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Jun 17, 2019

The Soul of Rhetoric in the Age of Amazon

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Crider Scott

Scott F. Crider

University of Dallas

Scott F. Crider has published extensively on the works of William Shakespeare and maintains the English Renaissance as one of his major research interests.

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The Soul of Rhetoric in the Age of Amazon

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.

Shop Until You Drop By Banksy

Shop Until You Drop, Banksy, 2011

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.

In that speech, Socrates states that one cannot understand love without first understanding “the truth about the nature of the soul, divine or human, by examining what it does and what is done to it” (245c). The soul’s essence—that it possesses agency, or freedom—is in fact the argument for its immortality:

But since we have found that a self- mover is immortal, we should have no qualms about declaring that this is the very essence and principle of a soul, for every bodily object that is moved from outside has no soul, while a body whose motion comes from within, from itself, does have a soul, that being the nature of a soul; and if this is so—that whatever moves itself is essentially a soul—then it follows necessarily that soul should have neither birth nor death. (245e)

So we have a convertible definition: the soul is that which moves itself; that which moves itself is soul.

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Papyrus Of Plato Phaedrus

Second-century papyrus of Plato’s Phaedrus from Oxyrhynchus, reconstructed from several fragments

I cannot here do justice to the mythology and theology of this great speech, but I must not leave it before pointing out that, in explaining the soul’s structure, Plato’s Socrates offers a simile: “Let us then liken the soul to the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer” (246a). The human soul is composed of two sources of motion, symbolized by horses: one is the soul’s desire (which is more governable) and one is the body’s (which is less so). They are guided by a charioteer that appears to be a form of practical wisdom. The soul’s horse is complacent, and the body’s unruly, and this team makes the charioteer’s job difficult. As well, that soul has had a prior vision of divine reality—including the chorus of the Olympian gods, one of whom each soul took as its guide—a vision reminding the soul of what it ought to seek in life, once it is incarnated. We see that Plato’s psychology is grounded in a mythological theology; be that as it may, the soul has a structure and a history.

Through language, the rhetor leads such a soul; as a consequence, instruction in Socratic rhetoric requires, first and foremost, an education in the soul—what it is and what its different kinds are, different souls having danced in different divine choruses: “[I]t is clear that someone who teaches another to make speeches as an art will demonstrate precisely the essential nature of that to which the speeches are applied. And that surely is the soul” (270e).

This requires three areas of study: (1) the soul, (2) how it acts and is acted upon, and (3) the kinds of speeches and souls that exist (271a–b). And once this curriculum has been established in principle, Socrates repeats his earlier definition of rhetoric: “[T]he nature of speech is in fact to direct the soul [psukhagôgia]” (271d). He frames rhetoric as the art of all speech, as he states explicitly, “[O]ne single art … governs all speaking” (261e).

A possible contradiction now arises, one never completely resolved by the Phaedrus: How can rhetoric be the art of soul-leading if the soul is essentially self-moving? If we’re moved from without, we are not moved from within: soul-leading is a contradiction in terms. The contradiction is only apparent, though, and perhaps better thought of as a paradox. Plato’s Socrates does not put it this way, but the resolution consists in redefining rhetoric as an art of leading the soul to lead itself, moving it to move itself in a free act; it is an art of influencing distinct from the coercion of sophistry and the force of violence. I should explain further: rhetoric moves the soul to move itself, increasing liberty; sophistry moves the soul as if it were only a body, decreasing liberty; and violence moves the body as if it were without a soul, destroying liberty.

How does one lead the soul through rhetoric? The answer to that question can be found in Socrates’s elaboration upon his curriculum:

First, you must know the truth concerning everything you are speaking or writing about; you must learn how to define each thing in itself; and, having defined it, you must know how to divide it into kinds until you reach something indivisible. Second, you must understand the nature of the soul, along the same lines; you must determine which kind of speech is appropriate to each kind of soul, prepare and arrange your speech accordingly, and offer a complex and elaborate speech to a complex soul and a simple speech to a simple one. Then, and only then, will you be able to use speech artfully, to the extent that its nature allows it to be used that way, either in order to teach or in order to persuade. That is the whole point of the argument we have been making. (277b–c)

The rhetor must know the subject, the soul of the audience, and the forms of speech best suited to lead the soul of the audience to the truth of the subject at hand. This outline of a curriculum is, as many rhetoricians point out, arguably what Aristotle provides with detail and scope in his Rhetoric, but what matters for our purposes here is that anyone teaching the art of rhetoric must teach, as well, about the soul. Rhetorical studies are dispersed throughout the contemporary academic disciplines. How many of those disciplines teach about the soul when they teach the art of rhetoric? If and when they do not address the soul, are they accidentally teaching sophistry?

* * *

I return to the soul of rhetoric—both its essence and its requisite central study—in the age of Amazon. I can imagine a number of Platonic responses to the virtual marketing Amazon has mastered, the one that moved me to click on “Buy Now” without reflection. One rather obvious response indicates the default defense of marketing one often hears: marketing in itself is value neutral. If the product marketed is good, the rhetoric is good; if not, not. After all, that day I bought a book, not cigarettes. That argument is helpful, as far as it goes, for increased or decreased liberty alone is not a sufficient distinction between rhetoric and sophistry; the end matters as well. Even so, I wonder how many marketers study the nature of goodness, whose understanding is required to make that judgment. I would prefer to isolate another question, one that leads me to question whether, counter-intuitively, we might live in an age without rhetoric: Did the creator of the algorithm address me as a soul, and did I behave as one? And are some forms of influence in the forum of FAANG so mediated and unreflective as to make it absurd to imagine a genuine human relationship existing between rhetor and audience, one cultivating freedom of soul?

Jan Steen Dutch Active Leiden Haarlem And The Hague  Rhetoricians At A Window  Google Art Project

Rhetoricians at Window, Jan Steen, circa 1661–66

The age of Amazon is not exactly a soulless age in Plato’s view (as I understand him), since he believes that the soul exists forever. So perhaps, if we do not live in a soulless age, we live in an age of lesser souls. To the degree this is true—and I wish it were not—there is less and less rhetoric and more and more sophistry. Since we benefit from marketing (in convenience and pleasure), we allow the marketers to move us about, all the while ourselves unable to pinpoint the cause of our loneliness and anxiety. Perhaps one explanation of our distress is this: true rhetorical friendship, even if only civic and not personal, arises in a leisured, liberal space. The forum of FAANG, where the metaphor of the virtual marketplace of ideas, goods, and services is inadequate, is not such a space. Rather, it is a place where the few distract themselves with convenient pleasures, while the many have fewer actual necessities for life, and the entire system runs on an unsustainable economy of energy. Perhaps this age of lonely sophistry will unavoidably be followed by one of post-collapse violence—psychological, social, even natural. Some signs indicate we are already in that age, one of which is the epidemic of terrorism, including the terrorism of mass shootings that is plaguing our nation.

It would be too ambitious to imagine a “solution” to this “problem,” but I would suggest one response: an art of soul-to-soul rhetoric, inspired by a vision of free human beings moved to move themselves toward the beautiful, the good, the just, and the true. Interestingly, Aristotle’s distinction in the Rhetoric of the three rhetorical genres—ceremonial, political, and legal—arises in part from their ends: ceremonial (or epideictic) rhetoric praises or blames by the standard of nobility or beauty; political (or deliberative) rhetoric persuades or dissuades by the standard of the advantageous or good; and legal (or forensic) rhetoric prosecutes or defends by the standard of the just and unjust.8 I would argue that all three standards, or ends, are aspects of the true. The vision of rhetoric I am defending here cannot be simply a linguistic art: necessary though that be, it is not sufficient. In all our uses of language—in our entertainment, our education, our economics, and our politics—we need to acknowledge, study, and appeal to the soul. We need to become soul-leaders through language. We need an art such as Plato’s Socrates described, an art whose purpose is to lead the soul to choose what is truly good. Without that end, it does not deserve the name of rhetoric.

What might that art look like? Do we have any examples of it in what is otherwise a rather bleak era? I think we do. Whatever one’s reservations about President Barack Obama’s policies, domestic and foreign (and I have some myself, though these days they seem precious), a particular speech of his may exemplify what the Platonic art of rhetoric looks like in the age of Amazon. This speech, delivered in 2015, came in response to a mass shooting (that most visible sign of the collapse of our rhetorical culture), when a young man murdered nine African Americans at worship in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Obama went to Charleston to give the speech to a local community and state sunk in grief, and to a nation in bewilderment. His speech falls into the category of the epideictic, the ceremonial rhetoric that praises the noble or beautiful or blames its opposite, a category distinctly associated with funeral speeches. Pericles’s Funeral Oration in Thucydides’s Peloponnesian Wars is epideictic; so too is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Emanuel AME Church was burying Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered with others of his congregation, and Obama came to praise him and his church. His purpose was to bring hope to Emanuel AME Church, to Charleston, to South Carolina, and to America, when all were despairing. (A young man had murdered worshipers at church for no other reason than their color. In response to such an evil act, despair is understandable.

In all our uses of language—in our entertainment, our education, our economics, and our politics—we need to acknowledge, study, and appeal to the soul.

Obama knew that the souls in his audience—those in the church and those watching live (including online) in the city, state, and country—were moving themselves toward despair, so he moved them to move themselves toward hope, in particular a hope grounded in grace:

Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group—the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could never have anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court—in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.9

Faith, hope, and love are the Christian virtues, but this appeal to hope, arising from the example of love described, seems to fall somewhere between an appeal to virtue (ethos) and one to feeling (pathos). Hope is a virtue, but it may be experienced as an emotion.10 When the rhetor appeals to a virtue, the audience credits him or her with it, increasing the rhetorical authority of the rhetor. Here Obama appeals to the Emanuel AME Church’s virtue of hope and also to the distinct affect that accompanies displays of extraordinary virtue.

Obama’s appeal to soul here is both credible and moving: “Blinded by hatred, he [the murderer] failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood—the power of God’s grace.”

And then the president sang “Amazing Grace.” Obama is an uneven singer, but the slight awkwardness of his singing voice, before the congregation joined him, was touching. In that moment—

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now I’m found;
was blind but now I see

—a rhetor clearly established himself as such by practicing the art of soul-leading through language. The classical rhetorical tradition puts the ancient poet-rhetor Orpheus forward as the singer whose song can revive the dead by re-ensouling bodies, and in that moment, Obama was our imperfect American Orpheus.11

I saw and heard that speech on YouTube; the new media of FAANG do not make the art of rhetoric impossible, even if they make it more difficult. But I am not arguing against technology. Rather, I am arguing for the soul and for the art of rhetoric, whose soul-leading capacity might move us to become greater souls rather than remain lesser ones—rather than, especially, becoming mere bodies without any persuasion in the free motion toward the beautiful, the good, and the just, and toward the true that informs these three graces.

In all our uses of language—in our entertainment, our education, our economics, and our politics—we need to acknowledge, study, and appeal to the soul.


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