Plato, a Greek philosopher, is a major figure in the history of rhetoric. He wrote many dialogues and coined many theories, one of which being his theory of a tripartite soul. Plato believed that the soul consisted of three parts, each one corresponding with a particular desire or love: nobility, desire, and wisdom. The part of the soul that is governed by nobility desires order and honor. The part of the soul that is governed by desire is ambitious and will push for doing whatever is wanted, no matter the consequences or obstacles. The third part of the soul is governed by wisdom and intellect, and this is the most complex of the three parts. Wisdom does not necessarily mean intellect as we think of it, like knowing how to solve an algebraic equation or write an essay, but rather knowing how to read people and situations. Wisdom, as Plato believes, means knowing that even though I desire something, I will only go after it if it is ultimately safe and smart to do so.
A fundamental aspect of Plato’s view of rhetoric is that in order to be a successful and effective orator, one must know the soul of each individual person in one’s audience, meaning the orator has to know which of the three parts govern the soul. Knowing if the soul is governed by wisdom, nobility, or desire will help the speaker know how to deliver his/her speech. In one of Plato’s most famous works, Phaedrus, the idea of the tripartite soul is revealed through the only other character besides the title character, Socrates. Phaedrus has just listened to the famous orator Lysias speak about relationships and love and then delivers the speech to Socrates. Socrates, being unimpressed, is persuaded by Phaedrus to give his own speech as a response to Lysias’ speech. Socrates and Phaedrus then discuss love and rhetoric through the dialogue, and in Socrates’ second speech, he gives an analogy of Plato’s soul theory, the myth of the charioteer. Socrates tells Phaedrus, “Of the nature of the soul, though her form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure … a pair of winged horses and a charioteer.” Socrates expresses that because a mortal being cannot fathom the complexity of the soul, it must be explained through an analogy. As stated above, the parts of the soul in this analogy/myth are two horses and a charioteer. One horse is well-behaved and obeys the commands of the charioteer, while the other horse disobeys the charioteer and wants to break free from the hold of the charioteer. The obeying horse represents the part of the soul that is governed by nobility, the disorderly horse represents the part of the soul that is governed by desire, and the charioteer represents the part of the soul that is governed by wisdom. In his speech, Socrates explains that the job of the charioteer is to gain control of both horses, and being that the charioteer represents the wisdom-loving part of the soul, he knows how to effectively command both of the horses.
As an orator, knowing the soul of the person or people you are speaking to is vital to being an effective rhetorician. In his article “Rhetoric and Philosophy in Plato’s Phaedrus,” Daniel Werner states, “And by defining rhetoric as psychagogia, Plato widens the scope even further: any use of words to lead the soul—or, equivalently, to persuade—counts as rhetoric” (24). In order to lead an individual’s soul, the speaker must know the soul of the individual so they know what to say and how to say it in order to move the soul of the individual.
- Plato. Phaedrus. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive, n.d.
- Werner, Daniel. “Rhetoric and Philosophy in Plato’s Phaedrus.” Greece and Rome, vol. 57, no. 1, 2010, pp. 21–46.