Friday, April 17, 2015

The event of persuasion in Philoctetes

proof (πίστις) is a sort of demonstration (ἀπόδειξίς)

Let Rhetoric be defined as the faculty of discovering in the particular case what are the available means of persuasion.
                                               -- Aristotle, Rhetoric

To see the tension in the Philoctetes as a duel between the title character and Odysseus is to realize that the play is structured as a series of rhetorical performances.

Odysseus knows from the start that all Philoctetes has to do is spot him for a second and he'll be dead. One way to read the play is as a procession of ploys by Odysseus calculated to persuade the person least susceptible to his seductions. First, the hero sends Neoptolemus, then either sends or himself impersonates the false Merchant, and finally we -- and Philoctetes -- confront the apparition of Heracles on the rocks above Philoctetes' cave.

If one is persuaded that the play is about persuasion, then we can see that the master strategist's first few efforts aren't going so well. Neoptolemus has given Philoctetes back his bow but keeps trying to make him see the point of returning to Troy. The young man is quite eloquent in Grene's translation:
It is a glorious heightening of gain,
First, to come into hands that can heal you,
and then be judged pre-eminent among the Greeks,
winning the highest renown among them, taking
Troy that has cost infinity of tears. (1343-37)
 But it's not working:
Hateful life, why should I still be alive and seeing?
Why not be gone to the dark?
. . . 
Eyes of mine, that have seen all, can you endure
to see me living with my murderers,
the sons of Atreus? With cursed Odysseus?
It is not the sting of wrongs past
but what I must look for in wrongs to come. (1348-59)
The tension between the divine mission that Odysseus is trying to execute, the script he claims to derive from Zeus and the Fates on one hand, and the wretched Philoctetes' mortal suffering, pain, alienation and desire to end it all (reminiscent of Heracles' agony in Women of Trachis), has reached a breaking point.

Clearly, as two previous moments in the play, an intervention is necessary to keep the Mission on point. Each time before it's been Odysseus -- either in the guise of the Merchant, or as himself, disrupting Philoctetes' plan to return home with an apparently willing Neoptolemus -- who suddenly appears. So at this moment, we are, in fact, expecting Odysseus to appear. Lo and behold.

We can take a closer look at the speech of the apparition at another time. It certainly bears features of an Odyssean ruse. But to be clear: the argument here is not that the play categorically resolves as a ruse, rather that it is about persuasion. To be persuaded is to be convinced that something is the case, as Aristotle says, early in the Rhetoric:
It is obvious, therefore, that a system arranged according to the rules of art is only concerned with proofs (πίστεις); that proof (πίστις) is a sort of demonstration (ἀπόδειξίς),10 since we are most strongly convinced when we suppose anything to have been demonstrated;
ἐπεὶ δὲ φανερόνἐστιν ὅτι μὲν ἔντεχνος μέθοδος περὶ τὰς πίστεις ἐστίν, δὲ πίστις ἀπόδειξίς τις τότε γὰρ πιστεύομεν μάλιστα ὅταν ἀποδεδεῖχθαι ὑπολάβωμεν)

But the Rhetoric itself walks a fine, vanishing line as it works to make clear how much like scientific proof (Dialectic, ἀπόδειξίς) the art of Rhetoric is, while always immediately asserting that though Rhetoric is like Dialectic, it is not the same. Here's the first thing Aristotle says in his book:

Rhetoric is a counterpart/1 of Dialectic; 
ῥητορική ἐστιν ἀντίστροφος τῇ διαλεκτικῇ:

The word translated as "counterpart" is ἀντίστροφος: "antistrophe." Rhetoric is the antistrophe to Dialectic's strophe, as if they were the symmetrical stanzas of a song or ode.

We can only in passing note that here, at the incipit of a book whose very subject and argumentative validity rests upon distinguishing science from art, truth from rhetorical trope, the author interestingly employs a figure of speech to express this difference. Rhetoric is to Dialectic as the pure stanzaic form of a song is to the form of another exactly symmetrical stanza of that song. At the moment when what's at stake is the ability to distinguish real truth from mere fiction and mimicry, we are told they relate as purely linguistic, literary patterns, which are strictly formal, and identical. This motif gets reiterated variously throughout the text, as when Aristotle says:

Truth and likeness to truth are discerned by one and the same faculty. (Rhetoric 1.1) 
τό τε γὰρ ἀληθὲς καὶ τὸ ὅμοιον τῷ ἀληθεῖ τῆς αὐτῆς ἐστι δυνάμεως ἰδεῖν

The act of appearing to prove and the fact of scientific proof are discerned by one and the same cognitive faculty. The matter of persuasion is, if nothing else, slippery.

We had come to a similar insight in the Philoctetes as we pondered the word σοφίζω, where, we noted, "the clear frame dividing mere crafty speech from truth is not so easy to locate."

For any Greek concerned with teaching and ordering the state, nothing could be more important than distinguishing between what makes one wise and what defrauds.

So here we are, at the final scene of this play about the tension between a persuader and an unwilling audience, a tension that raises questions about the very decidability of the act of discernment. If one can tell that something is true and another thing is false, then we have at least the basis for resolution. But if, as it seems, the text of Rhetoric itself is such that it unsettles borders between art and science, truth and fraud, fact and fiction, then it would suggest, as we noted some time ago, that we are dealing with a play that is on edge, as well as about edges. And here, the crux is whether we and Philoctetes are looking at a god come from above, or an actor -- say, Odysseus -- in Heracles drag. (We might wish to remember here that Hermes was Odysseus's great-grandfather.)

The notion that the deus ex machina in this play -- the only one Sophocles ever employed -- is in fact not a deus but a machina staged by Odysseus has been entertained by certain scholars (e.g. Webster, Roisman). The question posed by the text of Rhetoric -- or by the rhetorical mastermind Odysseus -- is not, however, whether the figure above the cave is a bogus representation or a noumenal presence. Rather, it is whether the event of persuasion allows one to resolve the question at all.

Just as we found it impossible to tell whether Neoptolemus is a willing conspirator or a boy whose honorable instincts are being used by the chess master Odysseus, the entire Philoctetes is poised on a knife's edge of two mutually destructive readings. This balance is classical. It is also the problem we inherited from the Greeks: when form has such fearful symmetry, how do we ease the unbearable tension within?

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