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Dissoi Logoi Analysis Essay

An Introduction to the Dissoi Logoi

The words Dissoi Logoi are Greek words for "different words." The phrase really carries the meaning of contrasting words, and it refers to the ancient rhetorical practice of arguing both sides of an issue.

Because rhetoric normally is concerned with arguing about opinions, it is the case the positions taken on some issues may be equally valid, even though the people who hold them think their position is obviously the right one. And even in regard to issues in which one side is generally perceived to be superior to the other, it is important to know both sides of the argument. Therefore, it was a common practice to ask students to speak or write arguments for both sides of a controversy.

A good way to do that is to pretend that you have been asked to be an advocate for someone. After reading a text or hearing a position, create the best argument you can in defense of it. Think of yourself as a hired lawyer, or spokesperson. What are the best arguments you can make in support of your client's position? Then pretend like you have been hired to argue against the same position. What are the best arguments you can make against the position?

By putting yourself as fully into each side as possible, you begin to see the internal logic of each position. This insight is important for several reasons. First, it may help you to be more understanding of your opponents' position (they're not always the fools we think they are when we haven't explored their position carefully). Second, it may make it possible for you to find some area of common ground between the two positions that will produce cooperation rather than arguing to "win." Third, even if you think the opponents' view are wrong and must be defeated, you at least know what arguments they are likely to use, and you can figure out how to disarm those arguments ahead of time.

But what do you do if you feel strongly about your position, and you feel guilty even listening to the other views, let alone taking them into yourself so far that you are able to write them as though you believed them? When you first start doing this kind of exercise, such qualms are common, but it is much better to take the "poison" (if that's how you think of the other view) on your own time and under your own control than to find it being used against you in the heat of battle when you don't know how to deal with it. So, on the one hand, you can overcome your qualms by assuring yourself that you are preparing yourself to make an even better argument than if you didn't write on both sides.

Even more important, though, from an ethical position, is the value of exploring the other view so that you can be fair. Is it always the most ethical thing to win your argument? What if your opponents have some truth in their position? Isn't it more important, if possible, to find ways to cooperate than to push toward polarized positions? Consider places where long-term animosities are destroying countries. This is not to say that one should compromise his or her beliefs, but one reason people argue their side without listening to the other is that they are insecure in their beliefs. A good way to overcome that fear is to explore the thing you're afraid of; perhaps you will change your mind, but perhaps, you will come away with a stronger sense of security in your own position.

Draft 1: The concept: Dissoi Logoi

        In ancient Greece, the dissoi logoi were rhetorical exercises intended for imitation by students. In our own time, we see dissoi logoi at work "in the courtroom, where litigation is not about truth but rather the preponderance of evidence" (James Dale Williams, An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric, 2009).  The words "dissoi logoi" literally mean opposing arguments. This exercise acts as a tool of rhetoric and understanding. The sophists used dissoi logoi to explore the meaning language and the various implications it could have.

        The great sophist, Gorgias, famously applied his knowledge of dissoi logoi in the "Encomium of Helen". "Who it was and why and how he sailed away, taking Helen as his love, I shall not say. To tell the knowing what they know shows it is right but brings no delight. Having now gone beyond the time once set for my speech, I shall go on to the beginning of my future speech, and I shall set forth the causes through which it was likely that Helen's voyage to Troy should take place" ( Encomium of Helen, section 5). This introduction from Encomium of Helen gives the reader a glimpse into the brilliant mind of Gorgias and those principles which he stood for.  His oratory style combined with the dissoi logoi evoked through dialectic result in a multi-faceted representation of the truth. It is obvious from this excerpt that heunderstood how dissoi logoi could be used to alter the attitudes and henceforth the values of his audience. Gorgias goes on to speak of the condemned Helen and the possible reasons behind her perceived betrayal of Troy. In the "Encomium of Helen" Gorgias does not attempt to convince the audience of what he thinks is true; instead he offers an array of alternative reasons that could possibly explain her actions. Then at the very end of his speech he suggests a change in the attitudes of his audience. "Encomium of Helen" incorporates all three appeals effectively and demonstrates exactly why the "dissoi logoi" form is an essential tool for rhetoricians.

        "They say that if some people were to bring together from every part of the world those things that are shameful, and were then to call people together and command them to take what each considered seemly, everything would be taken away as seemly" ( Dissoi Logoi, section 2).  In this section of dissoi logoi the author sets up the debate of whether seemly and shameful are always different or whether they are always the same. The author then gives examples to prove that they appear to be different but then uses cross cultural examples to establish that they are not.

        A large part of dissoi logoi involves the understanding of kairos, which means the opportune moment. “The right moment takes the same things and makes them shameful and then changes them round and makes them seemly” (Dissoi Logoi, section 2). Knowing the general attitude and perception of your audience will enable a speaker to identify this "opportune moment" and use it to encourage a change in their listeners attitudes or views. It is seen that dissoi and logoi can be used to mislead or decieve a general public. However, it is important to remember that the great rhetoricians of ancient Greece only brought forth this concept in the hopes of exploring a universal understanding of the spoken word and the meaning that we as a people assign to it.

Application of Dissoi Logoi to American Imperialism

Dissoi logoi is all about the relativity of "truth", and in the world that we live in today, everything is relative. The ancient sophists maintained that anything could be argued and it is seen that they did so in ancient works like ”The Clouds", "Gorgias" and "The Encomium of Helen".  Dissoi Logoi can be and has been applied throughout history as a way of providing justification for acts that may have been condemned whether those actions pertain to judicial matters or issues of foreign policy like imperialism. American Imperialism has been a part of United States history ever since the American Revolution. Imperialism is the practice by which powerful nations or people seek to expand and maintain control or influence over the less powerful nations or peoples. Throughout the years there has been many instances where the Americans have taken over the countries of foreign peoples. In most instances of Imperialism, the United States has  tried to acquire new territories for the nation's empire. The Americas first taste of imperialism came about five hundred years ago when Columbus traveled to America in hopes of finding the new world, when in fact, it was not a new world at all. The Spanish drove out the native inhabitants and then took the land for themselves. Natives were then enslaved for the benefit of the Spaniards. Over the years, Americans have been known to behave in a similar manner. A sentiment has since been formed that no matter how much we have we will never be happy until the United States has control the free world. The question of why we see this pattern happening still today is one that many people would like to know the answer to.