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Rhetoric vs Sophistry

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A review of Stephen Mailloux’s (1995, ed) discussion of “Sophistry and Rhetorical pragmatism” (pp1-30) and West and Turner’s (2010, pp.312-327) discussion of “Rhetoric”.

This essay is a review of Stephen Mailloux’s discussion of Sophistry and Rhetorical pragmatism (Mailloux, 1995) and West and Turner’s discussion of Rhetoric (West & Turner, 2010). The writings in question discuss the origins and evolution of Rhetoric, with Mailloux introduce a historical and philosophical criticism of “sophistic Rhetoric as applied in the modern American context” (for example, neopragmatism and poststructuralism), and evaluated in the rest of the book, whilst West and Turner enlighten the reader about the heurism and globalism of Aristotle’s Rhetorical theory with a focus on the discipline of public speaking. Mailloux introduces sophistic Rhetoric as founded on the pragmatic doctrine that “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not”, a phrase attributed to the Sophist Protagoras (Patrick, 2006). Others Sophists of note include Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias and Thrasymachus – quoted in Plato’s Republic as saying “… ‘Just’ or ‘right’ means nothing but what is to the interest of the stronger party” (Plato & Lane, 2007)). West and Turner’s account of the Rhetoric show that the first teachers of Rhetoric were the "Sophists”, who were nomadic teachers of public speaking that were respected for their intellect and subsequently paid highly for their teachings. A modern understanding of Sophistic philosophy can be described by author and activist Rahul Easwar’s quote “The real fight is not between right and wrong; the real fight is between my right and your right”. Mailloux explains Plato and his (classical and contemporary) sympathizers’ contempt for Sophism and dismissal of the same as a perversion of truth because it emphasized application of relative and practical knowledge rather than virtue. Indeed, Plato is regarded as being largely responsible for the modern view of Sophist as greedy and power-seeking instructors, and today’s view of Sophism (or Sophistry) as deceptive and full of fallacious reasoning. The author quotes the modern philosopher Dinesh D’Souza who is of the view that neopragmatism, or the mastery of “sophistic relativism and nihilism” in the present day would: By no means lead to increased knowledge of how things are, but only to the ability to play games with people, tripping them up and flooring them with different senses of words, just like those who derive pleasure and amusement from pulling stools from under people when they are about to sit down” (Mailloux, 1995) At the same time, according to West and Turner, the philosophies of Plato’s student Aristotle differed on many issues with that of his teacher (West & Turner, 2010). In Plato’s suspicion of rhetoric’s use for unethical practices such as deception and overpowering others, Aristotle is believed to be the first Western theorist to systematically study Rhetoric and his demonstration that Rhetoric could be used for good. Aristotle defined Rhetoric as “the ability to recognize in any given situation the available means of persuasion (Aristotle, Negri, & Bak, 2004)”. Plato’s account of “good” rhetoric is from a highly philosophical and theoretical perspective, and can only be applied in conversations between philosophers, whereas Aristotle sought to apply rhetoric in successful speaking between people from all walks of life, which in the Athenian setting would overcome significant class barriers (West & Turner, 2010). Following Aristotle’s analysis of The Rhetoric, it came to be regarded as distinct from Sophism. In this essay I wish to elaborate my understanding of Aristotle’s Rhetoric as described by West and Turner, whilst acknowledging that Rhetorical strategy was originally a mastery of the Sophists, and to argue that the fundamental differences between Sophistry and Rhetoric are rooted in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle’s agreement on the notion that of the Sophistic use of rhetoric as a means and ends to evade the truth. This is possible, for example, by use of wellstructured and plausible but fallacious arguments in a debate. This difference is evident in the ways that rhetoric is used even today. Aristotle argued that rhetoric should be used for legitimate, logical discourse, whilst still differing from science (as it lacked the exact demonstrability of scientific fact) but seeking to establish knowledge through rational argumentation. Aristotle’s intention for Rhetoric was that it could be used for communicating with large audiences, assuming that (1) the speaker understands the common interest of his audience and (2) the audience consists of lay people who cannot be expected to know proofs based on the principle of a science, but rather proofs based on universal truths (West & Turner, 2010). These assumptions, when applied correctly give the speaker the ability to discover all means of persuasion on any topic whatsoever. The audience’s understanding of one’s expression is the entire reason that one speaks, whether to a large crowd or to a friend in confidence. Therefore analysis and understanding of the audience is the most important component for guiding the composition of a speech. A main concern Aristotle had was that justice could be distorted if a speaker appealed to the emotions of the jury, and he desired that speakers would appeal to their audience’s innate sense of logic and natural as well as constitutional law. He wrote: “Since people have a natural disposition for the true, and every man has some contribution to make the truth, there is no unbridgeable gap between the commonly-held opinions and what is true” (Aristotle, Negri, & Bak, 2004). In a situation such as a criminal case, in the absence of the burden of proof, affecting the decisions of a jury should be a matter of persuasiveness of the evidence, rather than knowledge on one hand or emotional appeals (e.g. for pity on the guilty party) on the other. The three proofs (or modes of persuasion) of Rhetoric are ethos, pathos and logos. He defined ethos as moral competence, limited by what the speaker says. Today, I believe that the moral character and history of the speaker or the person whom the speaker represents also shapes the speaker’s ethos. For example, a government spokesman might be an individual of good moral character, but if he represents an institution which is widely known to be corrupt, then his speech will gain little more trust than the trust which the people have for their government which he is representing. Pathos represents and ability to appeal to the audience’s emotions, but not simply to appeal to the audience’s sympathies and imagination but also to empathize with the speaker and having the desired frame of mind with which to receive the message effectively. The most effective way to create a certain frame of mind with an audience is by storytelling, or use of metaphors and figures of speech which will provoke a listener’s emotional response (Mcinnis, 2006). With this in mind it is important to note that the audience must be able to discern the level of truth behind the speaker’s ethos, and to accept that rhetorical proofs can easily be used to mislead or propagate untruths. The third proof, Logos, is an appeal to reason, and what Aristotle believed to be the main message of a speech, which was structured through deductive reasoning of common knowledge or “universal” truths to a speech. Through Logos (the use of logic), it is possible to build up an argument until the truth is discovered. The framework for the rhetorical mode of communication is termed as a syllogism, which comprises of (1) a deductive argument, (2) a group of statements or premises and (3) conclusions. An example of a simplified syllogism is: (1) “All men are mortal” (2) “Aristotle is a man” (3) “Therefore Aristotle is mortal” Sometimes a syllogism is presented in the form of an enthymeme, which is a syllogism with a missing premise. This engages the audience into the speech by requiring them to supply the missing information to their understanding of the statement. A big component of both Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Sophistry is fallacies. A fallacy is “a pattern of poor reasoning which appears to be (and in this sense mimics) a pattern of good reasoning (Zalta, 2012)” which is presented syllogistically. In mastering Rhetoric it is important to be familiar with fallacies so as to avoid using them, which would be a violation of the speaker’s Ethos, as well as to avoid arguments which use them, which, from a Sophist perspective, or in the absence of a rhetorician’s Logos, would be indisputable despite being untrue. With respect to the syllogism above, an example of a fallacy would be: (1) “All men are mortal” (2) “Aristotle was mortal” (3) “Therefore Aristotle is a man”. Determining the truth in the syllogism above depends on one’s extent of knowledge and experience. Knowing that men are not the only beings on earth would make one question whether the being referred to as “Aristotle” is indeed a man, or a dog, or a tree, all of which are mortal things with the potential to be called Aristotle. With this in mind, Sophistry and Rhetoric can be compared and contrasted with the example of child education today. Sophistry is commonly used due to its encouragement for a single source of information (the teacher), a passive audience (the pupils) and an emphasis on subjectivism (the teacher always knows better than the student). Whilst this approach is effective in maintaining order in the educative system of easily distracted minds, it is still important to uphold the three rhetorical proofs when communicating to the students so as to avoid misleading them with untrue information, given that their world views and experiences might be too limited to enable them discern all information adequately. Child psychology is applied when preparing educational syllabuses, and can be considered an incorporation of one rhetorical assumption (audience analysis) into a largely sophistic system. Furthermore, the higher a pupil’s qualification, the more important it is to create an environment suitable for questioning and debate which involves the student. The teacher and pupil then become rhetoricians, as were most ancient Greek masters and respective pupils of philosophy. Perhaps the major simile between a sophistic speech and the Rhetoric would be found in the five canons of Rhetoric. They are: 1) Invention (inventio), which deals with the content of the message; 2) Arrangement (dispositio), how information is arranged to emphasize the main objectives of the speech and ensure maximum persuasion; 3) Style (elocutio), which deals with the style and patterning of language; 4) Delivery (actio), in which essential elements of the speaker such as voice, gesture and timing are considered, and 5) Memory (memoria), which both in ancient times and today is mandatory for both the speaker and the audience. Each of the five canons comprise of a broad variety of overlapping elements and consequences which were documented in ancient texts and have stood the test of time up to today. The effectiveness of the canons rely heavily on the three rhetorical proofs: whether the audience will be drawn by the speech’s emotions (pathos), logic (logos) and / or the speaker’s character and reputation (ethos). For example, the canon of memory is an important tool to invrease an orator’s ethos or authenticity, because it shows that the speaker has given his subject consideration and encourages the same from the audience. It also removes enables the speaker to make more direct “contact” with the audience, thus improving his delivery. Whilst it was looked down upon to use writing for memory by the ancient Greeks, as a principle of intelligence, even today the delivery of a speech is significant towards influencing the audience. Another important element of the canon of memory is helping the audience remember what was said. This can be done if the right style, figures of speech and organization of the content is applied with respect to how the speaker believes the audience will receive the speech. At the height of their success in Ancient Greece, Sophists were recognized as teachers of oratory to aspiring politicians, but there is no research which can deny that they used the five canons of rhetoric or the rhetorical proofs. The main differentiation between Aristotle’s Rhetoric and that of Sophists in his time, such as Georgias, boils down to the intent of virtuosity of the speaker’s intent. According to George A. Kennedy, The function of an orator is not logical demonstration so much as emotional presentation which will stir the audience’s will to believe. Thus the power of persuasion involves deceiving the ‘emotional and mental state of listeners by artificially stimulating sensory reactions through words (Kennedy, 1980). In lieu of this perspective, it is possible for one to distinguish between sophistic and rhetoric oration if they can grasp the “truth” as well as the speaker’s syllogisms, ethos, logos and pathos, such that, circumstances providing, a philosopher with poor virtue can be referred to as a sophist, whilst a sophist of pure intent can be rightly termed a rhetorician.


Aristotle, Negri, P., & Bak, J. (2004). Rhetoric. Dover Publications. Kennedy, G. A. (1980). Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Traditions from Ancient to Modern Times. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Mailloux, S. (1995). Rhetoric, Sophistry, Pragmatism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. McCoy, M. (2008). Plato on the Rhetoric of Philosophers and Sophists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mcinnis, J. L. (2006). The Elements of Great Public Speaking - How to be Calm, Confident and Compelling. New York: Crown Publishing Group. Patrick, M. M. (2006, January 20). Sextus Empiricus and Greek Scepticism. Cambridge: Deighton Bell & Co. Plato, & Lane, M. S. (2007). The Republic. New York: Penguin. West, R., & Turner, L. (2010). Introducing Communication Theory, 4th Edition. London: McGraw Hill. Zalta, E. N. (2012). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

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