Barack, Aristotle, Plato & Me (Pt.2)

In the previous post, I presented two simplified and contrasting views on the worth of rhetoric by Plato and Aristotle. On one side, Plato argued that rhetoric is used to render the rhetorician "more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge," while on the other side, Aristotle argued that because "things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites," rhetoric serves to bring truth and justice into sharper relief for the masses. One essential difference, as I see it, is that Plato seems to assume most people are credulous and easily lead away from truth, while Aristotle confers on them a higher measure of confidence to vet the worth of the rhetorician's arguments. I've always favored Aristotle over Plato on this matter, but after watching the multitudes—especially my peers—engage in a sort of hero worship for Barack Obama in the past few weeks has given me pause to wonder. It is only with politics, I think, that my confidence in the worth of rhetoric begins to waver, for it is especially in this murky realm that truth (or at least truth according to knowledgeable experts) can be so blithely ignored or abandoned so that one can become ingratiated with an audience. I pick on Mr. Obama (admittedly unfairly) not because he owns a political monopoly in talking nonsense from time to time, but because he seems to have an above average faculty for discovering the means for persuading the electorate—rhetorical skill, in other words. But Mr. Obama, thus far in his campaign at least, seems to be following the typical political and Platonic path of using his skill to flatter audiences with what they want to hear. In trade policy for example, Mr. Obama’s protectionist discourse, while sounding righteous to workers who have lost their jobs in the Rust Belt, does not reflect the views of most economists (of any political persuasion), nor indeed that of his (former?) economic advisor. And some of it is just flat wrong.

But I am not interested in a Platonic relationship yet. Aristotle granted that rhetoric could be used for disingenuous purposes, even when the audience was smart. He maintained, however, that the propensity of rhetoric would be to the good, and not to the bad. Further, Aristotle argued that rhetoric was necessary because the truth can be boring or hard to understand, so a skilled rhetorician would make truth easier to obtain, using some combination of the following three modes:

The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker [ethos]; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind [pathos]; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself [logos].

Aristotle conceded that while pure, logical argumentation is the best mode of persuasion, it cannot be relied upon alone. The manner in which a rhetorician speaks and the emotions he is able to imbue in the audience also matter.

But alas, though Mr. Obama is good at pathos and ethos, his logos seems to be a no-gos (I already sighed loudly as I wrote that last bit, Dear Reader, so you don’t have to). Worse still, on the things which I am knowledgeable about, Mr. Obama is leading the multitudes away from truth. Is this, and 99 percent of all political discourse, really rhetoric? Give me sweet reconciliation, Aristotle!

Just then, Aristotle descends from the heavenly firmament—not too fast, not too slowly, but at just the right speed.

What tidings he brings will come in the exciting third installment! Stay tuned!