Thursday, March 10, 2016

Rhetorically Speaking

There was just one period during my previous employment in which I had to wrestle with political and moral problems within the workplace. That single period began about one month after I started working there and ended twenty-five years later, when I retired. But in one brief episode in my arduous odyssey, I sensed that I had a viable opportunity to change things for the better. The provost of the university had asked our school to hold special meetings to make a big decision about leadership, and I began to believe that I could speak at these meetings and convince others of the right path out of our darkness. As it turned out, my first ten-year reading plan had me reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric at this time, just when I needed it.

In rereading the Rhetoric this month, I’ve been struck at how much I’ve forgotten in the intervening time, and I’ve entertained the wish that I had kept the book by my bed for a couple of years and had rehearsed parts of it over and over. Aristotle talks about genres of oratory, facts about character and human motivation, forms of argument, putting one’s own character in the best light, moving and (in some cases) taking advantage of the listeners’ emotions, and the best ways to counter an opposing argument. He dictates the appropriate level of vocabulary for various types of speech, the proper amount of metaphor to use, and the proper amount of repetition for each. He discusses sentence length, rhythm, tone of voice, and gesture. He advocates describing scenes vividly and using figures of speech that involve actions, since these practices capture the listeners’ attention and move them toward acceptance of the speaker’s position. He demonstrates twenty-eight different lines of proof. He outlines the type of premise that is better left unsaid and explains why. In short, he delivers a thorough course on speech-making as applicable now as it was 2400 years ago.

He parts from Plato in a number of ways here. Where Aristotle’s mentor spent a career writing moral dialogs in a not-entirely successful attempt to find the unifying factor in all virtue, Aristotle solves the problem in a single sentence: “Virtue is . . . a faculty of providing and preserving good things.” The younger philosopher takes seriously, though, the various kinds of good: the noble, the useful, and the pleasant, goods of the body and goods of the soul, external goods, and so on. Where Plato and his characterization of Socrates seek that which is good in itself almost exclusively, Aristotle is willing to sully his hands with mundane practicality. In the field of rhetoric, these opposing attitudes play out in significantly different ways. Plato sees rhetoric as an evil practice since it manipulates the listeners through effect rather than through Truth alone. But Aristotle sees rhetoric as a practical good; he finds value in hiding the truth and taking advantage of the human weaknesses of judges and voters. I’m sure he would say that he ultimately wants to serve Truth, Justice, and the Athenian Way by his means, but the means themselves are at times less than truthful and just.

Now I’m not very good at being less than truthful. I’m terrible at games that involve bluffing and negotiation (although I love to play them). But in that one case at work, thanks to Aristotle’s guidance, I put what I had learned into practice so effectively that a very rare outcome ensued: I got my way. We got the policy I advocated and the leader that I chose. Then that leader banished democracy from our school by first ignoring all our votes and then never holding any votes to begin with. So much for rhetorical success. Maybe I’ll just try to apply Aristotle’s advice to games from now on.

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