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Binary Thresholds of Trust within Truths of Persuasion and Interpretation

Let us go back to the essence of Aristotle’s golden mean ethics, the magnificent disective extension of Plato and Socrates’ ideas regarding virtue. Wherein the individual develops an understanding of the difference between what is morally right and wrong, good and bad, and ultimately, between what is excess and deficiency. This understanding slowly evolves into the final form of becoming virtuous. And also, of gaining knowledge of the truth. 

But how do we know where that line should be drawn? Between what is right and wrong, good and bad, and excess and deficiency. And isn’t that line, at least to some extent, subjective? Relative to the individual person? 

Let’s reexamine the truths of both Plato and Aristotle. Some may say that Plato’s beliefs regarding knowledge of the truth being innate, only accessible within one’s soul, were excessive. Excessive in that his truth is deficient in hard evidence. Deficient in that verification seems to be virtually impossible. How can another person judge or determine, with 100% accuracy, whether or not another person has reached this mystical summit of truth? 

On the other hand, Aristotle may also be deemed to be excessive in his version of truth. Excessive in that it depends upon logic and an in depth analysis of the world around us via our senses. Of what we can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. These things must be the truth. We can verify them. But how do we, as humans, know that this is all there is? How can we know with 100% accuracy that there isn’t also something else beyond our senses, beyond the world in front of our eyes?

Then we also add in the social element. Humans need other humans in order to survive and thrive. Aristotle believes the polis, or city-state, is the natural extension of humans. Wherein the final form of a good polis is dependent upon the virtue of the individual. That different factors will combine and eventually emerge to produce natural leaders within the polis, amongst the competition of the citizen class. Plato’s utopia is also dependent on humans fulfilling their individual roles collectively, via harmonious balance, to produce the philosopher king, or guardian, amongst the competition of other humans. 

If Aristotle and Plato have unique truths amongst one another, and if a number of different humans are necessary to the constructs of human social systems, then it seems to follow that there will inevitably be varying degrees of truth within any social system. And in order to ascend into leadership, amongst societal competition, there arises a need for the individual to impress upon others within their shared social system, that their specific version of the truth, is in fact the truth. A truth depicting where they believe that line should be drawn between what is morally right and wrong, good and bad, and what is excess and deficiency. The way in which the individual tries to do this. How they become a leader and how they lead, is the next stop of our philosophic journey.

Good Intentions

There is a reason why Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all agreed upon virtue as being the most significant factor to the good life. The morality of the typical Athenian citizen was only polished with virtue. For example the Greek maxim “meden agan” (nothing in excess), representing the virtue of temperance, was idealized but not consistently practiced. Instead, habituation of the virtues was overtaken by selfish desires for wealth and power. And within the most extreme competitive environment of the privileged Athenian citizen class, a social fear of not being considered good enough amongst your peers, not being included, also seemed to take root. 

Socrates fully embodies this as he was the rare exception. Preaching habituation of virtue over wealth and power as well as having bravery, or just a lack of fear, regarding the judgments of others. And, as we know, he was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth. 

Instead of honesty, the Athenian citizen would try to be clever. Instead of moderation, they preferred the many sensual pleasures of life. And instead of using their privileged leisure time for honing their education and virtues, they were using it to amass wealth and power. Only the virtue of courage in battle seemed to be a reality, and most likely because it was a necessity of this period in time, virtually unavoidable. 

Plato is unafraid to challenge these loose morals as he believes they will inevitably result in corruption. And, more especially, because he sees them as preventing two vital points of his philosophical system, a harmonious balance of justice and an innate wisdom of truth, from emerging. Finally, he believes the excess of freedom via democracy to be another primary source of Athenian immorality. And he is willing to use any means necessary to ensure that the Athenian people no longer succumb to loose morals. To ensure that they are no longer derailed from the path of being able to live the good life.

Harnessing the Power of Sparta

For the Lacadomians, the rules and laws of the Spartan code were the cultural way in which they organized their society, whereby their warrior culture rode the backs of both their Helot slaves and their Spartan women to amass land, resources, and power. Similarly, the engine that drove Athenians to greater land, resources, and power was dependence upon the combination of slave labor in the fields and mines, and women’s labor in the homes. The means, in terms of the slight variations of how they utilized slaves and women may have been unique. But the ultimate aim or end goal of each society seems more similar than dissimilar in that they were both doing whatever they could to sustain their culture and help their citizens to flourish within it. 

Plato’s admiration of Sparta’s virtuously ordered society and the obedience of its people helped influence the creation of his utopia. Perhaps in his mind this was the only way to overcome the growing Athenian immorality which seemed to become an unstoppable force when coupled with the excess freedom of Athenain democracy. He had to develop an immovable object. A foundation so strong that the tides of Athenian immorality, no matter their strength, could not wash away. And nothing was perceived to be stronger during this time than the collective strength of the Spartan code. 

Yet, the irony here runs deep. For the Athenians had fought for their lives and their way of life right alongside the Spartans to win the Greeks their external freedom from the Persian Empire, and then subsequently turned around and fought against one another for internal supremacy amongst the Greek world for 30+ years, only for the Athenians to lose the Peloponnesian War and, briefly lose their freedom.  Yet, to gain this freedom so much blood had to be shed. So much violence and pain. Was there not an element of going to extremes prior to the perceived excess of freedom within Athenian democracy?  

Plato’s deepest desire is to help truth and justice emerge amidst the sea of immorality. To make life fair for the Athenian citizen, to eliminate corruption, and to provide a real chance at eudaimonia and the good life for his people. However, to do this, his system must also conquer his greatest fears. Hence, the structure of his educational system must have order. And the people within it must have steadfast obedience. This all requires internal conformity and external moral censorship. 

Competitive Degrees of Education

Although the educational system in Athens was well-established and seemed to produce as good a citizen as any other civilization in their apex, there was a perceived flaw. After the age of 21, when young Athenian men became fully fledged citizens, they were then free to go home. However, at this point the question became what type of home will they be returning to? What type of life will they be returning to? Seems they should be on top of the world, for they had successfully navigated the educational system and earned their supposedly naturally endowed privileges of being free citizens. 

However, this really only meant that they were free to enter into another system. Athenian democracy. Where the competition for power, and by default wealth and pleasure, was at its highest, and was most typically won through the use of the mind. For it seemed to require another level of education and knowledge in order to rise above this specific arena of competition. In order to become leaders within Athenian democracy, and in order to secure pleasure, wealth, and power in their lives, they now had to distinguish themselves mentally. But how exactly would they do this if they had already completed their education and become a citizen?

This is where we return to the Sophists, for they were the ones offering this “higher education.” Although, in exchange for a high fee. And, in so doing, it simultaneously excluded a lot of poor citizens that could not afford additional education, and helped propel a lot of affluent citizens into higher levels of power. Thus increasing the income gap of the “rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer,” and exacerbating the class wars within Greece and Athens. Fortunately, some of the poor citizens were still supposedly able to gain a portion of this higher education, but they had to work during the night to pay for this additional schooling during the day. Their ambitions had to be extreme, making them highly susceptible to succumbing to loose morals. 

And essentially, the Sophists were getting rich off of these competitively inspired ambitions, of elevating one’s status of power within the democracy. But what did this higher education consist of? What was the specific content that was so coveted? Apparently, before Plato, there wasn’t even an exact definition for it, although the general consistency was said to be one that would enable the Athenian citizen to essentially flourish within the specific environment of democracy. Plato would be the one to define it, within his grand pursuit of defining philosophy. 

Prime Definitions

Since Socrates did not write anything, it was up to Plato to initiate the plethora of definitions that needed to be made in order to begin the process of establishing philosophy as a hardened discipline. Within this process, there were lots of additional aspects of Athenian culture that needed to be defined. Most especially, in his mind, this particular area of higher education which he believed to be directly contributing to the brutal class wars as well as the downfall of Athenian morality. 

The name of this higher education was referred to as “rhetor,” and it had to do with the art of persuasion. For Plato, he saw “rhetor,” or rhetoric as it came to be known, as having similar qualities to that of a euphoric drug. One that could be used to induce and alter other people’s perceptions and beliefs through the use of speech. And, additionally, one that also had the potential to enhance the power of the speaker. 

Originally, rhetoric is said to have been taught by the Sophists as a way to help ancient Mediterranean people that were losing their property and being taken advantage of. It gave them a means to fight to keep their lands from being confiscated within law courts and it helped them to tip the scales of what was perceived to be true. One of its key lessons, via the Sophist Protagoras, was essentially that both sides of an argument should carry the possibility of being equally true, that there is no objective truth. Hence, within the arena of speech, it taught the people how to recognize others attempts to persuade, and how to counter those attempts with persuasive arguments that were at least equal in strength, so that they could ultimately win.

So, once again, this seems to start with good intentions. To help people in need. But, once it slipped into Athenian democracy, the unforeseen consequences, especially for Plato, seemed to take precedence as it then became a tool that enhanced the possibility of corruption, rather than a tool that helped truth and justice to emerge. 

A Philosophical Maverick

Before we continue, let us also take a look at Plato the individual through the lens of the class spectrum. He was an Athenian citizen and, by all means, an aristocrat. He had all the rights and as much freedom as was possible during this period of time. And he was also raised within a wealthy family that had high expectations of their son as he demonstrated talent and skill in virtually all of the prominent cultural areas of Athenian life. They wanted him to continue along this path, to become the best he could be. Given this, he was earmarked from the time of his childhood to become a politician, the seemingly natural extension of affluence in terms of career choice. Or at least the position with the highest propensity for meeting the acceptance of judgment within the sphere of the social status quo and simultaneously ensuring the affluence and power of his family for future generations to come.

Yet, Plato made the decision not to pursue the life of a politician and instead dedicate himself to becoming a philosopher. Further, he chose to use his many privileges to challenge the norms that were the Athenian cultural way of life during his lifetime. And he chose to reject a seemingly easy lifestyle in favor of a more challenging one. But why? The primary word that seems to best describe his decision is authenticity. Or, better yet, inauthenticity. And his perception of Athenian society as lacking authenticity is primarily targeted at rhetoric. Included in his specific targets of practicing rhetoric, in addition to Sophists such as Callicles and Gorgias, were politicians such as Pericles. 

Yes, that’s right, Plato even doubted the authenticity of the great Pericles. The ambassador of Athenian freedom. Those funeral orations… did Athenian soldiers really die for the prosperity of Athens… for the possibility of “the good life” for the Athenian people? This level of skepticism seems blasphemous. It seems to at least teeter right along the same invisible line that Socrates had previously crossed. The threshold of a given society’s acceptability of change. 

And it did… but the indignation that Plato felt, in having to defend his decision not to become a politician as well as a result of his perception that Socrates was wrongfully sentenced to death, superseded his fears. He pressed on, he became a philosopher. And his skepticism honed in on rhetoric, on the art of persuasion. And the very same ancient Greek society that he would critique, also enabled him to do so by providing him the rights, privilege, and excessive freedom that he needed to open his mind up to another possibility, to another way of life. 

Blurred Connections of Realities

If rhetoric is the art of persuasion and our old friend hermeneutics is the art of interpretation, then we should also attempt to understand any connections. Within rhetoric, just as within hermeneutics, there is some type of human interaction or communication occurring wherein there is either a speaker or a writer, and an audience. With rhetoric, we seem to be more focused on the perspective of the speaker or writer, and with hermeneutics, we seem to be more focused on the perspective of the audience, the listener or the reader. 

Further, within rhetoric, the speaker or writer is trying to engage the audience, trying to persuade them toward believing that their proposed reality is, or at least contains more of, the truth. If they can successfully shift the mindset of the audience so that their perception of reality and truth is more aligned with their own, or in any case with what they want the audience to believe, then their attempt to persuade is considered, from the perspective of the rhetorician, to be successful. 

Hermeneutically, the audience, or consumer of the information, is trying to determine through interpretation, the degree to which the information being presented resembles what they think could be the truth, and hence warrants further examination. And since we are looking at hermeneutics through the lens of Gadamer, the ultimate determination being made is one of whether or not a particular audience member (listener or reader) wants to successfully complete a horizon merger. Wherein they’ve developed an understanding of their own prejudices and biases, and believe that the information being presented contains a higher degree of validity than the knowledge that they currently possess. Henceforth, if they believe this to be so, they then adapt that new mindset as a part of their own. 

Within all of this we have the swirling winds of truth, the varying degrees of knowledge, the differing levels of education and experience, and the many perceived layers of reality of the many people involved. And, with every facet of human culture lined with a seemingly natural tendency toward fierce competition, immorality is constantly simmering, ready to sear the souls of overzealous individuals that ambitiously utilize it as a means to rise above the competition. To create their own truth, to enact their own reality, and to sway the beliefs of others around them. Given all of this, how can anyone, let alone an ancient Athenian during their golden ages, hope to achieve “good prejudice”, as opposed to “bad prejudice” within their desired horizon mergers?       

Styles of Speaking – Dialogue

“It’s how you said it, not what you said.”

Dialogue is not just the format in which Plato wrote his books. There was a much deeper reason why he chose this particular style of writing. He, as well as Socrates before him, believed that dialogue was the highest form of interaction or communication with other humans in that it provided the greatest possibility for the emergence of truth and justice. The greatest possibility to help stimulate, preserve, and hopefully eternalize the virtues. And to also help find that ever elusive golden mean within them. 

The practice of dialogue involves an open conversation between at least two human interlocutors regarding a certain particular topic, such as “what is justice?”, “what is courage”, and “what is the good life,” through a more objective style of discussion. Furthermore, in order to have the greatest possibility to arrive at truth and justice, the discussion should be cooperative. Wherein each participant, seemingly consciously at first and then subconsciously over time, agrees to put aside their personal ambitions to win and instead engages in the discussion with an open mind. With an understanding that they may not have all the answers. And a willingness, wherein if a higher degree of validity or truth does emerge out of the discussion, to be flexible and adaptable. A willingness to change their perspective. A willingness to complete a successful horizon merger. 

Fundamentally then we can begin to see what the difference between rhetoric and dialogue was for Socrates and Plato. It lies within the end goal, or final form. Whereas those who practice rhetoric are doing so with the subjective goal of utilizing persuasion to win against the other person(s) engaged in the conversation. Of ousting their opponent. Defeating them, disarming them, just as they would in battle. Dialogue involves coming together to work with the other people within the discussion to find a higher degree of truth. 

The Pleasure and Precipice of Winning

As we well know, intense competition flowed freely throughout all of the major cultural veins of both Athenian and Greek civilization. And most everyone is familiar with what was perhaps their most beloved form of competition, their elite athletic games, the olympics. Wherein the winners were praised as much as war heroes and worshiped to the extent that a lot of the greatest works completed by artists and sculptors during these times were either based on the mythical perfection of the Gods, or on the physical perfection of the athletes themselves. 

Given this, to win and become the best olympic athlete was one of the highest ambitions that a man could have in ancient Greek culture for it also contained the greatest of rewards. Being praised like a war hero and worshiped like the Gods also meant having power and influence.  And yet, there is another position within ancient Greek culture that the citizen class competed for and desired even more than this, perhaps most of all. For it was generally believed to secure greater levels of pleasure, wealth, and power along with the possibility of receiving even more praise and worship. Leadership. More specifically, the position of political leadership within the arena of politics. An arena where the battle is won through the mind, with words, by those who were perceived by others as having the greatest skill in terms of wielding the power of the art of persuasion and leveraging its strength to win. 

This seems to be the precipice for Plato. The exact interconnection point where all roads seem to meet. Where if one was deficient in authenticity, had loose morals such as decit, and desired pleasure, wealth, and power above all else, the inevitable result would be crossing into the threshold of corruption. Corruption of the individual citizen that would go on to then infect the entire system and be the determining factor in the downfall of the Greek people and their civilization. And the major issue at hand was how to tell precisely if an individual citizen had succumbed to the path toward corruption. Within the arena of politics and leadership, it seems the only way to overcome this fear was through several layers of trust. Trust that the audience had the aptitude to successfully interpret the speaker’s words for authenticity and truth, trust that the speaker was not solely seeking to persuade the audience and fulfill their own selfish desires, and trust that the speaker’s words and intentions were genuinely geared toward finding truth and justice for the people.

Conformity and Acceptance

Additionally, for Plato, it seems that this is not just about crossing the threshold, but begins by simply arriving at an initial level of acceptance and hence conformity with the cultural norms surrounding what was the Athenian democracy during the golden age of ancient Athens. Accepting that, in order to rise out of the fierce competition of the citizen class and become a leader, it took paying additional money for the opportunity to gain a higher education via the teachings of the Sophists beyond their regular level of schooling. That it took learning rhetoric, as opposed to just engaging in dialogue, and then practicing and perfecting the art of persuasion, instead of focusing solely on the virtues. And, that it took seeking to win as an individual rather than a willingness to cooperate and work together. 

From here, once this lifestyle has been accepted and conformed to, there was then the possibility of slipping, falling victim to, or being induced by the vast possibilities of pleasure, wealth, and power that existed within Plato’s perceived excessive freedom of Athenian democracy. An excessive freedom that seemed to reward the individual pursuit of winning, by whatever means necessary, and satisfying the desires of the speaker and the crowd, rather than rewarding the divine virtue of a philosopher king and the joint efforts of finding truth and justice. All of this seems to contribute toward a different version of truth. One that ranks amongst Plato’s greatest fears, and one that he desperately wanted to root out along with its accompanying methodology of rhetoric. 

Enslavement of the Mind – Might is Right

When Sorates asked the Sophists to define rhetoric within Plato’s dialogue “Gorgias,” their essential definition was at first elusive, even evasive. In general, they answered that it helped young citizens to flourish in the arena of ancient Greek politics. But when pressed, they eventually produced a more precise answer. That it gave the speaker the persuasive power to enslave their audience to whatever aim, belief, or desire that they held. And that the truth lay within this power. That “might is right.” It is better to have power and influence over others, than for others to have power and influence over you. And, that it is better to perpetrate injustice, if necessary, than to suffer injustice. 

This is where we begin to understand Plato’s fury. Fury regarding the wrongful sentencing of Socrates to be put to death and any perception that his decision to pursue philosophy over politics was a mistake. Fury that pushes him into a deep skepticism regarding the potential level of truth of any persuasive communications within the competitive arena of politics, and eventually beyond this realm. [Everything’s a Lie:)]. 

Within Plato’s dialogue, “Gorgias,” we gain even more insight into this. One particular conversation to hone in on is one between Socrates and Gorgias, who is himself a Sophist that teaches rhetoric and holds it, as well as himself, in the highest regard. He apparently dedicated a golden statue of himself to the Temple at Delphi. For Plato, perhaps he envisioned the Spartans seeing it and laughing, even desecrating it for sheer fun. 

This particular conversation seems to suggest that the Sophists believed, if Socrates would have just loosened his morals, been even slightly deceitful and grabbed the reins of rhetoric, he could have easily maneuvered his way out of being sentenced to death. Instead, he stood there, unable to speak. Catatonic almost. Caught in the eye of the storm with nothing but his precious morals. Per Plato’s dialogue “The Apology,” we know that this is but an interpretation, not the truth, but a moving interpretation nonetheless. 

At the center of this also lies one of Socrates most firmly held beliefs. That only an individual can harm their own soul. Others can only harm their body. This is essential because it ties into why he wouldn’t cave in, into why he refused to loosen his morals and say what the crowd wanted to hear. He would rather keep the purity of his soul and speak the truth, or at least his version of it, without trying to assuage the crowd’s desires to hear him apologize for corrupting the youth and not worshiping the Gods, as well as without trying to fulfill some pleasure seeking desire or ambition to gain power. This would have been an easier path. He could’ve chosen to enslave the minds of those at his trial and ultimately win back his rightful freedom. He was more than capable, but he did not. Instead he was steadfast in his beliefs in virtue, dialogue, truth, and justice. 

Extensions of Moral Censorship

Within rhetoric there is the obvious immoral element of taking the art of persuasion too far and engaging in deceit. But there was also another element that lay at the heart of Plato’s fears. The extreme arousal of the passions. 

For Plato, within rhetoric, one is trying by any means necessary to win. To seek the achievement of their own goals and agendas. In doing so, the deepest of emotions also tends to emerge and become intertwined in the words of the speaker and the minds of the audience. Thus, in addition to being perceived as a knack that lacks authenticity and truth, as well as satisfying the desires of the crowd and the selfish pursuits of pleasure/wealth/power of the speaker, rhetoric also carries with it the strong tendency to arouse the emotions to another breaking point. A breaking point that manifests action within the individuals of the audience. 

In other words, the emotion within rhetoric, the passion with which the speaker uses to try to persuade the audience, has a tendency to move the audience, or persuade them, into action, as well as just shifting their mindset. This is what it seems Plato is most fearful of. Because it signifies that, regardless of whether or not the truth is present within the communication taking place, the audience can be moved into action by the passion and emotion of the words and intent of the speaker. And a lot of times, the action is being motivated by an extreme combination of intensely felt emotions, such as anger, sadness, loneliness, and the goal of happiness.

In all, another threshold is crossed, Plato’s trust in the decision making of the Athenian citizen. And since he also doesn’t trust the authenticity of the culturally accepted way of conducting politics via rhetoric, he would rather build his own system. To prevent this inauthentic methodology from infecting the decision making of the Athenian citizen and contributing to their moral downfall. 

Hence, Plato also seems to feel naturally compelled to extend his moral censorship beyond rhetoric. To anything else that may also be perceived to move an audience to potentially threaten the divine order and obedience of his utopian leadership system. He also wants to censor the cultural arena of the arts. Especially the arts in which the passion within the spoken word can be felt and manifested into potentially rebellious action. He ultimately wants to censor plays and music. 

Up Next

We will be examining Aristotle’s response to Plato. In how rhetoric and the arts could potentially help the polis to flourish as opposed to simply being feared and censored. We will also continue to analyze the key elements of truth, competition, and freedom as we progress into more details regarding Aristotle’s specific views on politics and the key role they play in the final form of the polis. 

Let the good times roll:)

Thank you for joining me on this philosophic journey!

Onward to Phase III – Turning In

Next blog post: Existence within Seasons of Change

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