Saturday, April 9, 2016

Plato's Gorgias, Entry 1

So I started listening to Plato's Gorgias on my MP3. I bring it up because it goes back to an issue I have wrestled with over the years:  are there real answers to adversaries like Callicles? But before Callicles there is a VERY timely discussion of rhetoric. So I will concentrate on that here.

Gorgias admits that the rhetorician does not know medicine but knows how to persuade patients to submit to the knife. In fact, the specialty of the rhetorician is to persuade. Thus the students of Gorgias, and the other accomplished sophists, can be very powerful, more powerful than those who actually know the arts themselves. Now, convincing sick people to go to the doctor seems like a great thing. But, as Gorgias admits, specialists at persuasion can also persuade others to do bad things.

Gorgias says the teacher can't be held responsible for students using their training for evil. But rhetoric is a particular kind of skill, a skill at persuading, completely neutral, that bends others to the will of the speaker, so the potential for abuse is readily apparent.

I could go on at length about the many examples I've seen of rhetoric over the course of the presidential campaign, but I want to focus on an exchange one of the candidates had with the head of the Sierra Club before the campaign. You can find the video of this on YouTube if you want to see it. He demolishes this man, who was, admittedly, unprepared for the exchange. I still can't tell whether this candidate believes what he says, but he is certainly capable of defeating others in debate. I was so struck by this that I went back and examined the data for climate change, and of course it was overwhelming. The so-called 'pause' the candidate mentions is the result of an extremely warm year, 1998, apparently brought about by a powerful El Nino.  The candidate went on at length about how it showed that there hasn't been global warming in 18 years. His poor opponent was not prepared for this exchange and looked bad.

I'm sure this exchange has also been used to try to defeat the experts who know about such things. So, you can see that this is directly to Socrates' point. Rhetoric can be used to convince those ignorant on a subject to believe things that are untrue. I'm sure you've also seen lawmakers evade the question of climate change by saying they are not scientists, just like Gorgias says rhetoricians are not doctors. But the scientists ARE scientists, and if those who don't know will go online and exert even the modest effort I made to understand the data, they will be convinced as I have been.

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