Academic journal article College English

Fear of Persuasion in the English Language Arts

Academic journal article College English

Fear of Persuasion in the English Language Arts

Article excerpt

For the ancient Greeks, persuasion-Peitho-was a god, reverenced for her role in at least two spheres of human life.1 In one aspect, she was handmaid to Aphrodite, the god of love, beauty, and pleasure, and thus possessed of an undeniable erotic charge: on ancient vases, Peitho is often shown in scenes of seduction and betrothal (e.g., North 409). But she also had a more political function, one to which Athens seems to have been especially devoted: the city made annual sacrifices to the god (Isocrates, Antidosis 250), and a statue of her was the focus of a cult there (Pausanias 1.22.3). This Peitho was honored because of the role she played in governance, in the contentious but largely peaceful operation of democratic courts, assemblies, and councils, practices that needed to be protected from their opposites, coercion and violence. For the Athenians, Peitho may even have been linked to the founding of their polis, to the myth of Theseus unifying the different parts of Attica into one state (Pausanias 1.22.3). An echo of this myth can be heard in Cicero's story of that "great and wise" man who, with eloquent speech, first brought people together into cities (De Inv. I.ii.2). Originally scattered, suspicious of one another, and at the mercy of nature, humans had to be persuaded to adopt persuasion as their means of collective decision-making. Paying tribute to Peitho was thus a way for the Athenians to honor their "civilized" selves (Buxton 58).

The twin aspects of divine Peitho suggest something about secular peitho as well. Linked on the one hand to eros, beauty, and seduction and, on the other, to logos, speech, and reason, persuasion was, for the Greeks, indispensable to the consensual union of individuals and groups. We can communicate, compromise, combine, but it takes work: our natural state is selfishness and isolation. Divine intervention helps, but persuasion invariably involves design and thus shades easily into practices that deserve censure as much as gratitude. Perhaps this is ultimately why Peitho was honored by the Greeks-because her beneficence needed both tribute and monitoring.

The Romans worshiped persuasion too. In fact, their word persuadere connoted in its very form, as the English still does, sweetness, suavity, and assuagement. And in the New Testament, as faith (pirtis), "being persuaded" of God's message is the highest form of knowledge there is (Burke, Rhetoric 52): a belief in Him "[w]hom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing [pisteuontes], ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory" (King James Version, 1 Peter 1.8; cf. Hebrews 11.1: "Now faith [pirtis] is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen").

Of course, there were those in antiquity who did not regard persuasion so highly, at least not secular peitho. Philosophers of the Socratic circle, for example, were suspicious of the role of persuasion in political affairs, especially as practiced in democratic Athens. In the Gorgias, Plato has Socrates define rhetorike as "peithous demiourgos" (453 a), the worker of persuasion, a skill that he disparages as a mere knack for moving crowds of uneducated listeners, a tool of flattery and manipulation that can give one momentary power regardless of the merits of one's case. Against this undisciplined, unethical practice, Plato proposed dialektike, a method of question-and-answer dialogue conducted in out-of-the-way places by small groups of philosophers, oriented to truth and goodness rather than applause (Vlastos).

The agon of rhetoric and philosophy, inaugurated in Plato's dialogues, pitted these two practices against one another (Kimball). In fourth century BCE Athens, the agon was personified by the contest between Plato and Isocrates and their respective schools. If, as Henri Marrou once argued, Plato seems the more formidable to us now, it was Isocrates "who educated fourth-century Greece and subsequently the Hellenistic and Roman worlds" (120), inaugurating a pedagogical tradition centered on language, literature, and the arts of social influence, rather than mathematics, dialectic, and truth seeking. …

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