Various philosophers have tried to identify the methods of discovering truth. For many of these thinkers, the art of rhetoric has been one of such tools. This paper is aimed at examining Aristotle’s and Plato’s views on the usefulness of rhetoric. It is widely known that Plato was highly skeptical about the validity of rhetorical debates because they could not always help people derive knowledge. In contrast, Aristotle believed that the art of persuasion had been helpful for gaining insights into the true nature of various phenomena.
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Yet, it is vital to understand the main reasons that underlie this disagreement. Much attention should be paid to their perception of people’s thinking.
Overall, one can say that Plato casts doubt on the validity of rhetoric because in his view, the people can be easily manipulated with the help of various rhetorical techniques; more importantly, they do not always possess relevant information or skills that can enable them to evaluate the arguments of others. In contrast, Aristotle advocates an idea that people have a natural tendency to understand truth and distinguish justice from injustice. This is the main reason why their attitudes towards rhetoric differ so significantly.
Plato’s views on rhetoric are expressed in the dialogue called Gorgias. In this conversation, the author depicts a conversation between Socrates and Gorgias who was a prominent sophist. To a great extent, the interlocutors attempt to understand the essence of rhetoric and its major functions. One of the points that Plato expresses in this philosophical work is that rhetoric should be viewed primarily as the “artificer of persuasion” (Plato 482). Nevertheless, it is not necessarily related to knowledge or facts.
To a great extent, this description indicates that in Plato’s view, this art of discourse is very limited since it is mostly aimed at convincing other people. However, it cannot be employed as a technique or a method of discovering the truth. This is one of the main limitations that attract the attention of this philosopher. He argues that in most cases, the art of persuasion only “gives belief” about knowledge and justice (Plato 484). Thus, one can say that rhetoric shapes a person’s opinion about a certain issue.
However, a victory in a rhetoric debate does not imply that an individual has proven the validity of his/her arguments. Such an assumption can hardly be called accurate. In order to illustrate this idea, Plato refers to a hypothetical context between a rhetorician and a physician contesting for the position of a state-physician (Plato 486). According to Plato, such a contest will end in the victory of a rhetorician, if eloquence and ability to persuade will be the only criteria of evaluation (Plato 486).
To a great extent, this example can be regarded as the criticism of the sophist oratory in which the eloquence is often more important than logical reasoning and facts. Overall, this discussion is supposed to show that rhetoric cannot help people discover truth or distinguish justice and injustice. Very often, it can even be misleading. These are some of the main aspects that can be singled out.
In his work, Rhetoric, Aristotle also acknowledges the limitations of persuasions, but he also stresses its usefulness. This philosopher notes that there are certain appeals to “prejudice, pity, anger, and similar emotions”; moreover, in many cases, they are not related to the essential questions that should be examined (Aristotle 490). Thus, Aristotle adopts a critical attitude towards rhetoric and recognizes its possible short-comings. This is one of the similarities that can be distinguished.
Nevertheless, this philosopher believes that such problems can be eliminated provided that there are certain rules of debate according to which misleading arguments are identified and prohibited at the very beginning (Aristotle 490). If these precautions are taken, people, who rely on deceitful arguments, “will have nothing to say” (Aristotle 490). Furthermore, judging from his discussion, individuals are able to identify such false appeals and dismiss them.
Aristotle believes that “things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites” (Aristotle 492). This quote shows that Aristotle is very optimistic about people’s critical thinking and the power of their reasoning. This is one of the details that should be distinguished since. More importantly, this philosopher argues that rhetoric can be compatible with philosophy because it helps thinkers to evaluate ideas from various viewpoints.
This distinction is critical for understanding their disagreements on the role of rhetoric. Apart from that, Aristotle does not separate rhetoric and philosophy. For instance, in order to convince other people, a person should be able to reason in a logical way and find the best evidence to support his/her arguments (Aristotle 494). So, the art of persuasion is closely tied to reasoning, logic, and facts. Moreover, rhetorical debates are useful for identifying the flaws in one’s reasoning.
This is one of the major benefits that the art of rhetoric can bring. On the whole, Aristotle believes that this is one of the skills that an educated person should possess. Yet, his arguments are mostly based on the premise that people are willing and able to discover truth and pursue justice. This is one of the assumptions that should be taken into account.
In my opinion, Aristotle’s views on rhetoric are more justified. Admittedly, it is possible to say that this art of persuasion is a tool or a technique that may be misused by people who are concerned primarily with eloquence, rather than truth. This concern expressed by Plato should not be overlooked and Aristotle speaks about this risk at the beginning of his treatise.
This is one of the points that can be made. However, it is also critical for a person to demonstrate his/her understanding of truth and justice. In turn, rhetorical skills are useful for achieving this goal. Without this ability, he/she may not function properly in a rational society. Therefore, I tend to agree more with Aristotle who believes that rhetoric is indispensible for philosophers, even despite its imperfections.
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Apart from that, I do not share Plato’s skepticism about the ability of people to distort and misrepresent truth and the notions of justice. When criticizing rhetoric, this philosopher posits that people’s opinions can be easily shaped or even manipulated. Therefore, they can be misled into accepting false or deceitful arguments. Yet, it seems to me that individuals are able to apply their critical thinking skills while assessing the validity of a person’s idea.
More importantly, in many cases, rhetorical debates are aimed at preventing individuals from manipulating other people who are encouraged to assess different arguments more critically. This is one of the benefits of rhetoric, and Plato seems to disregard it. Additionally, there is a significant paradox in the arguments expressed by Plato.
For instance, his philosophical works can be useful only if there are readers who can appreciate his ideas and recognize the validity. Thus, to some degree, this thinker accepts the rationality of other people. This is why Plato’s skepticism about people’s capacity to understand truth is not quite justified.
Furthermore, one can say that Plato uses rhetoric in order to illustrate his arguments. His most important works such as the Republic is a set of dialogues in which his teacher Socrates tries to convince other people that some of their convictions and stereotypes are false. Therefore, it is possible to say that Plato denies the usefulness of rhetoric while applying it. This is another contradiction that should be taken into account by the readers of Gorgias.
Overall, this discussion shows that rhetoric can have significant limitations, and it is important to understand these short-comings. In particular, a person should know how truth can be misinterpreted or distorted. Nevertheless, the art of persuasion should be perceived primarily as a tool that can be used for various purposes including the discovery of truth and the pursuit of justice. Plato and Aristotle agree on the idea that rhetoric can be misused by some unscrupulous people.
Nevertheless, Aristotle points out that it can be applied by thinkers in a productive way while Plato makes a clear distinction between rhetoric and philosophy. To a great extent, this difference can be explained by the fact that Plato was very skeptical about people’s ability to think critically. This is one of the main arguments that can be put forward.
Aristotle. “Rhetoric.” Reading the World: Ideas That Matter. Ed. Michael Austin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Incorporated, 2010. 490-494. Print.
Plato. “Gorgias.” Reading the World: Ideas That Matter. Ed. Michael Austin. New York,: W. W. Norton & Company Incorporated, 2010. 479-487. Print.