Students, faculty consider Plato, politics

Leon Mire, Associate News Editor



Roughly 25 students and faculty members gathered Friday to discuss a 2,500-year-old text by the Greek philosopher Plato and its implications for modern politics.

It was the first of a new discussion series hosted by the Sandra and Jack Pine Honors College called “Big Questions, Great Books.”

The discussion was facilitated by Richard England, dean of the Honors College, who gave a 10-minute introduction of the text, Plato’s dialogue “Gorgias.”

England said the dialogue is about the nature of rhetoric, or teaching people how to persuade other people. The dialogue is between Plato’s teacher Socrates and the rhetorician Gorgias.

In the text, Richard England explained, Gorgias compares himself to a boxing teacher. If he taught one of his students how to fight and that student used his new skill to hurt others, nobody would come arrest the boxing teacher. Or if a teacher shows someone how to persuade others and the student uses that to manipulate and cheat others, it is not the teacher’s fault.

Richard England asked the participants to consider whether rhetoric and persuasion are more helpful or harmful to the political process. On the one hand, he said, it seems that persuasion is necessary for politicians to get anything done, but on the other, orators like Nazi politician Adolf Hitler show that people can easily be manipulated to do evil.

Jessica Bayles, a senior English major, said if rhetoric is overemphasized those with the best rhetoric rule over those with the best ideas conducive for the benefit of society.

Bayles said that there is no connection between how good an idea is and how popular it is.

She said basing policy decisions on how popular they are gives a little bit too much power to the masses. “I love (them) dearly – but I don’t necessarily want them having that much power,” Bayles said.

Philosophy professor Gary Aylesworth said the founders of the United States did not trust democracy. “They equated it with mob rule, and they were afraid of the chaos and power struggles that would take place,” he said.

Jack Cruikshank, a graduate student studying political science, said sometimes people from the lower classes vote against their own interests, using the example of tax cuts for the wealthy.

“Many people view themselves as a temporarily disenfranchised rich person,” Cruikshank said. “(They think), ‘I’m going to make it, I’m going to be at the top 1%, that’s why I’m going to vote for it now.’”

Bayles said students need to be more involved in conversations about politics with diverse groups, which the university is ideally suited to provide. She said both civics courses and general education courses are necessary to have a broadly educated populace.

Markus Burns, a freshman engineering major, said politicians still need to be good rhetoricians to get people interested in the issues in the first place, especially since many people are already overwhelmed with information.

Charleston resident Charlotte England, who is the spouse of Richard England, said the way out of the dilemma is education and a willingness to hear out others’ opinions. She said it is the duty of every person “not only to read what confirms what you already think, no matter how right you imagine yourself to be.”


Leon Mire can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]