Jun 17, 2019
A purchase occurred, and that purchase was made by me; even so, I am unsure whether I freely made the purchase or not. In the age of Amazon, I made an “impulse buy”: by means of mathematics I cannot explain, an algorithm offered me items based on my earlier purchases, and I clicked the “Buy Now” button to purchase one of them. There was no deliberation on my part, so there could be no decision, really. I was not so much persuaded to make a purchase—entirely unnecessary, by the way, and barely wished for—as somehow coerced to do so by my own ungoverned desire and the technological ease of the delivery upon that desire—including, in this case, a literal delivery, since I am a member of Amazon Prime, and the item arrived before I remembered buying it. I was moved almost involuntarily, as if by muscle memory. Perhaps I am alone in this experience, but I doubt it. The model of the informed consumer who exercises liberty in the marketplace through reason may sometimes be an accurate one, but I suspect that online shopping has made that model quaint.
Was my experience an experience of rhetoric? As a target of Amazon’s algorithm, was I an audience and Amazon a rhetor? Rhetoric is an ancient art, one that has been practiced and studied for well over twenty-five hundred years, and we are so used to it taking different forms in different ages, under the influence of different historical contexts and media, that it seems obvious to us that contemporary online marketing is just another instance of the art of rhetoric.1 But is it? Does the influencing that takes place within the forum of FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google), which is ostensibly a “virtual marketplace of ideas, goods, and services,” truly represent the art of rhetoric? Allow me to reflect on Plato’s Phaedrus to answer that question.
My referring to the Phaedrus may seem suspect if you know something about rhetoric, because you probably think Plato was altogether opposed to rhetoric. But that is a misrepresentation of Plato’s view, though a common one. Generations of Plato scholars have taken selected passages of Plato’s dialogues (especially from the Gorgias), passages that are highly critical of some uses of rhetoric, and put them forth as representative of Plato’s opinion of rhetoric as a whole. I have shown elsewhere that this is a mistake.2 In fact, Plato is opposed to one kind of rhetoric, which Aristotle will call sophistry, but in favor of another kind, which Aristotle will call rhetoric informed by its counterpart, dialectic.3 Even those philosophers who recognize that Plato defends a form of rhetoric still call it philosophy, though.4 We have yet to come to terms with the distortions the anti-rhetorical tradition has done to our understanding of Plato and, more importantly, of ourselves as linguistic animals. Yet because Plato is so attuned to sophistic pretenses to rhetoric, he is helpful in trying to distinguish coercion from sophistry, and sophistry from rhetoric. And so permit me to examine Socrates’s definition of rhetoric in the Phaedrus in some detail and to use it to suggest that, without an understanding of the soul, there can be no art of rhetoric: there can be only sophistry or force. If that is true, then any instruction in the rhetorical art—in rhetoric and composition, in speech and debate, in marketing and communications—needs to address the soul; otherwise, it risks doing a disservice, if not violence, to both itself and (beware the term) its users.
The Phaedrus is famously divided between the topics of love and rhetoric. After meeting his friend Phaedrus and accompanying him outside the city (227a–230e), Socrates listens to Phaedrus recount one speech about love, and then Socrates delivers two more (231a–257b), after which the two men discuss the nature of rhetoric (257c–279b), only to head back to the city after a shared prayer (279b–c). It is in the discussion of rhetoric that Socrates offers his definition (261a): “Well, then, isn’t the rhetorical art, taken as a whole, a way of directing the soul by means of speech, not only in the law courts and on other public occasions but also in private?”5 I am no classicist, but the Greek is even more concise: rhetoric is a tekhnê psukhagôgia tis dia logôn, “a certain art of soul-leading through words.”6 We are used to thinking of rhetoric as an art of language, which it is—the third of the three arts of language of the trivium.7 But Plato makes language the instrument of the art’s essential character, its essence as an activity of soul-leading, or psychagogy. The defining purpose of rhetoric, for Plato, is soul-leading. What, then, is the soul, and how does one lead it?
Earlier in the dialogue, Socrates offers two speeches in response to the speech by Lysias that Phaedrus has been memorizing, which defends the practice of giving one’s sexual favors to someone who does not actually love one in order to get some advantage. (Yes, it really argues that.) In his first speech, Socrates defends the same thesis but does so in a characteristically Socratic manner, by defining terms and dividing subcategories; in the second speech, perhaps the greatest speech in the ancient world (even if never actually delivered), he defends the opposite thesis as atonement for the sacrilege he committed against Eros, or Love (who is a god), in the first speech. He argues that you should befriend someone who loves you, though that love is now a restrained form of philosophical friendship without sexual intercourse. It is in Socrates’s second speech that we get his discussion of the soul, for before he defines rhetoric as an art of soul-leading, he must already—as a rhetor—have spoken at length about the soul.