Poulakis’ Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece

John Poulakis
Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece
Area: History of Rhetoric and Memory Studies

•    If you tell people for 100 years that they are dogs, they’ll start barking
•    Reactionary argument—only kind of rhetoric is sophistical
•    History without language
o    Little is gained by arguing that Plato was wrong about the sophists
•    Language without history
•    Re-reading the sophists as they were is impossible—too many influences on the their reinterpretation (time passage, etc.)
•    Time-and-place dependent understandings
•    Discussion of the past constitutes an interpretive construction from a particular perspective of the present
•    Threat the rhetoric of the sophists in order to stimulate new thinking on our rhetorics
Xi: “Moreover, they have been trained to believe that their susceptibility to the charming words of others constitutes a weakness to be overcome by means of such fortifying agents as approved versions of reason, dialectical know-how, and objectivity.”
1: “Today, the narrative repertoire on Hellas’ early rhetoricians includes stories about a suspect epistemological and moral doctrine (Plato), a necessary moment in the history of philosophy (Hegel), a unique cultural phenomenon (Nietzsche), and a profound intellectual movement (Jaeger, Kerferd).
From Christopher Lyle Johnstone’s Review
•    The present work is the product of the approach he embraces: it is comprehensive rather than narrowly focused, it credits the Older Sophists with a “rhetorical consciousness” rather than being concerned (as Schiappa was) that rhetorike was coined b y Plato in the 4th century, and it seeks to interpret sophistical writings in terms of their themes, patterns and cultural milieu rather than strictly in terms of what the textual evidence alone permits. At the same time, however, Poulakos aims at something like Schiappa’s historical reconstruction: the book situates the sophists in the cultural environment of the latter half of the fifth century B.C., examines the preserved textual materials of and about the sophists, and considers three major receptions of sophistic rhetoric in an effort to “derive a rhetoric that can be called sophistical” (4).
•    Poulakos promises to “treat past texts not as fixed monuments to be consumed cognitively but as elusive documents that can stimulate readers to rethink the constitution of their own lives. . .” (3).
•    Poulakos asserts that “whether we are looking at a past work or its past reception, the perspective of the present is unavoidable.” Thus he dismisses the “extremes of classical philology, which claims to interpret texts objectively, and modernist criticism, which often disregards their historical character” (7).
•    After reviewing the principal political, cultural, economic and intellectual developments that shaped 5th-century Athens, the chapter examines the status of the sophists as itinerant teachers of oratory and disputation in cities where they were always “other.”
•    The next chapter, entitled “Terms for Sophistical Rhetoric,” explores in some detail the notions of opportunity, playfulness and possibility “as constitutive functions” of the cultural milieu of the sophists. It does so by first reviewing “two common ways of reading the sophists” and then by proposing a third “which attends… both [to] the cultural dynamics discussed in the previous chapter, and to some sophistical texts . . . influencled] by these dynamics” (53). […]These terms are kairos (opportunity), paignion (game, play), and to dunaton (the possible). They were selected because, we are told, they help explain common features of sophistical texts and because they can render the sophists’ rhetorical practices meaningful
•    Poulakos concludes that for Plato the teaching and rhetorical practices of the sophists provided the counterview against which he could articulate and argue for his vision of the superiority of the philosophical to the rhetorical life.
•    Isocrates, on the other hand, seems to have maintained a much more ambivalent and ambiguous attitude toward the sophists. “Indebted to the tradition the sophists had initiated, Isocrates imitates their work but only up to a point; time and again, he follows their example but never entirely” (142).
•    Aristotle’s reception, according to Poulakos, was characterized by both the preservation and the correction of sophistic thinking: “because they contributed to the cultural reservoir of rhetorical insights, [Aristotle held that] the sophists are historically important; but because their reasoning was often flawed, it needs to be corrected” (150).
•    One implication of this view is that “the rhetoric of the sophists has no end-point…. [W]ith the sophists there is no truth, no unity, no telos” (189). Moreover, “sophistical rhetoric labors to utter novel words, fresh insights, and original thoughts.” It disrupts “established norms of linguistic action, . . . shatters aspects of conventional wisdom, . . . unsettles the sensibilities of the accepted tradition” (190). Thus it calls into question habits of perception and traditional modes of thought by “challenging what other rhetorics take for granted. Accordingly, it cultivates skeptical attitudes. . .” (191).


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