An Ancient Greek look at our modern politics of rhetoric

It is a fact that rhetoric has become accepted as a fundamental aspect of modern politics. Many would say that it is unavoidable, that rhetoric is inevitably involved with political speaking because politicians must be persuasive, and to an extent they’re correct. However, it is my view that in the modern day, politicians have become far too reliant on rhetorical devices, on focusing people’s attentions on appearances rather than reality. Examples range from speeches where the trivial is emphasised while the important is left out, to the use of uplifting slogans. Not that there is anything wrong with an uplifting slogan, as long as it isn’t drawing attention away from something more sinister. Rhetoric alone is only good or bad depending on how it is used: if it is used to cover up or draw away from political truth, it is bad. One political theorist who was most famously suspicious of rhetoric was Plato; although he was not necessarily entirely opposed to its use, many of his works were dedicated to proving how destructive a force it could be.


I am currently in the third year of my undergraduate degree, writing a Philosophy dissertation on the role of rhetoric in contemporary politics and how Plato’s theories might be applied beneficially today. I admit that I lack knowledge when it comes to politics in general; I have never studied politics and my personal interest has only manifested itself recently. That is why I am writing this blog (I will be posting weekly from now on.) Because the subject I am focusing on is partially political I would appreciate as much input and feedback as possible from anyone with knowledge or an interest in contemporary politics.

The first focus of my dissertation is “Why is rhetoric currently such an important part of modern politics and leadership?” – a question with an infinite number of answers. This question can be broken down into “Why is rhetoric used so much instead of truth?” and “Why is rhetoric so effective?”

“Why is rhetoric used so much instead of truth?”
The most obvious answer to this is because rhetoric doesn’t necessarily have to be backed up by truthful facts or actions. However, it is also because of the competitive nature of contemporary politics. The first priority of any political party is to defeat the opposing parties and become re- elected; this can be done by convincing the voters that their party is the best possible option or by undermining the opposition (both of which are done predominantly through rhetoric), as well as by simply governing well. As I write this piece the American federal government is shutdown due to disagreement between the Republicans and the Democrats: competition has obstructed the good of the nation. When political parties compete, the good of their society ceases to be the main priority and using rhetoric becomes the most effective way in which to gain power.

“Why is rhetoric so effective?”
One explanation is that many people vote without a good knowledge of politics or rhetorical speaking. This leads to many individuals casting their votes entirely based on rhetorical encouragement: because the candidate looks and sounds smart or because they claim they can and will do this or that, claims that are fine on the surface but don’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny. The many individuals who cast their votes for these reasons might later regret their decisions, but by that point the damage has already been done.

Not all of Plato’s political theories are appealing or even applicable today but some of his ideas do offer solutions to the above problems. Firstly everybody should learn to be as suspicious of rhetoric as Plato was, to be aware of its propensity to do bad as opposed to good. He was also a firm advocate of cooperation in society and governing; he saw society as analogous to a body, which only succeeds in its aims when all parts work in unison. He always believed that leaders could only lead well if the good of their society was their one and only objective. Finally in Plato’s Laws, one of his later works, he posits that everybody should be taught the fundamentals of politics and rhetoric, and his ideal state was not even a democracy. If a democracy is to work then all voters must be fully educated in politics and aware of what a party is intending to do and what it is capable of doing. With the incentives and effectiveness of rhetoric both reduced, this has a much greater chance of being achieved.


Jeremy Coward


    • Hi Emily

      In all honesty Plato’s ideal community was one where everybody was designated a position in society depending on how intelligent and “philosophical” they were. They were then indoctrinated to believe that this position was down to the fact that they had either gold, silver or bronze in their souls and therefore they had no choice but to accept their position as divinely chosen for them. He disliked democracy because he held a general disdain for the masses, who he regarded as beyond the possibility of real intelligence.

      So in short the alternative he suggested to democracy is definitely not an appealing one. I don’t plan to be looking at him for specific political models, I just find some of his ideas on what might be wrong with conventional political systems appealing. And it’s always worth remembering that many of his views were very much a product of the time that he lived in.

      • Also the Athenian democracy put Socrates to death which won’t have endeared it to him. As well as having been perceived to have made a large number of mistakes (Syracuse expedition etc) resulting in losing the Peloponnesian War to Sparta, which was an oligarchy.

        Relevantly to your dissertation, the of the perceived problems of democracy was articulated by, I think, Thucydides, that the assembly was prone at any given time to siding with the whoever was the last person to speak. In other words, it was vulnerable to demagogery. How far is that true today…? We don’t have a citizen assembly, but politicians still vie for votes indirectly through the media, just as Kleon would speak directly to the assembly for their assembly votes, and so the temptation must exist to use the same tricks. (The soundbite for example is as old as the hills – ‘I came I saw I conquered’ etc.)

        • Thanks for your input Alexander. I won’t be addressing the role of rhetoric in the modern day until the second half of my dissertation now, but these are perfect examples of what I could look at and perhaps refer to.

          The relationship between Plato’s dislike of democracy and dislike of rhetoric is something I’ve started addressing, as it leads to the question of whether one can apply his theories on rhetoric to democratic government effectively. Given the way in which democracy works, suspicion of rhetoric should be crucial, so I think that a lot of Plato is still extremely relevant. The use of demagoguery in particular is something to be suspicious of (great word by the way, I hadn’t come across it before!)

          I would really appreciate any more comments or suggestions you might have on any of my upcoming posts.

      • Did he posit any way to determine people’s intelligence and ‘philosophicalness’? Or consider the ethics of a) discriminating on the basis of intelligence or b) the indoctrination? A knee-jerk response but it reminds me of the ‘happy slave’ – is slavery ethical if the slaves are all happy? Even if a society were content/happy in its indoctrinated state, would it be ethical?

        • I believe his idea was just to offer equal education to every child and judge from that who was more adept at recognising the “higher” things in life, i.e. his Forms.

          I agree with that comparison completely, it’s one of the harder problems I was grappling with, because I had been working under the assumption that truth is always better than deceit, which is obviously debatable. I am probably going to approach it from the angle that rhetoric is only justified when the rhetorician does not stand to gain anything personally, which will come up in my next post on Wednesday. The rhetorician has less cause to lie or mislead if his desire is a better society for all.

          Plato was certainly of the opinion that a happy yet indoctrinated state is still ethically correct, (the ideal I suppose would be that every person would be a philosopher but he doesn’t see that as possible.)

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