Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

Living Down Plato’s Scorn

It is a tribute to the philosopher Plato that the term ‘sophistic’ still survives as a label of scorn for people who play fast and loose with the truth.

Governments have always sought to impose laws and rules of conduct that civilize daily life. Even so, most Western democracies value the ideal of individual freedom, but always with exceptions. Those who have sought to rein in dissent and vigorous public debate have had distinguished allies, including the Greek philosopher Plato. He spent part of his life arguing that ordinary people were frequently incapable of making decisions about who should govern their communities. He thought they lacked the necessary intelligence and training, believing that few citizens can discriminate between the thoughtful judgments of a well-trained leader—described in The Republic as a philosopher king—and the irrational pandering of the well-trained persuader. A leader chosen by popular vote would substitute flattery of the mob in place of true wisdom. Leaders guided by public opinion were bound to be as misguided and dangerous.

Plato scorned itinerant teachers of rhetoric, who were collectively known as Sophists.


The great philosopher’s view did not go unchallenged. A prolonged debate over the wisdom of democracy developed between him and other teachers who traveled through the city-democracies along the coasts of Greece, Sicily, and Italy. He was deeply troubled by the activities of these independent tutors, whom affluent parents hired to educate their children. (In the 5th Century b.c. the enlightenment of the Hellenic world ended short of including women, slaves, and the impoverished as full citizens—even in democratic Athens.) Among these first teachers was Corax, who instructed citizens who needed to improve their persuasive abilities in the recently democratized city of Syracuse. Public advocacy was becoming an important skill. Indeed, the Greeks had their own Goddess of Persuasion, Peitho.

Plato scorned Corax and other itinerant teachers, who were collectively known as Sophists. They suffered his wrath partly because they worked outside of the prestigious intellectual center of Athens, and partly because these teachers taught the techniques of persuasion.


His aversion to the Sophists was so strong that he named some of the weak-thinking characters in some of his dialogues after several of them. It is a tribute to Plato’s importance that the term sophistic still survives as a label of scorn for people who play too loosely with the truth.

Yet, even with his disapproval, it still may be something of a badge of honor to be a teacher of persuasion.  At least that’s what Plato’s own best student thought.  Aristotle wrote the first useful textbook of persuasion, The Rhetoric.  He rightly argued that effective advocacy was a justifiable form of self-defense.  Moreover, he noted, some smart people need help in communicating their views to others.

There’s a lesson for our times here. The suppression of dissent in favor of a supposedly all-knowing leader is never good.  Americans rightly consider it their birthright that they can engage in public advocacy without risking their lives.  This certainly doesn’t make all advocacy rational.  That is still up to us to determine in each particular instance.

Dressing Ideas

Software such as Word, Publisher and Pages have essentially put the tools of newsrooms and their compositor desks on our computers.

Most of us never stop to consider the choices of fonts chosen by a website or publication.  We know that different fonts exist.  But we usually don’t consider how they might enhance or impede our abilities to improve ideas committed in print or pixels.  Though it’s probably unlikely you will run into a font junkie, it’s worth noting that their unusual passion has a point.  Fonts and the impressions they make are important.

Because all of us have become—at least to some extent—“publishers” of materials passed on to others, it makes sense that software such as Word, Page and Publisher have essentially put the tools of newsroom compositor desks on our computers.  My computer is set at a conservative default of Times New Roman, 12 point, originally designed in the 1930s for Britain’s London Times.  It’s the kind of font you might see in a letter from a law office. The point number is indicates the size of the font.  If we bold it, we are adding “weight” to it.  And we can also alter the spaces between letters (called “kerning” in typography).  But add too much, and it looks like you are a M-o-r-s-e  C-o-d-e  operator.

Graphics experts are quick to note that there are few hard rules on choosing fonts.  Nonetheless, the choices we make can be either badly out of place or situation-appropriate.  For example, content for children or adolescents may feature larger and often rounded font styles, such as Goudy Stout. It suggests an upbeat or playful approach to its subject. But it would be totally inappropriate in most business correspondence.  Similarly, if you are announcing events or designing a poster, you would probably avoid “office” fonts such as New Times Roman, which look old fashioned and formal.  You might consider choices that are more contemporary, like Helvetica, the default choice for a lot of advertising, and similar to the font used in this blog.  Helvetica is a sans font, omitting the serifs, or longer “tails” or “projections” extending out from an individual letter. Freestyle Script is an example of a serif font.  It’s commonly used in invitations and announcements. But written script generally lacks the assertive boldness of a font with more weight, like the vaguely art-deco Broadway in the graphic at the top right of this post.

We expect similarity and continuity in most print forms. It’s risky to choose anything that requires more work from a reader.

In business correspondence and commercial pitches it’s important to choose a font that scans easily.  The eye should glide easily through lines of copy without running into jarring changes.  Most sans fonts are designed to be easy on the eyes. Not so with varied Gothic fonts that can look like spider webs. It’s also advisable to avoid abrupt changes in font types, colors and point sizes.  We expect similarity and continuity in most print forms. It’s risky to choose anything that requires the eye to work harder.  Achieve variety by using headlines that are larger and often bolded.  It also makes sense to apply fresh eyes to how the text works on the page.  No spacing between lines–a function of “leading” that is too tight–can be daunting. The reverse problem–too much space–requires the eye to do more work as it returns to the next line.

Publishers vary in their sensitivities to how text sits on the page.

All of this applies to online publishing as well.  Individual computer defaults can affect what we see.  Even so, to see fonts well used and laid out, visit the online pages of the Washington Post.  The fonts for headlines and text are consistent, simple, generous in size, and held together in consistent blocks.  For a less successful use of online fonts see The New York Times.  A greater variety of font styles and sizes creates a bit too much ‘visual noise.’

Publishers of books vary in their sensitivities to how text sits on the page.  One of the best studies of communication I have ever read–a classic in the field–was apparently delivered as a longer manuscript than the publisher would have liked.  The result was out of character for a mainstream publisher: a small font with lines seemingly on top of each other.  The author’s wonderful ideas deserved to be better dressed.