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The Ancient Art of Thinking for Yourself: The Power of Rhetoric in Polarized Times

Dylan Schleicher

May 03, 2024


Robin Reames has written a powerful guide to parsing political rhetoric that looks at how experiments in self-governance have been ended in the past and offers tools for thinking that can help us preserve our own.

AncientArtThinkingYourself.jpgThe Ancient Art of Thinking for Yourself: The Power of Rhetoric in Polarized Times by Robin Reames, Basic Books 

"I was raised to be a Republican housewife."  

Those are the first words in Robin Reames' new book, The Ancient Art of Thinking for Yourself. It is a book about how words matter, but not quite in the way we might expect them to. It often comes down to how we say words, or listen to them, that matters most. That is important to know, especially in an election year, and especially for people like Reames who don't conform to the worldview they were raised with—who did not end up becoming a Republican housewife after all. Her evolving views eventually led to a strain on her relationship with her father. The two debated vigorously, trying to change each other's minds and views, to no avail.  

It is a struggle many of us face today, when we have access to more information than ever before, which we feel should be a tool to change others' errant viewpoints. But those whose viewpoints we hope to change have their own sources of information they trust more and thrust back at us, believing they should be equally—and easily—capable of changing our minds. We may think the facts are on our side, and if we just present those facts to people on "the other side," they will see the light.   

But they don't, and they won't. Because, rhetorically, facts are fragile. As Reames put is: 

Facts in reality may be hard and immutable, but facts in rhetoric are precarious, delicate, and vulnerable. 

This is a problem not only for us as individuals in our personal relationships, but also for the democratic norms and institutions that undergird our civic life collectively. To show how, Reames—who specializes in rhetorical theory and the history of ideas—looks back to the very beginnings of rhetoric as a field of study in ancient Athens. Rhetoric has its roots there precisely because Athens was a democracy with vigorous debate, and celebrity scholars flocked to and flourished in Athens teaching the art of rhetoric and persuasion.  

Reames tells the story of a wealthy celebrity politician who persuaded the citizens of Athens to take a course of action that would bring down their democracy. Heir to one of the greatest fortunes in the city, Alcibiades was a polarizing figure in his own time. And it seemed no matter what they thought, no one could ignore him. The great historians and thinkers of the day—from Thucydides and Plutarch to Diodorus and Demosthenes—documented not only what he did, their differing opinions of his intentions and character. It is thought that Socrates took him on as a pupil because—in addition to possibly being in love with him—he thought he could reform his character and teach him morality. Alas, it seems he failed.  

A more obscure figure today, but one of the most famous (and expensive) instructors in rhetoric and oratory at the time, Gorgias also took him on as a student. A native of Sicily, Gorgias was sent by his fellow citizens to seek assistance from Athens during the Peloponnesian War. He succeeded by getting Alcibiades to join the cause by convincing him that would be in his political and financial interests. But for Alcibiades to persuade his fellow citizens that it would be in the city's interests, he would convince them to throw the caution being counseled by its more seasoned generals—like Pericles and Nicia—to the wind. As Reames relays the debate:  

Nicias [and] Pericles [were] defending the traditional view: there is a crucial and fundamental difference between what benefits a single individual and what is good for the collective whole. The survival of Athens depends on the ability to tell the difference.  

Nicias warned Athenians not to trust the arguments of Alcibiades, suggesting that "he is only looking out for his own interests." Alcibiades's counter was that "All the things that make me notorious are really an honor to my ancestors and to me, as well as an advantage to the state." As Reames explains it: 

Alcibiades's point was that what was good for him—a winner—was by extension good for everyone, even the losers. His monetary gains, his large stable of horses, his rigged victories at the Olympic Games, and his general notoriety were ultimately good for Athens—they create an impression of power and strength. Losers bring shame on themselves. Winners like him are a benefit to everyone. The blameworthy things I do are actually praiseworthy; what's best for me is actually best for you; being a total asshole is actually behaving appropriately. 

Ultimately, Alcibiades won the debate and The Sicilian Expedition was launched. It ended not only in defeat, but disaster, marking "the end of Athenian democracy and the beginning of the Thirty Tyrants reign of terror" which resulted in the death of five percent of the Athenian population in just eight months. The democracy that flourished for the previous two hundred years in Athens was, like ours, not perfect, but with its end and the ensuing atrocities of the Thirty Tyrants, Athenian society would never be the same.  

In the aftermath, Plato—like many Athenians—blamed rhetoricians like Gorgias for the verbal trickery that led them to war. So he set about determining a way to decipher what made something true. 

Plato's problem was that it was very difficult to determine what made true speech true in and of itself, because truth could only be determined in the specific context by who won and who lost. Truth was limited to a particular contest between verbal combatants.  

That is to say: whoever won the argument was deemed correct, regardless of the facts at hand.  And that is obviously a problem. Gorgias famously claimed—in Reames words—that "a speaker didn't need to know anything about their topic" to win an argument, "they just needed to know how to talk about it."  

Which brings us back to the problem of facts being rhetorically fragile. Because "where Plato's truth problem was silence without disproof," or that someone could be silenced by losing a debate they were factually correct on, we have a different problem:  

[O]ur post-truth problem is disproof without silence. 

That is, the debate doesn't end even after facts have been established. People can and do keep loudly proclaiming things to be true even when they have been proven false, and there isn’t any real way to stop them. In fact, others will often amplify them. Our biggest challenge today may be that Gorgias was largely correct, that a speaker need not know the facts of the topic they are speaking on, that they just need to know how to talk about it to be persuasive. And talk about it they do, ad nauseam, on all sides.  

To think for ourselves in an environment of such information overload, Reames explains the importance of learning to think rhetorically, and how to listen differently. Because, in much—if not most—of the political rhetoric being deployed today, the focus is not on informing us of what is true, but on appealing to our hopes and fears and values. 

They're aiming to ignite our passions and mobilize our reactions rather than merely inform.  

Rhetorically, this conveys another form of truth that relaying facts alone doesn't convey. That brings us to one wealthy celebrity politician of our day, and understanding how many believe him to be a truth teller even after evidence that he is a serial liar has piled up.  

[I]f you were thinking rhetorically, it would be possible for Trump to be in one sense, a "truth teller," even while, in another sense, very few of the things he says are factually accurate or truthful representations of reality. It is equally true, in other words, that he "tells it like it is" and that nearly 70 percent of the things he says are out-and-out lies (as his scorecard from Politifact would indicate). 

Politicians can come across as authentic and real, like someone who "tells it like it is," simply by going off script, not delivering a canned speech, and saying controversial things. They can come off as a "truth teller" even while lying through their teeth. Alternately, a politician sticking to the script and their party's platform and talking points, even if what they are saying is 100 percent factually accurate, can come off as untruthful because it seems inauthentic. Rhetorically, Reames explains these are "two different understandings of what truth means."  

Extemporaneous speech is a model of truth where the language doesn't refer to the world; it brings something to light. In this case, what is brought to light is the speaker's own self. 

It is why we tend to distrust politicians more when they use a teleprompter. It is why it is not only possible, but likely, that we can believe in someone even if we don't believe anything they are saying is literally true. But it goes beyond even that: 

Like it or not, the living language of extemporaneous speech will always be, in a very real sense, truer and more authoritative than its scripted or prefabricated counterpart. The preplanned word can never capture the vital truth of extemporaneity. Language has maintained its relationship to this ancient notion of truth, manifesting whenever people speak authentically and unpremeditatedly in the moment. The reverse effect of this, however, is that a person can say things that are factually true, but because their words are prefabricated, they lack the authenticity that would make their words true in the fullest possible sense.  

Speaking without a script is, as Reames explains, a "species" of truth and a "long tradition of truth" that we must acknowledge if we hope to persuade others or—and this is key point of the book—to be able to truly think for ourselves and not let others use our values and emotions against us. You will learn many things in the book, but one of the most important is this:  

Ideology hides. It lurks beneath the surface of our arguments, but it also lurks in the adjacent words that are implicitly used to describe the terms of our ideology. 

There are always values lurking under our rhetoric. Paying close attention to rhetoric reveals those values so you can analyze them. Thinking rhetorically, you can find what—and more importantly whose—interests are being prioritized. It is helpful to remember that most of our values are shared, but we all prioritize them differently and that there are almost always multiple values and interests at play. So...  

At the very least, a good rule of thumb is: any rhetoric implying that one value (and only one value) is at stake in a given issue is worthy of doubt.  

Put another way: 

When the rhetoric treats only one value as unquestionably supreme, universal, and absolute, that should immediately put us on our guard. 

I don't know about you, but I find it increasingly exhausting to have an opinion on everything. And arguing with family or friends about their opinions seems nearly pointless. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t discuss politics, and that our political differences must lead to such a profound strain on our personal relationships. There must be a better way. Learning to consider and discuss things in terms of value hierarchy and whose interests are at stake seems both doable and a demonstrably less annoying exercise. More importantly, analyzing the value hierarchy in someone's speech can help us all avoid allowing that speaker to use our own values against us, to manipulate the way we think or feel on a given topic, to lead us to take positions or act in ways that are contrary to our own interests and values. And with the monumental amount of rhetoric coming our way this election year, that makes this a very important book, indeed. Because, in preserving our ongoing experiment of self-governance, there really isn’t an “other” side other than tyranny, and we must work together to recognize what that truly is to avoid it. 

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of Porchlight since 2003. After beginning in shipping and receiving, he moved through customer service (with some accounting on the side) before entering into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the marketing and editorial aspects of the company. Outside of work, you’ll find him volunteering or playing basketball at his kids’ school, catching the weekly summer concert at the Washington Park Bandshell, or strolling through one of the many other parks or green spaces around his home in Milwaukee (most likely his own gardens). He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.

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