Pre-Socratic rhetoric is an overarching concept that captures not only the traits of Hellenic rhetoric that were demonstrated by the sophists who immediately preceded Socrates, but also the antecedent forces that shaped sophistic views on thought and its relationship to expression. The dialogues of Plato and the development of the Socratic movement have often been considered the seminal events in recognizing rhetoric as a formal discipline or technê. Yet, the dramatic date of these dialogues – particularly such dialogues as Plato’s Gorgias and his later Phaedrus – reveal that sophists were already established and teaching rhetoric within and throughout Hellenic culture well before Plato (apparently) abstracted and coined “rhetoric” as a discipline worthy of scrutiny. Gorgias, a sophist who was clearly older than Plato’s mentor and primary dialogue-character, Socrates, professed to be an established teacher of rhetoric, claiming a pedagogical ancestry dating back to his fellow Sicilians Corax and Tisias. Of course, the debates over the “founding” of rhetoric, whether abstracted as a discipline or long practiced as a craft, continue even today. Yet, what is clear is that several forces were at work prior to the sophists and Plato, which contributed greatly to rhetoric’s evolution into a discipline, regardless of when historians of rhetoric wish to select the moment when rhetoric became recognized as an area of study.
While we may not resolve with certainty the disagreement over rhetoric’s origin, we can both appreciate and (better) evaluate characterizations of rhetoric’s origin if we consider the confluence of forces that contributed to the nascent features of rhetoric’s evolution into a discipline. That is, we are aided in understanding the emergence of rhetoric as a discipline by considering long-established social and intellectual forces. There is, of course, little doubt that the synthesis of these forces came about during the early decades of the fifth century bce, in what is commonly called the pre-Socratic period of rhetoric, but our understanding of the development of pre-Socratic rhetoric will be better realized if we are sensitive to such forces and their history. The four primary forces shaping pre-Socratic rhetoric are: the Homeric tradition, the rise of logography, the emergence of pre-Socratic philosophy, and the evolution of the polis or Hellenic city-state. From this perspective, the emergence of Gorgias and his fellow sophists in Plato’s dialogues is not the beginning, but rather the consequence, of important developments in Greek thought and expression.
The Iliad and Odyssey represent the earliest body of sustained Hellenic discourse. Now recognized as inscribed oral discourse, Homerica reveal emerging notions of rhetoric in two dimensions. The composition patterns of the Iliad and the Odyssey reveal systemic formulae that served as both an aid to memory for early bards (aoidoi) and later for the more formal guild of rhapsodes (Homeridae). Research on the composing processes of Homeric discourse done by Milman Parry, Albert B. Lord, and others reveals that such patterned heuristics demonstrate a consciousness about thought and its relationship to expression. Further, an internal examination of the works of Homer reveals that the characters themselves demonstrate techniques of persuasion and the manipulation of language that would one day be formalized by sophists and theorized by rhetoricians. The wily exploits of Odysseus to trick the cyclops Polyphemus in book 9 of the Odyssey, for example, reveal deliberate attempts to persuade and deceive through carefully crafted speech. Odysseus may have had little or no awareness of rhetoric as it was later understood by fifth-century bce sophists, but the conscious awareness of structuring language for persuasive effect is unmistakably present among Homer’s characters.
The Rise Of Logography
Greece’s evolution in writing from Bronze Age syllabaries to an alphabet provided a technology both for preserving the spoken word that was much more efficient than the heuristics of oral composition and, eventually, for facilitating abstract thought and prose composition. The rhythmical structure of oral poetry offered a technology for preserving discourse by stable patterns of cadence. Writing made such a technology unnecessary, freeing discourse from the necessity of mnemonic devices for rhythmical meaning and allowing for unfettered prose composition. That is, just as writing mathematics – as opposed to doing such problem-solving orally – greatly facilitates abstract thought with the manipulation of numbers, so also does writing prose stabilize narrative (logoi) in a manner that facilitates abstract thought and makes the need for rhyming and poetic composition obsolete.
As writing grew in popularity to the extent that a city such as Athens could be literate, the shift in composition from poetry to prose, particularly the use of writing for functional civic purposes, became clear. The multiple benefits of prose writing (logography) became readily apparent, extending this new art far beyond a recording device to a facilitator of abstract thinking. Logography branched out from the mere recording of speech to more specialized sub-genres of history and forensic argument; this shift from exclusively oral (momentary) communication to oral and literate communication enabled rhetors not only to freeze discourse but also to reflect on stable communication. Many scholars, such as Eric Havelock, believe this ability to freeze words helped to nurture abstract thought and philosophical inquiry.
The Emergence Of Pre-Socratic Philosophy
Another pre-Socratic source contributing to the development of rhetoric was the early development of philosophy. Pre-Socratic thinkers such as Empedocles began to reflect not only on the nature and function of the universe, but also on human understanding and expression. Fragments of their work reveal the belief that knowledge was constrained by the limitations of our own sense perceptions and that inferences that could be advanced were both probable and interpretive. In addition to Empedocles, other pre-Socratic philosophers of the Eleatic school – such as Parmenides and Zeno – viewed concepts in antithetical and dissociative syntactic constructs (dissoi logoi).
Structuring knowledge on a polar continuum reflects itself in not only a correlative balancing of style and cadence but an epistemology of degree and relativism. That is, concepts such as dissoi logoi have obvious stylistic and syntactic patterns that make them attractive features in euphonic composition, but they also echo epistemologies that nurture a balancing of perspectives that result in probability as a dominant model of thought and expression. Pre-Socratic thinkers such as Empedocles stressed human understanding and probability over earlier Homeric notions of divine inspiration and myth, marking a departure from the Homeric tradition. The insights of pre-Socratic philosophy provided a foundation for sophistic rhetoric that would be based on oppositional thought, sense perception, relativism and opinion (doxa), formulaic composition, and the power of literacy in moving discourse from momentary expression to stabilized communication that facilitates abstract thinking. It is little wonder that, when we trace the rhetorical genealogy of sophists, we see direct and indirect relationships with preSocratic philosophers.
The Rise Of Civic Activity
The emergence of the polis has long been recognized as an important feature in Greek history. Focus on the rise of the city in Hellenic culture has centered on the development of imperialism, the enhanced activity of commerce and trade, as well as the political dynamics that resulted in the exposure to, and interaction with, rival Hellenic cultures. The rise of the Greek city also played an important role in the emergence of rhetoric, particularly pre-Socratic rhetoric. The archaic and classical periods of Greece witnessed the emergence of powerful political city-states, which aggressively promoted their hegemony through kinship ties and military conquest. In all such cities, rhetoric was an active and dynamic feature of civic operations. One of the most important features of pre-Socratic rhetoric is that judgments about the validity of discourse were adjudicated by listeners and readers. That is, pre-Socratic rhetoric has the consistent feature of being constructed toward, and evaluated by, audiences.
Effective communication in a polis – democratic or otherwise – is directed to and judged by audiences. Having the validity of discourse based on the audience was a powerful force contributing to sophistic rhetoric, because effective discourse became a pragmatic and powerful civic force. As the polis developed, the role of effective expression increased in importance – whether that rhetoric was received by a tyrant or a democrat. What was reasonable and/or desirable became the standard for attaining agreement. Relative judgments of value and preference were made by the audience, which meant that effective methods of establishing what was most desirable varied according to the circumstances and wishes of the time. Pre-Socratic thinkers refined methods of probabilities, and these heuristics lent themselves well to the pragmatics of daily social problems that could be resolved by argument that stressed warrants for expressed values and opinions.
In a democracy such as Athens, where securing conviction from the (male) populace determined policy and judgment, rhetoric would be a source of civic power. Yet, in other city-states, ones that had political systems rivaling Athens, rhetoric also was active, albeit that activity was manifested in different ways. In tyrannies such as Syracuse, rhetoric was often demonstrated in the arts of aesthetic performance, as well as with rhetors who functioned as formal representatives or presbyters of their rulers. Even in Sparta, famous for its militaristic orientation and (alleged) nonliterate bias, systems of effective communication were imperative for effective civic government. Sophists throughout Greece provided approaches to rhetoric in virtually every type of government, which variously treated rhetoric as an art, an ambassadorial function, a topic for advanced education, and (of course) for political and jurisprudential deliberation.
Pre-Socratic rhetoric thrived throughout Hellenic culture because the malleability of its systems and the range of its benefits cut across and met virtually every sort of orientation that required effective communication. Rhetoric’s plasticity made it a pervasive and powerful force and a rival paradigm to Socratic thought. The fact that rhetoric adapted to existing conditions as it evolved through the classical and Hellenistic periods and into the Roman empire is testimony to the attractiveness of rhetoric, which is present in even its nascent, pre-Socratic forms.
- Cole, T. (1991). The origins of rhetoric in ancient Greece. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Diels, H., & Kranz, W. (eds.) (1951). Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 3 vols. Berlin: Weidmann.
- Enos, R. L. (1993). Greek rhetoric before Aristotle. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
- Freeman, K. (1966). The pre-Socratic philosophers: A companion to Diels, “Fragmente der Vorsokratiker”, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Freeman, K. (1971). Ancilla to the pre-Socratic philosophers: A complete translation of the fragments in Diels, “Fragmente der Vorsokratiker”. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Havelock, E. A. (1963). Preface to Plato. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
- Havelock, E. A. (1983). The linguistic task of the Presocratics. In K. Robb (ed.), Language and thought in early Greek philosophy. LaSalle, IL: Monist Library of Philosophy, pp. 7–82.
- Kennedy, G. A. (1994). A new history of classical rhetoric. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Kirk, G. S., & Raven, J. E. (eds.) (1957). The presocratic philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Lord, A. B. (1976). The singer of tales. New York: Atheneum.
- Parry, M. (1980). The making of Homeric verse (ed. A. Parry). New York: Arno.
- Pernot, L. (2005). Rhetoric in antiquity (trans. W. E. Higgins). Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.
- Schiappa, E. (1999). The beginnings of rhetorical theory in classical Greece. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.