Aeschylus’ Oresteia sings praise of persuasion (peithō), but only after the horrors. First, violence must beget violence. Clytemnestra must avenge Iphigenia by slaying Agamemnon, and then Orestes must avenge Agamemnon by slaying Clytemnestra. So of course the Furies must pursue Orestes, to avenge Clytemnestra. But in the Oresteia’s third play, the cycle of violence proves not to be a wheel of necessity: it stops. Athena uses persuasion to stop it. First, she has Orestes stand trial in front of Athenian jurors. Then, after his acquittal enrages the Furies, she persuades them to give up vengeance, to join the Athenian cause and to accept future honors from them. Athena highlights the role of persuasion in her pitch to the Furies: “If you have holy reverence for persuasion,” she says, “the spell of my voice that would soothe you, you would stay.” (Eumenides 885-7, trans. after Fagles) After the Furies are soothed and they have joined Athena’s blessings for the Athenians, Athena expresses her own holy reverence: “I love the eyes of Persuasion, that she watched my mouth and tongue against their wild refusals.” (970-2, trans. after Fagles)
In its praise of persuasion, the Oresteia is an emblem of Classical Athens. The Athenians literally worshiped Persuasion. Pausanias reports that they had always done so: “When Theseus led the Athenians from many demes into one city, he established the worship of Aphrodite-of-all-the-People and of Persuasion.” (Description of Greece 1.22.3, trans. mine) Whether that is true or not, Isocrates affirms that Athenians recognized Persuasion as a goddess and sacrificed to her annually (Or. 15.249), and inscriptions reveal that they reserved a seat in the Theater of Dionysus for the priest of Persuasion. (Corpus Inscriptionum Atticarum iii.351)
In its praise of persuasion, the Oresteia is an emblem of Classical Athens. The Athenians literally worshiped Persuasion.
But worshipful praise is not the only Greek response to their gods, and the Oresteia also sings fear of persuasion, as a source of the horrors. The Agamemnon’s chorus warns that Agamemnon’s wealth is no bulwark against the avenging justice to come, because “unhappy Persuasion, insufferable child of Ruin, overpowers him.” (385-6, trans. mine) It is Persuasion that helped Paris kidnap Helen, Persuasion that convinced Agamemnon to sacrifice Iphigenia, and Persuasion that will help Clytemnestra induce Agamemnon to step on sacred cloth and into his house of doom. So while Persuasion eventually calms the Furies, she also helped Ruin visit Troy and the House of Atreus.
According to Plato’s dialogues, persuasion works most potently by appealing to what we desire unconditionally, without limits.
Aeschylus’ chorus offers an unusual genealogy when they call Persuasion the child of Ruin. Sappho called Persuasion the daughter of Aphrodite (frr. 90 and 200 in Lobel and Page, Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta), and this fits more neatly the many other stories that portray Persuasion as an aide to Aphrodite, helping Love to inspire unions without violence. (e.g., Hesiod, Works and Days, 73-75, and Pindar, Pythian Odes 9,39) These unions are often sexual, and the persuasion is as likely to be in the form of jewels or perfumes as in words. But the unions are not always sexual. After all, Theseus credited Aphrodite and Persuasion with the unification of Athenians.
It is tempting—especially to those conditioned (corrupted?) by philosophy—to draw some distinctions, so that the stories tell of different Persuasions. Perhaps the offspring of Love is not the offspring of Ruin, and perhaps Persuasion in the bedroom differs from Persuasion in the city. But Athenian literature of the fifth and fourth centuries (BCE) resists these sharp distinctions. The Classical Athenians told stories of Persuasion connecting brute desires and communal concerns, for both good and ill, because they experienced persuasion as an extraordinary power that could fortify or undermine their democracy.
Lifeblood of democracy, enslaver of everyone
Many Athenians imagined the power of persuasion to be their democracy’s lifeblood, the source of its health and power. The funeral oration attributed to Lysias expresses this plainly (Or 2.17-19, trans. after Lamb):
Our ancestors… were the first, and at that time the only, people to drive the ruling class out from their midst and to establish a democracy, because they thought that the freedom of all is the greatest concord. By sharing with each other their hopes born of their perils, they engaged in politics with free minds. They honored the good and punished the evil with law, and they held that while it is the work of wild animals to rule each other by force, it befits human beings to define what is right by law, to persuade by reason, and to serve these in deed by being subject to law and being taught by reason.
As the orator sees it, the democratic use of persuasion and law led Athenians out of the violent condition of brutes and into a fully civilized condition of free agreement or concord.
Even in this idealized picture, it is not difficult to see how persuasion also posed a threat to Athens’s democracy. For disagreements sometimes arise, and when they did in democratic Athens, the Assembly and the Courts settled them by voting, but only after the speakers had been heard, which empowered the most persuasive speakers. So Athenian politics reflected not the will of the people but that of the most persuasive among them. This would be a problem for the democracy if the most persuasive among them were not so keen on democracy or were more deeply committed to their own private gains.
In fifth-century Athens, ambitious young men naturally wanted to become persuasive speakers, and they sought training from those who seemed especially skilled in the art of persuasion, rhētorikē. Athenian obsessions with persuasion, with expertise, and with winning fostered a booming market for teachers of rhetoric and for handbooks of rhetorical tricks and tropes. In these conditions, the Athenians’ love of persuasion spawned anxiety. For the democracy’s decisions followed the most persuasive and the rich were buying the best courses in the art of persuasion, and perhaps worse, some of the best courses were taught by itinerant intellectuals from abroad.
Athenian anxiety about the new teachers of persuasion is most humorously displayed by Aristophanes’ Clouds. Here the master who teaches his students how to make the weaker argument stronger is an Athenian, Socrates, but the persuasive tricks his students learn are very much a threat to the established democratic order. One student, Pheidippides, is so enthralled with the new things he has learned that he expressly despises the established laws and customs (nomoi). (1399-1400) He provokes his father, Strepsiades, by mocking Aeschylus, and when the two exchange harsh words, the son begins to beat his father. In the scuffle’s aftermath, Strepsiades remains outraged, but Pheidippides is serenely confident that he can persuasively show that it is just and right to punish one’s father. (1405) Strepsiades appeals to the laws against such behavior (1420), but his son quickly responds, (1421-4, trans. mine):
Wasn’t it a man who first made this law, a man just like you and me, by persuading the men of old? Is it now any the less possible for me to make a fresh law allowing sons to strike their fathers in return?
The logic is plain: if the power of persuasion makes the democratically established laws, it can unmake them, too. What is a defender of the old ways to do, especially if they are unable to keep up with the most persuasive speakers? Aristophanes has Strepsiades turn to violence: as the play ends, he is setting Socrates’ school on fire.
In these conditions, the Athenians’ love of persuasion spawned anxiety. For the democracy’s decisions followed the most persuasive and the rich were buying the best courses in the art of persuasion, and perhaps worse, some of the best courses were taught by itinerant intellectuals from abroad.
The worry here reaches far beyond the most conservative members of the community. If a skilled persuader could induce others to approve of sons beating their fathers, then they might induce others to accept anything at all. Persuasion offers a perfectly general power, and the teachers of rhetoric sold it on exactly these terms. No one sold it more dramatically than Gorgias, who first came to Athens as an ambassador from his native Sicily during the same decade that the Clouds was first staged (the 420s BCE). One of Gorgias’ two surviving display speeches audaciously defends Helen, the beauty blamed for the Trojan War. He argues that she went with Paris to Troy because of the gods or force or persuasion or erōs, and whichever of these is the case, she was not responsible. Each of these causes is irresistible, Gorgias says: they compel us to do what they would have us do. This is clearest for the first two causes, and Gorgias devotes few words to saying that Helen was not responsible if the gods drove her to Troy or if Paris snatched her. Persuasive speech receives the bulk of Gorgias’ attention. “Speech that persuades the soul,” he maintains, “compels the soul it has persuaded both to obey the things said and to approve the things done.” (fr. 11.12, Diels and Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, trans. after Laks and Most) In fact, he argues, persuasive speech compels us just as force does (fr. 11.12) and “shapes the soul as it wishes.” (fr. 11.13, trans. Laks and Most)
Gorgias appears in the Platonic dialogue named for him, too, and Plato’s Gorgias praises rhetoric for producing the greatest good for humanity. When asked by Socrates what that might be, he says (452d, trans. after Barney): “What is in truth the greatest good, Socrates—it is at once the cause of freedom for human beings as such and the cause of ruling over others in each person’s own city.” Gorgias’ answer captures both the good and bad news about persuasion as a political force. The good news is that insofar as citizens are persuaded, their agreement is free. In this way, as the Lysianic funeral oration says, persuasion is the source of freedom. The bad news is that insofar as citizens are persuaded, the persuaders rule over them. In this way, persuasion is the source of domination. Plato emphasizes just how bad that can be. His Gorgias proudly insists (452e, trans. Zeyl, lightly modified):
With this ability [to persuade], you’ll have the doctor as your slave, and the physical trainer, too. As for this financial expert of yours, he’ll turn out to be making money for somebody else and not himself; for you, in fact, if you’ve got the ability to speak and to persuade the crowds.
As Plato’s Gorgias trumpets his ability to enslave experts by persuading the crowds, one can only wonder what the crowds should think about the power of persuasion.
Gorgias’ pupil Isocrates tells the crowds what they should think. At the age of 82 (in 354-3 BCE), Isocrates wrote his Antidosis (=Or. 15) as a defense against imaginary charges of corrupting the youth. To defend his career as an orator and teacher of the persuasive art he calls “philosophy,” he had to confront the Athenians’ decidedly mixed attitudes about persuasion. On the one hand, they still worshiped Persuasion as a goddess, but on the other, they “say that those who wish to share in the power the goddess has are corrupted, on the grounds that they desire a bad thing.” (Or. 15.249; trans. mine) But Isocrates maintains that rhetoricians are no more to blame for their students’ wicked uses of persuasion than physical trainers are for students who abuse their strength and beat friends or family. (15.251-253) The ability to persuade should not be blamed, because it is the source of so much that is good. Without it, human abilities do not surpass other animals’ and even lag behind some, but “since we have the ability to persuade one another and to make clear to ourselves what we want, not only do we avoid living like animals, but we have come together, built cities, made laws, and invented arts” (15.254, trans. Too). In agreement with the Lysianic funeral oration, Isocrates makes persuasion essential to human civilization. Consequently, he urges his Athenian audience to learn the art of persuasion, so that they might continue to be superior to other Greeks, as the Greeks are superior to the barbarians and as humans are superior to beasts (15.293-4).
Platonic diagnoses, Socratic advice
Isocrates might be right that what we do with words sets human beings apart, and he probably is right that we should all study to work with words better, to think and speak and write better. But his advice offers no help to those who would like to avoid being dominated by others’ persuasive abilities, nor to those who would like to help others become more persuasive without their becoming more powerful exploiters. Isocrates is too much an advocate of persuasion to help us sort the good persuading from the bad.
The bad news is that insofar as citizens are persuaded, the persuaders rule over them. In this way, persuasion is the source of domination. Plato emphasizes just how bad that can be.
For help, we had better turn to Isocrates’ rival Plato. Plato, too, is a fan of what he calls “philosophy,” and he, too, urges others to take it up so as to learn to think and speak better. (His attitudes toward writing are more complicated.) But Plato offers a different picture of philosophy from Isocrates’, and he is much more wary of persuasion. In zealously defending Socrates, his dialogues sharply contrast Socratic philosophy with the rhetoric of Gorgias and the other so-called “Sophists.” The bare outlines of Plato’s contrast do little to show how to reap the good of persuasion without the bad, but buried in his development of the contrast is some promising advice.
In both Plato’s Gorgias and his Phaedrus, Socrates treats rhetoric as the art or expertise (technē) of leading souls, but he separates what Gorgias (in the Gorgias) and Lysias (in the Phaedrus) do from what a genuine expert would do. Ordinary—Gorgianic, Lysianic—rhetoric is a general power that simply aims at persuasion, without regard to what is true or false in the things said and without regard to what is good for the persuaded. Some speakers have a knack for this. They have learned by experience what persuades the crowds and what does not, and their handbooks summarize tricks of the trade. But Plato’s Socrates denies that such a knack is expertise. It tracks what crowds find pleasing, and this is an elusive target, much too subjective and fickle to be grasped by a scientia (to use the anachronistic Latin term that hints at long historical connections). A genuine expert must know, by a kind of scientia, the objects of their expertise, and they must know the causes that bring about those objects. This is how we distinguish the quacks from the genuine medical doctors, and it should be how we distinguish the rhetorical hacks from the genuine experts at leading souls. The genuine experts aim not at what pleases the audience but at what is good for the audience. To do that, the experts must understand the subject matter of their speeches, so as to speak the truth, and they must understand the human soul, so as to lead their audience’s souls toward what is good.
The bare outlines of Plato’s contrast do little to show how to reap the good of persuasion without the bad, but buried in his development of the contrast is some promising advice.
This division can seem exactly wrong to modern readers. We are inclined to think that nothing is clearer to us that what pleases us or pains us, while what is genuinely good for us is the elusive quarry. Our modern political liberalism rests on skepticism about objective goodness for human beings. But it should not take too much reflection on the vicissitudes of fashion and the changeable attitudes of customers and political audiences alike to raise some Socratic doubts about what we find pleasing. And if we are willing to think that there is an objectively good condition for the human body, a condition of health that enables the body to do well what it does, then there is room to take seriously Socrates’ insistence that there is, in principle, an objectively good condition for the human mind or soul, a condition of health that enables the mind to do well what it does. While Plato’s division of ordinary rhetoric from philosophical rhetoric is defensible, it provides little in the way of valuable advice. It says we should distrust the speakers who care not for whether they speak truly and care not for what is good for us. Instead, it says, we should put our trust in those speakers who are guided by an understanding of what is true and of what is good for us. But persuasive speakers make this difficult! The most persuasive deceive those they wish to deceive, just like Odysseus. You would be lucky to have Odysseus on your team, if you could count on his loyalty and support. But the Trojans and more than a few of the Argives, to say nothing of Polyphemus, do not feel so lucky to have made Odysseus’ acquaintance. If the best we can do to distinguish the good persuasion from the bad is to distinguish trustworthy persons from the untrustworthy, we are stuck in a difficult game.
The fastest way to play that game erects walls between the insiders and the outsiders, the “true Athenians” and “the others.” The costs of the wall are high, and when they are constructed cheaply, there will be untrustworthy insiders and trustworthy outsiders. Greek literature is filled with illustrative cases, and not just Odysseus. They knew the stories about what Zeus did when he was feeling frisky, or indeed what Hera did when she needed to distract Zeus. But the Greeks also prided themselves on using persuasion in treacherous ways: they defeated the Persians at Salamis only because Themistocles sent a double agent to persuade Xerxes that the Greeks were vulnerable to a quick attack. (Herodotus VIII 74-75) All is fair in love and war, they say, but you do not have to sympathize deeply with the Persians or Zeus’ rape victims to find this thought discouraging. Plato’s dialogues offer two longer, more difficult ways to play the game of distinguishing the untrustworthy persuasive hacks from the trustworthy philosophically expert soul-leaders. One is to test them, to see whether they know what they are talking about and what is good for their audience. This will be difficult to pull off if one is not already oriented toward what is true and good. So this first strategy only works with the second, which is to build in oneself some ramparts against untrustworthy persuasion by desiring truth and understanding above all else. The second strategy runs with the idea that Persuasion assists Aphrodite, as Plato suggests that the key to getting persuasion right is to get erōs right.
If the best we can do to distinguish the good persuasion from the bad is to distinguish trustworthy persons from the untrustworthy, we are stuck in a difficult game.
According to Plato’s dialogues, persuasion works most potently by appealing to what we desire unconditionally, without limits. Unconditional, unlimited desire is erōs, or so Socrates claims to have learned from Diotima (in the Symposium). The natural object of erōs is living well, for there are no circumstances in which living well is not desirable and there is no amount of living well that quenches the desire to live well. But it is not easy to get erōs right and to live well. We transfer our desire to live well to whatever we see as a cause of living well, and for this reason many of us become unshakable committed to what is all too shakable, to fame or fortune or to this or that beloved. Also, our desire to live well without limit, forever, leads us to create progeny—children but also artistic creations and other accomplishments—that will outlive us and extend us, in a way, into the indefinite future. Our unconditional, unlimited desire becomes messy and difficult. Socrates urges simplification. He maintains that there is no better way to do well as a human being than to act wisely, and he argues that there is no cause of wise activity apart from wisdom. So if our erōs were correct, Socrates suggests, it would aim at wisdom. Plato’s dialogues thus offer philosophy—love of wisdom—as the solution to the Athenians’ complicated problem of persuasion. Of course, he offers this solution not in his own voice, but in the voice of Socrates. And we know what the Athenians did when Socrates offered them philosophy.
(The author would like to dedicate this essay to George Pepe, author of a dissertation on Peithō and beloved WUSTL professor of classics for nearly fifty years. Thanks, too, to Maddie Brown.)