Plato, Aris­to­tle and, oh dear, Trump

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Kath­leen Parker

— When it comes to rhetoric, Plato was right and Aris­to­tle — not so much.

Dis­tilled, Aris­to­tle thought rhetoric good for democ­racy, though his def­i­ni­tion of “by the peo­ple” was closer to our Found­ing Fa­thers’ in­tent of only cer­tain peo­ple than to to­day’s more-the-mer­rier model. Given this as­sump­tion of a nar­row, ed­u­cated, self­gov­ern­ing pop­u­lace, Aris­to­tle likely en­vi­sioned that those prac­tic­ing rhetoric would be guided by ac­cepted rules of ar­gu­ment and en­gage­ment, em­pha­siz­ing ethos (trust and cred­i­bil­ity), pathos (ap­pro­pri­ate use of emo­tion) and lo­gos (log­i­cal ar­gu­ment and facts).

Plato, who was Aris­to­tle’s men­tor, thought oth­er­wise


— that rhetoric, or the art of per­sua­sion, in the wrong hands was dan­ger­ous and likely to be abused to ap­peal to peo­ple’s base mo­tives. He fore­saw the un­eth­i­cal, dis­hon­est uses that a skilled but im­moral speaker could put his per­sua­sive pow­ers to, with cred­u­lous peo­ple ea­ger to be­lieve or buy what­ever he was sell­ing.

Which brings us un­avoid­ably to Don­ald Trump, as if you hadn’t guessed.

We at least owe Trump thanks for bring­ing these two an­cient philoso­phers out of his­tory’s wood­work and back into the con­ver­sa­tion. Trump also has in­spired re­con­sid­er­a­tion of rhetoric’s right­ful place in the class­room, where it was once con­sid­ered an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of “a gen­tle­man’s” ed­u­ca­tion.

One such class­room can be found at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia Law School, where I was re­cently a guest lec­turer. What bet­ter time to be re­view- ing rhetoric’s an­cient rules and modern ap­pli­ca­tions than dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion that fea­tures one of the most blaz­ing ex­am­ples of un­sa­vory rhetoric since Clark Stan­ley boiled a live rat­tlesnake at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

It turned out that “Stan­ley’s Snake Oil” had nary a drop of rep­tile adi­pose but was in­stead a mix­ture of beef fat, red pep­per and tur­pen­tine. Even if it had con­tained l’huile de ser­pent, the lin­i­ment would have been in­ef­fec­tive as a cu­ra­tive. Rat­tlesnake oil con­tains only a third of the vi­tal acid found in the widely pop­u­lar Chi­nese snake oil of the time, which was made from water snakes. Thought you’d like to know.

So, the ques­tion for to­day’s class: Is Trump the huck­ster that Plato pre­dicted would some­day or­ga­nize an an­gry mob into a proud army of anti-in­tel­lec­tual pa­tri­ots in­oc­u­lated to facts and rea­son?

Why, yes! But don’t take my word for it. Con­sider in­stead the ap­praisal of UVA law pro­fes­sor Robert Sayler, who has co-writ­ten a book with Molly Bishop Shadel, “Tongue-Tied Amer­ica,” as a tem­plate for would-be high-school rhetoric teach­ers. Us­ing Aris­to­tle’s afore­men­tioned frame­work, Sayler di­vined the Greek philoso­pher’s an­swer to the ques­tion: “Trump’s buf­foon­ery and un­hinged chat­ter re­duces to ut­ter catas­tro­phe.” Let us count the ways. First, in the mat­ter of ethos, or earn­ing the trust of one’s au­di­ence, Trump is as big a pre­var­i­ca­tor as he ac­cuses “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz of be­ing. Poli­tiFact gave Trump its 2015 award for the most fibs. In dis­trust do us part.

Sec­ond is pathos, which Sayler de­fines as the spar­ing ap­peal to emo­tions. For The Don­ald, another “F.” Says Sayler: “Trump rou­tinely rages, flush-faced, anger-spew­ing, sput­ter­ing, es­pe­cially when chal­lenged.” He has spo­ken of peo­ple leav­ing his ral­lies “on stretch­ers” or de­serv­ing a “punch ... in the face,” while promis­ing to pay as­sailants’ legal fees.

Third and last, Trump also flunks lo­gos. Chan­nel­ing Aris­to­tle, Sayler opines that Trump’s logic, com­mon sense and fac­tual ar­gu­men­ta­tion are “a mine­field of chaos.” Rather than ad­vance pos­i­tive pro­pos­als, Trump spends most of his time rail­ing against what he op­poses: the Geneva Con­ven­tions, NATO, world trade, the United Na­tions, the pres­i­dent, “ex­perts” and, of course, “the es­tab­lish­ment.”

Oth­er­wise, he op­er­ates in a sub­stance-free zone of nar­cis­sis­tic fantasy. “They love me,” he in­sists. “I could stand in the mid­dle of Fifth Av­enue and shoot some­body and I wouldn’t lose any vot­ers.”

Sayler de­scribes sev­eral of Trump’s other anti-lo­gos traits, with amus­ing cat­e­gories such as “The Bonkers,” which covers the mogul’s re­mark about Hil­lary Clin­ton’s “dis­gust­ing” bath­room break. Un­der “The Fright­en­ing,” Sayler points to Trump’s wish to be “un­pre­dictable,” in­clud­ing fir­ing off pos­si­ble nu­clear at­tacks. Trump, con­cludes the pro­fes­sor, is a world-class dem­a­gogue and blun­der­buss.

It’s lit­tle won­der that the “Stop Trump” move­ment has gained trac­tion, lead­ing re­cently to an ob­struc­tion­ist part­ner­ship between Cruz and John Ka­sich. It is also highly un­likely that Trump sup­port­ers give a hoot. Plato, Aris­to­tle and Sayler are all elit­ists, aren’t they? But what should be plain to ev­ery­one else is that the study of rhetoric is es­sen­tial to an ed­u­cated pop­u­lace, lest ris­ing gen­er­a­tions fall prey to fu­ture dem­a­gogues and the per­ilous fates that await the un­wit­ting.

Kath­leen Parker is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at kath­leen­parker@wash­post. com.

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