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The Instrumentality of Rhetoric and Teaching

A rhetorician’s job, as was confessed by Gorgias, is to persuade the crowd, but not necessarily teach it (458e). A rhetorician is an agent who’s purpose is to convince and persuade the audience with a specific set of knowledge and beliefs. What is the difference between rhetoric and teaching, and how do these practices relate to the notions of knowledge and education? Is it that education can be taught, and rhetoric cannot? What is the distinction between these terms if both seem to impose beliefs on the audience? Is the distinction between rhetoric and teaching made because the former imposes a set of beliefs that disregards the audience’s educational agency?

If so, what is the nature of these educational values that get omitted by the act of rhetoric? Could education be a form of rhetoric that uses persuasion to convince the audience of selected areas of knowledge? Does education impose knowledge without a process of inquiry, similar to the way a bad rhetorician imposes knowledge without the grounding of truth? Can education be considered a true form of intellectual inquiry, or can it not always promise truth, and succumb into the intellectual inconsistencies of rhetoric? Perhaps rhetoric as well as education, are practices that appertain to the same category, while true knowledge may only be acquired through some other modes of inquiry. Before attempting to answer these questions, it may be necessary to gradually proceed through the inquires that follow.

A. What is rhetoric?

While being the primary subject of discussion, rhetoric should be discerned and defined before proceeding. Rhetoric as it appears to be, is a practice that does not just regard the rhetorician, but is also a skill that seems to be wildly applied across various other disciplines, arts, and practices. Even a doctor needs a skill of an orator to convince a patient of the presence of an illness (459b). A rhetorician’s art of practice is to convince an individual or a crowd with specific knowledge. According to Socrates, the crowd is synonymous with “the ignorant” — individuals who are not aware of the matter that the rhetorician might convey (459a). A rhetorician is not just a name of a professional who practices rhetoric, it is a skill to convince an audience despite the individual’s primary occupation. This means that anyone, even a person who does not know about a particular subject, can exercise an ability to persuade the crowd. On the other hand, a person who does know about a particular subject, cannot persuade the crowd unless he is familiar with certain aspects of rhetoric. Rhetoric is therefore not an art that guarantees pure translation of knowledge, but without it, as it appears, no knowledge can be translated whatsoever.

B. What is education?

If a rhetorician’s job is to convey the truth, then the question is, what is the educational value of rhetoric? Perhaps education must disregard numerous aspects of truths by simplification, but it nevertheless strives to teach the audience of certain assurances. This audience, as was mentioned in inquiry A, is referred to as “the ignorant”, for even Socrates never rules out the possibility of ignorance being present in any of his own arguments (459a, 460a). Education, just like rhetoric, is usually addressed to an audience that is ignorant to various extents.

Like rhetoric, education must be used to teach what is good and never intend to teach what is wrong (460c). A bad rhetorician must be punished the same way when a boxer applies uses his abilities in a reckless manner (460d). The same argument can coherently be extend to other arts and practices as well — including the art of teaching. But education it seems, is not entirely synonymous with the act of teaching. Bad education and bad teaching seem to imply a similar cause, but teaching appears to be a more persuasive form of inquiry, whereas education is a process of mediated inquiry on a more individual level. But it does appear that a teacher and a rhetorician seem to have very similar practices. Both of them strive to inform or educate the audience by the process of tutoring and/or persuasion, and both are susceptible to persuading with a good and bad intent.

C. Is rhetoric an art of its own?

If the ability to convince the ignorant reflects an individual’s mastery of rhetoric, can rhetoric be related to other virtues like strength, cleverness, and beauty? That is, can rhetoric be a trait that is used to pursue whatever art it could entail? Or perhaps rhetoric is just like cookery, which according to Socrates, is not an art, but a habitude and/or a knack (463b) or even a branch of medicine (464d). Based on the conclusion that was derived from inquiry A and B, rhetoric appears to be a necessary trait required for conveying knowledge to an audience. Based on the conclusion made in inquiry B, the translation of knowledge to an audience, is not just an activity of a rhetorician, but that of a teacher as well.

Since rhetoric appears to be a necessary trait among multiple disciplines, it does not entirely justify Socrates’s proposition that rhetoric is not an art. Rhetoric appears to be an essential skill for translating knowledge to an audience, which Socrates to some extents argues for (459b). Assuming that the activity of a rhetorician isn’t approved to be an art, it nevertheless encompasses an essential rhetorical skill, which is demonstrated to be vital across multiple other disciplines and practices. Painting for example, might not be a necessary skill for many besides a painter, but it does not necessarily follow that painting should not be categorized as an art. If one demonstrates a skill in painting, it can be assumed that the person practices the art of painting well. If one demonstrates a skill in rhetoric, why should it not follow that the person practices an art of rhetoric well? Considering that rhetoric is applied across many other disciplines, does that diminish its status as an art, or on the contrary — justifies its status as an art?

It may be coherently concluded that rhetoric can be justified to be a form of art. A rhetorician therefore practices a legitimated form of art, which is referred to as rhetoric.

D. Does a rhetorician and a teacher know?

In inquiry B, it has been demonstrated how a teacher and a rhetorician have similarities in their arts. A teacher and a rhetorician each strive to convince the audience with a set of beliefs and knowledge. According to Gorgias, a rhetorician must find a device of persuasion that would convey a specific art of knowledge while omitting all the other arts (459c). That is, a rhetorician does not have to match a practitioner’s techne by skill nor reason in order to persuade the crowd. It must follow that knowing the truth might not be necessary nor for the teacher, nor for the rhetorician. Rhetoric, just like education, can thus convey an opinionated truth that may or may not be challenged by one who knows about a particular subject (459d). In the case of a rhetorician, these opinionated truths are most likely not to be challenged since a rhetorician is usually the only orator among the crowd. A similar conclusion can be made with the art of teaching.

It can be thus concluded that a rhetorician, nor a teacher, are reliant sources of objective truths. But this conclusion does not dismiss the importance of these arts. As mentioned previously in inquiry A, without rhetoric, teaching, and all the other arts that regard the translation of knowledge; there would be little potential for translating any form of knowledge. And as long as these arts intend to address the ignorant for the sake of diminishing ignorance, they will remain just. But these arts cannot guarantee complete consistency of translating objective truths and knowledge.


In the four enquires that where presented, the function of rhetoric and its similar relation to education where entertained. It can be concluded that both rhetoric and education may be put in contexts that exploit their just intent. It was also shown how rhetoric and education by nature, are not always a reliant source of truth. But these are nevertheless qualifiable as forms of arts, including rhetoric, which was under a closer inquiry in that regard. Both strive for the good, justice, and both seem to strive to achieve a state of least ignorance.


Plato. Laches; Protagoras; Meno; Euthydemus. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1977. Print.