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What is the meaning of this ancient word? What sort of activity does it describe? To which field of human experience should we assign it?

At the beginning of Plato's Gorgias—the first philosophical examination of the subject—rhetoric is defined by Gorgias himself, a famous teacher of the art, as a craft of "persuasion." This seems clear enough, and is in line with what many people might say today. Rhetoric is the art of persuading people to believe things, "the art of speaking or writing effectively," as the dictionary tells us, and wherever persuasion is needed, the art of rhetoric would seem to have a useful employment. This of course says nothing about the methods that rhetoric employs, or how it achieves its intended effects, but it does define, in a preliminary way, its field of operation.

On closer inspection, however, Gorgias's opening definition of rhetoric as a craft of persuasion proves overly broad in two respects. It ignores two distinctions that are crucial to Gorgias's own conception of his craft and to our understanding of the most important question that Plato's dialogue raises—the question of whether the art of rhetoric has a legitimate function and its own distinct field of operation, or lacks both, as Socrates argues. To understand this question, let alone attempt an answer to it, we must first sharpen our definition of rhetoric by limiting it to a narrower field than the bare concept of persuasion implies, a field intermediate between two others in which persuasion is prominent but rhetoric (as Gorgias conceived and practiced it) is missing.

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