Separating the Ego from Rhetoric in Politics

In my past two posts I have been tackling the problems that are caused by rhetoric in politics. This is due to the dissertation I am writing, the aim of which is partially to integrate some of the ideas and philosophies of Plato into modern politics and government (particularly where rhetoric is involved.) My concern is how prevalent rhetoric has become in so many areas of life, how it has become acceptable for people to mislead, deceive and blatantly exaggerate to others in order to get their way. However, criticising the use of rhetoric, particularly when in the realm of politics, leads to an infinite number of problems.

Firstly rhetoric is essentially a method of persuasion, and one cannot tell someone else that they should attempt to argue without trying to be persuasive. This led me to the Platonic conclusion that in politics rhetoric should only be used to convey something true and beneficial to society. But this is based on the assumptions that there is a Kantian standard of universal good and that truth should be prioritised above everything, even the wellbeing of a society, both of which are debatable. It is all very well to propose the moral axiom that all political rhetoric should be used to convey the true and good, but it becomes impossible to impose if what is true and good is potentially subjective and relative to the context of the situation.

It is this ethical subjectively and relatively that makes rhetoric inseparable from politics. A perfect example is how political policies come about (or should come about.) One person holds a political ideology that they want to see become an actuality because they see it as the best ideology in its context. This ideology must then be argued for to another person, and there is no universal standard of good or common sense to which the ideology can be compared. In fact the other person has their own ideology that they see as the best, but it differs, and they are just as intent on arguing from their own perspective. This is where Plato’s criticisms of rhetoric fall short; they rely on a concept of good that applies to everybody. Rhetoric is what bridges the gap between the two ideologies, it is how they develop and is key to them potentially becoming actuality.

I still subscribe to the Platonic view that everybody should be suspicious of rhetoric, but I do concede that it is necessary and can be beneficial in politics, as described above; nevertheless, my belief that rhetoric is misused too easily and too often in politics is still just as strong. What follows is the conclusion I have come to.

The model for how rhetoric is used in the formation of political ideologies above is one that can have positive or negative outcomes, and it is the use of rhetoric that dictates which way this goes. Despite there being no universal standard for what is good, this system only works if each participant is proposing an ideology that they see as universally good. The rhetoric they employ will only be used to convey this good that they truly believe in and will not be necessary once that goal is achieved (Plato posits a similar kind of “good rhetoric” in his Phaedrus [refer to my previous post].) This way the ideologies are only improved upon as they come closer to reality. On the other hand, if the rhetoric is used to mislead, the ideologies will become distorted and lose their good qualities. What most motivates people to misuse rhetoric in this way is personal interest.

If a proposer puts forward his ideology with the intention of helping society, he will propose it truthfully because he has faith in his idea and its universal benefits; he will use rhetoric to encourage others to realise the same truth. However, if he wants to use the illusion of an ideology to propose a concept from which he will benefit personally, he will use rhetoric to deceive and mislead. Even if the ideology could potentially be universally beneficial, the proposer must not want any egoistic benefit or recognition; that would still be a cause to misuse rhetoric. The proposer of an ideology who is using rhetoric correctly will happily concede any flaws and accept any suggestions or improvements to his idea without hesitation, for “the greater good.”

If rhetorical argument was only employed in politics when entirely separate from egoism and self-interest, it would go a long way to ensuring its correct use on a regular basis. Implementing this idea would be difficult, particularly in a Capitalist society. Politicians working for a wage will always want to appear successful and show that they are serving their political parties. I find this axiom, that politicians should never have any sort of egoistic desire when making an argument, to be one that works as an ideal, and I would like to think that we could go some way towards bringing this axiom closer to reality.

As always I would really appreciate any comments or questions as they all help me progress with my dissertation.

Jeremy Coward 


  1. Are you confusing rhetoric with sophistry?

    I specialise in Platonic writing and political philosophy and cannot help but feel you’re confusing ‘rhetoric’ with general ‘sophistry’?

    Could you clarify please?

    • I see what you mean, I have used the term ‘rhetoric’ to mean both rhetoric and sophistry in some instances.

      Saying that rhetoric can be used negatively to aid sophistry would probably be a better way of phrasing it.

      • Reece Warren has got ahead of me – I think (but please do check) that Plato’s criticism of the sophists in the Protagoras is that they misuse their ability to speak well (their rhetoric if you will) simply as a cover for the fact that their underlying position is unsound: the sophists are wrong to do that because what is important is that the underlying logic and philosophy of a position should be coherent. Beyond that I think he (Plato) said somewhere or other that only the leaders of a city should ever be allowed to lie – you will be pleased to know that, as far as I recall, lies even then should only ever be told for the benefit of the city, which fits with your general theory. He also posited that the leaders of the city should, naturally, be philosophers (as being the only people who can be trusted to make sound underlying decisions). All this is from what I remember from several years ago though so please check.

        • Thinking a bit further on this in terms of contemporaneous politics (as per your first blog post) it’s quite hard to think that the hypothesis “leaders are allowed to lie and only leaders are allowed to lie” would these days stand much scrutiny, in fact I can hear Paul Dacre and Kelvin Mackenzie laughing now. However I suppose it should be borne in mind that the Greek city-states were often in a state of war at that time, and of course in wartime even today the truth often does seem to be, er, massaged a bit in the name of morale. Of course it’s still debatable whether that is justifiable or not – in Orwell’s “1984” Smith’s country switches sides and then rewrites history to say it had always been that way, and we’re clearly not meant to think that that is a good thing.

          • I am ashamed to say I’ve never read Plato’s Protagoras, I have been mainly focusing on Gorgias, Phaedrus and Republic so far, but I will definitely give it a read as soon as possible. I agree with you on Plato’s ideal leaders, I think most of what you said is covered in the Republic.

            I wanted to state in my dissertation introduction that leaders should never lie but that was too much of an assertion and I didn’t want to commit too much of my essay to justifying it, so I felt this angle would be easier to work with. The Ancient Greek to modern day parallel is always intriguing; I share your interest, especially in the way that despite vastly different time periods, the problems being tackled are often still the same.

          • I’ve read all of Plato’s works and in Protagoras Plato does actively attack Sophists manipulation of rhetoric; however he equally does it in each of his dialogues, but most viciously in The Republic:

            ‘…it’s like a man who takes refuge in a temple claiming it as their own…’


            ‘…imagine them as a criminal that has been released from prison and by luck fallen upon an inherited fortune who comes across a rich family-man’s daughter who has unfortunately fallen on bad times financially…’

            The list goes on of Plato’s attacks on sophistry and their rhetoric so thank you for clearing that up mate, your clarification makes the article much much much more coherent haha!

            If you ever fancy discussing Plato don’t hesitate to give me a bell etc and the man’s my idol haha!

            With regards to the leaders lie (as you both eluded to) it is indeed for the benefit of the city; it’s known as ‘The Noble Lie’ – it’s one of Plato’s most potent criticisms as it enforces Eugenics through the differentiation of Gold, Silver and Bronze (eluding to Homeric works) and later goes on to contradict himself by saying the ruler must never lie – a difficult one for sure.

            I’d also not put down ‘several wars’ as a meaningful comment regarding Platonic works (especially The Republic) as Athens in particular was much more concerned with an internal war of politics (dating back to the likes of Solon, Peisistratus etc) and as Plato states in his disputed letter, once the 30 took over Athens they made the old democracy look like a Golden Egg Era so he was much more influenced by politicians and their corruption and more importantly, the death of his mentor Socrates.

            Hope this helps both of you! More than happy to discuss Plato with you guys anyyyyyyyy time!

          • No problem, your comment has really helped as I had been using the term “rhetoric” a little vaguely in my dissertation. I am now working with the title “Plato and Rhetoric: Preventing Sophistry in Modern Politics” although I feel this will probably change again before I finally submit the final work.

            The contradiction you mentioned is an interesting one that I’ve been tackling. I’ve recently come across the idea that Plato had “unwritten doctrines”, which fits with his attack on writing and reading philosophy at the end of his Phaedrus. If it is true that his dialogues didn’t necessary comprehend his true philosophy and that they instead existed to perhaps provoke debate and help people practise their own philosophical investigation then any contradictions aren’t necessarily as much of an issue – this is certainly a point I will make in my dissertation.

            I appreciate your offer and I may take you up on it in a week or two when I’ve done more work personally; it sounds like you could be a very valuable resource! For the meantime I’m really benefiting from both your and Alexander’s comments, thank you both very much for your help!

          • Jeremy – may I recommend to you the TV prog “Speeches that Shook the World” which is, as I write, playing on BBC4, though you may have to watch on iPlayer by the time you see this post. Although from the title it sounds like a Channel 5 programme, it’s actually very much on topic so far, and very interesting.

          • Thank you Alexander, my mum actually spotted this on iplayer a few days ago and pointed it out to me.

            Definitely next on my watch list!

          • Hi Alexander

            I’m just writing an acknowledgement, to thank people who have helped me out, at the end of my dissertation (which is finally finished!) and I would like to add you to it. If you’re willing to be included, would you mind telling me your surname?

            Reece Warren I’m also adding you to the acknowledgement, if that’s okay with you.

          • Hi Jeremy, there’s honestly no need, though it’s kind of you to even think of it, and I’m a bit late to this so you’ve probably finished and bound your dissertation by now anyway, but for what it’s worth, and since you ask, my surname is Payton! Good luck with the result!

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