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Poulakos, John. “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 16 (1983): 35-48.

P. works in this article to highlight the integral role of the Sophists in the larger picture of classical Greek rhetoric.  Published in an era where Plato and Aristotle were kings of classical Greek poetics and rhetoric, P.’s argument in this article provides an alternative historical trajectory for contemporary treatments of ancient (and modern) rhetorical theory.  In summa, Poulakos offers a sophistic definition of rhetoric that reads, “Rhetoric is the art which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible” (36).  From this definition we can infer that rhetoric is opportune (kairotic), appropriate (prepon – the base for propriety), and concerned with what is possible, not what is (from actuality to potentiality or dynaton).  Further, rhetoric – as an art or techne – is conveyed through the use of language (logos) and aims to generate aesthetic pleasure (terpsis) and belief (pistis) (37).

Taken together, these characteristics of rhetoric position it – in the Sophistic articulation anyway – as concerned with probabilities and contingencies, not facts and truths.  Of course, the sophists managed to weave these culturally/socially dependent persuasions via their oratorical style and as such, were taken to task by the likes of Plato for corrupting the pursuit and portrayal of truth with embellishment and hyperbole.  Recognizing that eliciting action from probabilities depends on a temporal and situational appropriateness (kairos and prepon respectively), the sophists also highlight how opportune timing of appropriate speech undermines the efficacy of static prepared speech for invented audiences (how do we write then?  And what was that Socrates said about writing. . . . so, is Plato a fan or foe?).  As Poulakos puts it, “Because the rhetorician concerns himself with the particular and the pragmatic, his way is not that of an abstract absolutism created in the spirit of a priori truths; rather, it is that of a relativism of concrete rhetorical situations to which situationally derived truths are the only opportune and appropriate responses” (42).  Toward the end of the essay, P. discusses the nature of potentiality (whose evocation goes hand in hand with hope and modesty: please adopt, and don’t dismiss!).  It is in this process – even if unsuccessful – that the previously held views and actualities are questioned. . . and that act in and of itself is important because it asks human beings to imagine a new, different potentiality – to be other.

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