Monday, January 14, 2013

Flattery Will Get You . . . A Delicious Meal

Mortimer Adler says that in writing the Great Books, the Great Writers carried on the Great Conversation. I’m definitely in the middle of that conversation now. A year ago, I read Aristotle’s Topics and Sophistical Refutations, and in them, learned from The Philosopher many ways of winning an argument, not all of them above board. This January, I’m reading Plato’s diatribe on underhanded rhetorical devices, his Gorgias. Where Aristotle assumes that a speaker wants to win over a jury or an audience, Plato’s Socrates only wants the truth:
And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute; for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another.
If we’re ill, says Socrates, we run to the doctor for a bodily cure, even though it may be painful or distasteful. If we are ignorant or harbor lies, we should run to philosophy for the cure of the mind. If we are guilty of vice, we should run to the judge and ask for punishment, so that our soul is cured.
I would rather that my lyre should be inharmonious, and that there should be no music in the chorus which I provided; aye, or that the whole world should be at odds with me, and oppose me, rather than that I myself should be at odds with myself, and contradict myself.
Following a standard formula, Socrates classes goods into these three categories, in order of increasing importance: external goods, goods of the body, and goods of the soul. The art for securing the first class is the art of money-making. The other two categories each have just two corresponding arts each: gymnastic and medicine improve the body, and legislation and justice benefit the soul. Corresponding to these last four are four deceitful practices that Socrates will not grace with the title of “art.” He calls them instead “flatteries” or “experiences.” The flattery of cookery corresponds to medicine: effective medicine often tastes bad, while good cookery makes us want to eat its product for its taste, whether or not the food is healthy. The flattery of fashion-and-cosmetics substitutes for gymnastic, making us look younger and more attractive without our actually being so. To legislature, Socrates poses sophistry, and to justice, rhetoric. And when I think of a slick lawyer making an argument to a jury, using more manipulative techniques than valid arguments, I can see why Socrates critiques rhetoric so harshly.

I think the Gorgias one of the best of the Platonic dialogs, and I love reading it. But as pure and as noble as Plato’s Socrates seems, he makes mistakes. For one thing, he always simplifies a bit too much. Only two arts for the good of the soul? And of course he commits the error that he commits in every dialog: stating that a person who has learned the good will always do it.
Socrates: He who has learned what is just is just?
Gorgias: To be sure.
In Gorgias, Plato comes his closest to getting it right, I think. He has Socrates teach that people who do evil want what’s good and so don’t actually do what they want to do. But still he ascribes the problem all to ignorance. Aristotle is so much better on this issue, saying that the person who knows good and doesn’t do it is ignoring or forgetting some essential ethical premise.

Despite little problems, Socrates inspires me with his relentless (and often annoying) pursuit of the truth. And his search in this dialog leads him through careful explanations of several noble doctrines. To suffer injustice is better than to do injustice, he says. The unjust man who seeks correction, though, is less miserable than the one who gets away with it – not happier, since neither is happy, just less miserable. Best of all, of course, is never to act unjustly. But then few of us can attest to that from experience. Most of us need Socrates’ advice: run to the judge!

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