Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Brief Overview of the Philosopher-Sophist Debate

To understand the history of writing, one really should have a better understanding of the importance of the Philosopher-Sophist debate, which centered on two antagonists: Plato, representing Greek philosophers, and Isocrates, representing Sophistic thinking. Unfortunately for those of us who inherited the legacy of this debate, this false binary, pitting one 'side' against the other, has perpetuated many myths and misconceptions about the Western philosophical tradition, as well as attitudes toward writing. In fact, Plato and Isocrates, both Athenian, had much more in common than not, and shared most, if not all, the same beliefs and cultural biases. Their differences, however, form the basis of this famous debate, and shape the way in which writing is taught to this day.

The traditional view of the Philosopher-Sophist debate begins with Plato’s ethical and moral rejection of the Sophists, which is portrayed as a philosophical disagreement between Plato and Isocrates. Following in Nietzsche’s and Hegel’s footsteps[i], Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (1944) discusses how the ancient Hellenic “rivalry” to determine which was more important to personal development, gymnastic training or a ‘musical’ culture, devolves over time into a narrowed dispute about the “relative values of philosophy and rhetoric” (47). Jaeger characterizes Plato’s rejection of the sophists as ‘violent detestation’ and notes that Isocrates, who began his belated career in education after Protagoras and Gorgias were written, defended sophistic education against Plato’s attacks.

George Kennedy’s 1963 edition of the Art of Persuasion in Greece focuses similarly on the philosophical dimension of the debate; for example, he notes that Isocrates alone believes it possible to develop a moral sense from the process of rhetorical composition (178), a perspective with which Plato vehemently disagrees. Kennedy’s later revised edition, retitled A New History of Classical Rhetoric (1994), begins to look more closely at the political dimensions of the debate between Isocrates and Plato when he states that Isocrates’ ideals of morality are central to teaching arete or political virtue, which Plato firmly believed could not be taught. However, the focus remains largely on the cleavage between philosophical worldviews represented by sophistic and Platonic ideals.

In 1976, Samuel Ijsseling published Rhetoric and Philosophy in Conflict, which comes very close to a political critique of Plato’s rejection of the sophists, especially when he discusses sophists’ awareness of the power of logos, which Ijsseling acknowledges as central to Plato’s problem with rhetoricians. Ijsseling does not pursue this line of reasoning, however, as he relies heavily on Plato’s difficulty with language’s moral ambiguity (7-14). As recently as 1999, Edward P. J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, skimming briefly over the history of rhetoric in their textbook Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (4th Edition), state that despite Isocrates’ high ideals, he “did not succeed in allaying Plato’s suspicions of rhetoric” (492). Few writers choose to complicate the conventional view of the debate by providing historical and political context.

Two notable exceptions who have begun this discussion incorporating the political are Sharon Crowley, in her primer Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students (1994), and John Poulakos in his book Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece (1995). Crowley acknowledges the complexity of the political relationships in Ancient Greece by historicizing the role of ancient rhetoric as contingent upon the political atmosphere in sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries B. C. E. Noting in the opening paragraphs of her textbook that Athenian citizenship was determined by birthright, she goes on to discuss the ways in which rhetoric became “useful in the new Athenian democracy” (21) and the responses to its use by Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle.

The historical background she provides indicates to the student-reader that a rhetorical education is in no way politically neutral, but that it comes with a long history of contentious debate at its center. Poulakos is also careful to discuss the historical and political context within which this debate occurs. As he says, to follow the tradition of portraying Plato as “an eccentric thinker, an elitist mind, or an unrepresentative intellect of the Hellenic world . . . would be to admit that he, or any thinker for that matter, can be considered apart from the historical moment in which they lived and thought” (96). Instead, Poulakos tries to understand Plato’s position against the sophists by showing that, for Plato, the sophistic movement “had not led to a better world; worse, it had reduced the world it had inherited to virtual ruins” (104). In this effort, Poulakos makes it possible for the reader to comprehend the values and morals at stake for Plato, and to put the Philosopher-Sophist debate into historical and sociopolitical context.

[i] However, there is also a long tradition in philosophy of characterizing Plato’s relationship to the Sophists as one based on envy and agonism, in the belief, as Nietzsche says, that the “rule of one” is an abomination and must be challenged. In Homer’s Contest (1872), Nietzsche, focusing on envy, which he believed to be a Greek trait that spurred them on to “glory,” characterizes Plato’s reception of the Sophists as a “contest with the art of the orators” (37). And from 1892-1896, Georg W. F. Hegel gave lectures on the history of world philosophies; he characterized the relationship between Plato and the Sophists as a “rivalry.” Later, Samuel Ijsseling discusses Nietzsche’s influential belief that Plato’s jealousy of the sophists is one way of trying to understand Plato’s hostility (9). Also see Catherine Zuckert’s Postmodern Platos for a discussion of Nietzsche’s influence on later philosophers.

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