31 August 2015

Medieval Monday: Phaedrus

Okay, now that's you've been minisculely introduced to Socrates and his views on rhetoric as presented in Plato's Gorgias and Phaedrus, here's a more insightful, intellectual, and textual discussion of Phaedrus.

At first glance, Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus appears to be an examination of love. The dialogue begins with Phaedrus reading a speech to Socrates in which the author, Lysias, attempts to convince the audience "that an admirer who is not in love is to be preferred to one who is". In an attempt to prove to Phaedrus that Lysias’s speech is not the grandest in the world, Socrates performs an impromptu speech arguing the same thesis, a speech which puts Lysias’s to shame. Then, because Socrates is freaking out over delivering a speech he finds rather sacrilegious, believing that by his speech he "sinned against Love", he performs a third speech arguing that it is far better to be with someone who does love you. All three conversations are about love, but these conversations are merely the vehicle through which Socrates analyzes oratory and rhetoric.

Phaedrus’s organization seems to be example followed by theory. In the first half of the dialogue, Plato provides us with three speeches. The second speech, which is delivered by Socrates, is designed to provide readers with a well-structured and well-argued speech as a counter to Lysias’s unstructured, generic one. The third speech, again delivered by Socrates, is a second example of what constitutes “good” rhetoric according to Socrates. Once the bad and good examples have been related to the audience, Plato moves the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus away from love to an attempt at delineating the criteria on which to judge a speech. In other words, the two men begin discussing the art of the rhetoric.

By comparing and analyzing the speeches from the first half, a reader can identify certain elements Socrates believes to be requirements for an effective argument. First, Socrates requires good form. The structure of the argument must be coherent and logical. In his speech, Lysias continually repeats himself; Socrates calls it "an attempt to demonstrate how [Lysias] could say the same thing in two different ways". Also a matter of form, transitions are used in Socrates’s speech to move the reader/listener from one argument or piece of evidence to the next; whereas in Lysias's speech, we merely get the same transition over and over which makes the speech read more like a series of enumerated but unrelated points. Second, Socrates requires good content which is not only skillfully arranged but also original. Again, Lysias's tendency towards repetition offers an example of what not to do. Socrates wonders whether Lysias "could not find sufficient matter to produce variety on a single topic, or perhaps [this was due to] sheer lack of interest" in the subject. Third, based on analyzing Socrates’s speech versus Lysias’s, the reader can easily deduce that Socrates values specificity; whereas Lysias is stuck repeating generalities, Socrates uses specific illustrations of his points through examples and anecdotes. Finally and related to the third point of specificity, the importance, to Socrates, of defining terms is made clear as Socrates spends considerable time defining love, madness, and the soul and providing metaphors and analogies to aid in his definitions. Lysias, however, took their definitions for granted, assuming his audience agreed with his own interpretation of the terms.

The second half of the dialogue makes these criteria explicit through a direct discussion of the art of rhetoric. The first point made is that knowledge of the topic must come before speaking about it whether the speech is meant to enlighten or deceive. Then Socrates attacks Lysias’s introduction and structure as well as his mistake in not defining love. Socrates claims that Lysias’s speech “begins where it should end”, is not logically structured, and merely repeats random points. Socrates asks Phaedrus: "Can you point out any compelling rhetorical reason why [Lysias] should have put his arguments together in the order he has?" This sort of random placement of topics strikes Socrates as bad form. In his opinion, a "speech ought to have its own organic shape, like a living being". After this analysis, Socrates broadens his argument away from a deconstruction of Lysias’s speech to a more general argument in favor of reasoned speaking. Socrates argues that there is a difference between knowing the steps of constructing an argument and knowing how the steps work together to affect change in a specific audience. Otherwise, in Socrates's opinion the speaker is only dabbling in the "preliminaries" of rhetoric, not in the art of rhetoric.

Part of the art of rhetoric appears to be a focus on audience. Socrates spends a large chunk of time proving that an effective argument must be geared towards a specific audience, saying that a true rhetorician must know the answer to a basic question: What type of man is influenced by what type of speech? He claims that "for such and such a reason a certain kind of person can be easily persuaded to adopt a certain course of action by a certain type of speech, whereas for an equally valid reason a different type cannot". A speaker must truly know to whom he is speaking in order to cater his argument to that particular person.

He states that two methods of reasoning should be used in rhetoric: collection and division. Collection is when a speaker “takes a synoptic view of many scattered particulars and collects them under a single term to form a definition”; whereas division is the ability to deconstruct the collection into individual parts. The way in which a rhetor performs these tasks is determined by the individual soul of the person the rhetor is trying to affect. The rhetor must know his audience and adapt his argument.

The dialogue continues with a discussion concerning the validity of speech versus the written word. The definitive conclusion is that speech far outweighs writing. First, writing has a negative effect on the rhetor in that it diminishes memory and wisdom. Writing also negatively affects the argument being made in that, like a painting, a piece of writing offers no ability for interaction between rhetor and audience. This means that the argument cannot defend itself from detractors, it cannot gear itself towards a particular audience, and "a writing cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers."

The dialogue concludes with a summation of the points that have been made throughout along with a prayer.


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