Seven years of silent inquiry are needful for a man to learn the truth, but fourteen in order to learn how to make it known to his fellow-men.
-Plato

 

To know something, of course, is not so easily defined within the realms of carnality and baseness that plague the human experience. If it were, it would not have been a topic so often discussed over generations of documented discourse, and to such varying degrees among rhetorical theorists. How can one know something without truth being the implicit purveyor of such knowledge? Plato speaks to this, in his work Republic, when he says,

In the world of knowledge, the essential Form of Good is the limit of our inquiries, and can barely be perceived but, when perceived, we cannot help concluding that it is in every case the source of all that is bright and beautiful –in the visible world giving birth to light and its master, and in the intellectual world dispensing, immediately and with full authority, truth and reason –and that whosoever would act wisely, either in private or in public, must set this Form of Good before his eyes (Plato & Watt 1997 228).

Plato is not only placing knowledge as highly essential to experiencing goodness in life, but he also alludes to the attaining of it, through truth and reason, only being done by those who would act wisely. Interestingly enough, he also leaves room for man’s inability to ever truly know anything. Of course, the word know can encompass both one’s own perception of what is true— through the vehicles of information purveyance that are readily available to them— as well as what would be universally true and supported by empirical data. Truth is what is, but is also that which leads the searcher to what can be known and not simply what is probable. Probabilities, as Plato would say, are not knowledge but are mere appearances of such knowability. He goes a bit further in his work Phaedo where he says, “arguments derived from probabilities are idle, and unless one is on one’s guard against them, they are very deceptive” (Plato & Lindsay 170). I would even go so far as to say that such arguments are not arguments at all but, as Chaucer would have said, are nothing more than wind from the port side; mere acts of deception.

 

 

Probabilities seem to be the result of rhetoric, in its modern sense, and were one of Plato’s dissensions of rhetorical practice. More important to Plato, was the search for truth in all situations. He identified it as preeminent above rhetoric. Often, he referred to rhetoric in the pejorative sense, as he related it to those he viewed as manipulative, deceitful, and corruptive in discursive utilization. Much of his commentary on this subject, is in direct reference to Sophists such as Gorgias, who utilized rhetorical speech specifically for the purpose of manipulation. Much of Gorgias’ views on rhetoric stemmed from a belief that, in effect, nothing exists, or if it does in fact exist that we cannot know it, and if we can know it, we cannot effectively communicate what we know, without having shared experiences relying on shared deceptions, that are affected by language. He believed that language not only creates, but also changes, our opinions that become our only source of available knowledge (TRT 45; 83).  Therein lies Plato’s dissent. Plato’s concerns of this sort of approach to rhetoric are not relegated to pre-modernity, however. This concern should be just as much a modern one here as it was in Plato’s Athens (TRT 80). This sort of nihilistic approach to information-gathering is what seems to lead to the must-be-first mentality of the news media, as well as the social media phenomenon of shutting down speech that breaks from popular convention. This phenomenon, of course, could not be as effective as it has become, without this value placed on shared experiences that create groups of activists toward varying social causes. The next logical conclusion of these approaches will always lead malleable people to misuse their rhetorical power for their own purposes and to use the technological mediums, which now allow for information to be pushed to the masses within seconds, toward ends that only serve those who wield that power most effectively; or most manipulatively.

 

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