Artifice: persuasion and drama


The production of fake news is doubtless an art, and not a new one: familiar to the Greeks of old, and feared by Plato— unless, of course, he were to produce it himself: he seems unaware, as one student put it, of the irregular verb I relate, you alter, he fabricates.

One of Plato’s inconsistencies in the Republic, which the thoughtful student detects, is his deprecation of falsehood bedded comfortably next to his proposal to tell the Foundation Myth in order to justify the selection of the Guardians.

Plato is fascinated by art, and he puts forward an array of suggestions about its nature, its processes, and its effects. He keeps returning specifically to the art of the ποιητής, the equivalent of our writer. In his ideal state he proposes to censor— massively— what writers produce, and he outlaws drama altogether, fearful of the effect it can have upon the citizens.

Earlier, in the Gorgias, he has Socrates critical of rhetoric also, as being not a legitimate pursuit; and while showing respect for Gorgias, he gets the great man to admit that rhetoric produces belief and not knowledge.

Gorgias has said that rhetoric is used in law courts and other gatherings, and it deals with what is right and wrong (455a):

  • Socrates: Then rhetoric, seemingly, is a producer of persuasion about right and wrong, not instruction in them.
    Gorgias: Yes.
    Socrates: Then the rhetorician is not an instructor of the law courts and other crowds about right and wrong, but only a persuader: for he would not be able to instruct such a huge crowd about such great matters in a short time.
    Gorgias: No indeed.

Gorgias goes on to admit, unabashed, that on matters of health, for example, a rhetorician will carry greater weight with the crowd than a physician. But, he adds still later, the student of rhetoric must have the secure conviction that he must use his art only for good.

Plato’s objection to writers, persuaders and dramatists is that they profess to be, and are taken to be, what they are not. They are revered as men of authority, and this troubles him. They write about things that they do not know and are taken as authority on matters of which they are ignorant. True knowledge, he insists, can be acquired only by the thorough education and the study of the Forms that he prescribes for his Guardians.

The history of the 20th century seems to confirm his belief in the power of rhetoric and drama to affect human behaviour—and some might say that it vindicates his fear of them.

A press of the switch can subject a person to the artifices of the persuader and the dramatist through a mass medium whose power is immense: for it is more than compulsory– it is compulsive.