Plato, rhetoric, and politics

In recent weeks I once again had the privilege of teaching Plato’s Gorgias, and again I find it not only a wonderful teaching tool, but as profound a comment on what is wrong with politics — anywhere and anytime — as I have seen. Plato contrasts the work of the rhetorician, who specializes in motivational speaking (we might say) — and whom he likens in crucial respect to dictators — with “educators.” Educators too try to motivate people through speech, but there is a crucial difference: in teaching (Plato says) the process is regulated by regard for the truth; not so in rhetoric. One can be persuaded of what is false as well as what is true, whereas (on his definition of teaching) one can be taught only the truth.

We might think of the contrast in terms of ranking of preferences. Given that I am trying to persuade someone of some idea (call it p), and p might be either true or false, here is how the two practices reflect my ranking of outcomes:

Rhetoric
1. I persuade you of p, and p
2. I persuade of you p, and not-p
3. I don’t persuade you of p, and not-p
4. I don’t persuade you of p, and p

What matters is really not the second half of each of these preference orderings; what matters is that I prefer the outcome in which I persuade you regardless of the truth of what I persuade you of. Contrast that with education:

Education
1. I persuade you of p, and p.
2. I don’t persuade you of p, and not-p
3. I don’t persuade you of p, and p
4. I persuade you of p, and not-p

Here the worst case is the one in which I induce a false belief in you; the second-best outcome for the rhetorician is the worst for the educator. That difference makes all the difference in the respective practices and in those who engage in them.

The practice of politics is built, essentially, on rhetoric rather than education. The process of acquiring and exercising political power involves only at the margins the truth of the persuasion it engages in. It values successful persuasion systematically over truth, and we see that effect carried out systematically over both electioneering practices and in legislation (where public choice explains the sorry disconnect between professed values and legal/political results). The disconnect is endemic, and corrosive to human social life. Decent people regulate their speech and conduct with each other to a considerable degree (not perfectly, of course) with the truth, or anyway what they take to be the truth. In general, if you tell me something, I ascribe to you the belief that that something is true. Not so in politics, where the incentives to acquire and exercise power over other people is the currency of the practice. It is, as Plato pointed out, just what dictators do, only in different form.

Perhaps there is no alternative to politics in human social life. I am not sure that is so, but it might be true. But whether it is or not, we ought not to be surprised when it turns out to be the cesspool of deception, mischaracterization, and falsehood that it inevitably turns out to be. That of course does not preclude people who retain decent preferences for the truth from participating in politics. It is both surprising and pleasant to discover when this is so, especially because such people are headed upstream at every moment of their political careers; the incentives of politics systematically point the wrong direction. It is always a pleasant surprise when truth emerges, and when it does it is testimony to the basic human social propensity to seek and speak truth. No place else in human life is that propensity so challenged as it is in politics. But we’ve had no excuse since Plato for expecting anything else.

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