Power of Persuasion

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Throughout history, dating back as early as 380 BCE, the advantages and disadvantages of persuasion through logos versus persuasion through pathos have been debated extensively, with no real conclusion reached. To express his own ideas on persuasion and also incorporate in the verbal teachings of his teacher Socrates, Plato wrote Gorgias to argue as to why persuasion through logic and knowledge is stronger than persuasion aimed at belief, principally for reasons relating to the importance of substance and morals. In Gorgias, Plato sets up a clear distinction between persuasion aimed at knowledge and persuasion aimed at belief, emphasizing the nuances between the two and the superiority of logos argument in Meno through a statues of Daedalus metaphor.

Throughout Gorgias, Plato utilizes dialogue between two primary characters, Socrates and Gorgias, in order to explain two types of persuasion, with one based on belief and the other based on knowledge. From the start, Gorgias, engaged in belief, claims that “rhetoric … is [his] art” (Gorgias), defining rhetoric as “an art which works and takes effect only through the medium of discourse” (Gorgias). Socrates is quick to criticize this claim, arguing that because all that rhetoric needs are words, rhetoric may involve flattery or bombastic language, but in the end, lacks any real substance. Plato uses Socrates’ character to explain that “rhetoric is the artificer of persuasion, having this and no other business, and that this is her crown and end” (Gorgias). With persuading and winning the argument the primary end goals of rhetoric, the facts and knowledge behind the arguments are disregarded and replaced by language that is grandiloquent and convincing. Simply put, rhetoric “creates belief about the just and unjust, but gives no instruction about them” (Gorgias). Therefore, these arguments have no logos backing and could potentially be lies that are told because they are what the listener wants to hear.

Further, Plato criticizes persuasion through pathos because rhetoricians exploit the ignore of others to their advantage so that they can win the argument. Socrates questions Gorgias whether “[a rhetorian] has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who do not know” (Gorgias) and Gorgias concedes that those who are ignorant are inferior and can be persuaded simply through impressive language. Through the character of Socrates, Plato says that this would allow a rhetorian to trick his students into using rhetoric for unjust matters in order to get what they want. Gorgias says in return that he cannot take credit or blame for any way in which students use the skill he has taught them and that they should know to not apply it in immoral ways.

Finally, Plato wraps this part of the argument up by writing that “rhetoric [is] to justice what cookery is to medicine” (Gorgias) in order to explain his reasoning as to why persuasion engaged in logic is superior to that aimed at belief. Although Socrates grants that both types of persuasions can be considered arts, he notes a distinction between false arts and true arts. He argues that the key distinction between true and false arts can be pinpointed to the fact that false arts target the pleasant, ignoring the good and thereby creating a false impression of value within its recipients. True arts, in contrast, is aimed at the good and substance and thus have logic grounded in them. The core of Plato’s argument is that “the good is neither the same as the pleasant … nor the evil as the painful” (Gorgias). Rhetoric, aimed at the pleasant, is a false impression of the “good,” which is justice, and simply provides a false image of something more wholesome and real. Rhetoric has a subjective conception of right and wrong while Plato believes that there is one right and one wrong to every moral question and that this answer can be found through logic and knowledge.

Plato’s idea that persuasion aimed at belief seems beautiful but lacks any sort of grounding or substance is brought back up in Meno, with the statues of Daedalus metaphor. When speaking to the men, Socrates mentions that these statues created by Daedalus, a famous craftsman, are very beautiful, but fly away if not contained, making them worthless. When fastened, though, “they are of great value, for they are really beautiful works of art” (Meno). This operates, Socrates explains, in the same way that persuasion does in everyday life. Persuasion aimed at belief, “while … and fruitful … run away out of the human soul, and do not remain long” (Meno). When opinions and arguments are grounded in knowledge from the start, they are tied down and remain in place, which is central to “why knowledge is more honorable and excellent than true opinion, because [it is] fastened by a chain” (Meno). Plato shows the distinction between the two types of persuasion with this metaphor, insisting that persuasion through pathos is often like Daedalus’ statues, in that they are beautiful and perceptually substantial, solid, and permanent. However, unless these arguments are firmly grounded in logic, they have no claim to the status of knowledge. Without this much-needed form of certainty, the belief, like the untied statue, will simply fly away.

Through Gorgias and Meno, Plato effectively makes the argument that there are two types of persuasion, one aimed at belief and one aimed at knowledge, and that the superior one is the one based on logic and knowledge, as it provides something substantial to argue. Understanding the importance of logic to arguments, it is easy to recognize that beautiful arguments lacking substance will not last, as their hollow surface will eventually be exposed.

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