Rhetoric and Politics

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The ancient canons or rhetoric still have a profound impact on discourse today, particularly when it comes to politics. The distinct rhetorical traditions espoused by Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, and the Stoics (i.e. Isocrates and Gorgias) are each nuanced by different understandings of the relationship between speaker and audience. These relationships, in turn, can be understood in terms of power. In other words, who controls meaning in discourse—the speaker or the hearer? Also, what responsibility does a speaker have to his audience, and vice versa?  According to Thomas Conley, in fact, “Plato, the sophists, Aristotle and Isocrates—as different as they were—all grappled with the same questions of authority, right, power, and the place of persuasion in public affairs, each offering a different account of the role of rhetoric in the resolution of moral and political questions” (Conley 23). This essay will examine the rhetoric of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Gorgias and consider what political models their rhetorical methods most closely align. 

Aristotle’s primary competition when he opened his school at the Lyceum was the sophistic tradition, represented at the time chiefly by Isocrates.  While Isocrates has been dismissed as “politically unimportant” and a “base opportunist” by some scholars, he represented a broader “sophistic” school in rhetoric which prized eloquence above all else (Conley 17). Isocrates, like many others of his day, were inheritors of a rhetorical system inherited from Gorgias. The starting point in their approach was that there was no such thing as absolute truth. Accordingly, they believed that there were arguments pro and con to any point of view. The rhetorician’s task, then, was primarily to persuade the audience to whatever point of view the speaker found most advantageous. According to Bod, Gorgias rejected the dialectic method put forth by Plato and Socrates and instead believed “that a dialogue between two people with different perspectives was a way of achieving an understanding of both points of view” (Bod 58).   On the surface, this seems like it might bode well in a democratic society where civility depends upon mutual understanding. On the contrary, however, the lack of any definitive “truth” in the stoic tradition meant that the rhetorician was free to use his eloquence to “bend” the will of the people toward his own perspective. As Conley put it, “The Gorgianic politeia would not, in fact, be democratic but Machiavellian, with the rhetor playing the part of the prince” (Conley 22).  This suggests that for Gorgias and the Stoics, the political model most reflective of their position would be a despotism or a dictatorship.  The goal is not for the rhetorician to “convince” the audience per se but to manipulate them to adopt the worldview and perspective that the speaker eloquently advances.  

Plato’s impact on both rhetoric and politics is undeniable. His most famous book, The Republic, is chiefly interested in exploring what makes for an ideal, or just, society. Plato’s works are dominated by dialectic, or dialogue, following the Socratic method.  Socrates, himself, who was Plato’s teacher is generally the featured protagonist of most of his dialogues.  At the same time, however, Plato also wrote a dialogue called the Gorgias in which he takes aim at the sophistic or Gorgianic approach to rhetoric. “Plato’s rhetoric is ‘dialectica,’ with dialectic being understood as both the means of arriving at the Truth and as the method of discovering the means of communicating that truth effectively” (Conley 23). In the process of his dialogues, however, there is always an enlightened individual—usually Socrates—who guides others to truth through a process of questioning. This “Socratic method,” undergirds Plato’s own notion that the best form of governance is under the guidance of a benevolent “philosopher king.” As Herrick notes, “For Socrates, power is self-control grounded in true knowledge, and its goal is justice” (Herrick 60).  This notion is furthered in the Phaedrus. Here, “Plato argues that a true art of speech aims to bring about an ordered society through a study of the different kinds of human souls, and the power of words to influence these different types” (Herrick 60).   All of this lends itself to a political system headed by a benevolent monarch, or a “philosopher king.”  As a political leader, such a monarch would play the role that Socrates does in his dialogues, not demanding adherence to particular viewpoints or manipulating people’s perspectives through eloquence, but leading people to truth through dialectic.  Since this process is inherently paternalistic, though, a monarchy rather than a democracy better fits Plato’s rhetorical method.  

Aristotle’s rhetoric is particularly focused on the process of argumentation. According to Conley, this is accomplished through Aristotle’s use of topics, or “places,” upon which arguments can be built. A good rhetorician, in Aristotle’s system, is concerned to put one’s premises in proper relationship with claims, evidence, and logic. The proper relationship, in Aristotle’s system involves “(1) the claim being made by the orator; (2) the evidence cited in support of it; and (3) the protasis that links them together” (Conley 15). In other words, he rejects the notion that rhetoric and dialectic are wholly distinct disciplines. “Aristotle begins with the assertation that ‘rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic” (Herrick 70).  Aristotle, in turn, could be called the father of political argument. “Practical argument is judged not by its correspondence to deductive form but by its substance. It deals with matters of probability rather than with universal truths, and it varies according to context” (Foss et al. 119). In other words, for Aristotle rhetoric is concerned with practical matters as much, or even more than, theoretical matters. This is a departure from Plato’s rhetoric, which hoped to guide others from a state of ignorance into the “real” world of ideas.  In his book on rhetoric, Aristotle engages philosophy, but he also engages empirical matters more proper to what we now call the natural sciences. (Bod 59). The difference between rhetoric and dialectic, for Aristotle, was found in the nature of the premise. In rhetoric, “the premise was not necessarily a true statement but one that was plausible to a particular audience” (Bod 59).  Additionally, Aristotle emphasized the practical dimension of rhetoric through his distinction between ethos, pathos, and logos. The ethos can be described as “confidence in character,” the pathos refers to the “emotions of the audience,” and logos denotes the “rhetorical argumentation” itself (Bod 60).  Ultimately, Aristotle recognizes that rhetoric must do more than “guide” an individual into truth as in Plato. A speaker must also earn the trust of his audience, appeal to their emotions, and present a logically sound argument that appeals likewise to their reason. This cohered well with a democratic form of governance, which relies on politicians’ appeal to the people on both logical and emotional levels. Democracies, likewise, rely on having leaders with high ethos. A politician who appears untrustworthy is unlikely to be elected. 

Cicero was not particularly innovative, but he was an eclectic thinker who combined a number of previous ideas and popularized them in a popular way (Bod 62; Conley 32). Cicero lived at a time when politics in Rome was in significant turmoil. His rhetoric engaged a number of “political storms” that both bred alliances and made enemies (Conley 34).  Like Isocrates, Cicero prized eloquence as an important achievement, “but a crucial element of true eloquence is the ability to argue in utramque partem—that is, in the absence of certain knowledge, to argue both sides of any issue” (Conley 36-37).  By examining both sides of any issue, rhetorically, deliberative leaders of the state are able to arrive at decisions and negotiate differences in opinion in a responsible way. For Cicero, it is not necessary that every party to a dispute know the truth from the start. Truth, in fact, is not his goal at all. Instead, the “best” course is pursued in the process of controversy, or dispute.  Prizing eloquence, however, like the stoics he largely envisioned his rhetoric occurring in a higher echelon of educated nobility, or a ruling class.  Living at the time when the Roman Republic was falling, and the Empire was soon to be born, Cicero clearly believed in the value of a representative government.   The Roman Senate was a deliberative body, above all else, that was responsible for making decisions on behalf of the people. Accordingly, a representative government like the Roman Republic, or even the United States’ representative democracy, would cohere well with Cicero’s rhetorical method.  

Clearly, none of the above alignments between these rhetoricians and particular forms of government are perfect. In a representative democracy, like the United States, there are elements of both Ciceronian and Aristotelian rhetoric that are important for the ongoing productivity of the government.  When one side tends to dominate too much, to the neglect of the other, people get the sense that the government has become too out-of-touch or is untrustworthy (when leaning toward Cicero), and insofar as the government leans toward Aristotle’s rhetoric, some might get the idea that things are too pragmatic, and not firmly rooted in ideological values. Still, elements of both are there.  Today, too, there are those who embrace a stoic approach to rhetoric which is concerned more with eloquence than truth. This approach dominates, for instance, marketing and advertising campaigns. In the past, the United States government has engaged in propaganda campaigns which likewise reflect the Gorgianic or Isocratic approach to rhetoric. Similar observations could likely be made with respect to rhetoric in dictatorships or monarchies elsewhere in the world. No single rhetoric emerges in isolation. Still, it is clear that some rhetorical methods lend themselves to the ideal functioning of particular forms of governance more than others.

Works Cited

Bod, Rens. A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns and Patterns from Antiquity to Present. Kindle edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 

Conley, Thomas M. Rhetoric in the European Tradition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990

Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp. Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. Waveland Press, 2014.

Herrick, James A. The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction. Routledge, 2017.