There’s no need to introduce Greta Thunberg. She became a household name in September 2018, when she sat for a long time outside the doors of the Swedish Parliament next to a sign indicating that she was on strike from the school in the name of climate protection (1). She intervened at COP24 in Poland in December 2018 (2), then in Davos in January 2019 (3), and her name came up again during the climate strike organised on 15 and 16 March 2019 (4). Many of the sentences she used made an impression on people’s minds. However, her speech deserves a brief analysis. We will carry this out it by referring to Plato’s Gorgias.
Here are some of Greta Thunberg’s most famous quotes:
(i) “Why bother to learn anything in school if politicians won’t pay attention to the facts?”
(ii) “We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”
(iii) “You [politicians] say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”
(iv) “Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.”
(v) “We must change almost everything in our current societies?”
Let us note again this warning, which is also a warning to act:
(vi) “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
Media comments highlighted the “simple words” used by Greta Thunberg. “In simple words, the Swedish Greta Thunberg brings thousands of teenagers around the world to the streets,” says the French newspaper La Croix, or, even more strongly: “One could not say it better.” Let us add a few additional observations. They are about truth. If Greta Thunberg leaves a strong impression, if she convinces, it is because she sees the truth and knows how to express it without embarrassment and without detour. “15 year old activist Greta Thunberg speaks truth to power at the UN COP24 climate talks,” says the preamble to her December 2018 speech (6). This comment from an Internet user following her Davos speech is along the same lines:
“She obviously knows the realities of global warming to an extent that so few adults, regardless of age, know. Probably incredibly few kids of fifteen know what she already knows, worldwide.”
And, as regards the Asperger’s syndrome she suffered from, it was said that it led her to see “her condition not as a disability but as a gift which has helped open her eyes to the climate crisis” (1).
How can Plato’s Gorgias shed light on Greta Thunberg’s words? There are at least three reasons for this. Let’s discuss the first two in this post – the third one deserves a separate post. The first reason concerns a statement by Callicles, one of the interlocutors in this dialogue. Callicles succeeds Gorgias and Polus. He is on the side of the defenders of rhetoric, this set of processes aimed at producing, in the minds of listeners, a “feeling of conviction,” in the words of French philosopher Monique Canto-Sperber (7). For those who practise it, rhetoric is a way to defend their own interests or political interests. “For the Gorgias’ interlocutors,” Canto-Sperber observes, “it is quite clear that it is at the risk of life that rhetoric is neglected and that we renounce the ability to defend ourselves before men.” Precisely, anyone who devotes one’s life to philosophy and neglects rhetoric would be contrary to the defence of one’s own interests. “If one pursues [philosophy] further than one should, it will bring ruin,” says Callicles to Socrates. And he adds immediately afterwards:
“However naturally gifted a person may be, if he studies philosophy beyond a suitable age he will not have acquired the necessary experience to be thought a gentleman and a person worthy of respect. People of this sort have no knowledge of the laws of their city, and of the language to be employed in dealings with men in private or public business, or of the human pleasures and passions; in a word, they have no idea at all how others behave.”
In Callicles’ view, “it is a fine thing to have a tincture of philosophy, just so much as makes a person educated, and there is no disgrace in the young philosophizing.” It should be practised by young people, adolescents. But for a mature person to continue to philosophise is for them a mark of ridicule. It is like behaving like a child or “stammering.” It is not a question here of transposing Callicles’ observations to Greta Thunberg’s observations. However, they suggest a reflection on how to qualify her speeches. Do these belong to philosophical reflection, a reflection that is not detached from the life of the city since it concerns the future of humanity, and that is in harmony with philosophical reflection as a means of forming the mind? Or are her speeches only intended to produce practical effects as politicians would do using rhetorical processes to please their constituents?
This is the second reason to refer to Gorgias to clarify Greta Thunberg’s point. This reason relates to the use by her of rhetorical procedures to convince her listeners. In Gorgias, Socrates says of rhetoric that it is not an art but a know-how, “a sort of knack gained by experience.” He explains to Gorgias that it is an activity that “requires a shrewd and bold spirit naturally clever at dealing with people.” And he adds: “The generic name which I should give it is pandering” – a practice that, Canto-Sperber notes, is “morally low.” It is more than doubtful that anything Greta Thunberg has said can be targeted by Socrates’ attack. Her truthful speech, which has struck so many observers, seems to be the opposite of the search for flattery. But, as we have suggested, her speeches use rhetorical processes – a use that does not imply that Greta Thunberg is more concerned with the form than the content of what she says. They are found in excerpts (i)-(vi) above. For example, statement (ii) includes a repetition of the word “crisis.” The figure of style, an epistrophe, accurately describes the present situation and reminds us that such a description requires appropriate measures to be taken. To ignore a crisis is to take the risk that it aggravates the situation and that the resulting upheavals produce dramatic consequences. Statement (vi) includes several anaphors (“I don’t want” and “I want”) whose function is to reinforce, with a certain solemnity (perhaps with a little too much solemnity), the appeal to adults addressed by Greta Thunberg. Statement (vi) also includes a metaphor, that of the burning house (“Our house is on fire”), the function of which is to lead listeners to act immediately. The analogy with the house on fire is all the more evocative because the meaning of the word “fire” (“incendie” in French, close to “blaze” in English) includes both the idea of speed, and therefore urgency (an “incendie” is a “large fire that spreads rapidly”), and, in a figurative sense, that of disorder (an “incendie” is a “violent social upheaval, likely to disturb the established order”) (8). In itself, the use of this metaphor, more than any other rhetorical figures, sums up Greta Thunberg’s moral horror of the world situation. It is a way of producing this “feeling of conviction” inherent in rhetoric. But this feeling also comes from the way she tells the truth, the way she “speaks truth to power.” We will talk about it in the next post, drawing inspiration again from Plato’s Gorgias. Alain Anquetil (1) See “The Swedish 15-year-old who’s cutting class to fight the climate crisis,” The Guardian, 1st September 2018. (2) “You Are Stealing Our Future: Greta Thunberg, 15, Condemns the World’s Inaction on Climate Change,” Democracy Now, 13 December 2018. (3) See « Our house is on fire” and “‘Our house is on fire’: Greta Thunberg, 16, urges leaders to act on climate,” The Guardian, 25 January 2019. (4) See “Global Climate Strike: Meet the teenagers skipping school to fight for a greener planet,” CNN, 15 March 2019. (5) These quotes are taken from Greta Thunberg’s interventions at COP24 and Davos. See references given above and below. (6) “Greta Thunberg full speech at UN Climate Change COP24 Conference,” 15 December 2018. (7) M. Canto-Sperber, Introduction to the Gorgias, Paris, GF Flammarion, 1993. Excerpts from Plato’s Gorgias come from Walter Hamilton and Chris Emlyn-Jones’ translation, Penguin Classics, 2004. (8) The references come from the French CNRTL. [cite]