Reinterprets Plato's influence on Western rhetorical theory
On his deathbed, Plato envisioned his dialogues becoming sophistic texts open to a variety of interpretations, none by itself true to the original. Contemporary histories of rhetoric largely dismiss Plato's anxiety, portraying the dialogues as successful in asserting a constant meaning through all of rhetoric's history.
In Plato's Dream of Sophistry, Richard Marback shows that Plato's vision was remarkably accurate. Against histories of rhetoric that described Plato's influence mainly in terms of his overarching dominance, Marback argues that Plato's lasting influence results not from the force of the dialogues themselves but from continued investments in arguing about the dialogues.
From this perspective, Platonism is multifaceted and often contradictory, its importance consisting in the multiple and often conflicting readings of the dialogues that figure in the Western rhetorical tradition. In support of this argument, each chapter of Plato's Dream of Sophistry documents a different interpretation of the philosopher: Augustine's Christianizing of him and the pagan Neoplatonists' insights into his sophistry; Marsilio Ficino's claim that Plato taught an ancient theology and sacred rhetoric inherited from the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus; Francis Bacon's assertion of Plato's embrace of the rational; and Immanuel Kant's rejection of Plato as too abstract and idealizing.
Having documented the many uses to which Plato has been put in the Western rhetorical tradition, Marback concludes Plato's Dream of Sophistry with a discussion of how a more nuanced history of Plato's influence on rhetoric helps transcend current debates that pit the Platonic against the sophistic.
Richard Marback is the director of composition at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in writing, rhetoric, and literacy in the English department. Marback has published on cultural studies, composition theory, history of rhetoric, and writing pedagogy.
"Marback offers an alternative perspective that traces Platonic rhetoric through its various interpretations, and he argues that its meaning and significance change in accordance with differing times and circumstances. This thesis not only fits well with contemporary interpretive theory, but it also helps to explain important features of the rhetorical tradition that conventional histories neglect."—Michael Leff, Northwestern University School of Speech
"Marback's thesis is well argued and adequately established by his chosen illustrations. Excellent bibliography …"—Choice
"We are indebted to Richard Marback for giving us a sensitive understanding of the uses of Plato and the sophists and for a much richer understanding of the complexity of the history of rhetoric."—Rhetoric Review