Cave’s Plato

A.D. Nuttall

  • In Defence of Rhetoric by Brian Vickers
    Oxford, 508 pp, £40.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 19 812837 1
  • Recognitions: A Study in Poetics by Terence Cave
    Oxford, 530 pp, £40.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 19 815849 1

Since Plato, the major European philosophers, consistent upon almost nothing else, have been united in a sustained denunciation of rhetoric. Brian Vickers’s In Defence of Rhetoric is an attempt, copious, complex, armed at all points with telling examples, to meet and turn back this onslaught, which seems so confidently sure of its own rightness.

If we define rhetoric as the art of persuasion, then, says Professor Vickers, it is neither evil nor good; it is simply an instrument. Thus far, I imagine, Plato, Kant and the rest might well be undismayed. Professor Vickers can sound very like the sort of person who says that a gun is as good or bad as the person who uses it. Most reasonable people are rightly unpersuaded by this line, and continue to believe that, other things being equal, the fewer the guns the happier the society. Professor Vickers would say: ‘Guns kill; words don’t.’ This answer is less complete than it seems. The whole point of the philosophers’ hostility to rhetoric is that, while it may not kill bodies, it can maim minds, securing assent not by argument but by an emotional manipulation which respects truth only in so far as it serves the end of manipulation. Therefore, as with guns, there is an immediate danger in this use, before one proceeds to the further purpose, which may indeed be either good or bad. It is not clear that Professor Vickers, in the whole of this long and impressive work, ever perceives the full force of the opposing view. It is said that if a political candidate appears on television and offers rational arguments, public support drops, but that if the same candidate appears walking in a meadow, accompanied by Elgar music and a dog, support rises. If this were true, it would be a proper cause of anxiety. Here, as so often in the past, rhetoric is prevailing over philosophy.

Professor Vickers points out, correctly, that Plato, the arch-enemy, is himself a rhetorician, continually eliciting assent from his readers by elaborate devices which are by no means austerely logical. Ad hominem arguments are notoriously double-edged. If one warms to the task of pillorying Plato for lapsing into rhetoric, one can easily slip into implicit agreement with his fundamental position, which is that rhetoric is indeed discreditable. At one point Professor Vickers, recollecting, as it were, that he is in favour of rhetoric, applauds Plato’s denunciation of the orator in the Theaetetus as itself ‘a superb piece of epideictic rhetoric’. One senses that the capacity of rhetoric to be pointed, like a gun, at varying objects is here getting seriously out of hand: rhetoric can be turned upon anything – even itself. Plato (as philosopher, not rhetorician) here murmurs: ‘I told you so.’

Vickers shares Sir Karl Popper’s well-known distaste for the ‘lordly lie’ by which the inhabitants of Plato’s Republic are persuaded to cooperate with the eugenic policies of the élite. He objects, that is, both to the end and to the means. But the means – propaganda – would count in most people’s minds as an example of pure rhetoric. That Plato should use, without evasion, the blankly pejorative word ‘lie’ might even be a sign that he recognises that he is here recommending something which he has elsewhere condemned – biting on the bullet, so to speak. Vickers’s counter-position, that this is not rhetoric (which commonly makes use of true statements) but mere hoaxing, seems less well-prepared. To say, for example, that only persuasion through a strict adherence to truth is to count as rhetoric would be, blatantly, persuasive definition. The agreement of the philosophers would be secured at once, for the simple reason that rhetoric, thus defined, would no longer be the thing they mistrusted (or, let us add, what most people understand by the term). The real point is that although the orator will make use of facts, he will employ only those facts which are useful to his case, subordinating truth to utility. Popper, whom Vickers regards as an ally, would say that the orator will look always for corroborative material, never for the crucial disconfirming instance.

It may be that Plato, artist-like, simply has a better ear than Vickers. Vickers says, tout court, that Plato wrote, in the Apology, a rhetorical defence for Socrates. In fact, Plato composed for him a most peculiar non-speech in which, through a kind of parodic inversion of rhetorical techniques, the listeners are not conciliated but repelled (even while a hook is planted in the intelligence). Coriolanus-like, Socrates is made, as it were, to hang himself. If rhetoric is to be judged by results, then the Apology (for the inverted oration is deemed to be followed by the real consequence) was formally a grotesque failure. The citizens ‘responded’ by condemning Socrates to death.

Plato, the rhetorical opponent of rhetoric, is also, notoriously, the poet-philosopher who expelled the poet from his ideal republic. But poetry, as Auden says, makes nothing happen – or at least it is not designed to provoke immediate commitment or action. If we read in the paper that a poet recited his work, after which his audience ran into the street and tore in pieces the first stranger they met (who might perhaps be called Cinna), we would surmise at once that this must have been a highly rhetorical performance. Kant is careful to distinguish rhetoric from poetry, suggesting that the trouble with rhetoric is that it perverts the naturally free play of imagination to practical ends. Plato, indeed, is much less sure of the distinction. In consequence, Professor Vickers can score a point when he confesses that he would find the tragedians (condemned by Plato) better company than all these (priggish, uncivil) philosophers.

Professor Vickers is concerned not only to defend rhetoric but also to recount its history. He traces its recovery in the Renaissance in fascinating detail. He is especially good on Pico, Melanchthon and Diderot. He makes us grateful for the fact that Shakespeare’s education was rhetorical rather than Scholastic. He then carries his thesis on, into the period of the novel, where he is able to show without difficulty that rhetorical tropes persist. At the same time, however, one finds, in example after example, that the rhetorical posture, when explicit, is parodied or in some way disparaged. The contrast in Dickens between the vacuous rhetoric of Chadband, say, and the powerful oratorical passage on the death of Jo, ending, ‘And dying thus around us every day,’ might have been used to separate those who sneer at any vigorous specimen of eloquence from those who know good rhetoric from bad: but Vickers does not do so. He does, however, cite the hell-fire sermon from Joyce’s Portrait, where oratory, frankly acknowledged as such, exerts its full power. But within a few pages Vickers is confronted by Orwell’s 1984, in which rhetoric is evil propaganda, the language of Big Brother. Vickers sees with dismay the ghost of Plato risen again in, of all things, an artist. We half-expect him to write: Et tu, Brute. Instead, he reaffirms (a little lamely) that ‘rhetoric is a tool.’

Brian Vickers presents a traditionally-conceived, squarely intellectual case. I have disputed certain of his claims, and further feel that his most potentially powerful argument – that which turns on the Renaissance rehabilitation of probability in relation to certainty – could have been strengthened had Douglas Lane Patey’s work been taken into account. But the general character of his method is clear. His defence of rhetoric is itself not rhetorical but rational. One senses that he would scorn the idea of persuading an academic reader by emotive stratagems. This in turn suggests that Brian Vickers belongs more with the rationalists than with those tragedians whose company he desired.

Terence Cave, on the other hand, writes like an artist. His mind is subtler than Vickers’s, his erudition just as extensive. When Greek formal rhetoric began, Gorgias wrote at the end of his Helen: ‘So I by speech, have removed infamy from a woman.’ The eerie suggestion of absolute power is deliberate. At the very beginning of our story, he adopts, as it were, an anti-Vickers position. Rhetoric is not presented as socially useful, agreeably clear, well-attested discourse. It is instead offered as the purest example of the priority of discourse to truth. It may be said that Gorgias was joking. If so, it was a joke which was later taken seriously in the Sophistic debate about nature and convention which ensued. Cave, whose book is about dramatic recognition, not rhetoric, is of the line of Gorgias, while Vickers is one of the sons of sound John Locke.

Anagnorisis, ‘recognition’ (usually of people believed lost or dead), is the poor relation in the family of Aristotelian literary terms. Hamartia, mimesis, catharsis are august words of power, but ‘recognition’ is almost an embarrassment to literary critics, reminding them of creaking plot mechanisms which a nice intelligence does not care to dwell on. It seems that in the Poetics Aristotle is interested most in the recognition within the play, of one character by another – Orestes by Electra, say. In post-Classical theory anagnorisis is shifted, outside the play, to the spectator or reader. Hegel turns anagnorisis into a species of Hegelian enlightenment, while for Nietzsche it is rather an inverse, Apollonian sin against the dark chaos of Dionysus. Presumably for Nietzsche (as later for Gilbert Murray) the Bacchae of Euripides is an embarrassment. For in the Bacchae it is precisely the dark, anarchic god whose identity is disclosed, who is recognised. Dr Cave notices that in the writings of Todorov recognition is absorbed into a formalist theory of changes in knowledge. But, because of the Structuralist imperative to locate meaning always in dispositions of words, never in the world or the mind, such readerly ‘epiphanies’ are reflected back into the work. The consequent notion (though Cave does not say this) seems oddly Hegelian. Instead of a universe learning its own nature, we have a text which learns itself.

It will be obvious that we are in a very different world from that of Professor Vickers. Cave’s thought is triply – quadruply – abstract, refined, one can sometimes feel, to the point of mere inefficacy. Yet he certainly excels at registering nuances in the historical transformation of critical terms. For example, having told us how Corneille robustly believed that no ordinary spectator could ever be afraid of murdering his father and marrying his mother (Oedipus), Cave in due course conducts us to Sigmund Freud (who thought, of course, that every male spectator feared exactly this, in a curious, retrospective manner) and comments brilliantly on the link between the ancient notion of recognition and kinship (implicated as they are in the ‘enfolded’ plots of ancient drama) and Freud’s thoughts on heimlich/unheimlich (‘familiar’/‘uncanny’).

Terence Cave is fascinated by and rejoices in the very thinness of ‘recognition’, which he sees as distinctively – perhaps peculiarly – literary. The ‘low’ material of Odyssean deception and ‘paralogism’ (logically ill-formed inference by both characters and audience) is the very stuff of drama, however much theoreticians may flinch from it, desiring instead some satisfying profundity. Thus there is a suggestion that Cave is dissociating himself from the high-minded interpreters and joining the hard-working ordinary professionals.

But the general movement of his thought is, in a way, almost modish. He suggests that from the time of Euripides ‘recognition’ was aware of its own theatricality, so that modern productions which ostentatiously ‘send up’ the conclusion of a ‘recognition romance’ (a genre derived from Euripides) are simply inept. When he comes to discuss novels Cave evidently prefers absence and palpable ‘fictionality’ to substance or reference. F.R. Leavis was repelled by the thought that Heart of Darkness might be a sphinx without a secret, or (Forster’s phrase) a casket containing a vapour, while Cave is delighted to find that in Under Western Eyes, ‘when the veil is removed a residue of secrecy remains.’ Similarly, Strether in The Ambassadors is a reader, curiously possessed of the art of evasion. Magwitch in Dickens’s Great Expectations invents for Pip a romance life which is father to the one Pip invents for himself. In all this we may trace a persistent interest in reflexive forms which is entirely characteristic of the 1980s. Cave does not consider that modern works in which absence is offered, in a quasi-philosophical manner, as the terminus of understanding, are dubious ammunition for the Structuralist. Such works do not exemplify the thesis of non-reference, but rather ally themselves with its assertion. They thus become heavy with the burden of an essayed reference and lose the proper ludic frigidity of the truly self-referential work. But Dr Cave is elusive. At the very end of the book, in a weird and oddly touching sentence, he suggests that the real appeal of anagnorisis may lie in its power to satisfy our nostalgia for the particular, for piecemeal practical inference.

Such moments, however, are rare. Aristotle said that the weakest kind of recognition was that based on external semeia, signs or tokens (necklaces, scars and the like). For Cave, this is the central kind – the more implausible, the better. It is as if the Euripidean parodic recognition (in the Electra) is allowed entirely to oust the Aeschylean serious recognition which preceded it. Amid all this high-toned consciousness of fiction it becomes a bêtise to suggest that the recognition of loved persons, found after long separation, may be an inherently moving thing, yet I find myself wishing to do just that. In The Winter’s Tale the poetry changes when Hermione, lost for so many years, is recognised by Leontes. The theatrical ‘roll up, roll up!’ language of Paulina (mystagogue or psychopomp) is replaced by something else:

Bequeath to death your numbness; for from him
Dear life redeems you.

Magic becomes ‘an art lawful as eating’. Indeed the movements overlap: some lines earlier Leontes, against the mystagogic rhetoric of Paulina, discovered lines on the beloved face.

Here surely the Euripidean displacement of Aeschylus is reversed. When Cave writes about the Middle Ages he has nothing to say about the recognition by Dante of the burned features of Brunetto Latini or (still more majestic) Ben son, ben son Beatrice. It is true that Cave is too good a critic not to be aware of the ‘extraordinary consoling power at the end’ of The Winter’s Tale. But then the endless multiplication of fictions is resumed, until at last Cave offers a thesis: recognition scenes are by their very nature problem-moments rather than moments of satisfaction. This might seem to be sufficiently negative to stand, but, infuriatingly, Cave adds within a page that the ‘thesis’ is itself an anagnoristic mirage. The entire book is indeed written against anagnorisis, in its primitive sense. Knowingness is allowed to eclipse knowledge. Recognitions is a dazzling achievement, but I think I prefer Brian Vickers.