The Impact of Rhetoric on Individual Autonomy

The use of rhetoric always involves manipulating the truth to a certain degree. A rhetorician might be charismatic or good at structuring speeches, both of which are reasonable and positive forms of manipulation; alternatively, he might equivocate or try to render positive images without saying anything of substance, both of which are more negative, sinister forms of manipulation. My point is that the concept of rhetoric alone should not carry with it any moral connotations. To an extent, rhetoric is unavoidable when writing or speaking publicly, and whilst it always affects the truth to some degree, one cannot judge the morality of this without looking at the specific way in which it is being used.

In my dissertation I have been discussing Plato’s philosophy on the use of rhetoric and attempting to apply it to contemporary politics. Plato was extremely suspicious and critical of rhetoric, but even he condoned its uses in some circumstances. This is partially because it is virtually impossible to separate rhetoric, as a mode of persuasion, from most kinds of discourse. In Plato’s dialogues, his Socrates tries to conduct all of his discussions through logos (logical deduction) but even he is guilty of sometimes using rhetoric to his own advantage. For example, in the Phaedrus Socrates give two contradictory speeches, one after the other, using rhetoric to abruptly change his position. Plato’s implication is that rhetoric is sometimes a necessary part of discourse; begrudgingly accepting this, he aims to discover how rhetoric might be used morally. As Plato saw philosophy as the pursuit of truth, this seems like a paradoxical stance for him to take, as through condoning any sort of rhetoric he is condoning truth manipulation.


When discussing Platonism and rhetoric, one must remember that Plato’s philosophy, above all, emphasises the importance of personal philosophical enquiry. For Plato, the philosopher is “a genuine lover of knowledge [who] will from his earliest years find nothing more attractive than truth of any kind.” He also uses techniques in his dialogues that call his own authority as an author into question. The settings of the discussions are vague, often second or third hand accounts, and his Socrates often contradicts himself through his actions and opinions between texts.

Finally, there is Plato’s famous Cave analogy, a metaphor for how philosophical investigation can liberate individuals from relying on the opinions of others, (the analogy is vaguely similar to the Buddhist concept of transcendence). Others may assist you in recognising truth, but ultimately the process is a personal one. I believe that this aspect of Plato’s philosophy explains his stance on rhetoric. He cannot dismiss rhetoric altogether, but he also cannot completely condone it without contradicting his own philosophy; therefore he only allows rhetoric when it is encouraging the autonomy of others. At a basic level, rhetoric is immoral if it is being used to discourage individual thought, or proselytize people, but if it is used to convey an opinion and encourage others to think for themselves, then it can be moral. The Platonic philosopher can only rhetorically convey his philosophy if he encourages others to act autonomously after hearing what he has to say.

I believe that many modern politicians are more intent on using rhetoric to encourage others to conform rather than think for themselves. Plato accused the Sophists of his day of doing exactly this; he was mainly suspicious of rhetoric because it is used immorally so frequently.

The political “spin” of New Labour is one example of this immoral use of rhetoric. In the modern day, appearance is becoming increasingly favoured over substance, and New Labour took advantage of this. Much of their “spin” involved using rhetorical devices to create positive appearances, in order to ingratiate themselves with voters. This emphasis on external culture undermines the importance of internal culture, namely the capacity of individual thought.

Here is a satire of New Labour’s style of governing from the comedy radio series Absolute Power:

Archy: “How can you govern a country full of people asking fundamental questions?” …

Archy: “Look, the British people work extremely long hours; they moan a lot but they don’t do anything. They acquiesce. And why? Because they don’t ask damnful questions all the time that get in the way of good governing. I mean, look at the French!”

Charles: “Yes that’s true, they do love a good riot over there don’t they. The ideal existence in a way: eating and rioting.”

Archy: “And why? Because they ask questions! Because they take intellectuals seriously. In this country intellectuals are a joke! They’re people with pointy heads and names like Valdimar…”

Slightly besides my point, but it does play off the fact that New Labour favoured using rhetoric and spin to prevent people from asking their own “fundamental questions” because it gets “in the way of good governing.” Creating good appearances is much easier than solving difficult problems, but this form of governing only works if the majority of those governed are not asking difficult questions, hence why rhetoric is used to dissuade individual thought and philosophical investigation. This is precisely the kind of rhetoric that should be deemed immoral, and the use of such rhetoric should always give cause for suspicion, especially in political circumstances.

Jeremy Coward


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