Persuasion, the Truth and Donkeys in the Phaedrus

One major area in which the Socrates of the Phaedrus distinguishes his understanding of rhetoric from that of Gorgias, Thrasymachus and other writers of technai, concerns whether the expert orator needs to know the truth about their subject matter. Socrates clearly holds that they do. His arguments for this rather surprising claim are — to say the least — quite tricky to make out!

One key argument made at 261d-262c, and recapitulated briefly at 273d-e when Socrates considers how to address Tisias, involves accepting – perhaps only for the sake of argument – the premise that the exercise of rhetoric involves the use of similarities. The argument proceeds from this to the conclusion that rhetorical expertise must involve knowing the truth about one’s subject matter. The premise seems acceptable enough: speakers in forensic and deliberative contexts alike frequently invite their audience to see the similarity between one thing and another, and to infer that they should make the same judgement about the one as they do about the other. Socrates proceeds as follows.

Socrates: We can therefore find the practice of speaking on opposite sides not only in the lawcourts and in the Assembly. Rather, it seems that one single art – if, of course, it is an art in the first place – governs all speaking. By means of it one can make out as similar anything that can be so assimilated, to everything to which it can be made similar, and expose anyone who tries to hide the fact that that is what he is doing.

Phaedrus: What do you mean by that?

Socrates: I think it will become clear if we look at it this way. Where is deception most likely to occur – regarding things that differ much of things that differ little from one another?

Phaedrus: Regarding those that differ little.

Socrates: At any rate, you are more likely to escape detection, as you shift from one thing to its opposite, if you proceed in small steps rather than in large ones.

Phaedrus: Without a doubt.

Socrates: Therefore, if you are to deceive someone else and to avoid deception yourself, you must know precisely the respects in which things are similar and dissimilar to one another.

Phaedrus: Yes, you must.

Socrates: And is it really possible for someone who doesn’t know what each thing truly is to detect a similarity – whether large or small – between something he doesn’t know and anything else?

Phaedrus: That is impossible.

Socrates: Clearly, therefore, the state of being deceived and holding beliefs contrary to what is the case comes upon people by means of certain similarities.

Phaedrus: That is how it happens.

Socrates: Could someone, then, who doesn’t know what each thing is ever have the art to lead others little by little through similarities away from what is the case on each occasion to its opposite? Or could he escape this being done to himself?

Phaedrus: Never.

Socrates: Therefore, my friend, the art of a speaker who doesn’t know the truth and chases opinions instead is likely to be a ridiculous thing – not an art at all!

Phaedrus: So it seems. (261d-262c)

Clearly, if rhetoric requires knowledge of similarities, and knowing similarities in turn requires knowledge of the truth of the things being spoken about, then rhetoric must require this same knowledge of the truth. But for reasons both internal and external to the dialogue, it seems hard to see why one should accept (as Phaedrus does without quibble) the premise that it is impossible to detect similarities between something one does not know and something else. It seems simply implausible as stated: I know little enough about plants, but I can tell similarities and differences between plants even when I do not know what they are. And, even within the dialogue, it seems that only at 260b-d Socrates seemed himself to allow that he might persuade Phaedrus that he should get a horse for fighting enemies despite his (and Phaedrus’) being ignorant of what a horse was. Socrates’ persuasive argument there seems to proceed successfully because of the similarity between what Socrates said about “horses” and what Phaedrus believed about “horses”. It is assumed, we should note, that Socrates knows in the relevant respects what Phaedrus believes about “horses” (260b2-4). Thus, even within the dialogue, it seems that successful persuasive arguments using similarities do not require knowledge of the truth, and Socrates does not seem to offer a good argument to support his claim that they do.

This objection seems to me to be telling if Socrates is viewing rhetoric as an technê enabling its possessor to get an audience convinced of a given claim, regardless of whether that claim is true or false. But Socrates’ view seems to be that possession of a genuine technê of rhetoric ought to put the skilled orator in charge of whether what their audience (and indeed they themselves) came to be convinced of was true or false. Whether the convictions resulting from the exercise of the technê turn out true or false should not be a matter of chance or accident, since an accidental result is the mark precisely of the absence of technê. In the passage above, this may well be what Socrates has in mind, since he repeatedly emphasises that the result that the orator aims at is for the audience to be deceived but for himself to avoid being deceived (and the discussion immediately preceding (261c-d) about speaking on opposite sides makes it clear that for the skilled orator, it is simply a matter of choice whether they want the audience to be deceived or to be convinced of the truth: their skill puts them in a position to achieve non-accidentally whichever outcome they choose). If this is the case, then what matters in persuading an audience is not merely the similarity between what they already believe and what, at each stage in the persuasive strategy, they are being invited to believe. Rather the orator will need to know how similar each of these is to what is actually true, so as to be in a position to ensure that where the audience is led, by suitably small steps, tends either towards or away from the truth.

On this interpretation, Socrates insists that the skilled orator must know the truth about their subject matter, even if their aim is to make the audience’s convictions false rather than true. His view thus does not rely on the idea that rhetoric aims at true convictions in the audience. It relies instead on the view that rhetoric involves persuasion using similarities (262b6), and that it is the expertise by which a speaker achieves non-accidental success in securing convictions in their audience that are true, if he so chooses, or false. Socrates concludes ultimately that the view of the “wise”,1 viz. that the skilled orator need not know the truth but only what their audience believes, makes their supposed technê into something ridiculous (geloian, 262c2) and not a technê at all (atechnon, c3). This, on the interpretation proposed here, is because on the account of rhetoric proposed by the “wise”, it is a matter of chance whether the convictions produced in the audience turn out true or false. When Socrates refers back to this argument later at 273d2-6, his claim is to have shown that one cannot know what is similar to the truth without knowing the truth of one’s subject matter. This lends support to interpretations, such as that proposed here, of the argument of 261d-262c in which the similarities referred to are similarities to the truth.

That said, at 273d, Socrates also repeats (as something “we were saying before”) the claim that “what is likely is in fact accepted by the many because of a similarity to what is true”(273d3-4). This seems to suggest that in both passages Socrates after all holds the problematic claim that one cannot discern similarities between things unless one knows the truth about them. That, if correct, would be very difficult to square with my proposed interpretation.

Interestingly, Socrates here carefully distinguishes between the (problematic) claim that it is similarity to the truth that makes “the likely” acceptable to the masses, and the claim that knowing what is similar to the truth requires knowing the truth. He perhaps hints that it is the latter that has been the more carefully argued for (diêlthomen, d5, cf. tunchanomen legontes, d3). Perhaps, then, I can maintain my proposed interpretation as a kind of “tidied-up” version of Socrates’ view, and suggest that in this latter passage, Socrates himself hints at the need for some such tidying?

Any other suggestions / comments?

1“sophoi” (260a6) – and there is a strong hint that it is Gorgias, Thrasymachus and Theodorus who held this view (261b6-c3).


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