De la réception au renversement de la rhétorique dans le Gorgias de Platon

Authors: Dott, Philippa
Advisor: Collette, Bernard; Merker, Anne
Abstract: If Plato chose to write dialogues, it is because they illustrate the movement of thought and knowledge in the soul. The form of question and answer allows the recollection, beginning with the recollection of one’s own ignorance. The access to knowledge through the practice of dialogue, however, is made more difficult once we take on recalcitrant souls or a crowd as interlocuters, for such a practice takes time and demands the goodwill of all concerned. It is this difficulty of transmitting truth in politics that the Gorgias lays bear and that Plato attempts to remedy. If dialogue is impossible with the crowd, even though politics rests on the care of citizens’ souls, how then to educate the masses? One must develop a legitimate way of using rhetoric to transmit truth in politics. We often consider that this foundational project is carried out only in the Phaedrus and the Laws. Nevertheless, the Gorgias, which unfolds during the Peloponnesian War, cannot be reduced to a critique of the teachings of the celebrated rhetor, Gorgias of Leontini. On the contrary, by calling his “oratorical art” into question, both morally and epistemologically, one establishes the conditions for the emergence of a good dêmêgoria (503a7). This study proposes to examine Plato’s questioning of Gorgias’ art by affording particular attention to the movement of the dialogue and to the different faces of rhetoric embodied by its characters. We will set out three fundamental steps in the dialogue: the reception, refutation, and dialectical refoundation of rhetoric, which are finally reproduced metaphorically, though on a smaller scale, in the eschatological myth that concludes the work. The first moment allows us to identify the reasons for the emergence of the art of rhetoric in Athens through an analysis of the polemical context in which the Gorgias was written, taking into account the many literary references woven into the dialogue by Plato (e.g. to Gorgias’ In Praise of Helen, Aristophanes’ Knights, the Hippocratic Treatises, Isocrates’ Against the Sophists, The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides, and Euripides’ Antiope). The second step allows us to grasp the double unveiling of rhetoric and dialogue. On the one hand, Gorgias is revealed to be incapable of defining his own practice and appears unconscious of its dramatic effects on his disciples. On the other hand, Socrates creates a discursive space in which he can reduce rhetoric to set of empirical data by deflating its claims, both epistemological (i.e. that of being an art) and political (i.e. that of being a power that aims at the highest of goods). This paralleling of two ways of speaking allows us to contrast Socrates’ mastery of dialogical knowledge with Gorgias’ incompetence. This refutation calls for a complete reversal of our conception of justice, politics, and of existence itself. In his subsequent confrontations with Pôlos and Callicles, Socrates analyses both the harmful consequences of rhetoric on their souls and on the City, comparing their moral degeneracy with that of Athens. In doing so, he tackles two major confusions that underpinned the Gorgianic practice of oratory, namely, that freedom is to be found in doing what we want and that the good is to be found in pleasure. Plato’s master thus becomes both historian and judge of the corrupting policies pursued by the great figures of Athenian politics, including Themistocles, Miltiades, Cimon, and Pericles, offering an interpretation of Athenian imperialism opposite to that of Thucydides. This work of undermining the rhetorical edifice ultimately leads to its re-foundation. From these refutations, Socrates theorises a new rhetoric, one that he puts into practice in his exchange with Callicles. This new philosophical use of rhetoric emerges from the natural order of things. Indeed, while Callicles rejects the equality imposed by democracy and bases his thesis of the strong man on a certain vision of nature, Socrates founds his own reimagining of politics and justice on a natural and ordered conception of the cosmos. From order and mathematical harmony, he will produce a geometric and proportional equality that will finally allow rhetoric to be restored to its rightful place. This last twist will be realized metaphorically in the eschatological myth that closes the dialogue.
Document Type: Thèse de doctorat
Issue Date: 2019
Open Access Date: 18 October 2019
Grantor: Université Laval
Collection:Thèses et mémoires

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