The Uses and Misuses of Rhetoric

            The Greek philosopher Socrates is famous for suggesting, among other aphorisms, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” When one follows that great figure through his student Plato’s famous Dialogues, one quickly learns that the sage was not arguing for “know-nothingism,” but for its reverse, a dedicated, passionate, life-long and humble pursuit of wisdom for its own sake. Socrates more than once patiently undid pompously certain or manipulative individuals in exchanges with them, including the rhetorician Gorgias, his student Polus and finally, and most importantly, the Athenian gentleman, Callicles in Plato’s The Gorgias. As he debated each of these individuals concerning the relative roles and merits of rhetoric in that Dialogue, Socrates established that the art of communication may degrade rather than ennoble those who practice it, particularly when the rhetorician’s aim is to employ that art to garner power or riches for themselves. As he talked with his three interlocutors in The Gorgias, Socrates moved their conversation into a deeper reflection on the nature of the good and evil inhering in humankind. In conversing with Callicles particularly, the philosopher completely discredited the pursuit of power and riches for their own sakes and persuaded the Athenian to admit, to his great consternation, that rhetoric harnessed for such purposes is both personally and socially corrosive and worse.

            As Socrates made these points in The Gorgias, he suggested how pernicious empty pursuit of power can be while also pointing to abidingly important questions about human behavior and expectations of political life. The philosopher’s sometimes pointed probing of Gorgias as well as that rhetorician’s pupil and sponsor offer several lessons for those active in American politics today. I sketch three very briefly here: the imperative need for intellectual and moral humility to secure the possibility for knowledge and free human interaction, the profound individual and social degradation and loss of freedom that can result from the misuse of the power that inheres in rhetoric and the often painful political consequences of embracing certainties where none exist, especially when these result in dogma or fundamentalisms of various stripes.

            Socrates sought early in The Gorgias to remind his conversation partners of their grotesque, almost comedic, vanity. Not one of the trio with whom the thinker interacted could imagine that their positions were not the height of intelligence and perspicacity. The philosopher’s burden was to expose what their conceit meant for their positions and how they viewed their fellow human beings. Socrates carefully demonstrated to each individual that rhetoric unlinked to truth seeking and knowledge was empty and often cruel, and that their certainties led not to thoughtfulness, but to boasting and brokenness. More, their false sureness led to arrogance and an abiding belief in their own wisdom and standing, and especially in their capacity to persuade their fellow citizens to their views to advance their own pride, power and place.

            All of these attributes Socrates deliberately, and sometimes scathingly, showed to be utterly hollow and destructive for those employing them, for those abused (and used) by these arts and for the broader society. Narcissism results not only in personal arrogance and shame, but also social corrosion. For Socrates, while knowledge can certainly be precise, one must ever be open to the possibility that it may be overturned by newfound insights and be humbled by that fact in one’s quest for wisdom and in how one treats others. One key lesson of The Gorgias is that he or she who would be wise must also be humble and that seeking knowledge demands tolerance. Another message of this Dialogue is that vanity degrades its purveyor even when, perhaps especially when, the individual can ply their skills successfully (i.e., persuades the listener or viewer of their perspective even when that point-of-view may not redound to that person’s interests). Manipulation of another human being, successful or not, damages profoundly the dignity of both the individual undertaking it as well as the target.

            It is hardly a stretch to note that today’s equivalent of the rhetoricians depicted in The Gorgias are political consultants who are hired for the sole purpose of persuading enough of the relevant voting electorate to choose their employer to allow that individual to gain power via an election. The metric for most of those in this industry is whether their candidates succeed or “win.” In fact, future contracts depend largely on these consultants being perceived as “winners” in just this sense. With so low a bar for practice it is no surprise that each election season brings fresh revelations of how one or another campaign consultant pressed completely untruthful or inflammatory claims to “support” their candidate.

            Such rhetoric is empty in just the way that Socrates warned it could be dangerous so many years ago; it can become untethered to anything but a relentless quest for power and individual gain. Given this concern, it is noteworthy that our polity’s politics no longer is yoked to political consultants only during campaigns, but for daily governance choices as well. Each political party offers daily talking points for its partisans aimed solely at persuasion for perceived partisan advantage, as do countless advocacy groups, and these often bear too little relationship to the facts of the policy challenges at hand, but are instead crafted to mobilize specific voters or to seek to persuade others to support an alternate perspective by whatever claims may appear to “work.” In addition to not always being linked to real, as opposed to salient, concerns, these statements frequently also trend to the fantastical, as when several GOP Senators recently sought to blame President Obama for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to occupy the Crimea militarily. This example is fresh, but new ones occur daily and they illustrate the dangers of disconnecting rhetoric from any substantive ethical claims in efforts to mobilize for advantage to garner power. Pursuit of power for its own sake is always dangerous and that is true in democratic societies, too, particularly when it leads officials to adopt strategies that “other” groups or entire populations, or otherwise manipulate hearers or viewers to take stands against preserving the freedom and rights of all.

            A third lesson one may take from The Gorgias for today’s U.S. politics is the danger in using rhetoric to offer the public false certainties. Our politics is rife with officials—both elected and those who would be—willing to offer up all manner of supposed certitudes to voters feeling insecure as a result of rapid globalization, a deep recession and slow economic growth that is leaving many groups behind. In so fear-filled a context, would-be democratic leaders confront an electorate yearning for explanations and “fixes” for their perceived woes and leaders may be tempted to provide voters all sorts of deceptive targets for concern as a way to gain their votes. We have seen just such strategies employed in recent years by candidates and officials willing to blame government for a range of social and political problems, including, in fact, sluggish economic growth. Other leaders have argued similarly that the poor constitute a cancerous tumor on the body politic and their laziness and moral degradation is the cause of much wider woes. Still others have asserted that immigrants constitute a threat to employment for Americans and that religious freedom is under assault (there is no real evidence for either contention). In all of these cases, those campaigning for office have offered voters rhetoric characterized by unbridled claims and simple-seeming “certainties” that allege someone or something is responsible for what are, in fact, complicated multi-causal realities. Each such initiative launched by political leaders and their consultants comes replete with the dangers implicit in unleashing “othering” of either the government or specific groups. There is now ample evidence that these sorts of claims can mobilize a share of voters, but as Socrates wisely realized, such rhetoric often results in and feeds fundamentalist claims and imagined certainties that permit their purveyors to dismiss other groups in society or to blame those groups for all manner of woes, resulting ultimately in the degradation or loss of freedom among both those targeted and those abusing them. False certainties tied to emotive claims concerning the moral inadequacies of those blamed constitute an especially surefire fast track to tyranny. At their worse these sorts of social contentions have resulted in the horrors of the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the Rwandan genocide, among too many other examples to recount. It is hardly too soon to sound the alarm that a share of our national rhetoric today has taken on a vicious and malignant tone that appears untethered to any claim, but the pursuit of power. History teaches that such rhetoric is dangerous for freedom.