Reading in Genre - Persuasion: Voices in Dialogue


Persuasion will make a slave of all (Plato, Gorgias).

In the Platonic dialogue Gorgias, Socrates’ antagonist, the teacher of rhetoric Gorgias, argues that speaking persuasively is the greatest of all goods: it’s the art of making people do your will. Shrewd political thinkers and speakers know that the ability to persuade and manipulate their audiences is central to social life. But for Socrates, Gorgias’ rhetoric is the greatest of all evils: it’s a method of non-rational manipulation of the mob. Both of these accounts of persuasive speech unfold in a written dialogue that aims to teach us how to live well in a complex political world. This course will trace the legacy of this ambivalent view of dialogue, persuasion, and speech. We will explore how the dialogue transformed from a genre of philosophical instruction to a supple literary device by studying works that represent the relationship between persuasion, philosophical education, and political life. From Plato’s Socratic dialogues to Jane Austen’s Persuasion to the TV show Deadwoodwritten dialogues reflect on the power of spoken words to develop a communal form of reasoning; characters learn—or disastrously fail to learn—through speaking.

We will explore how plays, formal philosophical dialogues, novels, and even collections of poems engage and adapt the form of the spoken dialogue from classical antiquity to the early nineteenth-century, focusing on the early modern period (1500-1700). We will reflect at length on how the conventions of character, direct and indirect discourse, plot, and narrative are imagined and reinvented in a variety of literary forms.

Our readings will include: Plato, Gorgias and Protagoras; Sophocles, Antigone; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (selections); Thomas More, Utopia; William Shakespeare, Coriolanus; George Herbert, The Temple; John Milton, Paradise Regained; Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth; Jane Austen, PersuasionDeadwood (2004-2006), selections.

Course assignments will include short weekly reading responses, a shorter paper (5-6 pages), and a longer final paper (9-10 pages). In addition to practicing and developing your skills in reading and writing about literary texts, you will be asked to engage the rich tradition we will be studying by actively participating in class discussion.

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