Plato’s Warnings to Modern Business Orators
Father Schall, a professor at Georgetown University, tells his classes, “If you’ve read Plato just once, you haven’t really read Plato.” Keeping that in mind, I decided to pick up Plato again, and re-read the Gorgias.
The Gorgias begins ominously, with Callicles, an ambitious young Athenian politician, stating, “Your arrival, Socrates, is the kind they recommend for a war or a battle.”* Indeed, for much of the dialogue, Socrates and Callicles wage a verbal war about oratory, morality, justice, political ambition, and the right way to live.
The dialogue initially centers on oratory, and this topic is where this review will focus. Socrates engages Gorgias, an eminent teacher of oratory in Athens, on his trade. Gorgias champions oratory because of “its ability to convince by means of speech…and to convince the masses.” Socrates, through his many discussions in Athens, has become wary of oratory. He has observed that most orators use their powers “before a popular audience not by instructing but by convincing.” In short, the “orator need have no knowledge of the truth about things; it is enough for him to have discovered a knack of convincing the ignorant that he knows more than the experts.”
Many people will say that philosophy has no practical use. (Callicles makes this claim later in the dialogue.) But this line of questioning caught my attention as and I began thinking about modern business. Salespeople and marketers, especially, play the role of modern-day orators, and Socrates’ cross-examination has lessons and warnings for them.
Working in sales and sales consulting for seven years, I can attest that many of them (but not all) work through convincing and persuasion. Most salespeople, in my experience, possess little more than a rudimentary understanding of their customers’ businesses, needs and challenges. Many of them know little more than what’s written on the marketing collateral about the products they sell. And yet many of them sell their extremely well, convincing customers to buy or at least try the product.
Even more to Socrates’ point, many salespeople sell products they don’t believe in. The adage in sales is that you have to believe in the product you sell. Contrary to that maxim, many salespeople succeed in sales despite not believing in the product.
Taking Socrates’ argument to these modern-day orators, he would question whether they do right or wrong by such actions. He would caution them in selling products that customers do not need or that they do not themselves believe in. He would even suggest they are putting their souls at risk when they do so. Most businesspeople do not think their work affects their souls, or others’, in their daily routines. Plato’s rejoinder to that complacency warrants their careful reconsideration.
* All quotations from Plato, Gorgias, trans. Walter Hamilton, Penguin Books, 1960.