, I wondered why Plato, disagreeing so vehemently with this project, made Protagoras’s reasoning so eloquent and persuasive; generally, the figures he presents as Socrates’s interlocutors are really straw figures who are made to look foolish before Socrates’s false modesty (recognizing one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom; I don’t know the answers – yet, he sets himself up as the superior thinker). But I suppose Plato thought the whole argument, in defense of his making a living by charging people for his specialized instruction on the rhetorical arts, as self-evidently crass and self-indicting.

(Clearly, there is some irony in the fact that Protagoras “teaches only the sons of wealthy men. We do not know whether he was conscious of this irony. Plainly, Protagoras is right in what he says, though not in what he does. Education must be for all citizens” – p. 208.)

Woodruff goes on, in any case, to elaborate further on the elements of Greek education that Protagoras neglects to mention in this speech that Plato put in his mouth, but which does seem to fairly reflect his ideas. Prominent is the public performance of dramatic poets, already emphasized in earlier chapters.

Dionysius Theater in Athens

“Athenian theater was available to all citizens,” Woodruff writes. “Large numbers of citizens from all classes were involved in the production of the plays. When Cleocritus says ‘we were fellow dancers’ to the army of the aristocracy, he is speaking from the army of democracy. Poor men were fellow dancers with rich men, year after year in Athens. This sort of experience was a large part of what enabled Athens to come together after civil war. And this – not the expensive education of the well-to-do – was the real general education of Athenians” (p. 200).

“What is paideia good for?” Woodruff asks. “Consider the debate in Athens over whether to go to war. But will victory bring more good or evil to Athens? To the larger community of the Greek cities? These questions the general is not specially qualified to address. For educated debate, the Athenians needed citizens who see more broadly, more deeply, beyond the question of how to win, all the way out to distant consequences, all the way down to hard questions about good and evil.

“Years ago,” he continues, “I asked I. F. Stone whether education could ever do so much – could ever make us better citizens. After I counted the obstacles, he answered, ‘But, Paul, it should.’ He was right. It is what we need. Although experience does not encourage us, and we cannot hope for complete success, we must work the hardest for education, if we care about democracy. Like harmony, paideia is among our most idealistic goals. The two together, harmony and education, calls for us to reach beyond what is easy, beyond even what we can realistically expect” (p. 207).

A crucial obstacle, in ancient Greece, was the general population’s fear of what effect the “new learning” might have “on traditional values.” (Consider today’s “culture wars” in the U.S.A., where Zeus with his thunderbolt – in the guise of a cruel distortion of the Old Testament God – still reigns supreme in some circles!) “This,” Woodruff writes, “is the paradox of general education – that it must provide both continuity and challenge for the culture it is trying to sustain. First Democracy was committed to justice and reverence because these are essential to civic harmony. First Democracy was also committed to nourishing a homogenous culture, so that all citizens would be prepared to take part in governance. But these two goals clash with one another. The quest for justice and reverence does not end with the status quo. How to harmonize continuity and challenge? After the death of Socrates, no more philosophers were killed. Some were nervous, but Plato was left in peace to write his criticism of democracy. Athens seems to have settled into a kind of balance on this point. But the underlying question, like many about democracy, remains unanswered. How can a community maintain harmony while still inviting challenges to its conception of reverence and justice?” (p. 209)

            Afterword. Are Americans Ready for Democracy?

“What a patronizing question to ask anyone!” Woodruff writes. “Of course Americans are ready for democracy … if by ‘ready’ we mean ‘eager.’

“Suppose we give ‘ready’ a more sophisticated meaning, however. What if ‘ready’ means having a culture that can respond to the demands democracy makes? Does American culture meet the need? Not now, not entirely, not unless it changes” (p. 211).

“Pride points to the past, but I am asking about the future. Since World War II, the United States has fallen behind in the journey of the free world toward the ideals of democracy. Consider the seven ideas I have discussed in this book. The United States has not put any of them into practice with complete success, and in some cases the failure is glaring. In all cases, the United States seems to be moving away from ideal democracy. This point is not partisan; close observers of government have been warning us of slippage from democracy during several recent administrations, and under both of the leading political parties” (p. 212).

In the body of this last section, Woodruff delineates aspects of our decline in relation, one after another, to the seven ideas he has discussed. I will not list these observations here, though they are well marked in the book. I have touched on the same or related concerns, anyway, in my asides in these pages. In closing, I will only cite the last three paragraphs of his brief “Coda” at chapter’s end:

“Well it was long ago, but ancient Athens was not ‘unimaginably different.’ Modern America is dirty (it is the world’s leading polluter, after all), plagued by frequent warfare in far-off places, plagued by demagogues, its economy carried on the backs of illegal aliens and exploited workers in the third world.” (The allusion is to Louis McNeice’s lines in his Autumn Journal: “It was so unimaginably different / And all so long ago.” The truth, MacNeice went on to say, “is that Athens was dirty, dogged by constant warfare, / plagued by demagogues, its economy carried on the backs of captive slaves” – p. 231.) “The gap between our ideals and our practices is not so very different from the gap we have diagnosed in ancient Athens.

“The greatest difference is that the Athenians had ready access to ideas that could guide them to democratic reforms. They knew what democracy was supposed to be. And they did improve their democracy as they learned the lessons of failure. Few of us in modern America really know what democracy asks of us. The experience of Athens offers clues that should help us find our way – the success of the lottery in politics, the value of holding leaders accountable, the importance of curbing the power of wealth, the vigor that grows in a state when every citizen feels part of it. But Athens is not the blueprint for us. The best Athens has to give us is the challenge of its example. I do not mean the example of what it was, because it was never static. I mean the example of its dynamism, its untiring quest to realize ideals in practice.

“Are we ready to shake off the idea that we are already a perfect example of democracy? Are we ready to put the goals of democracy foremost in our political minds, as many Athenians did? Are we ready to admit our mistakes and learn from them, as they did? Are we ready to have a national conversation about democracy? Most importantly, are we ready to keep the great dream alive, the dream of government of the people, by the people, and for the people?” (pp. 231-2)

Of the Athenians’ use of a lottery to fill certain civic bodies and juries, I have had little or nothing to say, but in the body of this afterword he does propose ideas of the sorts of things we might try of a similar nature. Though exactly what they did is not something we could or should replicate. Rather, what they did is an appropriate springboard toward our own experimentation.

The notes and other materials that follow Woodruff’s text are scarcely less valuable than the text itself, but again I will not elaborate.

            As for the likelihood of our nation’s rising to the challenge, while there are some good signals in the air of possible changes, I rather expect that the most radical transformation will come after much further affliction and even the collapse of much that we consider essential to our national and global civilization. Let’s hope that the nuclear holocaust is averted, and the climate crisis mitigated enough so as not to prove the extinction of humanity itself. Our apocalyptic literatures themselves, perhaps modern texts like A Canticle for Leibowitz, more than Isaiah and the Hebrew prophets from their postures of religious certitudes. But I should not sell those prophets short; they were much more radical than we give them credit for being. If we can just put aside the doctrine and the dogma, the millennia’s weight of interpretation, we could do much worse than apply the spirit of egalitarianism and community that they preached. Theirs was not a community without its measure of diversity and tolerance. Except when the Israelites were invading Palestine and eradicating whole villages of men, women, and children, they looked with compassion on the strangers or foreigners among them, treating them with hospitality. In that sense, at least, they too have something to teach us. Though by now in my life, fed up with the downward pull of extreme fundamentalist religion, I look with more confidence to these ideas of the ancient Greek democrats. May they live again in spirit among us.

*

[Note: It has been a number of years since I read Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I am overdue to re-read it, but I offer it as a vivid and visceral memory that seems appropriate to the moment. For a discussion of the novel in terms of its theme of responsibility, I recommend my friend and fellow writer Marian Allen’s blog: https://marianallen.wordpress.com/books-i-love/a-canticle-for-leibowitz/.

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