Plato Disses Rhetoric

Travels and spotty internet connections have prevented me from making this week’s Great Books post until now.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Chapters 43-48 (GGB Vol. 2)*
  2. The Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book III (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 513-522)
  3. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume II, Part Two, Chapters 1-9 (GBWW Vol. 44, pp. 269-284)
  4. A Defence of Poetry” by Percy Shelley (GBWW Vol. 5, pp. 212-242)
  5. The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 15, pp. 223-246)
  6. Novum Organum by Francis Bacon, Book One (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 107-136)

*Seven chapters from The Pickwick Papers are excerpted in the GGB series. I’ve elected to read the entire novel and have listed page numbers from Volume 2 of GGB when I reach excerpted chapters. Chapter 34 was the last excerpted chapter, so from now until the end of the book I won’t be listing page numbers.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Chapters 37-42: Mr. Pickwick finally goes to debtors’ prison. I didn’t enjoy those chapters as much as I did the ones about Mr. Winkle’s adventures: jumping into a lady’s sedan chair in his nightclothes, fleeing a duel only to encounter his antagonist by accident in another city, and searching for his paramour. 
  2. The Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book II: Here Aristotle argues that there must be a first principle and a first cause. The book is very short and seems to go over more ground that was in the Physics
  3. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume II, Part One, Ch. 8-21: This section consists of many brief chapters. The observations come so rapidly that it’s difficult to pick out one or two for comment, but I’m inclined to agree with Tocqueville that democratic societies are more focused on material comforts. The chapter on democracies’ lending credence to the notion of the indefinite perfectibility of man was pretty accurate, too, I think. Oh, and I can’t forget to point out the section on the usefulness of studying the Greek and Latin classics in democracies.
  4. The Gorgias of Plato: This dialogue is quite lengthy and offers a lot to chew on. I couldn’t help feeling some sympathy with Callicles when he complained that Socrates was always talking about “cobblers and cooks and fullers and doctors.” Truly, those arguments by analogy get tiresome and are not always to the point. I don’t think Plato really gives rhetoric a fair shake here because he doesn’t take into account that people sometimes need to be persuaded of what course they ought to take. 
  5. The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book VI, 7-13: In this section we get methods of predicting both solar and lunar eclipses. More tables here. 
  6. Novum Organum by Francis Bacon, Preface: The preface is very brief, but it contains several grand statements, such as that logic is of no use in the investigation of nature. I actually think that Bacon’s treatment of logic here is a bit unfair; the problem in 1600 lay with the false premises some thinkers subjected to logical analysis.

The spring semester begins soon for many of us. I hope to be ready for it when it launches next week, and I hope to be back to Monday posts as well!

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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2 Responses to Plato Disses Rhetoric

  1. trentonleach says:

    The Gorgias is one of my favorites of Plato. I agree, the arguments by analogy can get tiresome, However, I do find his notion that there are good arts for improving the body and soul and that the opposite of these are “flattery”. “Flattery” comes into each of these arts, by speculation, not knowledge…it cares nothing for the best (of body/soul) but “dangles what is most pleasant for the moment as a bait for folly, and deceives it into thinking she (folly) is the highest value.”

    Further, I think Socrates debate with Polus is excellent. I think this section does a better job of arguing that “injustice in never profitable” than Socrates does in the Republic. What I like best about it is that Socrates shows that true “freedom” can never be in acting merely as one wants, but rather when acting as one ought.

    Thank you for these commentaries, I am a late-comer to your project, but am enjoying it thoroughly!

    • Dr. J says:

      I also liked the description of cookery and rhetoric as species of flattery. Maybe I’m too sensual, but that reinforces my conviction that Plato is unfair to rhetoric. Who wants to give up good cooking?

      I appreciate your comments!

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