A Problem from the Rhetoric

Aristotle makes a claim in the early part of the Rhetoric that seems like it ought to be the case, and yet is clearly out of order with the facts on the ground here in America today.
Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself. Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. This kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak. It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.
That seems like it ought to be right.  Yet in our current Presidential contest, we have one man who is apparently good by general standards, which is to say Rick Santorum, the lowest-polling figure in the race; one man who is apparently not good, but who is a highly effective speaker, which is to say Newt Gingrich; one man who may or may not be good, but is a terrible speaker, which is to say Mitt Romney; and one man who is said by some to be good and others to be wicked, and by some to be a great speaker and by others to be a terrible one, but who is currently the actual victor of the last Presidential contest.

I say that Romney 'may or may not' be of good character; Cassandra is quite sure he is of excellent character, and his personal life seems to be clear of the usual problems, but I can't quite figure him out well enough to decide what to think about his motives.

Aristotle's next argument ends up making perfect sense from our contemporary perspective.
There are, then, these three means of effecting persuasion. The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able (1) to reason logically, (2) to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and (3) to understand the emotions-that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited.
There is a clear failure for Romney on point (3). Thus, assuming the man to be of excellent personal character for the sake of argument, we can still appreciate how he might fail to be persuasive.  He lacks one of the three basic components of effectiveness in persuasion.

Newt clearly has (1), (2), and (3) down.  His reasoning is good, he understands human character and goodness (even if he often fails to practice it), and he knows how to excite the emotions.

Thus, we would expect Newt to prevail in a two-man contest of persuasion:  he's simply better armed.  This will prove to be true in the fall as well:  when imagining a Newt v. Obama match-up versus a Romney v. Obama match-up, we can see that the President will fare better rhetorically in the latter contest.  He would be facing an opponent who simply lacks access to a third of the power of persuasion.

We still have the puzzle of goodness, though.  I have always found that speaking the truth is the greatest weapon in rhetoric, and that good character and a name for honor is -- as Aristotle holds -- a powerful weapon as well.  That does not appear to be the case for us today.

Does this mean that Americans do not care about good character, or that they disagree about what it is?  Or is there something about our electoral process that makes character less persuasive than it normally tends to be?  If the latter, what is the cause of the failure?


Cass said...

...Romney 'may or may not' be of good character; Cassandra is quite sure he is of excellent character, and his personal life seems to be clear of the usual problems, but I can't quite figure him out well enough to decide what to think about his motives.

I'm not sure I am sure Romney's character is excellent. What little I can see of the way he has chosen to live his life, though, leads me to believe he has self-control, self-discipline, and the right moral priorities. Of course it could always turn out that he has been having sex with under aged aardvarks, but in that case I think I would be justified in revising my opinion in light of new information :p

I agree that he doesn't seem able to persuade the base (or maybe just people who are looking for something different than what I'm looking for). To me - and to the one son I've talked to, and to my husband - he is the most convincing of the candidates.

Gingrich's demogoguery grates on my last nerve. Santorum makes a fair amount of sense when anyone lets him speak, but he has such a record of putting his foot in his mouth that I believe him to be unelectable. Plus, there's the lack of experience issue.

I don't really agree that Gingrich satisfies all three of your conditions. Your emotions are not shared by everyone and you clearly don't seem to understand the emotions of people who don't share your point of view.

Gingrich demonstrably does NOT understand the emotions of people like me, Grim. Or any of my friends (pretty much all of whom have voted R all their lives). My emotional reaction to him is, not to put a fine point on it, disgust.

I think you are in danger of judging everything by your own reactions, but there are lots of folks out there who aren't you and we need their votes.

Moreover, you seem to think that 'exciting the emotions' is a good thing. In fact, I think it is nearly always a bad thing. That's what demogogues do and I can't imagine why (after watching Obama) we'd want 4 more years of the same?

Grim said...


Aristotle isn't making a normative argument about exciting the emotions (and neither am I). He's making a practical argument: verbal persuasion has these three elements. Insofar as you wish to persuade someone, then, these are the ways in which you can do it. Sometimes Newt uses insightful, careful arguments on policy (a type 1 argument); sometimes he puts out great ads about George Washington (a type 2 argument); and sometimes he takes out a Bowie knife and cuts up a moderator in a way that plays to audience resentments of the media (a type 3 argument). He does all of these things well, as he thinks they are appropriate.

My own emotional reactions to Newt's remarks are not what you apparently imagine. I watched his remarks today about how Romney must think we're all stupid to believe he can say one thing in 1994 and another thing today, in a way such that his apparently major changes of heart always line up with his electoral advantage. I happen to agree with every word that Newt said on the subject, on the merits; and in fact, I actually do resent the apparent belief by Romney that he can do that.

Still, when I see Gingrich up there saying 'We must tell him that we're not that stupid, and he's not that smart,' I recognize in it an attempt at emotional manipulation. I resent that too -- heck, it's the same thing. He isn't going to win me over in this fashion, but I think it will work with others.

Nevertheless, Aristotle wasn't talking about how I feel or how you feel (and neither am I). He's talking about what works, and it seems to work. Newt gets standing ovations out of this stuff. It's moved his poll numbers across the country. He's not appealing to everyone, as you say, but he isn't trying to appeal to everyone: he's trying to appeal to a certain group of people, and he's doing it well.

That's a purely practical analysis, entirely separate from the question of whether it's right or moral (and also separate from the question of whether I personally support it; my candidate is someone else).

What puzzles me about the piece, though, isn't any of this: it's the question of why character doesn't play the central role in our politics that it does for Aristotle (and which it does, I think, in other aspects of life).

Cassandra said...

He's not appealing to everyone, as you say, but he isn't trying to appeal to everyone: he's trying to appeal to a certain group of people, and he's doing it well.

Yes, he is. But if he gets the nomination he'll have to broaden that appeal. Will you then subject him to the same standard you apply to Romney?

In my mind, Romney has been talking to this broader audience all along. The man ain't stupid. It's a calculated risk. I think Newt is pandering to the base and I think he won't be able to keep that up if he gets the nomination because that won't deliver the votes he needs. It bothers you that Romney won't say what you want him to say, but IMO he's going as far as he feels comfortable.

Why doesn't character play a larger role? Because assessing character is hard, Grim.

We are daily bombarded by substance-free, sound byte statements from the candidates. On the rare occasions where they have the opportunity to say something substantive, the media toss us a few juicy, gotcha quotes. Junk food for the soul, as it were. I'm reminded of my oldest boy's experience with lie detectors. He was asked to say "yes or no" to questions that didn't have a simple yes or no answer (if you're honest, at least). And he told the examiner what he thought. Had he had the opportunity to answer naturally, he would have spelled out how he saw it. But the venue did not permit that. Asked virtually the SAME questions in a manner that allowed him to respond in good conscience, he had no trouble. My sister in law failed a lie detector test when asked if she had ever leaked classified docs (she hadn't - she has never HANDLED classified docs). So honest people of good will can and often are less than convincing under the wrong circumstances.

For the most part we're content with truncated quotes, abbreviated arguments, incomplete stories. Taking the time to consider a person's whole life - their demonstrated patterns of behavior, their whole thinking on an issue - takes real effort b/c it's not spoon fed to us.

Grim said...

Where'd they take that test? The lie detector tests I'm familiar with usually run through once with you given a chance to explain how you see things, as part of a conversation that works towards a "yes" or "no" that you can be comfortable with. Then when you go on the box, you can give the answer with complete confidence. (That way, too, they get a clean read on a lie: because your truthful answers are answers you've talked through and are comfortable with, a variation is much more obvious.)

Judging character isn't all that hard, is it? When was the last time you were really shocked to hear that a politician's character was substantially different from what you had thought? Some people were clearly moved by John Edwards, but I think most of us spotted him for a fraud years ago; the only ones who didn't were the ones who really didn't want to believe he was as bad as he was.

It's possible to be blinded by love or by hate, but most of the time it seems like our judgment works pretty well. If you generally disdain politicians, as I do, you're unlikely to be blinded by love; that just leaves hate. I try to avoid that, but I can't claim perfection. My record suggests that I can be unfair.

For example I think, in retrospect, that Bill Clinton was a much better man than I gave him credit for being. He was certainly a perjurer and an adulterer; but in 1998 I wouldn't have given him credit for having any virtues at all. I think in retrospect he's proven to have a mixture of virtues and vices, and a few of those virtues are formidable.

I was younger then, though, and perhaps my heat has cooled somewhat over the last few years. I find it difficult to feel very strongly about the current President at all, even though I am certainly not happy with his policies. I think he's a better husband than Clinton was, but far less of a gentleman by any other standard.

douglas said...

I think the standing caricature of a politician leads most to assume that generally, they all lie, and so there's no point worrying about their character- just give me the one who's lying in my favor... Now, I think that you can be a 'liar' and still be a man of (at least some) character- as you've apparently given credit to Clinton for being, but some liars are also men of low character, and I have a hard time not putting the current holder of the office in that category.

My hope is that the Republican candidate, whoever it ends up being, will be a man of fair character. I can ask little more, it seems.

Cass said...


I'm very interested in some of the questions you've put forth here but have been too busy this week to think about them. Hope to link back over the weekend with some reactions.

Grim said...

Take your time, Cass. As usual when we start with Aristotle, the matter is not urgent. It may be important -- what he has to say is often important -- but not urgent. :)