The Greek philosopher Plato and his teacher Socrates believed that rhetoric as used by the Sophists could be misleading due to the emphasis on emotion and performance, and lack of emphasis on logic, and more importantly, the fact that Sophists were paid to write speeches. Plato advocated the pursuit of truth through logic and reason, and Socrates outlined the structures of rhetoric that could make this pursuit possible. The 2,000-year time difference is irrelevant since the parallels between their teaching and the digital world today are startling.
Three key concepts emerge from Plato’s writings that link classical rhetoric to digital rhetoric. First, a shift from literacy to electracy, which is analogous to the shift from orality to literacy in Plato’s time. The orality of the Homeric culture depended on memorized poems and storytelling to pass along information. Plato and Socrates worked in craft literacy, that is, using the available technology of alphabet and the written word on the way to full literacy for the society. Now the shift is to a culture of electronic communication from just a few to the masses, and the technology is the Internet and digital images.
Second, the election of Donald Trump left in its wake the shift from a public praise for the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” to a contingent-truth built from alternative facts. This change is akin to the shift from governance by seers to a search for the truth of the matter in the era after Socrates. Many have noticed that Trump’s “post-truth,” the international word of the year in 2016, attacks Plato’s definition of truth as the basis for politics and the ultimate referee for governance.
Third, the real possibility of a shift from democracy to tyranny, as feared and analyzed by Plato, has begun.
Simonides, who gave us the first memory device, and rhetoric, demonstrated a way that society remembers history and pursues the truth. As we move from literacy to electracy, we might no longer recognize literate reasoning; we may enter a new dark age as we move away from rationality as the foundation of science, governance, and social organization of civilized societies (Dr. C.Saper, February 16, 2017). Plato warned of the separation of reason from argument, so we might need to reconsider what the classic philosophers had to say as a lesson for our own time.