Notes from Boxing Plato’s Shadow

So interesting to read after the election:

A third reason the study of communication may be viewed as having dubious value is that humans can use communication to deceive and exploit one another, just as surely as they can use it to share truth and build community. It was this susceptibility to misuse that led Plato to argue forcefully against the teaching of rhetoric in ancient Athens.


Protagoras suggested that the “truth” of one side should be tested by the “truth” of the other and that advocates for each side have the burden of proving their side stronger. For this contribution, Protagoras was credited with being the “father of debate.”


In every era of history, there have been persons persons who have deceived and manipulated others through communication. Con artists and demagogues make a point of becoming effective persuaders, using every rhetorical device to achieve their ends, so, for many people, being persuaded becomes associated with being fooled, misled, deceived and defrauded.

Some went so far as to claim that truth does not matter, only effective persuasive technique.


Does rhetoric have a legitimate part to play in the discovery of truth, or is rhetoric only useful only to help explain truth after it has been discovered?


According to Socrates and Plato, Truth resides within the person and is to be discovered by being drawn out. According to Aristotle, Truth is all around in the environment and is to be taken in through the senses.


Aristotle saw that rhetoric can be used to promote either falsehood or truth, and he concluded that it is the duty of honorable citizens to arm themselves with knowledge and skill in rhetoric in order to defend the truth. He reasoned that truth is naturally easier to defend than falsehood. If good men fail to develop rhetorical skill, he said, they will have only themselves to blame when falsehood prevails.


And of course he gave us ethos, pathos and logos. He taught Alexander the Great, too. And so his ideas caught on. But still, Plato’s shadow looms, and to this day we box it.

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