- Plato on the Rhetoric of Philosophers and Sophists
With her new book, Marina McCoy, an assistant professor of philosophy at Boston College, succeeds in opening up new lines of inquiry into Plato’s formative engagement(s) with rhetoric: first, by involving other Platonic dialogues in the ongoing interrogations of the Gorgias and Phaedrus and, second, by patiently considering the implications of the different accounts of sophists and philosophers that result. These new investigations are aided by the diverse disciplinary voices with which Marina McCoy herself converses—works by classicists, critics, philosophers, political theorists, and rhetoricians, works taken from a wide range of journals. In her interpretation of the Gorgias, for example, one encounters the names one would expect from a thorough and up-to-date review of these different literatures: Arieti, Dodds, Fussi, Gordon, McComiskey, Nightingale, Saxonhouse, and Yunis. Thus, Plato scholars from both rhetoric and philosophy will find much of interest in this book.
McCoy provides a clear overview of her project in her introduction (1–22). In separate readings of the Apology, Protagoras, Gorgias, Republic, Sophist and Theaetetus, and Phaedrus, three interrelated claims are presented and developed: first, consistently distinguishing the philosopher from the sophist was a difficult challenge for Plato—and for the ancient Athenians; second, Plato’s conception of philosophy includes “important rhetorical dimensions,” and third, Plato ultimately differentiates the philosopher [End Page 191] from the sophist on the basis of character (3). To substantiate these claims, the dramatic and historical elements of Plato’s dialogues are interpreted in tandem with their explicit arguments. McCoy notes that the experience of reading the dialogues often reproduces the psychological tensions captured by them. In other words, Plato uses rhetorical techniques to cause his readers both to question philosophy and to engage in it as they do so (7). At the same time, McCoy recognizes that the terms of these discussions were hotly contested: “The Greek mindset at the time of Plato is one of passionate interest in the nature, power, and danger of logos : terms such as philosophia, rhetorike, sophist, and rhetor become part of the weaponry in the battle” (11). By attending to these elements in the seven dialogues examined in the following six chapters, McCoy seeks to show that philosophy is better defined as an interaction of souls than as a collection of analytical techniques, that the approach of Plato’s Socrates “relies more on phronesis and kairos than techne ” (15).
These broad claims are immediately tested in the second chapter of the book, “Elements of Gorgianic Rhetoric and the Forensic Genre in Plato’s Apology ” (23–55). Here McCoy further develops two observations about the Apology. First, Socrates’ claims to the contrary, the Apology actually incorporates a number of elements common in forensic speeches at the time of his trial: a standard speech structure, arguments from probability ( eike ), and portrayal of character ( ethopoioa ) (26, 40). But perhaps more provocatively, second, in the Apology Plato seems to allude to Gorgias’ In Defense of Palamedes ; both speeches portray their speakers as public benefactors who cannot have committed the crimes of which they are accused but who nonetheless cannot defend themselves effectively under the conditions of their trial (32–39). When McCoy then calls our attention to the historical elements in the Apology —the life and death of Chaerophon, the role played in Athenian culture and politics by the oracle at Delphi, and the rules governing testimony—we must consider the possibility that Socrates may successfully be using rhetorical techniques, not to win his juror’s favor but to confuse and challenge them. Thrown off their moral balance, McCoy argues, his jurors might be led to question themselves. “Socrates’ risky choice to appeal to the oracle story forces each juror to make a choice: he must decide whether Socrates’ philosophical activity is a moral and even religious virtue” (51). In and through the Apology, Plato may be doing something very similar for his readers: “If Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen is a forensic piece disguised as [an] encomium, perhaps Plato’s Apology...