Persuasion: Who and Whom

Who Persuades and Who Should be Persuaded? Gorgias and Socrates

by

Howard Adelman

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in different ways undermined the importance of sophists because the latter concentrated more on argumentative technique and less slavish subservience to what they considered an elusive goal, tying those techniques to virtue. In the contemporary world, ironically, in the teaching of humanities, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are far more revered as stars in the stellar universe of the Athenian intellectual world than Protagoras or Gorgias, Thrasymachus or Cratylus, even though the premises of the sophists dominate in the contemporary world. Excellence is now attached primarily to the methods used to advance knowledge rather than to a general ideal of how to develop virtuous souls.

The sophists fell into disrepute for many reasons, but perhaps the most important one was the war waged by their philosopher allies to undermine them. Further, a number of sophists had, in turn, used their techniques to teach how a public could be manipulated and not just influenced. They were ancient precursors to our current set of psychometric gurus who employ mass data and feedback loops. Teachers like Socrates used this reality to paint all sophists with the brush of corruption, with catering to populism rather than the pursuit of truth, as if those two were the only dichotomous options.

The reverse was more descriptive of reality. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, all apologists for an aristocratic political system from different perspectives, used rhetoric to turn the term “sophist” into an epithet of abuse, to heap contempt upon these teachers. They accused the sophists of being servants to false facts in service and subservience to undercutting ideals and traditional values. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, in their turn, became apologists for what we would now call the resurgent right.

Look at the case of Protagoras, perhaps the greatest of the sophists who taught relativism in opposition to a search for absolute Truth, Beauty and Justice. Reality was a matter of interpretation. Each person experiences the world in a different way and understands that world differently because of the frame brought to understanding the world. What we know are constructs. “Man is the measure of all things,” was the distillation of his most famous aphorism. More fully, he claimed that, “Of all things, the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.” The rules of determining what is true and what is not true are constructed and made by humans. So, one might conclude, there is no Truth.

In fact, sophists were generally agnostic on that question. The more important issue was not whether the standards for establishing Truth were absolute, but that both the Constructivists and the Realists by and large generally adhered to a common body of rules. The methods for establishing truths as distinct from falsehoods were shared. In the end of days, whether knowledge was a matter relative to experience, judgment and interpretation, or about absolute values, did not have to be determined.

In Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, like the dialogue Protagoras, there is a conversation between Socrates and his sophist rivals. The topic of Gorgias is rhetoric itself. It is about the art of persuasion. Gorgias himself happened to be a foreigner who had immigrated to Athens, attracted by its intellectual and artistic reputation as well as its political solidity. The nub of the debate was Socrates’ contention that rhetoric had to be subservient to philosophy; without the guidance of philosophy, rhetoric disaggregated into techniques of flattery and manipulation. Proper persuasion can only exist within a moral frame, Socrates argued. Otherwise rhetoric only serves the making of money and the acquisition of power and not a higher purpose.

Sounds familiar? In Plato’s telling, Socrates traps Gorgias and the sophists by insisting they first provide a definition of rhetoric. If Plato had not been telling the tale, they would have replied, “Look at our practices.” You cannot define hockey or baseball or basketball with a simple definition. Each sport is a set of practices and rules. The same is true of rhetoric. But Plato’s Socrates in the dialogue Gorgias reveals his true colours. He no longer professes his ignorance as a technique for sucking his opponents into self-contradictions and incoherence. Socrates reveals himself as an evangelist for Truth. In his discussions with three sophists, first Gorgias, then Polus and finally Callicles, Socrates ends up preaching and exhorting rather than arguing and persuading.

However, that is not how he starts out. Speaking of Gorgias, Socrates states, “I want to learn from him what is the scope of his art and just what he professes and teaches.” (447c) So the conversation begins with Socrates asking Gorgias to introduce himself, to say who he is and what he does. And when reading the answer, we immediately sense a set-up. For Gorgias comes across as an arrogant know-it-all, as someone who can answer any question posed, and do so concisely; further, Gorgias insists, that he has not been asked a new question in years.

Socrates begins with an argument very familiar from other dialogues – the analogue of expertise. A doctor is called a doctor because he has an expertise in medicine, in treating and healing patients. A shoemaker is designated as such because he has an expertise in making and repairing shoes. Polus agrees and says, “There are many arts…experimentally devised by experience, for experience guides our life along the path of art, inexperience along the path of chance.” (448c) We know then and there that we are into a rip-roaring discussion, for Socrates was the last to allow experience to serve as the arbiter of Truth, Beauty and Justice.

Socrates then makes a vital distinction, one between dialogue and rhetoric with the clear implication that he, Socrates, is wedded to dialogue in contrast to the Sophist reverence for rhetoric. At the same time, Socrates uses the distinction to put down Polus before Gorgias, his teacher, and to use irony and sarcasm to put down Gorgias. Socrates is clearly not fazed by dissing his opponents.

The path to logical ruin for the sophists begins with the admission that many arts have to do with words, not just rhetoric, but medicine does not have to do with just words, the skill previously ascribed by Gorgias as characteristic of rhetoric. Therefore, the mastery of the use of words is not specific to rhetoric. Thus, Socrates concludes, “rhetoric is not concerned with every kind of words.” (449e) The difference, Gorgias claims, is that rhetoric deals exclusively with words. But then he commits hara-kiri when he asserts, compatible with the character Plato gives him, that the subject matter of rhetoric is “the greatest and noblest of human affairs. (451d) Once Socrates has moved Gorgias from the safe ground of technique to a claim to serve the highest values, Gorgias is finished and Socrates metaphorically murders him with his own words deliberately, systematically and without mercy.

There is a major lesson here. In discussing how to deal with the phenomenon of Trumpism, stick to technique and do not get into debates about the highest and most important values. Stick to falsifying and establishing facts. Stick to the formal and informal rules of argument. Do not get into a debate over values. And the reason is rather simple. If you debate values, one party in Camp B holds the ones they esteem with far more dedication and commitment than you do. For you consider values to be debateable; they do not. They are mostly unbudgeable on those values, especially in dealing with those who have such a weak dedication to ultimate values. Stick to arguments about civility and process, values which many of them share.

In sum, if the persuaders spend their time undercutting one another, the true opposition will move in to occupy the territory left in the vacuum.

In the case of the other party in Camp B, our contemporary cynics, note the following. They can be subdivided into four groups – Tom Friedman in the NYT 22 February 2017 suggested five, but two were the same group looked at from different angles – Trump as entertainer and monopolist of the news day and the essential Trump who holds loyalty to himself as an absolute, exclusive and highest value. These are but two sides of his malignant narcissism.

The second group led by Stephen Bannon, the Rasputin of the White house, along with Stephen Miller and others, represents what Friedman calls Trump crazy. We are not certain to what degree they are part of the backdrop to make Trump look like a relative moderate, or whether they have Trump under their spell with their combination of cynicism and apocalyptic vision or the degree to which Trump is an integral member of that group – a position I tend to take. I believe it is important to make the distinction, but it is one irrelevant to the discussion of persuasion. For Trump and his acolytes and Bannon and his fellow crazies, all are unreachable.

There is another group, not really separable from the Trump narcissistic ideological camp, the incompetents – Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Secretary, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Tom Price, an ex-orthopedic surgeon, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Ben Carson, another retired surgeon, Secretary of Housing. They are different members of the crazies in the Trump camp, milder, not so mad, and not as bent on general mayhem and destruction, but more focused in the service they are willing and eager to perform. A few of them possibly could be reached, but it is questionable whether it is worth the effort.

It is the other two groups that are of greatest interest. Friedman conflates two different mismatched groups. There is the clean-up crew, who appear on television, bask in the shared limelight and manage to share extensively in Trump’s lying and deception, who are Trump’s acolytes. They ae but appendages to Trump’s malignant narcissism. They should not be conflated with the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, and Nikki Haley, his Ambassador to the UN. The latter two are NOT clean-up crew. They are independent voices who serve as correctors – a very different function – to Trump’s statements, often overtly contradicting his policy preferences. The Secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson, and The National Security Adviser, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, belong in the camp of correctors and offsetters to the madness and chaos of the Trump enterprise. They will all listen to reason and conduct policy with the same attention to facts and logic as the members of Camp A.  They have strong convictions, but are open to communication. This suggests that foreign affairs and defense may be the least to suffer least, at least on the ground, from Trump’s rambling, inchoate and dangerous musings.

The other group that is more difficult to make cognitive contact with are members of the traditional Republican Party, including the Tea Party members, who supinely bowed to Trump both before and after his unwanted takeover. Reince Priebus represents this group in the White House and it is questionable how long he can last among the chaos of the competing groups since his greatest quality, his willingness to be a supplicant, is the last one needed to bring discipline and order to the White House. But that is a matter strictly to the benefit of the opposition. For the real centre of power for the party members in the takeover are in Congress. Their pact with the devil to get their favourite priorities through Congress – tax cuts, dismantling Obamacare, appointing right-wingers to the Supreme Court, deregulation – will mean that most of them, except for the bravest such as John McCain, will stay loyal to Trump as long as he advances their domestic agenda.

The bottom line – foreign affairs and defense seem to be in safer hands than the domestic agenda. But the two are conflated when it comes to immigration and refugee policy. Does John F. Kelly belong to the cluster of incompetents in the Trump camp eager and willing to serve as his surrogate in his main enterprise of bashing aliens? Or, given his military record as a Marine Corps General and former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, there is every indication that he is both a loyal and obedient soldier to his Commander-in-Chief and an independent individual, like Mattis and Tillerson. He also has considerable political experience having served as the Commandant’s Liaison Officer to the U.S. House of Representatives starting in 1995. However, he has little respect for the “chattering classes” and those who push a softer approach to ISIS. But he does know and understand Islam.

The real danger is that these independent thinkers and doers will be alienated by the opposition if they are regarded simply as Trump supplicants. They are not and will not be. Further, they have their independent and various definitions of what is greatest and noblest in human affairs – from courage and service to country to the ex-Goldman Sachs boys in the Trump entourage who I have not discussed who “judge wealth to be the greatest blessing for man.”

Recognizing all of this, how and who can be persuaded to deviate from the mad Trump enterprise if rhetoric is indeed in its sum and substance, the art of persuasion? (452e and 453a) As mentioned above, the constituencies discussed and analyzed above are divided in accordance with whether, and to what degree, they can be appealed to through persuasion. But I must return to the prior issue – the persuaders, for they too are a motley crew and some of them are as likely to undercut the enterprise of persuasion as advance it. I mention here only those who disrupted the meetings of members of congress when they returned to their home constituencies and proved they were more devotees of chaos in their commitment to resistance than to victory for reason and civility.

On the other hand, I listened to the debate among the candidates vying to be chair of the Democratic National Committee. The debate made clear that the issue of how to confront Trump and his supporters and how to develop a unified strategy in Camp A will require much more work. I was very encouraged by the civility, the reasonableness, the understanding of the various candidates and their comprehension from different perspectives of the challenges they face. I did not choose a favourite, though I had my inclinations (they tended to come from the second level rather than the first or third level candidates), but I would be happy with any one of them as leader of the Democratic Party.

I did agree with Pete Buttigieg, the mayor from South Bend, Indiana, that it would be a mistake if too much focus was placed on Trump, which the tactics of the two leading contenders, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, and Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, seemed to stress. I found the Executive Director of the Idaho Democratic Party to be very winning. Generally, they all recognized the need to peel away support from Republicans in general at the grass roots level through hard work and dialogue in areas that the Democratic Party had neglected. The defence of democracy seems to be in good hands.

If the liberals concentrate on expanding their base rather than fighting among themselves, peeling away support from Trump and Republicans rather than insisting on total and absolute resistance and non-cooperation, they can rebuild the opposition into a victory machine. At the same time, they must enter into dialogue in areas and with persons who are reasonable even when they are not Democrats. The commitment to reason, the commitment to civility, the commitment to institutions, all must take priority over partisanship.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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