An effect of some types of current literary theory is to call into question our cosy habits of privileging some forms of discourse over others, and (to set aside equally cosy or convenient dismissals of "literary theory" en bloc) there is much to be said for such reassessments. In case the sometimes facile nature of the debate leads anyone to doubt this proposition, Robert Wardy's The Birth of Rhetoric constitutes a powerful argument for it - though it simultaneously invites us to question what kind of "power" that might be.
His aim is to understand what "rhetoric" is, and in particular how, if at all, "philosophy" is to distinguish itself from rhetoric. (The book is itself descended from an interdisciplinary course on rhetoric, which brought together teachers of philosophy and literature in Cambridge.) The classic case for a sharp line between rhetoric and philosophy is in Plato's Gorgias, which sets up a simple opposition between the impartial reasoning of the dialectician, in search of an impersonal truth, and the ignorant manipulation of his audience by the rhetorician - represented by Gorgias himself, one of the founding figures of his craft. But how good a case is it? Wardy gives Gorgias a new hearing; indeed, in a sense, as he says, the book is about Gorgias.
It begins with extended treatments of Gorgias's On What is Not and Encomium of Helen, both of which are understood as challenging philosophy in much the same way as those who nowadays claim that "as soon as one person addresses another, rhetoric is present": the task for the hearer or reader is to say just what is distinctive about philosophical discourse, and why Gorgias is wrong to suggest, with a complex mixture of play and seriousness, that "all varieties of logos are alike displays of persuasive contention".
The trouble with the Gorgias is that it ultimately states the case for a logical, rational "necessity" (of the sort proposed by Parmenides, and contested by Gorgias) by "the opposition of methods, display vs dialectic, regardless of whether in this particular instance the philosophical method actually yields truth"; if we give in, we may find ourselves to have been seduced by an argument which claims to propose an alternative to seduction.
The fourth chapter records the "anodyne resolution of the quarrel" between rhetoric and philosophy by the likes of Isocrates and Cicero, which allowed rhetoric to achieve, for many centuries, the status of "universal culture"; the fifth, Aristotle's apparent readiness (in the Rhetoric) to back both sides in the dispute.
The contemporary resonance of the issues emerges most clearly in the epilogue, "Does philosophy have a gender?" Some feminist critics, like Genevieve Lloyd, allege that "philosophical 'impersonality' cloaks pronounced gender bias". Not so, replies Wardy, even if some philosophers are misogynists. He seems, in the end, to accept (as well he might) that there is a kind of discourse that can usefully be labelled as "rational" by comparison with others; however it is one that can be only "relatively disengaged" (my emphasis). Insofar as philosophy is dialectical, it is ineradicably "agonistic", and to that extent always prone to be less than fully impersonal.
Wardy himself is certainly agonistic; his criticisms (eg of E. R. Dodds's commentary on the Gorgias) are frequently less than friendly, and provocation - eristic? - is everywhere, as for instance in his proposal (only partly qualified) that "no philosophical critic should contemplate attributing to Plato himself what any interlocutor, including Socrates, expresses"; or in his enlistment of "Socrates the erotic magician" on Gorgias's side.
But, after all, that is what he claims philosophy is like. The book addresses ("Reader, I await refutation", ends the text), and is accessible to, anyone interested in philosophy, literature, and the history of either; though those unfamiliar with the texts will probably find the arguments more difficult to control, let alone refute.
Christopher Rowe is professor of Greek, University of Durham.
The Birth of Rhetoric: Gorgias, Plato and their Successors
Author - Robert Wardy
ISBN - 0 415 14642 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00
Pages - 197