Ancient and modern

Ancient and modern: Socrates on TV election debates

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

Lord Hennessy has been arguing that, as a result of TV debates between party leaders prior to elections, ‘the plausible tart bit will play too powerfully in [parties’] choice of leader and therefore rule out the decent but non-tarty people.’ It is good to see the modern world finally catching up with Socrates on the question of rhetoric and persuasion.

Socrates is in conversation with Gorgias, the famous teacher of rhetoric, about what he thinks he is teaching. The skill of persuasive speech, Gorgias replies, whose purpose is to produce conviction. But, Socrates asks, conviction about what? Right, or wrong? Right, obviously, says Gorgias, which the orator will be able to teach. Socrates demurs: why should an orator, simply by being an orator, know the difference?

When Gorgias’ youthful pupil Polus (Greek for ‘colt’) objects, Socrates argues that rhetoric, far from being a skill, is rather a sort of knack, which is nothing but a form of flattery, pandering to people’s desires. Like cooking and cosmetics, he goes on, it produces bogus gratification and pleasure but does no real good. He contrasts these two, that pay ‘no regard to men’s welfare, but trick them into thinking them of inestimable value’, with medicine and gymnastics, the source of lasting benefits. He imagines a doctor being brought to trial by a pastry-cook before a jury of children, on the issue of the good each of them did. The doctor would not stand a chance, says Socrates.

The implication for politics, Socrates argues, is devastating: ‘The orator has no idea which of the beliefs and desires of the people is honourable or base, good or bad, just or unjust, but he employs all these terms in accordance with that great brute’s [the people’s] beliefs, calling the things that please it “good” and the things that annoy it “bad”’. But what benefit arises from a persuasive orator gaining power simply by pandering to others? Such an orator’s so-called ‘power’ will ultimately be as fatal to his own interests as it is to those over whom he exercises it, Socrates concludes. Persuasiveness is no substitute for wisdom.

Plus ça change

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