28552304_go tell alcibiades_tragedy, comedy, and rhetoric in plato's symposium

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  • 8/12/2019 28552304_Go Tell Alcibiades_Tragedy, Comedy, And Rhetoric in Plato's Symposium


    Go Tell Alcibiades: Tragedy, Comedy,and Rhetoric in Platos Symposium

    Nathan Crick & John Poulakos

    Platos Symposium is a significant but neglected part of his elaborate and complex

    attitude toward rhetoric. Unlike the intellectual discussion of the Gorgias or the

    unscripted conversation of thePhaedrus, theSymposium stages a feast celebrating and

    driven by the forces of Eros. A luxuriously stylish performance rather than a rational

    critique or a bemused apotheosis of rhetoric, theSymposium asks to be read within a

    performative tradition that emphasizes the artistic enactment of both argument and

    story as well as the incarnation of utterances intoxicated by wine and erotic urge. Only by

    fully embracing the festive complexion of theSymposiumcan one escape the claims of its

    words and come close to the spirit that inhabits its tragic vision and comic sophistication.

    At stake in this approach is our understanding of ourselves as actors in and spectators of

    the drama of life, a drama punctuated by rhetorical ecstasies that underwrite the wish forimmortality.

    Keywords: Aesthetics;Eros; Performance; Drama; Desire

    O Bacchus, make them drunk, drive them mad, this multitude of vagabonds,1

    hungry for eloquence, hungry for poetry, starving for symbols, perishing for want

    of electricity to vitalize this too much pastime; and in the long delay, indemnifying

    themselves with the false wine of alcohol, of politics, or of money. Pour for them, O

    Bacchus, the wine of wine. Give them, at last, Poetry.2

    Parties are the enemies of inhibition and restraint. They are sanctioned pretexts for

    allowing what, in more formal scenes, it is deemed unacceptable to say or do. They

    are festive occasions for stepping out of the familiar patterns of everyday address and

    for suspending the standardized conventions of social intercourse. Parties are also

    sites of amusing pleasures, sites in which music gets mixed with chatter and laughter

    as friends and strangers slip in and out of light-hearted pleasantries, and as colorful

    Nathan Crick is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric at Louisiana State University. John Poulakos is AssociateProfessor of Communication and Rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. Correspondence to: Department of

    Communication Studies, LSU, 136 Coates Hall, Baton Rouge, LA 70803, USA. Email: crick@lsu.edu.

    Quarterly Journal of Speech

    Vol. 94, No. 1, February 2008, pp. 122

  • 8/12/2019 28552304_Go Tell Alcibiades_Tragedy, Comedy, And Rhetoric in Plato's Symposium


    arrangements of food are piece by piece reduced to ruins. Amidst loose rituals of role-

    playing, storytelling, gaming, flirting, teasing, gesturing, and posturing, parties

    underwrite playful enjoyments, effortlessly intensified by drinking, and sharply

    punctuated by song and dance. Also, parties are hotbeds on which language grows

    organically; they are inviting openings for convivial improvisations and spontaneous,unscripted talk. Thrown for the sake of some celebration or simply getting together,

    they allow chance encounters and chancy interactions, the kind that are either

    recalled as out of character the morning after or engraved into newly minted coins

    of human relations. In effect, parties are actualized iterations of the Dionysian spirit

    in whose name new worlds are created and old ones destroyed.

    However, modern students of rhetoric, a group notorious for its will to diversion,

    keep missing the splendid party that is Platos Symposium.3 Rather than join him

    from start to finish in his rhetorical carnival, they normally answer either the call of

    the inspirationalPhaedrusor that of the agonistic Gorgias.Not surprisingly, they findboth works admirable but ultimately unsatisfactory. The first legitimates rhetoric only

    insofar as it accomplishes the impossible, that is, embodies the True, the Good, and

    the Beautiful in their perfection; the second trivializes it as a cheap knack given to

    the flattery and manipulation of the ignorant masses.

    The unquestionable merits of the two dialogues aside, each lacks what the other

    affords. The rough and tough worldliness, the hotly contested issues, the feisty

    antagonists, the biting repartee, the fury and frustration of dialectical interrogation,

    and the breakdown of communication in theGorgiasare nowhere to be found in the

    Phaedrus. Conversely, the pastoral scenery, Socrates ingratiating interlocutor, the

    lofty ideals, and the majestic imagery of spiritual elation in the Phaedrusare entirelyabsent from the Gorgias. Thus readers wishing to discern Platos attitude toward

    rhetoric typically face a choice between two apparently irreconcilable conceptions*

    rhetoric as the expression of civic depravity or rhetoric as the inspired art of pleasing

    the gods. If the Gorgiasmocks the art of persuasion as practiced in this world, the

    Phaedrusspares the art but puts it in the service of an altogether otherworldly goal. If

    this is so, the Gorgiasand the Phaedrusrepresent a dilemma, a split attitude whose

    terms are reflected in the tenor of two representative interpretations of the

    relationship of rhetoric and drama, the one comic, the other tragic.

    Tragedy and comedy represent two sides of the singular human ambition tosurpass ones own boundaries. Far more than majestic disappointment or mocking

    derision, each of which leaves an audience cruelly disempowered and emotionally

    exhausted, tragedy and comedy function to inspire and unmask, loosening bonds

    that constrain and subdue while channeling energies that create and surge. No

    wonder, then, that rhetoric was born as an art within a Greek culture nourished on

    the fruits of the tragic and comic poets. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche observes

    that the contrast between this real truth of nature and the lie of culture gave

    impetus to the greatest of Greek arts.4 To seek the former meant one had to surpass

    the latter, such that even the likes of Aristophanes and Aeschylus could see in the

    other the mirror of himself. Rhetoric is this contrast between limitation andaspiration made practical. Starting with what Farrell calls a comic discourse that is

    2 N. Crick & J. Poulakos

  • 8/12/2019 28552304_Go Tell Alcibiades_Tragedy, Comedy, And Rhetoric in Plato's Symposium


    immersed in the crowd, with persons not much better, and perhaps a bit worse, than

    ourselves, rhetoric employs tragedy to lift us toward more expansive characters and

    actions, bigger issues, greater virtues and vices.5 Whereas comedy reveals to us our

    pettiness and frailty, tragedy draws us toward the vast and eternal; it uses tensions

    and reversals to enlarge lifes panorama.6 Thus rhetoricians often face a choice*

    tocritique that which makes us fools or to praise that which heralds our future as sages.

    If one is drawn to a tragic view of rhetoric as the art of honoring that which is

    serious, solemn, awe-inspiring, then one needs look no further than Richard

    Weaver.7 His masterful reading of the Phaedrussuggests that the project of Platonic

    rhetoric is the intellectual and emotional improvement of humanity: [R]hetoric at

    its truest seeks to perfect men by showing them better versions of themselves, links in

    that chain extending up toward the ideal, which only the intellect can apprehend and

    only the soul have affection for.8 Human improvement, however, always carries the

    tragic burden of forsaking the self that one already is, opting instead for a self thatone can only hope to be. If thePhaedrusis tragic, it is so by virtue of its attempt to fix

    our attention skyward, asking us to transcend our earth-boundedness by steering our

    chariots toward the heavens, the Platonic place of our origin and ultimate return.

    Thus, to see Platos rhetoric from Weavers perspective is to espouse a tragic attitude

    toward human nature and persuasion. Indeed, Weaver holds that rhetoric and

    tragedy are so closely aligned that without rhetoric there seems no possibility of

    tragedy, and in turn, without the sense of tragedy, no possibility of taking an elevated

    view of life.9 In other words, without rhetoric, we are but blind brutes, clutching and

    grasping at one another in the pursuit of pleasure and the flight from pain.10

    Much of what Weaver says is warranted. However, as Kenneth Burke reminds us,the tragic perspective must be balanced by the comic corrective.11 Whereas tragedy

    portrays the cosmic man within a dramatic narrative behind which the deus ex

    machinais always lurking, comedy is essentiallyhumane because it helps to make

    man the student of himself.12 Burkes corrective is well taken. The attitude that

    Weavers reading recommends is so serious that it makes throwing a decent party

    impossible. However, it seems that relying on the rhetoric of the low and laughable

    does not make for a good party, either.13 Although not explicitly addressing the

    Gorgias, Burkes insight into the comic frame of rhetoric fits this Platonic work well,

    especially in the light of his representation of rhetoric as the Scramble, the Wrangleof the Market Place, [and] the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard.14

    Because the Gorgias highlights the peculiar idiosyncrasies of every character in

    relation to the rest, because it attends to so many detailed turns and twists of so many

    arguments, and because