The age-old debate about whether rhetoric does more good than it does evil started with Aristotle and Plato.
While the philosophers agreed on many components of life, they differed in their perception of rhetoric. Plato thought the device could be used to lead people towards a negative outcome, such as the actions of Adolph Hitler – particularly in his “Trial for Treason” speech – that created Nazi following that led to World War II. On the other hand, people have used rhetoric to inspire positive change, such as Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech. In taking a look at the opinions of a couple of the first progressive thinkers, this essay will analyze who was correct, and who was wrong: Plato (who denounced rhetoric) or Aristotle (who supported the persuasive device). Plato’s and Aristotle’s opinions about rhetoric claim that words have the power to destroy and the power to heal, and this is proven because while Martin Luther King used his words to inspire peace, Adolph Hitler used them to generate war.
Plato felt that to be able to crawl out of the cave and to look at the sun is damaging to the person who does so, as the rest of mankind does not see the sun, and views he who has as being stupid. He is saying that enlightenment only makes a person appear left out, and it is not a desirable ideal. Furthermore, the one with more knowledge than the rest has the ability to attempt to influence them to act in certain ways, by using rhetoric (Morris, 14). This is why the artist’s bed is not the ideal, according to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” However, Aristotle believed that enlightenment, and the ability to speak and influence others is the symbol of the mental experience, and the written word is the symbol of the spoken word, and this is the ideal.
Plato held the view that if one is led out of the cave, in which only shadows can be seen and are understood as being sovereign entities, they will begin to see reality, but they will feel sympathetic to those who are still in the cave and are unable to see the light. If the person who has seen the light returns, he will not be able to see the shadows clearly on the wall (due to the fact that his eyes have not adjusted), and this will cause the others to think he is stupid, even though he is actually enlightened. The shadows are meant to be a symbol of the information that is contained in that society, and challenging those ideals through rhetoric can only cause trouble. Plato suggests an enlightened person may appear to be unintelligent, but they are just blinded by the illusions of others about reality, and no matter how logical the rhetoric, the common people will perceive it poorly because they do not understand what is being spoken. The enlightened one’s own concepts, which are real, are blinding them to the perceptions of the regular people, who are misguided. Essentially, the prisoners are thought to be modern man, while the person who was escorted out of the cave is a philosopher.
Given these metaphors, it could be concluded that Plato does not believe that being able to speak the truth through rhetoric is ideal. The ideal situation is to glean the impression of the shadows on the wall, even though they are not the original, true entities. They are essentially illusions of real objects. While it is not directly stated in the text, this could be taken to mean that thinking the way that the masses think, and being ignorant to the realities, is better than having seen the light and being blinded to the simpler, and incorrect, forms of contemplation.
However, Aristotle felt that rhetoric could be used to enlighten people. This would bring them closer to the ideal. He saw an importance in rhetoric, and he provides a clear understanding of it. Rhetoric gets into the details about the discourse involved with life. Aristotle’s views are based on a moral level and the value that he sees in rhetoric. But Aristotle recognizes the challenges in communicating a message. People have been struggling with this problem for many years. The strategies for providing rhetoric were developed by Latin speakers during the reign of the Roman Empire, (McTavish, 21). The techniques that were developed are applied today. Rhetoric is largely only accomplished when the speaker has good intent, Aristotle argues. An example of this would be Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech. In fact, one of the ways to captivate the audience is to have goodwill. This helps to show that Aristotle’s views on Rhetoric are that it has to be in line with good intentions. “What was vital in the art of persuasion was not just the content of the discourse, or the effect it would have on the audience but the moral character of the orator” (McTavish, 23).
In Aristotle’s “Rhetoric,” he defines rhetoric as being the ability to see the means of persuasion that are available. He referred to these as “proofs,” and they relate to the qualities of trustworthiness, trust, credibility and credence, and it is also a component to gain the trust of the audience. Aristotle gives much credit to the speaker, saying their moral character, the speech itself, and the speaker’s ability to influence emotions in the listener are important in persuading the listener. A major component of these characteristics when put into the debate with Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” is that the moral character of the speaker is held in high regard. These can be broken down into the “ethos,” “pathos,” and “logos.” “Of these three … Aristotle considers the ethos, the moral character of the speaker, to be the most effective means of persuasion in rhetoric” (McTavish, 28).
Comparing the Views
While both philosophers believed that the goal of the ideal state is to be ethical (Plato felt that returning to the cave was necessary; Aristotle believed that rhetoric needed to be used to educate others), Plato thought that rhetoric was evil because it could persuade others to act poorly – take Adolph Hitler convincing many to join the Nazi Party, for example, during his “Trial for Treason” speech. However, the two philosophers’ views differ significantly in several ways. While there is no direct reference to “rhetoric” or the “ideal” state in “Allegory of the Cave,” much of what is included relates closely to the ways by which each of the philosopher thought. A particular point where Aristotle’s views about ideals can be gleaned is through this passage: “While he does not lead us directly to a truth regarding virtue, he does tell us the five ways in which the truth can be reached through the intellect by means of affirmation or denial: via art, science, prudence, wisdom, and intuition” (Vasallo, 31). This forms the backbone of Aristotle’s views by which the reader can determine the core way that Aristotle thought differently than Plato, who did not believe in the true benefit of being intellectually enlightened in order to influence others.
Furthermore, while Plato is against rhetoric for its ability to convince people to do evil, Aristotle views it as more ethical. Aristotle, unlike Plato, says rhetoric can only convince others to do good, because the character of the speaker is taken into account. “Trusting the good character of the speaker, we are more likely to give credence to what he is telling us,” (McTavish, 22). Plato, on the other hand, said the character of the speaker could not be trusted, and it was therefore not a tool that could provide any benefit to society, (Vassallo, 22).
Ultimately, Plato and Aristotle differ in their opinion about rhetoric, as Plato believes that it drives people far away from ideals because it can be used for evil. However, Aristotle believed that rhetoric could be used as a way to achieve the ideal state. Plato felt that it could not be used in that regard, and was in fact evil. The differing views could indicate each philosopher’s perception about people. The capacity to provide convincing rhetoric has been used for the purposes of both good and evil, so in a way, each philosopher is correct about the way it is used. After all, if it were not for rhetoric, Hitler would not have convincing enough speeches to develop an entire army that would contribute to genocide. At the same time, if it were not for rhetoric, there may be no cohesion in the world, as rhetoric allows people to be on the same page. Rhetoric can put logic into perspective, and help guide a people to achieve great things. It can facilitate peace keeping, and break down barriers between countries. Plato and Aristotle bring up insightful points about enlightenment, and using knowledge to influence the masses, but, in the end, the topic of rhetoric and enlightenment are too general to quantify as being good or evil.
Aristotle. “Rhetoric.” Penn State University. n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.
McTavish, James. “The Ethos of the Practice of Rhetoric.” Ebsco. (2010): 2-17. Web. 14.
Morris, T.F. “Plato’s Cave.” Ebsco. (2009): 12-36. Web. 14. Nov. 2013
Plato. “Allegory of the Cave.” National University of Singapore. N.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.
Vassallo, Philip. “Notes on the Methods of Inquiry of Plato and Aristotle. Ebsco. (2004):
17-34. Web. 12. Nov. 2013