Plato on “the Ancient Quarrel between Poetry and Philosophy” (2)


Socrates’s response to Gorgias’s second claim, that the main focusing of a rhetorician are matters of just and injustice, is that if the main focus of rhetoricians is the matters of just and unjust, then they need to have a robust knowledge of the just and injustice, and this knowledge is obtainable through philosophical inquiry, since rhetoric per se cannot supply this knowledge. In another challenge, Socrates states that if the main concern of rhetoric is just and unjust matters, then the students of rhetoric must be just too. However, Gorgias admits that some students of rhetoric are unjust, which is contrary to his former claim that rhetoric teaches students justice. After Socrates has refuted Gorgias, Callicles, who advocates a type of political realism based on a naturalistic justification, enters the dialogue. First, he distinguishes between nature and convention. He frames domination of the strongest as a natural law (483e3), which may be in conflict with convention. He introduces his first thesis as such, “But I believe that nature itself reveals that it’s a just thing for the better man and the more capable man to have a greater share than the worse man and the less capable man. Nature shows that this is so in many places; both among the other animals and in whole cities and races of men, it shows that this is what justice has been decided to be: that the superior rule the inferior and have a greater share than they” (483c8-d6). He maintains that conventional beliefs that often view privileges attached to domination of the stronger blameworthy. To him, all justifications for acting just are attempts from the weaker to subjugate the stronger, and rhetoric is a skill to give a dominating position to those who are stronger by nature. His view of rhetoric presupposes that rhetoric makes the mighty mightier, and might makes the right of domination. Callicles should be considered as one of the founding fathers of the paradigm of thinking that reduces all discourses to ideology, and since everything is an ideology, then the goal of each discourse should be domination or winning. This reductionist view rules out the reasonability of ideas and sees them as mere power relations. Hence, if reasonability of ideas are denied and ideas are mere power relations, then pursuing power should be the only desirable life, since pursuing wisdom is no longer possible or wisdom itself is reduced to strategies of gaining power and domination. If wisdom in the sense of cultivating the faculty of seeking the truth is either impossible or undesirable, then education is reduced to the battlefield of ideologies where students learn various strategies to dominant their opponents. In this context, listening to the other sides’ arguments is only for the purpose of responding to rivalry, in fact, in the sense of “know thy enemy.” Listening is no longer a way of genuine learning and thinking. In fact, Callicles’s authoritative account of rhetoric reveals that it is indifferent about human soul. For his indifference about the soul, his teachings are either do not help the soul to flourish, or even worse the will be harmful to it.

Another important Plato’s critique is the rhetoricians’ lack of knowledge about human soul. If rhetoric is the art of persuasion, Plato asks, should not the rhetorician have a deep understanding of their audiences? By understanding the audience, Plato mean something deeper than what we today advise our students about knowing their audience. By this Plato means the knowledge of soul. According to Plato, the highest part of the soul is the rational faculty, and an effective rhetoric must see the rational faculty as its main addressee. The soul has lower parts too, which are the honor-liking and the appetitive parts. A defective and bad rhetoric in contrast addresses the inferior parts of the soul to suppress the rational part of the soul.

Does Plato mean that rhetoric is bad and must be abandoned? Despite to what Robert Wardy in The Birth of Rhetoric (2005) states that Plato was against rhetoric, it is doubtful to believe that Plato was against all sorts of rhetoric. He maintains, “Plato’s response to Gorgias in his dialogue the Gorgias is to present us with the most emphatic reaffirmation of the Parmenidean ideal, a scheme of philosophical dialectic utterly distinct from and immeasurably superior to rhetoric, which is fiercely castigated as nakedly exploitative emotional manipulation” (51). Plato himself was one of the greatest of rhetoricians and speechmakers. Some of the images that Plato has created such as the image of the Cave are one of the most profound images of Western civilization. His dialogues indicate powerful uses of rhetorical devices, and it is no exaggeration to state that any accurate interpretation of his dialogues is almost impossible without understanding their dramatic aspects. If he opposed rhetoric, we might expect that he would refrain from using rhetoric. So, the question is how can we make sense of Plato’s critique of rhetoric? By answering this question, one is able to answer what can we, as moderns, learn from Plato’s critique of rhetoric.


Plato’s critiques of rhetoric provide useful insights for modern rhetorical education. By emphasizing logos, it defends the rationality of rhetoric. It also shows where rhetoric can go wrong and how we can bring it back on the right track if it does so. It is possible for a piece of rhetoric to be persuasive not through a sound logos, but merely by appealing to authority or emotions. Of course, good rhetoric employs ethos and pathos effectively, but only if logos governs the two components, then it is a sound and healthy rhetoric. As the Socrates in the Phaedrus states, “then the conclusion is obvious, that there is nothing shameful in the mere writing of speeches. But in speaking and writing shamefully and badly, instead of as one should that is where the shame comes in. I take it”[1] (Phaedrus 258d1–5).


[1] This is R. Hackforth’s (1952) translation.

Works Cited

Annas, Julian. An Introduction to Plato’s Republic, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1981. Print.

Bloom, Allen. (trans.) The Republic of Plato, translated with notes and an interpretive essay, New York: Basic Books. 1968.

Cicero. De Oratore. Ed. David Mankin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2011. Print.

Derrida, Jacque. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1974. Print.

Griswold, Richard. “Plato on Poetry and Rhetoric,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2016.

Hackforth, R. Plato’s Phaedrus, translation with introduction and commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1972. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. Language, Poetry, Thought. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 2013. Print.

Kraut, Richard. “Introduction to the Study of Plato,” in The Cambridge Companion to Plato, R. Kraut (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–50. 1992.   Print.

Rosen, Stanley. 1965, “The Role of Eros in Plato’s Republic,” Review of Metaphysics, 1965. 18: 452–75.

Seigel, Jerrold. Rhetoric and Philosophy in Renaissance Humanism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1968. Print.

Vivian, Bradford. Being Made Strange. Rhetoric beyond representation. New York: State University of New York Press. 2004.Print.

Wardy, R. The Birth of Rhetoric: Gorgias, Plato and their Successors, London: Routledge. 1996. Print.

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