Aristotle vs. Gorgeous Gorgias vs. Socrates

Gorgeous George
Archival footage of Gorgias and Socrates locked in debate over the nature of rhetoric.

I’m kidding about the photograph, of course; Socrates wasn’t that pretty. That’s actually wrestling legend Gorgeous George and his wife, Betty. But it seems appropriate to use a wrestler to introduce a post about ancient Greeks, not only because of their famed love for the sport, but also because Gorgias, Polus and Socrates, as quoted by Aristotle and described at length by Bernard Jacob, are engaged in a sort of grappling, even if it’s only in the ring of ideas. And by Jacob’s account, Socrates engages in some sly and underhanded techniques to discredit rhetoric as an art. 

If Socrates is looking to dethrone rhetoric from its lofty place in Athenian regard, and Aristotle is writing a treatise about how to properly understand and practice rhetoric, where do they differ? Why does one disdain the study and the other laud it? It seems that Aristotle is coming at the topic from a purely theoretical standpoint, trying to define a science of rhetoric; and as such, he sees it as an amoral tool, one that can clearly be used to promote to common good, or one that can be used only for personal gain, at the expense of the community. Socrates, however, is coming at the thing from a sort of a posteriori stance; having seen and heard rhetors aplenty throughout his life, he has come to the sure knowledge that rhetoric is only ever used for base flattery. For this reason, he proclaims that rhetoric cannot be an art for, as he says, it cannot describe the causes, the essential nature of things.

Jacob rightly points out that Socrates’ argument is incomplete and shifting. He asserts that Socrates “would, if pressed, admit that rhetoric only adventitiously lacks, up to the time he is speaking, some theoretical part that would explicate the nature of its routines; and acquiring that theoretical part would cause an art of rhetoric to emerge” (81). He is unwilling categorically to recognize the potential of a science to emerge, even though his objection to its consideration as such is one of quantity, not quality. That is to say, he has no basis for saying that simply because he’s never heard a speaker describe the nature of things, has no bearing at all on whether a speaker actually could work those things out. 

So, there is a distinction here in that Socrates extrapolates an essential flaw in rhetoric simply based on the way he’s seen it practiced, which a fairly egregious error of logic. One wonders how the peripatetic teacher would have responded to his grand-pupil’s treatise, especially since Aristotle seemed determined to establish a science of rhetoric, to give it a rigor and a structure. Aristotle makes the interesting case that a rhetor must be knowledgeable about a broad range of topics, since she must be prepared to offer illustrative examples of any point she’s trying to make. 

Optimism or Naïveté? 

So, at base, we have Aristotle, who is approaching rhetoric from a theoretical standpoint, emphasizing its pliability and utility. Then we have Socrates, the seemingly embittered, world-weary philosopher who’s tired of toadies bowing and scraping, of pandering monologues that serve only to embarrass the deliverer. Is this simply a question of optimism versus cynicism? That’s a compelling thought, especially given Aristotle’s rosy assurance that “true and better [facts] are by nature always more productive of good syllogisms and, in a word, more persuasive” (Book 1, Chapter 1). 

But this rather sunny assurance doesn’t mean that Aristotle was blindly assured that anyone with the truth on their side could win an argument just by proclaiming it. If merely having the right side of the argument were sufficient, we may presume, then a text on the art of rhetoric might not be especially useful; instead, he’d have written simply about investigation and deductive reasoning, so that one might always be assured of taking the right conclusion. 

But he doesn’t do that. He spends several chapters expounding on the emotions, talking about how important it is for a good rhetor to understand, not only human emotions, but how those emotions are aroused. He talks about anger, fear, calmness, friendliness, enmity/hate, confidence, shame, kindliness, pity, indignation, envy, and emulation. And for each of those, he defines the particular emotion, explores its causes, the types of people to whom the emotion is generally directed, and the state of mind of those experiencing the emotion. 

There’s something familiar to this deep exploration into the nature of human emotions and how they can be triggered; it sounds almost like something out of a marketing seminar. “Red causes people to feel hungry, so if you’re selling burgers, put red on the package.” Living in a world so immersed in advertising, it’s an eery feeling to think that salespeople have access to so much information about how to make us want to buy something without even knowing we’re being goaded. It’s manipulative, and no one likes feeling manipulated. 

Aristotle: The Don Draper of Athens? 

So was Aristotle just trying to help people rise to power? To give ambitious people the tools to lure people into their thrall? I don’t think so. I think he was a realist, who understood that pure reason alone isn’t enough to win people over, since not all states of mind are equally receptive to reasoned arguments. He understood that some people would use the tools of rhetoric to win power, and so a virtuous rhetor must have command of the same tools to counter the tactics of the wicked. 

This is similar to the way that many groups are attempting to use the same psychological insights that Madison Avenue uses to make people buy, to help people improve themselves, to help make them healthier, to help them give back to their community more. For example, just this evening I discovered an app called “Share The Meal” that lets people donate to the UN’s World Food Programme, using several insights about human nature. Assuming that most people want to feed the hungry, they’ve removed several cognitive roadblocks to doing that. 

  1. They’ve “gamified” the process by putting various “Achievements” in the game. So, the more you engage with the app, the more “Achievement” badges you can earn. This takes advantage of the fact that people respond favorably to a sense of accomplishment, even when its communicated through a purely symbolic token, like a badge. 
  2. They’ve removed the “where do I start?” element by letting you set up reminders so that you can donate $0.50 a day as often as you’d like. 
  3. They’ve incorporated a community aspect to the app. You can log in using your Facebook account, which not only makes it easy to start using the app (you don’t need to create a unique username or password), it also encourages you to look for your friends that might be using the app, but also to invite your Facebook friends to use the app. 

Each of these elements could be exploited for profit, and frequently are. But good people are also taking advantage of Aristotle’s basic insights about the emotions, and turning them to good. 

2 thoughts on “Aristotle vs. Gorgeous Gorgias vs. Socrates

  1. Can you imagine if we still wore those wraps with the face and feet still hanging off? I think your post struck a cord with a thought that I’ve been grappling with for the first few weeks of this class: the good and evil aspect of rhetoric. To be honest, I didn’t know exactly (and to be even more honest, I’m still not sure) how to define rhetoric before reading Aristotle, but I knew it when I heard it – kinda like porn. And I knew that I didn’t like it. It feels icky when someone is trying to make someone else do something. I dated a guy that took pride in his ability to influence people and I hated that. But I love that you pointed out the fact that it’s a tool that can, no must, be used for good as well as evil. I worked at a non-profit for several years and it was crazy how many people who had money to blow on white Chanel suits would walk right past me at the donation table. If Don Draper volunteered a day a month to that nonprofit, I bet those brain tumor kids would be rolling in family support programs. Thanks for shining a light in dark place John.

    1. Sarah- thanks for the comment! Yep, #TheStruggleIsReal when trying to find a morally defensible way to use psychology and rhetoric; I too would have been put off by someone taking pride in their ability to influence people. But when we buy into a certain set of beliefs (like when I downloaded that app) I’m making tacit agreement that I ought to be influenced by something that I trust will make the world a better place. This, I think, is why Aristotle focuses so much on the character of the rhetor, and points out that the good and the true are more persuasive; whether you agree with his premise, it’s clear that he wants people to be “won over” by moral characters who have truth on their side.

What Do You Think?