BOOK REVIEW: Gorgias by Plato

GorgiasGorgias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This Socratic dialogue explores what rhetoric is, and whether rhetorician is a real job, like plumber or secretary, or whether it’s more like “bottled water sommelier” or “social media influencer” – i.e. an undertaking by which one can make loads of money without contributing society one iota. It starts out (as usual) with Socrates questioning someone, in this case the rhetorician Gorgias. This exchange can be summed up by the ideas that: 1.) rhetoric is persuasion; 2.) the ignorant are more persuasive to the ignorant than are those with knowledge. [Gorgias boasts that he has been able to convince patients to take actions that their physicians couldn’t. Because Gorgias had to admit he didn’t know as much about facilitating health as a physician, he was forced to agree to the sad absurdity that people will often comply with slick talkers who know nothing (a plight which may prove to be the downfall of our species.)] There’s a fine epistemological discussion of the difference between belief and knowledge that is used by Socrates to show that rhetoricians aren’t concerned with knowledge so much as beliefs.

Then Polus and Callicles (young rhetoricians) take up the questioning role, turning the tables and asking Socrates what is the art of rhetoric. [And we know they’re not going to like the answer.] Socrates denies rhetoric is an art, and calls it the counterfeit part of politics. Socrates compares rhetoric to cookery, where cooks pretend to be experts in what food should be eaten but, while people often love the cook’s meals, it’s the physician who actually knows what food is best. Socrates doesn’t consider rhetoric an art because it isn’t rooted in knowledge or virtue, but rather in momentary preferences. Much of the argument hinges on the fact that the young men believe it is worse to suffer injustice than to do injustice and that being able to exert control (be it for good or ill) equates to power and happiness. Socrates accepts neither premise, and systematically refutes both. Callicles’ tack is along lines of natural justice — the strongest do as they please and pursuit of pleasure is noble. [The truth is that while Socrates may have the more sound and supportable position, the rhetoricians describe the way the world operates more accurately.]

This is a sharp and insightful dialogue, and given its surprising relevance to the present day, I’d highly recommend reading it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Phaedrus by Plato

PhaedrusPhaedrus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Phaedrus” is one of the middle Socratic dialogues of Plato (experts propose that the middle dialogues increasingly contain Plato’s own ideas [versus those of Socrates, himself.]) The subject of the dialogue is love and whether it is worth pursuing. Phaedrus has a speech by Lysias that he’s is quite excited about, one which claims that it’s better to have a “platonic” relationship than a loving one. As Phaedrus and Socrates walk, they debate about the speech. Phaedrus presses Socrates to deliver his own speech on the subject. Socrates delivers two; the first aligns with Lysias’ view and the second takes the opposing side.

Socrates concludes that, while love is a form of madness, it’s not the madness of human infirmity. Instead, it’s a form of divine madness, and – as such – should not be poo-poo’d too quickly. Socrates proposes that there are four varieties of divine madness (theia mania): prophetic, ritual, poetic, and erotic, and – of these – the latter is best and (again) shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

After Socrates’ second speech and conversation that summarizes and clarifies it, the philosopher discusses how one can be led astray by elegantly formulated words, and how a philosopher should evaluate what is said to determine whether the speaker is wise or whether he (or she) just sounds sage by virtue of his (/her) poeticism.

While this dialogue can be a bit ethereal and mystic for my taste, it has some fascinating things to say. While I don’t necessarily believe in the “divine” part of divine madness, I do see that there are some people who are able to become unyoked from custom and convention, and to do so in a way that is not anxiety-riddled. I think this is a useful state to understand, and this dialogue is an excellent place to start.

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