Influence Studies from Prior Semester
"A System of the Sublime: Aristotle, Longinus, and the Science of Great Literature"
“I propose to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds,
noting the essential quality of each . . .”
Aristotle, Poetics, book I (4th century B.C.
“… The truly eloquent must be free from low and ignoble thoughts. For it is not possible that men with mean and servile ideas and aims prevailing throughout their lives should produce anything that is admirable and worthy of immortality.”
Longinus, On The Sublime, Book IX (1st/3rd century A.D.)
Though an ocean and more than two millennia separate us from the time in which life escaped Aristotle, we have had no such luck escaping his influence. Philosophy, rhetoric, the sciences … all of these disciplines and many more are indebted to Aristotle’s ability to categorize what oral cultures considered un-categorizable and too abstract for labeling. Aristotle provides us with many of the tools and techniques with which we (by we, I mean academics) can discover the means to quench our mighty thirsts and provide repast for our insatiable hunger for knowledge for ages to come.
Aristotle did not give us knowledge; he provided systems through which we could discover it for ourselves. For these reasons, Aristotelian rhetoric, philosophy, and methodology are still so pervasive. After carefully unpacking Aristotle’s claims, it does seem, in a dialectical sense, that he is pointing us in the right direction … Teaching us to fish, and thus, feeding us for a lifetime (as the saying goes). Literary critics and theorists, for example, are still fishing for the same clues (or, attempting to answer the same question, “What makes great literature great?”) and Aristotle’s systematic and analytical style of literary criticism is still quite pervasive at the dawn of the 21st century---one of many examples of the influence that Aristotle has demonstrated over contemporary Western thinking.
Scholars credit Aristotle with first noting the ‘elements of beauty in poetry in levels or magnitudes’ (“Sublime,” from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In the Poetics (4th century B.C.), Aristotle provides a formatted and systematic inquiry into the nature of great literature and the “end” of the literary fine arts (Aristotle 101). After thorough analysis of the Poetics, I have discovered that in between his categorization of poetic components, Aristotle makes subtle fundamental assertions which do reveal an implicit theory of aesthetics while Longinus provides a criticism of literary aesthetics. In On the Sublime, Longinus gives us a true supplement to the Poetics: Aristotle attends to how literature is constructed, Longinus to how great, awe-inspiring literature is best constructed. In the Poetics, Aristotle provides a systematic treatment and analysis of the components (parts of speech, grammatical divisions) of great literature, whereas Longinus describes the qualities of the literary components which should be recognized as indicative of great literature.
Dr. Gregory Jay of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee states that one thing we must keep in mind is that theorists devise literary theory “in dialogue with the literary culture of their time and place” (Jay 2). It is arguable, then, that any culture has the right to set its own standard for great literature and devise a poetics/theory of aesthetics which corresponds to their own specific tastes. In the cases of cultures/civilizations that are recently birthed, recognizing a national literary canon can be an extremely patriotic practice for educated citizens struggling to grasp a new nationalistic pride and identity. The framework of Aristotle’s Poetics is a gift to theorists who wish to praise the originality, ingenuity, and power of their cultural/civic/national aesthetics (and a gift to the cultures of the theorists that defined these aesthetics). The use of the gift that Aristotle has given us can be easily observed in Longinus’ On the Sublime, one of great works in literary criticism in Ancient Rome.
Just as Aristotle was the first to categorize (by genus and species) the disciplines of rhetoric and biology, he was also the first to analyze the components of literature in Poetics. He begins his discussion by establishing boundaries between types of literature (i.e. “Poetry” and “Drama”) and then within these types, he lists the genres (i.e. within “Poetry,” “Epic” poetry and “Dithyrambic” poetry) and then recognizes the figures which are proper to said genres (i.e “metaphor” “style” “recognition” “moderation” “word choice”) (Aristotle Book I). Moving from genus to species, general to specific, he also treats language, separating it into “Letter, syllable, connecting word, noun, verb, inflection or case, sentence or phrase” (Aristotle Book XX). In Book VII, Aristotle glosses over the importance of depicting “fear and pity” and the “terrible and pitiful” and how these depictions inspire fear, awe, and grandiosity. Through quoting specific examples of fiction, tragedy, comedy, and poetry that he finds notable, and pointing to a general end of poetry, he cites what specifically makes certain literature great. Longinus appears to coattail off of this discussion in On the Sublime, and, by citing a number of examples from Greek literature, he illustrated the definitions of the figures that Aristotle had previously categorized.
In On the Sublime or On Great Writing, Longinus (the treatise is attributed to Cassius Longinus, a first century A.D. rhetor) gives us, in brilliant detail and flowery prose, a window into what he hoped would become the direction of Roman poetry. In his attempt to locate the building-blocks of great poetry and literature in an analytical and almost scientific manner, Longinus renewed the tradition which Aristotle began in his Poetics in which he:
“ . . . Inquire(d) into . . . the requisite(s) to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry.
Aristotle, Poetics p.1
And though Plato (in the Republic) and Horace (in Ars Poetica) tend to the matter of the place of poetry and fiction in the education of young men and the training of poets respectively, neither specifically addresses the notion of the “Sublime.” In Readings in Classical Rhetoric, Patricia Matsen, et al. note that Demetrius’ (270 B.C.) “forceful style” (Demetrius 310) was a likely influence on the concept of the sublime, but Longinus makes it plain in Book II of On the Sublime that he is attempting to “grasp the essential points” of great writing that previous theorists left out of their treatises on great literature for an audience he calls “public men” (Longinus, Book II). Though these philosophers demonstrate a general ability to locate great literature, the ‘essential point’ that these theorists left out of their treatises is what tools (tropes, subject matter, etc.) an artist must employ to create great literature.
The “Sublime,” to paraphrase, can be found in literature which moves us to great emotion, limits us to awe and/or veneration, or uses language which is vast, transcendent, and ineffable. Even its definition is ‘sublime.’ The notion of the “Sublime” replaced Aristotle’s “requisite to a good poem,” because in Longinus’ poetics, writing (of any sort) must possess the sublime if is to be deemed worthy of imitation or move the noble soul. Looking to Homer, Sappho, Plato, Demosthenes, and other great Greek philosophers, Longinus set out to divide great poetry from base poetry and demonstrate to his readers how he drew those conclusions. Using his code of evaluations, his readers could identify the greatness of a poem or piece of literature by locating the use of certain figures and tropes. Longinus also wrote specifically about what contributes to the “Sublime” with reference to the character of the author, and the choices the author must make for his/her literature to be great. Longinus’ five sources of the sublime are:
… (1) First and most important is the power of forming great conceptions … (2) Secondly, there is vehement and inspired passion. These two components of the sublime are for the most part innate. Those which remain are partly the product of art. (3) The due formation of figures deals with two sorts of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression. (4) Next there is noble diction, which in turn comprises choice of words, and use of metaphors, and elaboration of language. (5) The fifth cause of elevation—one which is the fitting conclusion of all that have preceded it--is dignified and elevated composition.
Longinus, On the Sublime, Ch. XII
Using On the Sublime as a complex judge’s scoresheet, one could easily read any piece of prose or poetry from Early Roman Antiquity (or, selections which predated first century A.D.) and look for the qualities which Longinus suggests make literature great.
Longinus obviously penned On the Sublime with a civic aesthetics in mind (one based on shared and associated (enthymematic) language and catering to the tastes of literate and educated, or “public,” men of the Roman civilization) (Longinus Book II). What I find fascinating about Longinus’ poetics is that he avoids the polemics of many other Roman contemporaries and includes poetry from the Greek forefathers of literature. I would assume that Longinus hoped to refer to Greek Literature and use it not only to celebrate the literary accomplishments of the past, but to set a firm foundation from which Roman/Latinate authors could build upon. More importantly, he could suggest the imitation of the great Greek philosophers and juxtapose it with claims that authors avoid the pitfalls of base Greek literature so that the Romans would develop the next great Western tradition in literature. In doing so, Longinus not only defined literary aesthetics for an entire culture, he provided a great foundation of criticism that Roman authors could apply to their own works to meet the aforementioned aesthetic requirements. After reviving the theory of the “sublime,” ensuing theorists in the 18th century would use the theory and criticism styles of Aristotle and Longinus to redefine philosophies of taste in their own contemporary bodies of literature.
In the 18th century, in a grand debate beginning for the sake of argument with A.G. Baumgarten’s treatise Aesthetica in 1750, “poetics” theorists and literary critics would revisit the probing, analytical style of Aristotle’s Poetics and Longinus’ On the Sublime and create their own notions of “great” literature. They based their notions upon aesthetic judgments of their own privileged, traditionalist views. For instance, movements such as the Decadents and Parnassians contended that an artwork’s beauty is universal, and that anyone with a well-trained eye can perceive this beauty. This beauty was inherent to their art, and it lied objectively within the turns of phrases, tropes, and in the word usage of the literature they promoted. 18th and 19th century ‘aesthetes’ proposed that the ‘beauty’ of an artwork is contained within it, and it is sheer beauty alone that defines an artwork’s aesthetic value (known as “aestheticism,” an objective critical view of aesthetics). T.S. Eliot’s “Objective Correlative,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “Heresy of the Didactic,” and Oscar Wilde’s assertion that art and morality should be separate are other examples of aestheticism, or, the objective view of art originating in the 18th century which states that art should exist independently of moral, social, and political claims. In essence, these scholars and artists used Aristotle’s literary theory and Longinus’ literary criticism to define their poetics to suit the tastes of their contemporary cultures. The notion of the “Sublime,” dormant for nearly 15 centuries, was not only revisited, but unfortunately resurfaced in many hegemonic and culturally divisive forms, as well.
Many artists and theorists countered with their own subjective sense of what is artistic and tasteful. The subjective sense of liberation has repeatedly manifested itself in the art that critics have labeled and academicians have recognized as the “avant-garde.” Modern perceptions of the true nature of beauty (in the arts) and artfulness have manifested themselves in the modern literary categories of “traditional” and “avant-garde” forms of art. Movements such as Imagism, Dadaism, the Black Mountain poets, the Beat movement, and the Black Aesthetics movement used Aristotle’s systematic inquiry into the nature of their literature and Longinus’ critical style to promote the modern/postmodern aesthetics of their literature.
At the dawn of the 21st century, as we angle about in a sea of theory, ideas, and art, the systems that we use to judge aesthetics, artfulness, and the right mix of creative and proper language stem from Aristotle’s Poetics Longinus became one of Aristotle’s many “fishers of men” when scholars revived On the Sublime in the 18th century and they continued the grand discussion about the nature and quality of great literature. From Aristotle, literary theorists gain knowledge of the divisions of language and extensive documentation of the parts of speech and figures proper to the genres which fall under the umbrella of poetics. From Longinus, literary critics gain an effective model for identifying the proper placement and use of the aforementioned parts of speech and figures and how they lead to the formation of great literature. Theorists from traditionalist and marginal movements alike have used these models to construct poetics which simultaneously praise the uniqueness of and give direction and purpose to their artistic expression. From both men, we have gained knowledge of the usefulness of carefully considering the figures, divisions of, and the styles proper to separate genres of the literary craft, how authors (aught to) combine them, and how this delicate process results in the presentation of great literature.
Aristotle. Poetics. translated by S. H. Butcher. Internet.
Cuddon, J.A. Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Penguin
Books: New York, 1997.
Jay, Gregory. “Notes and Resources on Classical, Neoclassical, and Renaissance Literary Theory and criticism.” Internet. 11/4/00.
Longinus. On the Sublime. Internet. http//:Longinus.com/desub003.htm#x4. 9/24/00.
Matsen, Patricia, Philip Rollinson, and Marion Sousa. Readings from Classical Rhetoric. Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale, Illinois, 1990.
“The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/11/6/00.
 In Poetics, the end of fine art is to “give pleasure” and his major praise for poetry is that it should, in all cases, not be concerned with documenting what is, but considering “what may become” (Aristotle 168, 198)
 Aesthetics-criticisms of “the Beautiful” and theories on taste. (From the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. J.A. Cuddon, Penguin Books: New York, 1997.)
 Objective Correlative- T.S. Eliot’s term for a pattern of objects, actions, or events, or a situation that can serve effectively to awaken in the reader an emotional response without being a direct statement of subjective emotion.
 Heresy of the Didactic- Edgar Allan Poe’s claim that poetry should not be required to be morally educational or instructional.
 avant-garde- writing that shows striking (and usually self-conscious) innovations in style, form, and subject matter. The avant-garde is not assigned to a specific time period. Rather, it refers to all movements which challenge established forms and literary traditions at any given time.
Gwen Gray Schwartz's "Walter J. Ong on “The Shift”: Orality and Literacy Influenced by Eric A. Havelock’s Explanation of Plato’s Time"
The introduction of the alphabet to Greece brought about many changes over time, but the one change cited the most was the shift in consciousness that occurred when an oral society such as Greece shifted from thinking about the world only in concrete terms and accepted writing as a tool which enables abstract thinking. This is widely known as the oral/literate shift. Although many current scholars criticize the pejorative language used to describe cultures that did not experience this shift, all agree that there is, in fact, a shift in consciousness when literacy becomes naturalized into a society. Walter J. Ong, in his 1982 publication, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, provides a thorough accounting of the differences between the two types of cultures. In fact, his work has influenced other, more recent studies on orality and literacy.
However, in order to understand just how important Ong’s work is, one must first understand that Ong was not alone in pioneering work in this field. In fact, Ong credits Eric A. Havelock as one of the most important persons to delineate the differences between the oral and literate mind (6). Havelock, who himself furthered the earlier work of Milman Parry and then Albert Lord, exposes the major differences between oral and literate cultures in his 1963 publication, Preface to Plato. But how far back can influence be traced? In this case, it is the introduction of the alphabet to Greek society that has so profoundly changed the ways in which the mind works and thus, has influenced all who study orality and literacy. Therefore, it is fitting to examine the society in which Plato lived, a society that used writing but also held some residual aspects of orality as well. By drawing on Havelock’s Preface to Plato, Ong recognizes Havelock as an authority on the history of the transformation of the Greek mind and shows irrevocably just how great the oral/literate shift is.
Throughout a detailed description of the oral/literate shift, Ong draws on Havelock’s interpretation of Plato and his time in order to describe not only the differences between orality and literacy, but also to begin a discussion about the effects of literacy in today’s electronic world, a world in which a secondary orality is now present. Although Ong has been involved in the orality/literacy project for a number of years, Orality and Literacy represents a survey and interpretation of the work done in this field over the last few decades. It becomes evident very quickly who has contributed some of the most outstanding scholarship to this project—Ong himself, and Havelock. Ong directly cites Havelock nineteen times in Orality and Literacy, calling upon Havelock more than anyone else in a long list of scholars in the field to help validate his own claims. Havelock’s influence is present throughout Orality and Literacy; however, Ong draws most heavily on Havelock’s discussion of how Plato disregarded poetry as a valued form of communication, and Ong targets this point as the true turning point in the oral/literate shift.
Havelock’s discussion of Plato is first seen as an influence in Ong’s work in Chapter 2 of Orality and Literacy, in which Ong summarizes early work in orality and literacy. In a section titled “Milman Parry’s Discovery,” Ong not only describes how Parry concluded that all of Homeric poetry was dictated by the methods of oral composition and oral recitation, but he also outlines the follow-up work to Parry’s discovery, which includes Havelock’s work on Plato. In this section, Ong states that Havelock “has extended Parry’s and Lord’s findings about orality in oral epic narrative out into the whole of ancient oral Greek culture and has shown convincingly how the beginnings of Greek philosophy were tied in with the restructuring of thought brought about by writing” (27-8). What began with Parry and continued with Lord, Havelock was able to bring to full light in Preface to Plato.
Ong continues his summation of Havelock’s work, describing that “Plato’s exclusion of poets from his Republic was in fact Plato’s rejection of the pristine aggregative, paratactic, oral-style thinking perpetuated in Homer in favor of the keen analysis or dissection of the world and of thought itself made possible by the interiorization of the alphabet in the Greek psyche” (28). In order for Plato to be able to disassociate with “oral-style” thinking, he first had to be a part of the literate-style of thinking, the thinking brought about by the “interiorization” of written language in everyday life.
According to Havelock, this interiorization did not occur until the last part of the 5th century B.C. (Preface to Plato 115). Ong states that when Plato “proscribed poets, he did so, as Havelock shows, because they stood for the old oral, mnemonic world of imitation, aggregative, redundant, copious, tranitionalist, warmly human, participatory—a world antipathetic to the analytic, sparse, exact, abstract, visualist, immobile worlds of the ‘ideas’ which Plato was touting” (167). Here Ong relies on the extensive research of Havelock to explain how oral and literate cultures differed. In Homeric Greece, oral communication was the only means to preserve the society’s history and culture. Therefore, people needed to be able to remember vast amounts of information. In order to do this, they used all the techniques at which Plato scoffs: mnemonic devices, formulaic phrases, a consistent rhythm, and a connection with the material to be delivered. When writing became more wide spread in Greece, the old, oral ways gave way to more removed, analytic thought. As Ong contends, “writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity,” something that would have been impossible before the general acceptance of the written word (105).
Plato was able to be introspective about the oral forms of communication precisely because he was able to step back from orality and commit his thoughts to writing. Ironic though it may be, Plato also criticized writing, saying it was too impersonal and would lead to the destruction of the memory. Although Ong does not dwell on today’s issues with technology, he does explain how technology changes society. He describes, “once the word is technologized, there is no effective way to criticize what technology has done with it without the aid of the highest technology available. Moreover, the new technology is not merely used to convey the critique: in fact, it brought the critique into existence” (Orality and Literacy 80). Plato was analytic about memory and writing because writing was beginning to have an effect on his very mentality (80).
Throughout Orality and Literacy, Ong shows how writing effects mentality. Each point Ong makes about the shift in consciousness relates in some way back to Havelock’s discussion of the evolving Greek mind. Ong’s work cannot be separated from Havelock’s, for without Havelock, Ong’s discussion would lack sophistication and credibility. Even Ong’s closing remarks ring with Havelock’s influence:
The highly interiorized stages of consciousness in which the individual is not so
immersed unconsciously in communal structures are stages which, it appears,
consciousness would never reach without writing. . . it is the oral word that first
illuminates consciousness with articulate language. . . Writing introduces division and alienation, but a higher unity as well. It intensifies the sense of self and fosters more conscious interaction between persons. Writing is consciousness-raising. (178-9)
Ong’s survey of orality and literacy ends with the argument that “writing is consciousness-raising,” a term and idea that began in Preface to Plato when Havelock argues that the Greeks woke up when the written word became widely used. Only then were the Greeks able to separate themselves from their stories, their history from their future. Havelock’s dissection of Plato’s time provided Ong with an understanding of just how much writing influenced culture. This discussion of the shift in one’s thought processes, as represented by Plato’s state of mind, paved the way for Ong’s scholarship in orality and literacy, scholarship that extends Havelock’s research, yet still draws heavily on it.
Donna Bueché's "Ethics, Rhetoric, and the Aristotelian Ideal"
Rhetoric and composition scholars often regard Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a foundational text. Its influence is far reaching and substantial: Works as different as Kenneth Burke’s Grammar of Motives to the University of Arizona’s Student’s Guide to First-Year Composition have been impacted by it. Less influential to rhetoric and composition studies is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Indeed, many scholars may not even recognize the connection between the two. In her 1979 article, “Rhetoric and Phronesis: The Aristotelian Ideal,” Lois Self re-establishes links between Aristotle’s Rhetoric and his Nicomachean Ethics. Self argues that “the ideal practitioner of Aristotle’s Rhetoric employs the skills and qualities of Aristotle’s model of human virtue, the Phronimos or ‘man of practical wisdom,’ who is described in the Nicomachean Ethics” (131). In other words, to practice the art of rhetoric, one must use practical wisdom or phronesis—the intellectual virtue associated with “things human and things about which it is possible to deliberate” (NE 1141b9-10). Too frequently, Self suggests, scholars embrace Rhetoric without understanding its connection to the Ethics. She concludes that scholars strengthen the age-old idea that rhetoric is “mere cookery” and, therefore, not helpful in ethical dilemmas when they split ethics from rhetoric.
Self explains that a large part of our inability to make connections between the two texts results from a historical rift between ethics and rhetoric. She quotes Henry Johnstone who notes that “our modern ‘uneasiness’ about persuasion ‘arises partly because Aristotle’s association of persuasion and virtue has come unstuck,’ and we fear the use of persuasive techniques in the hands of the unvirtuous” (130). Like Self, many scholars turn to Aristotle to understand the connection between rhetoric and ethics. Peter Levine’s 1998 book, Living without Philosophy, is a case in point. Levine attempts to explain why rhetoric has fallen from the esteem of moral philosophers. He shows that most ethicists apply general moral principles to ethical dilemmas rather than rhetorical devices. However, Levine suggests that not every ethical issue can be solved with general principles; some need the assistance of rhetoric. To reunite rhetoric and ethics, Levine draws upon several of Aristotle’s works including Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle’s Rhetoric, strangely enough, does not appear in his argument. Considering that Levine uses Aristotle to urge ethicists to embrace rhetoric, the fact that he does not consult Aristotle’s Rhetoric is a glaring oversight.
In this paper, I would like to look at Levine’s work more closely to make sense of his oversight. By using ideas from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics at the expense of Rhetoric, Levine ends up in the position Self warns scholars about. Although Levine demonstrates that the use of value-laden descriptions, stories, and Aristotelian minor premises are crucial to making a judgment about a sticky ethical situation, he is unable to explain why we should trust a person’s rhetoric. Because he describes rhetoric as a means to an end and not an act of virtue like Aristotle suggests, Levine cannot avoid the claim that rhetoric is mere cookery. In addition, his oversight perpetuates the division between rhetoric and ethics. We can learn from Levine’s mistake by recognizing the difficulty of reuniting ethics and rhetoric from an Aristotelian sense. Levine’s project indicates that we need to be aware of our modernist blind spots when we use Aristotle’s ideas to bridge the gap between ethics and rhetoric.
Levine enters the debate between ethics and rhetoric through a court case, Teresa Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc. Teresa Harris, a rental manager for Forklift Systems, quit her job and sued her employer, Charles Hardy, for sexual harassment. In his decision of the case, the federal magistrate agreed with Harris’ moral judgments, but did not agree that Hardy’s improper actions constituted sexual harassment. To make his judgment, Levine argues that the magistrate relied upon Hardy and Harris’ stories rather than an elaborate moral theory (15-16). That is, the magistrate based his judgment on “point of view, vocabulary, sentence structure, tone”—in short, rhetoric (Levine 16). If Harris had made different stylistic choices, Levine asks, would she have been better able to sway the magistrate? The main reason moral philosophers distance themselves from rhetoric, Levine suggests, is that “rhetoric alone can seem an unreliable method of moral judgment, too dependent on personal skill. Philosophy, with its promise of rigorous methods and principles, is an attractive alternative” (17). Hence, many moral philosophers pull ethics from rhetoric to avoid the uncertainty that rhetoric spawns.
One of the most influential moral philosophers, Kant, convinced his disciples that an act of judgment results in either a right or wrong decision. As Kant demonstrates, the only way our judgments can be wrong is if we incorrectly analyze or categorize the moral essence of a case. Kant avoids the instability of rhetoric by postulating that the moral essence of a case is bound to intentions rather than language. For example, if we use Kant’s theories to make a judgment on the Harris vs. Hardy case, we would first determine whether Hardy’s actions are “covered by a given moral concept—whether [they] fall within the boundaries of that idea” (Levine 28). Although Hardy has a number of possible names for his actions (“joking,” “engaging in harmless banter,” “treating people like one of the boys”), they either fall under the concept of sexual harassment or they don’t. If we do not understand the correct boundaries of sexual harassment, then we will not make the correct judgment. Thus, as Kant argues, our faulty judgment results less from ineffective rhetoric and more from our inability to decide “whether something does or does not stand under a given rule” (qtd. in Levine 28).
Yet how clear is the boundary for acts like sexual harassment? By drawing upon Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance,” Levine wonders if we recognize similar qualities in each case that allows us to group them as a class, but does not allow us to pin down a single essence that runs throughout. Kant’s theories assume that when we discuss sexual harassment, we refer to a clearly definable concept. Levine, on the contrary, suggests that our discussions of sexual harassment allude “to a whole family of individual narratives about acts of discrimination, of which no two may be exactly alike—nor must they all share a common denominator” (Levine 31). When we make a judgment about an act like sexual harassment, therefore, we do not match the act before us with a clear definition of sexual harassment since no definition can be found. We must first interpret the act as something that resembles similar acts. To do this, Levine argues, we must use rhetoric.
Levine places rhetoric back in the domain of ethics by drawing upon theories of language developed by Gilbert Ryle, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Wittgenstein. From Ryle, Levine takes the concept of “thick description.” As Ryle shows, a thick description depicts an act as something by placing it in a context. Hence, “if I say that someone’s eyelids contracted, then I am offering a ‘thin’ description. But if I say that the person winked conspiratorially, then I have ‘thickened’ the description” (Levine 31). Our description necessarily situates the act in a context. Often, we use narrative to provide the context. MacIntyre demonstrates that an act can have several descriptions—each description may be true, but each describes the act in a different context. For example, if someone sees a man digging in a garden and asks the man what he is doing, the man might respond, “`Digging,’ ‘Gardening,’ ‘Taking exercise,’ ‘Preparing for winter,’ and ‘Pleasing the wife’” (Levine 32). To assess the man’s actions (or to make an ethical judgment about them), we need to thicken our description about his actions. Placing his actions in a narrative could provide the thickening we need to make a judgment. “If, for example, the husband were digging in the garden in order to please his wife, but her goal was to dispose of a murder victim under the daffodils, then we could describe the man’s actions as ‘burying the corpse,’ ‘concealing a homicide,’ ‘abetting a felony,’ and so on” (Levine 32). When we accentuate a thick description with a narrative context, therefore, we strengthen the ground from which to make a judgment.
Thick description and narrative provide salient moral features to an act. Yet, when we observe an act, do we make connections between what we see to something “real” in the world? In other words, do our words always correspond to objects? If so, then we could successfully define sexual harassment outside of context. However, if we define sexual harassment outside of a context, then we can no longer make a judgment about it. Levine turns to Wittgenstein’s notion of “aspect-seeing” to clarify his point. Wittgenstein suggests that “seeing” and “seeing-as” are two different procedures. When we see a knife, for example, we can describe the knife in precise, scientific terms. That is, we can label what materials make up the knife; we can precisely identify the pressure needed to make the knife slice an orange; we can demonstrate how the light hits the knife to make it shiny. Hence, we can support our definition of the knife by turning to the laws of nature. However, if we described the knife as a grisly weapon, how could we turn to the laws of nature to prove our claim? “What something is seen as” Levine writes, “depends upon the context, including the context of our thoughts and associations” (37). Wittgenstein calls the process of “seeing-as” aspect-seeing. He suggests that aspect-seeing “is a case of language-use in which we have an idea that is not an idea of something real” (Levine 36). An act of sexual harassment, therefore, can be defined in precise terms when only the physical act is considered (the movements people used or the actual words spoken). When we decide to see the act as sexual harassment, we move from questions about the actual act to questions about the situational context. And the situational context may look different from different perspectives. Hence, aspect-seeing is a matter of interpretation, rather than a matter of precise definition.
Levine joins Wittgenstein’s ideas about aspect-seeing and family resemblances, MacIntyre’s analysis of narrative, and Ryle’s definition of thick description to help explain what happens when we make a judgment about ethically confusing situations like sexual harassment. To further drive home his point, Levine turns to the philosopher who systematized ethics in the first place, Aristotle. Levine’s section on Aristotle demonstrates that the fields of ethics and rhetoric need not be separate; their combined use allow us to make decisions about ethical dilemmas. Levine demonstrates that in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle “argues that philosophical theory is appropriate in domains where certainty is possible, but not in ethics, because human behavior is too complex and variegated to be subject to general rules” (42). To substantiate his reading of Aristotle, Levine turns to book VI of Nichomachean Ethics which describes the intellectual virtue, phronesis. Aristotle writes that Phronesis, or practical wisdom, is the “opposite of intelligence, for intelligence is about definitions, about which there can be no argument, while practical wisdom is of the particular thing, of which there is no deductive knowledge, but rather perception—not (that is) perception by one of the senses, but the sort of perception by which we perceive a triangle in a set of mathematical figures” (qtd. in Levine 42-43). For Aristotle, judgment relies on intuitive perception—the same perception that helps us distinguish a triangle in a complicated network of lines. In other words, Aristotle’s notion of practical wisdom compares to Wittgenstein’s ideas of aspect-seeing. For both philosophers, acts of judgment “are the kinds of things that cannot be proved, but can sometimes be pointed out. . . . They are interpretations, rather than deductive arguments or definitions” (43). As such, they rely upon narratives, thick descriptions, and interpretive strategies—rhetoric—to make themselves clear.
In Aristotle’s ethical system, Levine argues that rhetoric plays its most important role in relation to the practical syllogism. Levine explains that a practical syllogism consists of a major premise (e.g. It is wrong to treat people as a means), a minor premise (Hardy treated Harris as a means), and a practical conclusion (Hardy is wrong). Traditionally, ethicists have assumed that moral conclusions emerge from major premises. For Aristotle, however, minor premises set the tone for judgment. In the above practical syllogism, for example, we can agree that we ought not to treat people as a means: “that maxim is self-evident, buy also empty” (Levine 46). The interesting question is: How did Hardy treat Harris? How, then, can we use deductive reasoning to prove that Hardy treated Harris immorally? Perspectives will vary on this point. However, we can support our perspective with stories or value-laden descriptions; we can use rhetoric to make our minor premise more convincing.
Yet what if our judgments are duplicitous? What if they are immoral? Although Levine makes a strong case for the implementation of rhetoric into ethics, he cannot explain why we should trust one person’s rhetoric over another’s. For instance, he suggests that “unpleasant” victims may have a difficult time persuading their judges that they have been sexually harassed since the judges may not sympathize with the victim as much as “pleasant” victims. In other cases, judges may listen to a person’s story and respond favorably because the story was well told. Or they may respond unfavorably because the person telling the story is not liked. In short, rhetoric can sway our judgments, but not always for moral purposes. Levine suggests that our legal system attempts to guard against such problems. The principle of impersonality, for example, restricts juries from making judgments on the basis of victims’ characters. Do all jurors respect this principle, though? Levine is uncertain. “[A]t least in theory,” Levine writes, “the legal system takes into account both the social requirement of impersonality and our ethical need to form concrete judgments about particular cases by telling value-laden stories about them” (50). Levine can only theorize about the legal system; he does not claim that the principle of impersonality is always enforced. In addition, Levine does not argue that the same principle applies in our everyday affairs. He attempts to override skepticism about rhetoric, but he has a difficult time explaining why we should place our trust in an unstable “language game.”
One of the reasons Levine falls into this trap is that he basis his arguments on an ethical system that varies greatly from his own. Levine reaches back to Aristotle to bridge the gap between rhetoric and ethics without fully incorporating Aristotle’s ideas on rhetoric. In fact, Levine never once cites Aristotle’s Rhetoric—an oversight of immense proportions. By overlooking the Rhetoric, Levine fails to recognize that, for ancient Greeks, the act of rhetoric was an ethical act. In Rhetoric, Aristotle argues that “there are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character—the three, namely, that induce us to believe a thing apart from any proof of it: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill” (B&H 161). In other words, to effectively persuade an audience, a rhetor must act ethically. To act ethically, the rhetor must practice the intellectual virtue phronesis. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains that practical wisdom “must be a reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods” (1140b19-20). Thus, to effectively practice rhetoric, according to Aristotle, the rhetor must have the good of the community in mind. The audience will distrust the rhetor if they suspect selfish motives, faulty logic, or false opinions. At the same time, the audience must “be in the right frame of mind” to make judgments based on the rhetor’s language (B&H 161). For Aristotle, an ethical rhetor and audience make decisions in the best interest of the community. Not to do so would be morally reprehensible and not acting with practical wisdom.
By overlooking Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Levine misses the point that effective rhetoric, for Aristotle, is an ethically responsible act. Levine regards rhetoric as a means to an end. That is, we use rhetoric in arguments to strengthen our case; we do not see rhetoric as an ethical action in and of itself. It may lead to ethical actions, but it is not an ethical action. Levine is mostly concerned about moral philosophers who think that judgment is a process of deductive reasoning whereby we apply general principles to particular acts. He turns to Aristotle to show that the realm of practical reasoning needs to be grounded in practical wisdom, not abstract reasoning. Therefore, by drawing upon Aristotle and other language philosophers, Levine successfully argues that the process of ethical decision-making is quite different from the process of abstract reasoning. However, he can’t quite counter the claim moral philosophers make that rhetoric is not trustworthy; thus, Levine perpetuates the split between ethics and rhetoric.
If Levine looked closely at Aristotle’s Rhetoric, he may have recognized that, for Aristotle, rhetoric is an ethical act when used properly. Lois Self writes that in Aristotelian thought, “The rhetor when functioning ideally as an artist facilitates good judgment in hearers who are treated with certain respect. When such a relationship between rhetor and audience does not prevail, we may see the tactics of persuasion employed, by hardly the art of rhetoric” (143). Because we live in an age that has decisively split ethics from rhetoric, it may be impossible to take Aristotle’s ideas and employ them in our ethical decision-making. However, we can use Aristotle to make sense of our own process. We can also use Aristotle to explain why Levine embraces rhetoric, but then cannot counter the claims of moral philosophers. Levine remains blinded by a world that treats rhetoric as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Levine’s book can teach us to be more aware of our own blind spots when we rush to apply an ancient text to modern-day problems.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Introduction to Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: The Modern Library, 1947. 298-545.
---. Rhetoric. The Rhetorical Tradition. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1990. 151-194.
Levine, Peter. Living without Philosophy: On Narrative, Rhetoric, and Morality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Self, Lois. “Rhetoric and Phronesis: The Aristotelian Ideal.” Philosophy and Rhetoric. 12.2 (1979): 130-145.
David Menchaca's "Advertising in Early Classical Greece"
In 1992, Edward Schiappa published his seminal article “Rhêtorikê: What’s in a Name? Toward a Revised History of Early Greek Rhetorical Theory” arguing “that the coining of rhêtorikê was a watershed event in the history of conceptualized Rhetoric in ancient Greece” (3). Specifically, Schiappa suggests that Plato reinterprets and renames sophistic practices, thus, making him most responsible for the bifurcation of one practice into the two distinct disciplines of rhetoric and philosophy (10). Besides emphasizing Plato’s role in creating two disciplines, Schiappa’s theory exposes the hazards of relying on a traditional account of rhetoric informed by the post-Platonic screen of inherited rhetorical terms. The traditional account depicts Plato professing a blanket condemnation of the Sophists and the art they practiced in order to replace amoral relativism with foundational truth. Schiappa’s theory warns us against accepting this account carte blanche. As such, we must ask ourselves if Plato’s belief in foundational truth was the sole impetus informing his condemnation of the Sophists. An addition to Plato’s foundationalism is James A. Arieti’s speculation that Plato’s Gorgias should be interpreted as “propaganda for the Academy” (92). In this paper, I propose a reading of Plato’s Protagoras and Gorgias which, paralleling Arieti’s propaganda theory, views those dialogues specifically as advertisements for the Academy and as a slanderous campaign against Isocrates’s rival school.
I would like to make one caveat before I begin. The dates for the three pieces I will be considering here can only be estimated. Bizzell and Herzberg posit the date for Isocrates’s “Against the Sophists” as ca. 390 BCE, approximately three years after the opening of his school, the first of its kind to meet at a permanent site (43). They also posit the date for Plato’s Gorgias as ca. 386 BCE, approximately one year after he returned from his tour of Italy to open the Academy, a school reminiscent of Isocrates’s and in competition with it (55). While the exact date of the Protagoras is unknown, stylometry has indicated that it was written around the same time as the Gorgias; both are considered early works. My reading of these works assumes that the Protagoras was written in conjunction with the Gorgias, both works having been written after “Against the Sophists.”
In “Against the Sophists,” Isocrates’s first task is to set himself apart from sophists and “those who profess to teach political discourse” (47) by condemning them as charlatans. These men claim knowledge of future events and of an art which will make their students successful in political life, yet they have to ask for small sums of money from their students, which they have friends hold for safekeeping. If they really knew what they professed to teach, they would all be rich as well. Furthermore, rails Isocrates, “But men who inculcate virtue and sobriety—is it not absurd if they do not trust in their own students before all others? For it is not to be supposed that men who are honorable and just-dealing with others will be dishonest with the very preceptors who have made them what they are” (47). Of course, these charlatans cannot teach justice because they do not know what justice is. In fact, Isocrates claims that justice cannot be taught at all: “And let no one suppose that I claim that just living can be taught; for, in a word, I hold that there does not exist an art of the kind which can implant sobriety and justice in depraved natures” (49).
Although Isocrates does not believe that justice and sobriety can be taught, he admits this fact with some remorse. “For myself,” laments Isocrates, “I should have preferred above great riches that philosophy had as much power as these men claim” (48). Clearly, Isocrates views his own pedagogical program as one encapsulated under the rubric philosophia, or “love of wisdom.” However, in Isocrates’s version of philosophia, as Takis Poulakis notes,
Acquisition of knowledge designates a cognitive activity that makes possible—without being a part of—another activity that pertains to the use and application of knowledge. Because knowledge itself cannot suggest the uses to which it can be put, it follows that instruction in a field of study will always be incomplete unless it cultivates the aptitude to know what to do with and how to use acquired knowledge. (96)
Isocrates sets himself up as the model on which the instruction of students should be based. In other words, knowledge can be attained quite easily, but to learn what to do with that knowledge students must turn to Isocrates. As such, “Against the Sophists” can be seen as a treatise advertising the type of education Athenian aristocrats would have received at Isocrates’s school.
Contemplating the opening of the Academy upon his return from his tour of Italy, Plato must have known that he would be in competition with Isocrates. Of course, this is no reason to slander Isocrates and his school. But we must remember that the memory of Socrates’s trial would still be fresh in the minds of aristocratic Athenians searching for an education to make them successful in political life, and any pedagogy which stems from the corruptor of the youth of Athens would be suspect. If Plato wanted his school to be successful, he must not only have shown the validity of his own pedagogy but placed into question the pedagogy of his rival. These two tasks are accomplished in the Protagoras and the Gorgias.
The Protagoras is centered around Socrates’s concern for his youthful companion Hippocrates’s desire to become Protagoras’s pupil. Socrates cautions Hippocrates not to risk his soul on someone the youth knows nothing about: “And watch, or the sophist might deceive us in advertising what he sells, the way merchants who market food for the body do. In general, those who market provision don’t know what is good or bad for the body—they just recommend everything they sell […]” (313d). From the outset, then, we find that Socrates is skeptical about Protagoras’s suitability as a teacher and whether or not that which Protagoras professes to teach is worthy of learning. Accordingly, one major issue in the Protagoras is where to obtain the best education.
With this in mind, we might infer that Socrates’s skepticism about Protagoras’s pedagogy is actually a form of synecdoche. Plato is attempting to breed skepticism about the pedagogies of all sophistic schools, in anticipation of the opening of the Academy. This is corroborated by the elaborate scene depicting Socrates and Hippocrates’s entry to the home of Callias where Protagoras and several other prominent sophists are busy in one form of discourse or another. As Arieti notes, the manner in which Plato depicts this scene can only indicate that the Sophists are to be ridiculed rather than revered: “Aren’t we to see in this mocking description of the sophists and their flock Plato’s contempt for them? Each sophist commands awestruck respect for his supposed brilliance. But does he deserve it?” (119). Arieti questions whether the Sophists deserve the title “wise men.” Yet as a group they have managed to acquire this title, and it is important to Plato’s intentions that he identify them as a group. This fact becomes most significant after Socrates has refuted Protagoras in the dialogue.
Whether or not the Sophists make good teachers is one question, but this question relies on what they profess to teach and whether or not it is, in fact, teachable. When asked by Socrates, Protagoras admits to teaching “the art of citizenship, and to be promising to make men good citizens” (319b). In other words, Protagoras claims to teach aretē or civic virtue. Socrates denies that virtue can be taught, giving reasons, and challenges Protagoras to explain how virtue is teachable (320b). In predictable Socratic fashion, an argument ensues with Socrates harassing Protagoras to the point of withdrawal.
Much happens in the dialogue before the debate comes to a close. However, for my proposed reading, I am predominantly interested in the outcome of the argument and it’s implications. Michael Frede notes, “That a dialectical argument is sometimes meant to refute the respondent’s claim to knowledge, rather than to show that his thesis is false […]” (xvii). This supports my reading of the Protagoras as a refutation of sophistic pedagogy quite nicely. If Protagoras is the wisest of the Sophists, he must also be the most able to teach that which he professes to teach. But Socrates shows that Protagoras’s claim to teach civic virtue must be false because Protagoras cannot accurately say what virtue is. Thus, by refuting Protagoras, Socrates successfully refutes all sophistic pedagogy, as none can be a more able teacher than the “wisest man.” However, Socrates also admits that he has not arrived at the true nature of virtue or its teachability at the end of the Protagoras (361d). Nevertheless, if it was not Plato’s intention to prove that virtue—and its constituent parts, justice, temperance, and piety—are wisdom (and thus teachable) in this dialogue, he has promised to resolve this conundrum at a later date (361d-362).
If young aristocratic Athenians want to be successful in political life, what could benefit them more than virtue. Yet Isocrates professes that he cannot teach virtue. This admission allows Plato to indicate in the Protagoras that he not only knows what virtue is but can teach it more ably than the wisest man, effectively countering the negative opinions associated with his mentor Socrates. But why does Plato not simply show how virtue is to be taught in the dialogue? Reading the dialogue as an advertisement suggests that Plato does not show how virtue can be taught because he wants students to have to come to his school in order to learn what he has to teach. At the very least, he has shown that Athenians will not learn the true nature of virtue by placing themselves under the tutelage of the Sophists, or Isocrates.
Although Isocrates has undertaken to separate himself from the Sophists, Classical Greek aristocrats interested in a rhetorical education would have known that Isocrates was once the student of the sophist Gorgias. While no mention of Gorgias is made in the Protagoras, Plato lumps all the Sophists, which would have included Gorgias, together in the dialogue. In this way, the Sophists and any pedagogy which stems from them have been refuted in the Protagoras. Thus, the Protagoras, as advertisement, could not have been written at a more opportune moment—just when Plato was about to open a school which would compete against his contemporary’s school for Athens’s best and brightest pupils.
In Isocrates’s own advertisement, he professes to teach knowledge, but, more importantly, he professes to teach how to apply that knowledge once it has been acquired. The notion of acquiring a certain knowledge without also acquiring the ability to apply that knowledge would have struck Plato as odd. From Socrates’s questioning of Gorgias in the dialogue of the same name we know that for Plato to become is to be: “And thus for the other things according to the same argument, is the one who has learned each set of things such as the science makes each man?” (460b). Plato posits that this sort of foundational knowledge is almost impossible to come by. Undoubtedly, Plato’s notion of philosophia is not the same as Isocrates’s; in fact, their views are exactly opposite on these points.
Thus, Plato’s next task in advertising his school is to prove that what Isocrates teaches is not the foundational knowledge which makes men good. At this point, we might ask ourselves why Plato doesn’t come forth and indicate Isocrates as the target of his attacks. At least one reason, I contend, must have been his own reputation as a virtuous man. In order to avoid slandering Isocrates directly and looking somewhat-less-than virtuous, Plato indirectly slanders Isocrates through the use of their respective teachers in the Gorgias. This further places Isocrates pedagogy into question and marks it as something other than philosophia.
Within the first few pages of the Gorgias, Plato has Socrates question Gorgias regarding what art he professes to teach (447c). Of course, the Gorgias of this dialogue does not profess to teach philosophia; rather, he professes to teach rhêtorikê. Schiappa asserts, “Names imply orientations: Rhêtorikê as literally the art or skill of the rhetor privileges the ambition of political success, while philosophia as the love of wisdom privileges fidelity to the truth. From the very beginning Rhetoric was defined at cross-purposes with the emerging rival discipline of philosophy” (10). Reading the Gorgias as advertisement, we can see that Plato coins the word rhêtorikê in order to place the pedagogies of his school and the school of his rival at odds. Further, he must show that the rhêtorikê taught by Isocrates is amoral and base, unlike the virtuous philosophia that he teaches.
Continuing his line of questioning Socrates asks, “[w]hat, of the things that are, does rhetoric happen to be about?” (449d). As the investigation ensues, we find that rhetoric, at least as Gorgias teaches it, is involved with persuasion regarding justice: “Which persuasion, then does rhetoric produce in law courts and the other mobs, about just and unjust things? The one from which believing comes without knowing, or the one from which knowing comes?” (454e). Since the law courts do not provide a person, rhetor or not, the time to teach an entire mob about justice, Gorgias must answer that rhetoric is the art of persuasion from which believing comes without knowing. If this is the case, then of utmost importance is whether or not the rhetor is a just man, for knowing the correct path in the law courts means nothing if the rhetor will persuade the mob towards an unjust belief. As Arieti observes,
[T]he dialogue is said to concern itself with politics and the nature of the true politician. It appears from the dialectical arguments that the truest politician is the one who can make his fellow citizens better, that is, more virtuous. But it is also agreed that no historical politician, even the most famous and illustrious of them, has ever been able to make any of his citizens better, for unconcerned about the virtue of citizens, the politician was interested only in power. (80)
But the politician’s unconcern for the virtue of citizens is a moot point, for as I have shown in my reading of the Protagoras, the Sophists cannot teach virtue because they do not know what it is, much less persuade the mob to virtue’s constituent justice. However, rhetors/politicians using sophistic practice can and do persuade the mob to whichever subjective belief they wish. The recognition of this power must have been a great thorn in Plato’s side as it is just this sort of persuasion which condemned to death his mentor Socrates.
In this fashion, then, Plato has indirectly accused Isocrates of teaching an amoral rhetoric, rather than foundational knowledge. Additionally, he has shown that virtue is teachable and that, if anyone alive can teach virtue, he can. Thus, Plato has set himself up as the preeminent teacher of Athens’s young aristocratic elite, by using the Protagoras and Gorgias as advertisements for the opening of his school in the grove at Academus. Granted, the two dialogues do much more than the things I have claimed in this paper. But if we are to heed Schiappa’s warnings, when we read them as philosophical treatises or literature, we must also read them as advertisements.
Arieti, James A. Interpreting Plato: The Dialogues as Drama. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991.
Bizzell, Patricia and Bruce Herzberg, eds. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Boston: Bedford, 1990.
Frede, Michael. Introduction. Protagoras. By Plato. Trans. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992. vii-xxxiv.
Isocrates. “Against the Sophists.” Trans. George Norlin. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford, 1990. 46-49.
Plato. Gorgias. Trans. James H. Nichols Jr. Ithica: Cornell UP, 1998.
---. Protagoras. Trans. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.
Poulakos, Takis. Speaking for the Polis: Isocrates’ Rhetorical Education. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 1997.
Schiappa, Edward. “Rhêtorikê: What’s in a Name? Toward a Revised History of Early Greek Rhetorical Theory.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 78 (1992): 1-15.