Schiappa and Rhetoric (the early stuff)

Posted: June 1, 2010 in Uncategorized
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The following several entries are going to be mini reviews of things I’ve read, so that I have references for myself during my exams. Today, I’m looking at two works by Ed Schiappa. I’m not planning to talk about Ed (who is a nice guy), just about his work. Specifically, The “Stronger and Weaker” Logoi Fragment and Toward an Understanding of Sophistic Theories of Rhetoric.

We’ll start with Logoi. For reference, these quotations all come from the book The Major Fragments of Protagorus by Ed Schiappa; the source I’m looking at is actually chapter 6 from that book.

Schiappa begins by discussing a fragment from dissoi logoi by Protagorus. There are, Schiappa tells us, two primary interpretations of this particular fragment. Depending on how it is translated (and here we really see how much of translation is interpretation), it can mean two very different things.

Schiappa identifies what he calls a pejorative interpretation. Schiappa writes “The most perverse version of the fragment appears in Lane Cooper’s translation: ‘making the worse appear the better cause'” (103). This is certainly pejorative, and most definitely paints the Sophists (such as Protagorus) in an incredibly negative light. If it is true that sophistry can make a weak argument appear to be stronger than a strong argument, that it can make someone convince others of something that is not true, then that is a terrible thing. “In fact, the phrase has achieved that dubious status of a popular slogan allegedly representing the worst aspirations of the sophistic movement and perhaps the art of rhetoric itself” (103). In other words, this interpretation not only makes sophistry seem terrible and untrustworthy, but may cast similar doubts on the entire field of rhetoric. As a rhetorician, that of course bothers me.

The other interpretation, which Schiappa calls the positive translation, interprets the same fragment somewhat differently. He translates it as “to make the weaker argument stronger” (107). It’s not hard to see how this is more positive. It makes sense that such a thing would be the aim of the art of persuasion. When someone has a good grasp on rhetoric, or is properly instructed by a sophist in this translation, he will be able to strengthen his arguments. It does NOT allow the weaker argument to win. It does NOT convince people of something that isn’t true. All it does is make someone’s argument stronger. It improves their ability to persuade. That sounds like a good aim for rhetoric generally.

These two translations are pretty diametrically opposed. What evidence does Schiappa have that the positive interpretation is the better of the two? Well, he does say that “Virtually everything known of Protagorus (including all of Aristotle’s other references) suggests that ethically he was conservative and a traditionalist” (107). So Protagorus was a very ethical guy, following the conservative path. So he would therefore be opposed to making weak arguments appear to be strong; he would be opposed to obfuscation of an argument for the sole purpose of deception. That is, he wouldn’t want people to be able to make an argument that is weak seem to be strong. But it does make sense, as a scholar and a teacher, that he would want to help people make arguments stronger than they would be without his help; if he can do that, after all, then he has successfully taught them to argue better.

It’s hard to argue against that. And it’s hard for me to take the other (pejorative) translation as the right one. It seems so unethical, so counter to the goals of rhetoric, and to what I know about Protagorus; I always felt there was something fundamentally wrong with that translation.

What amazes me is the difference between the two. Let me change a bit of the wording to other translations. The pejorative: “To make the weaker argument appear the stronger” versus Schiappa’s “To make the weaker argument appear stronger.” Here the only difference is one word (the). But that one word completely changes the meaning of the sentence. It makes you wonder how much of our translations are biased one way or another, and gives real credence to the people who insist that you read something in its original language.

But I digress. Let’s move on to Towards and Understand of Sophistic Theories of Rhetoric. This one is from Early Greek Rhetorical Theory, and is chapter 4 of that book. Schiappa here is making an argument about how we should study sophism. He writes early on that “If the Sophists are worth studying, then they deserve study on their own terms as well as on ours” (67), and later that “The object of sophistic studies should not be to redeem or condemn the Sophists, any more than the study of any ancient Greek philosopher should be to redeem or condemn a given class of thinkers” (81). So in other words, we need to give the Sophists the benefit of the doubt, and study them for what they are. More importantly, we shouldn’t be worrying about whether they were ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ whether or not they are ‘ethically acceptable’; instead, we should study their work for what it is.

This makes perfect sense to me. Take the work of Hereclitus thought that everything in the world was made up of fire. Several of the other Presocratics believed that either there were only four elements, or that everything was made up of one of those four elements (earth, air, fire, water). They’re wrong. Aside from the fact that we know there are over a hundred elements, we know that water is made up of two (Hydrogen and Oxygen) and that air is made up of a lot (like Hydrogen, Oxygen, Carbon, Nitrogen, etc).

But we don’t study them to see if they’re right or wrong. We don’t study Aristotle because we think his idea of astronomy (with the spheres around our planet) are right; in all those cases, we study their writings on their own terms, in order to understand the way THOSE thinkers worked; we give them the benefit of the doubt, just as Schiappa is suggesting we do for the Sophists.

So I’m on board from the get-go. I’m already agreeing when Schiappa presents his position that “1) individual studies of the Sophists are a logically prior task to that of constructing a general sophistic view, and 2) there is a subtle but historically significant difference between describing early sophistic efforts at theorizing about logos and the world, and later efforts to organize and improve discursive strategies as part of a discrete and clearly conceptualized rhetoric” (71). Let me see if I can unpack that: we need to look at the individual Sophists before we can say anything about them as a group. That makes sense. You have to look at the individual trees before you can say anything about the forest as a whole. Okay. And the second part? That this hasn’t been done; instead, that people have very subtly on the one hand described the work of the individual Sophists, while on the other saying things about them as a group without considering them individually. I think that’s right. I think that makes sense.

Especially when we consider that, according to Schiappa, we can’t say anything about the way Sophists argue as a group. He says that “Though the Sophists were obviously interested in logos, it is historically inaccurate to say they held a common theory concerning the art of rhetoric” (77). So while they were all interested in the same topic, that doesn’t mean they held a common theory. Contrast that to physics. Those who follow Newtonian physics all follow a common theory; saying things about them as a group makes sense. But to say the same thing of all physicists would not; Superstring theorists disagree with those who accept the Many Worlds theory; Newtonians and Quantum physicists are totally different.

Maybe that’s a bad analogy; or maybe I just don’t know enough about physics to draw it out. Okay. Talking about all police officers makes sense. But to talk about every government agency does not. The FBI and CIA have some things in common, but not so much with FEMA or the IRS. What can we say about the NSA that we can say about the DEA other than that they are government agencies with abbreviations for names? Or, going back to the trees, we can say things about all the Oaks, but not every tree in a given forest is the same species.

That’s how it is with the Sophists. They don’t all follow the same theory, so we can’t judge all of them based on the same theory. If we do that, we’ll be judging apples in terms of oranges. It’s unfair to judge an apple based on how orange it is. Similarly, it’s wrong to judge every Sophist on the same theory. Instead, they need to be examined within the context of their own theory (like the Presocratics are), and not judged.


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