This lecture was given Thursday, April 21, 2016 at Cornerstone Church in Franklin, Tennessee. It was part of a lecture on speaking and seeking the truth in love. The first half was a presentation by Mark Hays of Classical Conversations. The second-half was presented by me as the following lecture:
There is a lot to explore in a Platonic dialogue, which means there is a lot we will not cover. That is why your handout has a link you can use, if you are interested in further material on the Gorgias. Your handout also has an outline which may be especially helpful in a bit.
This is intended to provide a foothold in the Gorgias by looking at two kinds of persuasion.
In the Gorgias, Plato condemns one kind of persuasion or rhetoric that moves people according to the mere appearances of things. But there is another kind of persuasion, largely implicit in the dialogue, which we will discuss. Before moving on, I want to make clear that in rejecting Gorgias’s rhetoric, Plato in no way rejects the craft and care involved in speaking or writing. His dialogues are models of composition and drama. I know that it took Marc Hays and I several weeks to prepare for this talk, not including all the study that came before we began. In getting ready, I went through numerous drafts and revisions, made many new beginnings and discarded between twenty and thirty pages of notes.
To speak well is to speak with care, but why should we care about speaking?
2. The Importance of Speech
To appreciate the importance of speech, we need only recall that God speaks to us. He has spoken to us through Moses and the prophets and even through his very Son, who is the eternal Word or Logos of God. This Son, Jesus Christ, himself tells us:
Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall render an account for it in the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you shalt be justified, and by your words you shalt be condemned. Matthew 12:36-37
What does this scripture mean?
It means that words are important to God and to us.
It means that what we say is of no little matter because our words express our disposition to the truth, to God, and to our neighbors.Words have much to do with the twofold commandment of Love.
Thank God that through faith we are judged according to the perfect Word of God. This being said, Matthew’s Gospel affirms the fact that the people of God are a fruit bearing people, and that one of our chief fruits is speech…. Let us not forget fear of God
As weighty as this warning may be, it is at the same time our great privilege to be bearers of good news, to be called to speak words of comfort, assurance, and even correction… to bring a good word in good time Even when we must say that which is hard for us, or hard for others to hear, we do so in fellowship with Christ, and in the hope of His resurrection.
Whether we speak patiently, gently, and thoughtfully, or in wroth and in disgust, whether we bless or curse, we proclaim our disposition to and satisfaction in God.
Words can injure little hearts, fill them with dismay, bitterness, and anxiety; or raise them up in reassurance, in acceptance, and peace.
Words can puff up, or help us become right sized.
Words can take advantage of the power and authority we have been entrusted with, or restore fellowship and equality.
For these reasons, and for so many more, the Son of God tells us that by our words we shall be judged.
With this in mind, we can begin to think about Plato’s Gorgias which links speech with justice… If you can form a link in your mind between speech and justice, you will have gone far in understanding this dialogue and the nature of persuasion.
3. The Gorgias
The Gorgias is about rhetoric or persuasion. Gorgias was both a rhetor and a teacher of rhetoric. He was famed for his skill in talking about anything.. and everything. In this dialogue, he talks with Socrates who is famous for talking about nothing, that is, knowing nothing.
Let’s be clear, Socratic ignorance refers to Socrates’s, and to our own, inability to fully comprehending the transcendent roots of being. His ignorance is akin to what a preacher might mean in saying we cannot fully know God.
In other words, Socrates is not altogether ignorant, but rather, he has greater clarity than most about the limits of his knowledge. He is much clearer and more precise than we are, regarding the difference between what we know, what we believe, and what we know because we believe.
Why am I spending time on knowledge and belief? Tonight’s discussion is not precisely about faith, but about the phenomena we call persuasion. In Greek, however, the word for faith and the word for persuasion are related. And they are related not only in Greek, but also in reality, for we only believe that of which we are persuaded.
To be persuaded is to have undergone an experience, whether verbal, physical, spiritual, or all three, and to have come to trust in, to believe or have faith in a certain reality or being. Socrates does not condemn faith. He based his life on being the faith that it is better to live justly rather than unjustly. He lived and died according to this persuasion. Yet, Socrates is also radically faithful to the fact that faith is not sight.
I am spending time here because there is a tendency to speak of faith as if it was comprehensive knowledge. We commit a mistake in making a mathematical proof out of the Christian witness, when it is far greater than this. We should not be ashamed that the gospel is the power of God for everyone who believes.
If we are persuaded, we need not shrink from saying that we stand on faith, but neither need we shrink from calling faith a mighty thing, and true, for we have been persuaded by the very word of God.
I have spent time on this, because we are about to focus on another form of persuasion which is a phantom or imitation of true faith. In calling-out this phantom persuasion, I hope not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Imagine someone telling you, “I am very persuasive.”
“About what?” you might ask.
“About anything…everything!” they say, “and not just about those subjects I know, but any subject, and in saying anything I please about them.”
Does this sound like an impressive claim to you? Does it sound like an admirable quality? Wouldn’t it be nice to never be at a loss for words? To never be afraid of speaking in public or worried about being contradicted? No one could ever get the better of you, no one would ever put you to shame. You would indeed be shameless.
You would be persuasive or rhetorical in all things, even as you believed nothing, adapting yourself to each occasion as a chameleon does its skin.
Such rhetoric is in a very real sense about nothing.
Biology is about living bodies;
Physics about moving bodies,
Arithmetic about numbers;
Cobbling about shoes,
Rhetoric is about?
What is rhetoric about?
In a very real sense this kind of rhetoric can say anything, even while it is about ‘nothing’. The rhetor is therefore a kind of phantom, one of whom it is hard to get a picture. Gorgias plays this phantom role also in the Meno about which Marc Hays talked earlier. The rhetor is masked or shadowed by a pretense or appearance of meaning. And this is reflected or imitated by the dramatic structure of the dialogue in which Gorgias ceases to be an active participant quite early on. Two protégés of his, Polus and Callicles, pick up the conversation after their teacher withdraws. Each one attempts to do a better job defending rhetoric, but each ends up in contradiction, not because they are bad speakers, but because they do not really believe what they think they believe. Do we?
Again what is Rhetoric about?
It is hard to say. If rhetoric is that subject which completes the classical trivium of Grammar, Logic & Rhetoric, then it is nothing very grand. It is, as Aristotle explains, the art of speech in terms of Logos, Ethos, and Pathos.
At New College Franklin, this much beloved and challenging subject is an important part of our curriculum, but it is not considered, as Gorgias says, the greatest power over the finest and best things. Gorgias does not mean by rhetoric what we do, a kind of public speaking. It is not what Aristotle writes of in his classic treatise. Rather, Gorgias means… a power by which one can rule over others and get the better, even of experts.
The rhetor persuades, not by knowledge, but by causing a certain experience of belief. They achieve victory and get what they want in the law courts and in the political assemblies. But it remains to see whether getting what one wants is a good thing.
This demonic power of persuasion is subject to Socrates’s attack because it is a power which wars against flesh and blood rather than against the spiritual forces of darkness. It is a power which attempts to triumph over one’s neighbor rather than to serve him. I am familiar with this mode of speaking and living—the desire to get the better of someone with words, to put them in their place, to exonerate myself and get my way. And I know how deeply unjust and poisonous, how hell-bent such a life can be.
In the dialogue, Socrates rejects Gorgias’ claim that such rhetoric is an art. This is because an art, for Socrates, like making shoes, or building ships, is something that proceeds from accepted principles in order to produce a certain definitive end. A good shoe will protect the foot as it walks; a good ship will keep its passengers afloat and remain steerable. Socrates attempts to show that Gorgian-rhetoric works not by principles, but by guesswork, without an eye to a true end (or telos).
This is something like a a child who might stumble upon something that makes a grownup smile, and like this child the rhetor has stumbled upon a way of pleasing his audience, but without understanding what is at stake. The rhetor is in the business of peddling pleasure or flattery. He makes no distinction between the pleasant and the good, or between that which has plausibility, and that which is truly and abidingly good.
4. The Analogy
In order to make Gorgian-rhetoric clear, Socrates devises an analogy. The analogy not only helps us grasp the nature of rhetoric, it also implicitly displays the nature of authentically persuasive speech. It does both by drawing our attention to that which rhetoric is missing (i.e., a true logos). A true logos grasps a dual-telos, both the ruling purpose of a given subject and the purpose of speech itself.
There is nothing more persuasive than the truth spoken in love. The truth calls a thing what is in order that we might live in right relation to it.
Socrates’s analogy reveals that we know a thing best when we know its purpose or telos. We know an acorn seed by an oak tree. We know a paddle by the art of boating. We know a human being… by Christ…or as Plato puts it, by righteousness.
We are now at the heavy lifting of the talk. And you can follow along in your handout. Socrates claims at 463a in the Gorgias that rhetoric forms a part of flattery. Flattery (or pandering) is doing what pleases someone with an eye to gaining favor. The analogy has the form of a mathematical proportion, a proportion like ‘a:b::c:d.’ Consider 2:4::8:16. In this case, one number is the double of the other, just as in the other pair. Notice we can also rearrange this proportion, in which we have a true expression of relationships, although the ratio has changed. In the Socratic proportion we have not just doubles and quadruples,, but phantoms.
Socrates begins by reminding us there is a thing called a body and a thing called a soul. He then sets it up in this way:
Let’s focus on the first side of his proportion which concerns the body. The doctoring and gymnastic arts both look to the health of the body. The doctor administers medicine and nutrition which helps restore the sick body. Gymnastics (which is Exercise) maintains the fitness of the body.
Cookery and Cosmetics are phantoms of these. They pretend to do the work of the doctor or exercise. Cosmetics is a kind of beatification through make up, wraps, clothing plastic surgery, etc., addressing outward appearances but not the underlying conditions of ill health. Cosmetics is the reason you will never see me wear horizontal stripes.
What is the difference between the doctor and the cook? The doctor prescribes what is good for the body, the doctor looks to the health or telos of the body. A cook looks only to the palate. This is the cook as a cook…nutrition is not a part of the cooks ken or concern.
To understand health, the doctor must know the purpose of the human body as a whole. The doctor, in knowing the purpose of the body can recognize when it is healthy. The doctor must also know the causes of health. The human body and health give the doctor principles and a telos for his art.
On the other hand, the cook as a cook has no such principles. The cook all by himself and apart from the doctoring art, isolates the experience of eating from the rest of the person, and ignores the purpose of eating (which is primarily to fuel and care for the body). The cook abstracts the pleasure of eating from its overarching purpose. Cookery is not a science, but a business which sells pleasures without an eye to the well being of its clients.
Cookery turns the order of things upon its head by making pleasure its purpose rather than health. By the way, the rhetor turns things on their head by elevating words above meaning. Both cookery and rhetoric lack an abiding logos. Without a true purpose, they must continually adjust their work to the taste of their clients. This is because the pleasure of taste cannot be founded upon unchanging principals. Different people have different tastes, and even the same person’s tastes change unpredictably.
The nature of health, on the other hand is always of the same. Different constitutions may require different treatments, but health, that which is the principle and purpose of the doctor, is always and everywhere the same.
The cook appeals to the tyrannical childlike nature of our appetites; the doctor appeals to something higher and deeper, to the true nature of a thing. The cook makes us a slave to our appetites and passions; the doctor directs us to a logos which ultimately transforms and re-educates according to the true unity of the whole body…and in some sense the soul.
So far, we have focused upon the body, although the soul has never been out of sight. But now, let’s turn to the other half of the proportion, to justice and legislation.
Socrates began with the body because it is so easy to see when it is healthy or unhealthy. It is so much easier to see when bodies are directed to their right fold purposes.
Even so, in the light of public opinion, the nature and purpose of our bodies have all but lost meaning. Yet nothing can remedy the truth that we can never be truly happy when we live outside the purpose we are designed for. And nothing can remedy the fact, that to live in the will of God is to be open to life and happiness and peace.
The analogy shows us just this fact. An analogy is simply a ratio between things, and a ratio is a logos or relationship. Analogy is therefore an embodiment of the mode in which God creates, both through the divine Ratio or Logos and by creating all things in that Ratio. A thing’s meaning is found in its ratio to God and to the creation.
Just as there is health or a just-condition (ratio) for body, there is a health or righteousness of the human soul. And just as there is a restorative practice for the body, there is that which restores the soul. When a soul has lost its health, Justice is that which restores it. And like exercise, legislation is that rule by which a soul maintains its health and inner beauty.
Yet, while a physician helps restore the health of a body, Justice is the physician of the soul. We have the privilege of knowing this Great and Righteous Physician who heals the soul by imparting his own justice, his own health to us. He does so in perfect justice, having undergone our punishment.
Our Physician is the Word. In order to heal, this Word first tells us that he has come not for the healthy, but for the sick. Part of the work of the true Word is to show us that we are sick! To speak the truth in love means helping someone make the difficult discovery that they are not right or well. This is only done by speaking the truth, doing so in love, in sacrificial vulnerability. Christ himself did this, not from on high, but by undergoing the consequences of our sickness. The incarnate Logos tells us many hard things, but does so in solidarity with us and not in condemnation.
5. Logos Ethos Pathos
Socrates also has hard things to say to his interlocutors. He tells these men who have devoted their lives to the business of persuasion that rhetors are no better than cooks who flavor a sauce. He tells them that rhetors are peddlers of pleasure. But he does this with gentleness, by distinguishing the sin from the sinner, and by continually encouraging them in the spirit of friendship to discover the truth together with him.
At a certain point, these men grow weary of Socrates. Yet, he is not finished. Not because he wishes to brow beat them, but because he foresees a coming judgment.
Because he sees what awaits them, he ends this dialogue by speaking a truly hard word.
He does this because he ultimately believes it just to count himself as their friend and companion and not as their competitor or judge. Of course he is, if he too is to meet the same judgement.
This last speech about hell, this ‘true logos’ as he calls it, is a plea to consider what we are about because there is a judgement which awaits all men and from which none has the power to escape. In this judgement, we will stand naked before our judge, and no words, or wealth, or worldly accomplishments will tip the scales in either direction. In this last speech, Socrates reveals prophetically that end which awaits all who have missed the purpose of life. For those who have lived contrary to the telos for which they are made, they will never attain that happiness for which they long. They will be deprived of the fulfillment of that which all men ultimately desire, and live in this state of teleological depravity for all eternity.
This final speech shows us the consequences of Gorgian-rhetoric, of living a life out of tune with the true logos. It also shows us the nature and purpose of truly persuasive speech, to recall us back from death and encourage us to pursue righteousness, our true and abiding happiness, above all else.
Are we so persuaded?
Socrates leaves us to answer this for ourselves. Having said all this, let’s leave behind the Gorgias for now, and enter into the final part of this talk, to consider persuasive speech one last time from a different perspective.
6. The Difficulty of Speeches
I have two children, Elijah and Beatrice, who are now eight and six years old, I often feel a burden to somehow share my faith with them.
How can I tell them of the things I have heard and seen? The things God has done? Will I be able to help them understand why I believe what I believe? Will I know what to share with them and when? Will I be able to share with them that which God has made known to me?
This is a burden I have been blessed with, a burden of love, to tell the old, old story anew. I believe it is the burden of all who believe and therefore not one I bare alone.
I am often at a loss for words when I need them most of all. I even experienced a bit of this lost-ness in preparing for tonight, possibly because I have such a passion for Plato, possibly because this discussion is on the nature of discussion.
This state of perplexity, often associated with Socrates, is called aporia. It literally means to be without a way, when you are at a crossing and the bridge is out. To be in a state of aporia means to have no visible means forward.
But it is in this condition, that dialogue can begin afresh. When we are uncertain and insecure, when we lack provision, and cannot find the words, real dialogue begins. It is in vulnerability that we truly find our Word.
This is also the beginning of prayer. We bring our hearts and minds to God in a new way, after he has exposed to us our own weakness, our limitation, and sin. We only really ask Him to make a way for us when we have come up against our insufficiency.
Only then do we invite Him to be that way, to be that light in our darkness. And when we do, he answers. And because he answers us, we learn to trust in Him. And because we trust in him we can speak of Him and speak of Him with confidence. Not with the confidence of expertise or self sufficiency, not in knowing we will necessarily triumph in the worldly courts, but in the confidence that in our weakness, his power is made perfect.
In this confidence we need not be ashamed of our hope, for it is a hope which does not disappoint. It is this persuasion, our having been internally persuaded by the Holy Spirit, which is ultimately the most meaningful both to us and to those to whom we speak. In this confidence we can speak first hand of the experience He has wrought in us through His Word.
It is not our techniques of deduction or induction, it is not our cleverness or charm, or schooling, nor even, to some extent, our formal clarity, but whether we ourselves have been persuaded that Christ lived, and died, and rose again. That he did so for us, and that he indeed lives in us.
Of this fact, it is possible for us ourselves to become more and more persuaded, and in that faith we cease to worry so much about how we shall appear to others. In that faith, we learn to simply speak the truth in love and are satisfied in as far as we have done so.
As Paul said in 1st Corinthians 2:4, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.”