1. Gorgias

    December 23, 2019 by Chris Motley

    Socrates was Plato’s hero and mentor, a larger-than-life figure in his own time, a household name, even today. If we remember our school days, we might recall the Socratic Method, whereby instead of pronouncing answer after answer, the student must pose question after question until arriving at some consensus. And this is what I love about reading Plato’s dialogues: the dogged grinding out of a single thought through exhaustive and exhausting inquiry. In doing so, Socrates would turn his opponents’ positions on themselves, often causing a degree of humiliation and therefore humor. Socrates’ false humility was part of the schtick; he knew he was a master at entrapment. His declaration (possibly apocryphal) that “All I know is that I know nothing” is, while an important maxim to live by, also cheeky. He may not know all the answers, but he also knows that the other guys in the room certainly don’t either. 

    But Socrates was so much more than the annoying “gadfly” showing off his own intellectual prowess at dinner parties. The Socratic Method should not be reserved only for those on the fringe who want to go down philosophical rabbit holes. Rather, Socrates and Plato are heavily invested in the question of what it means to act and speak in public. During their time, they were concerned about those who did not speak the truth truthfully. 

    They had a name: Sophists (from which we derive the word sophistry). Who were the Sophists? They were a group of individuals who would travel from village to village delivering clinics on oration. Their calling card was that they could convince any audience of any position. They understood keenly that oratory – and rhetoric more broadly – was a skill that could be used for good or ill. Gorgias is a spokesman for this group, and in this dialogue he is confronted by Socrates. And the question Socrates poses to him gets to the heart of the matter. What, after all, is rhetoric? They realize rather quickly that it is an all-encompassing art form. Within any field of discipline, persuasive discourse is necessary for advancing knowledge. Therefore rhetoric is at heart a skill, not dependent on a specific body of content. This fact provides people like Gorgias with an opening. But it requires Socrates to discern the need for a philosophical approach to the practice of rhetoric. In this way his method is his response. When you pursue a line of inquiry in a way that seeks truthfulness, you realize the pitfalls of your own position, which you might hold for a number of reasons outside of logic and/or truth. That is Socrates’ modus operandi in any dialogue, and the stakes are extremely high in Gorgias.

    We encounter these stakes now, when one’s ability to persuade in public is of utmost importance. In our current political moment, sophistry has won the day, not just in oratory and print, but online, and at our own small symposia with family and friends. Everybody wants to speak their truth, but we have lost sight of how to speak truthfully, without error, without fallacy, without conscious or unconscious deception of self and other. A generation after Plato, Aristotle would write a treatise on “the available means of persuasion.” We occupy a moment when the means of persuasion are becoming more and more complicated – indeed, as the era of virtual reality announces itself via “deep fake” videos and false news reports, our ability to find the truth and to convey it truthfully requires intellectual faculties and emotional sensitivities that are not prioritized when all that matters is winning. The Sophists might approve. 

  2. The Commentaries

    by Chris Motley

    The Commentaries of Julius Caesar occupy an interesting place in Roman history and literature. They tell of military and political exploits, highlighting victories over backward savages and dainty political haters alike. In this way it reads like a bestselling thriller for popular audiences. But the real goal of all this writing is to present Caesar ipsem (“Caesar himself,” as he refers to himself in the narrative) as the man most singularly capable of subduing corruption, infighting, and national waywardness, bringing all of Rome under his wise and decisive care. He characterizes the attempts to limit his power as petty grievance and jealousy. The senatorial rallying cry to preserve the republic he dismisses as a cover for all-too-typical political machinations on the part of the slippery elite. He therefore portrays the resulting civil war as a necessary response as well as a grand opportunity to establish a glorious epoch. Even his rallying cry to the legendary Thirteenth Legion “exhorted them to defend from the malice of his enemies, the reputation and honor of that general, under whose command they had for nine years most successfully supported the state.” The response is rousing. The Thirteenth vows that “they are ready to defend their general…from all injuries.” Indeed Caesar is ready for war over his image. 

    The situation Caesar describes is eerily redolent. The strong man who just wanted his military parade will see no end to his quest to rule. But this man is eminently capable and actually popular. And mercifully unlike (for now) our current would-be emperor, Caesar was a butcher. Like with other “great leaders” in Western history, we, mostly as students, have normalized extreme violence in the name of strength and victory. This is precisely Caesar’s agenda in this section of The Commentaries. He presents himself as the victim of violence, whose hand is forced toward war in order to make Rome great again. And when history is told within a patriarchal society, strong men become heroes, debate and compromise become weakness, and the mounds of the dead are forgotten. Caesar sought nothing less than his own deification, and he is still a legend in our consciousness – would that we awaken to the true costs of this kind of bad history.

    All this connects with the theme of the public because Caesar represents the threat that charisma and might pose to democracy. If the other writers in this series demonstrate the meticulous task of telling the truth truthfully, then Caesar is offering self-promotion and a twisted version of events. He lays bare the choice, between the instant gratification of conquest and spoils, or the long and imperfect quest for democracy. In a world without news as we know it, his account is populist to the core, with all the deceits attached. Sound familiar? 

  3. De Oratore

    by Chris Motley

    Unlike Socrates, Plato, and Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero may not be a household name. But what makes him famous, beyond his resistance to Caesar, is his carrying on of a tradition that began centuries before in Athens. In Cicero’s Rome, all the kids wanted to grow up to be crack orators. A public life was the highest ideal. Moreover, Cicero is writing De Oratore during a period of upheaval and political transition. Telling the truth truthfully is really important during moments such as these. And like his Greek predecessors, Cicero knew that telling the truth was a meticulous task.  

    De Oratore occupies interesting territory in terms of genre. Like Plato’s dialogues, it is not a treatise. Unlike the dialogues, however, the genre of the personal letter/memoir opens more space for Cicero to discourse on his subject, without abandoning the personal touch. Therefore his definition of a successful orator resonates with more personal urgency:

    NAY, in my opinion, no man can deserve the praise of an accomplished orator, without a perfect knowledge of all the arts, and every thing that is great: for it is from this acquaintance with the world that eloquence must receive its flow and its embellishments. Without this, let a subject be ever so well considered and understood by an orator, there will be still somewhat poor, and almost childish in his expression.

    Cicero builds on Socrates’ understanding of rhetoric as applicable to all fields of discourse and inquiry. He advances from Socrates’ positions by articulating the stakes for the orator himself: in order to discourse successfully on any topic, you have to really know your topic, with a sensitivity that transcends the superficial. Therefore, in order to have knowledge and sensitivity, you must have a capacious stance toward the world. The accomplished orator is cosmopolitan, open, flexible, and well-studied. He or she must have a true “acquaintance with the world,” the whole world. Otherwise you speak before you really know, and you sound like a child.

    Who speaks like a child today? Indeed is it not this Ciceronian definition of childishness that is prized? A century after Cicero, Quintilian would define an accomplished orator as simply a “good [person] speaking well.” A smaller ambition, perhaps, than Plato’s Philosopher King/Queen. But this is where we are. As our educational landscape continues to shrink, and the humanities are simultaneously pushed out and commoditized as mere business acumen, fewer of us, young and old, are asking ourselves (1) what it means to be a good person, and (2) what it means to speak well. No easy answers to those questions, in an era when we only have enough time to be simple. 

  4. On Public

    December 20, 2019 by Chris Motley

    Before I began to write this introduction to the On Public series, I re-read the entries I had written for each book. I noticed that a phrase appears in some way in each: “telling the truth truthfully.” I want to spend the bulk of this introduction unpacking (i.e., further exploring for myself) this phrase. We have discovered in dramatic and ominous fashion how difficult it is to tell the truth, both in public and private. In my day-to-day life (I don’t know about you), I often find it difficult to perfectly recount an event or a conversation from even only a few days previous. And even if I do remember it, how do I know that I am not re-telling it without some bias of my own? So imagine the difficulty of re-presenting a phenomenon to a public audience. Indeed, we are experiencing an age when we are persuaded not to believe our own eyes and ears. And we are just getting started.

    The ancient figures presented in this series are all (with one really important exception) very concerned about how to tell the truth truthfully. But I want to introduce you to one more: Aristotle. In Rhetoric he presents a comprehensive vision of how people are persuaded, a vision that is as relevant and influential as any idea regarding persuasion. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” There are three general “means of persuasion.” He labeled them ethos, pathos, and logos. It’s mostly straightforward. When you appeal to logos, you appeal to one’s sense of logic and fact. When you appeal to pathos, you appeal to one’s emotions. When you appeal to ethos, things get really tricky. The term refers to the overall trustworthiness of the orator. In this way ethos can be translated as “character,” or, more unsettlingly, “personality.” Aristotle knew as well as anyone ever that of the three appeals ethos is the most important. You can have all the facts and reasoning in the world, but if I don’t like you, if something’s just a little off, I’m not going to listen. Conversely, if I really connect with you, if you have made an effort to see me, I’ll believe you, even if you are blatantly telling falsehoods. 

    We know this to be true, no? Can we not agree, with Aristotle, that human beings are much more (less?) than “logical animals”? In fact, logic and even plain fact so often play a small role in our decision-making. Aristotle’s three appeals correspond strikingly to our three “centers” that govern our ability to be persuaded. Logos connects to our “head-center,” where we make decisions in an efficient and rational manner. Pathos connects to our “heart-center,” where we listen to our feelings. But ethos connects to the “gut-center,” the center of instinct, a kind of knowledge that precedes thought and emotion, a split-second, almost evolutionary, knowledge which is the most difficult to override. Who is proceeding from the gut-center today? Can you become aware when you are proceeding from each center, or when each center is being appealed to?

    I submit, alongside Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, and so many others, that in order to speak in public, one must be ready to tell the truth truthfully. Getting facts straight (and maintaining an intention to keep facts straight) is, we realize, not the only priority. Avoiding deceptive language in the forms of fallacies and illogic requires self-awareness and sensitivity. Avoiding the pitfalls of emotional appeal, especially surrounding victimhood, is increasingly difficult. And the subtle art of connecting with the gut-center of another human being – this seems to rule the day. An effective orator will at the very least express an awareness of the extent to which she or he is appealing to one or more of these centers. But we still don’t seem mature enough to understand how we are being messed with, and I’m not even talking about virtual spaces. We can look someone in the face, listen to what they say, and that’s enough to do it. 

    So we thought this series would be timely, as it presents two classic texts that address the vagaries of truth-telling: Plato’s Gorgias, in which Socrates debates the Sophists on the nature of persuasion; and Cicero’s De Oratore, in which he extols the virtues of a skilled orator, whose skills require nothing less than a capacious stance toward the world. The third text presents a caution. Caesar’s Commentaries present history from the point of view of the aggrieved strong man. His account of events would register with ordinary Romans (those who could read) as compelling and even thrilling. But his self-promotion (indeed his quest for self-deification) should warn us about who gets to hold the microphone for how long. 

    The writing in each of these books might feel like a grind. But it’s an interesting kind of grind. Each book demonstrates a certain kind of scrupulous meticulousness. Plato’s Socrates wants to make sure he is covering all his bases. Cicero wants to touch on all the ways to tell the truth (or not). And Caesar wants his readers to know just how wronged he is, and also how successful and capable he is. So we invite you to pursue the slog, because that is what telling the truth truthfully – and its payoff, a democracy – really requires.