Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric

Poulakos, John
January 1983
Philosophy & Rhetoric;Winter1983, Vol. 16 Issue 1, p35
Academic Journal
This article focuses on a Sophistic definition of rhetoric. The article presumes that without the Sophists our picture of the rhetoric that came out of the Greek experience is incomplete. For over two millennia people have relied almost exclusively on the Platonic and Aristotelian notions of discourse while treating the sophistic position as an obscure but interesting historical footnote. The example of the Sophists suggests that the notions and terms to be investigated are rhetoric as art, style as personal expression, kairos (the opportune moment), to prepon (the appropriate), and to dynaton (the possible). Conceiving of rhetoric as art is important because on the one hand it designates the sophistic view proper and on the other it helps place the controversy between Plato and the Sophists. The evidence of the Sophists' excellence in style is plentiful. Philostratus reports in the Lives of the Sophists that Gorgias, who did for rhetoric as much as Aeschylus did for tragedy. As the historical record indicates, the Sophists were master rhetoricians. That their excellence in the area of style has often been construed as a liability is due partly to Plato's influence on posterity and partly to the excesses of some of their successors. The sophistic insistence that speaking be done with respect to time does not stem from a philosophical position regarding the nature of logos but from the observation that if what is said is timely, its timeliness renders it more sensible, more rightful, and ultimately more persuasive.


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