CriticaLink | Plato: Phaedrus | Guide to Sections 270 B - 274 B

Socrates: Well, isn't the method of medicine in a way the same as the method of rhetoric?

With his comparison of rhetoric to medicine, Socrates's commitment to a rhetoric founded on dialectic joins with his earlier outline of a psychology. Just as a doctor must know how bodies with different constitutions react to different treatments, a rhetorician must understand how different kinds of soul respond to the persuasive force of rhetoric.

The three steps to a proper mastery of rhetoric seem to correspond to the line of discussion Socrates is pursuing:

  1. To describe the soul and the various forms it can take (Socrates provides an account of the soul in his elaborate myth of the procession of chariots in sections 247 D - 248 E).
  2. To indicate what actions the soul takes and what kinds of forces influence the soul (in sections 250 D - 257 B, Socrates offers an account of how the soul responds to stimulation from without and to impulses from within).
  3. To categorize the kinds of speeches that will affect particular kinds of soul. (Socrates is about to treat this issue, although not in as systematic a manner as Plato's student Aristotle in his Rhetoric).

Although on the whole extremely general, Socrates's statements on what successful rhetorician must do introduce concepts that are central to the Western rhetorical tradition. In Socrates's Greek, the word psychagogia--which translates into "soul-leading"--describes the nature of rhetoric. As the goal of rhetoric is to persuade, a rhetorician must understand what techniques of persuasion will function best with particular souls, as well as in particular circumstances. This grasp of timing and appropriateness is kairos in Greek. Although the concept of kairos is developed by the sophists, whom he generally scorns, Socrates recognizes here that a sensitivity to the nature of the specific occasion is a basic skill for the orator.

In this presentation of an "art of rhetoric" worthy of its name, Socrates offers a practical application of his earlier psychology and his emphasis on dialectic. Dialectic allows the speaker or writer to discover the truth about the topic to be treated, and a grasp of the kinds of listeners will allow the speaker to convey this truth in the most convincing way. Here Socrates seems to concur with the personification of rhetoric in section 260 D, who argues that even those who know the truth need rhetoric to pass it along to others.

Socrates tells a story about Teisias to illustrate a type of rhetoric that appeals only to opinion: if a weak but brave man robs a strong but cowardly man, Teisias recommends that neither party tell the truth about the incident in court. The coward will betray his cowardice if he tells the truth, and the weak man will be able to appeal to the improbability that he could have beaten such a strong opponent. Socrates criticizes this kind of reasoning as an appeal to the lowest common denominator. Only a rhetoric that seeks to convey the truth in manner appropriate to the listeners--the kind of rhetoric Plato uses in his philosophical dialogues--can be called an art.

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