Friday 1 March 2024

REVIEW ARTICLE: Another Side of “Reason and Argument”

 From The Philosopher CXII No. 1 Spring 2024

Gorgias, a Sophist who taught the art of rhetoric

Robin Reames takes a look at the Ancient Art of Thinking for Yourself

This is a timely and very readable look at the art of rhetoric – as seen from a philosophical perspective. That’s not surprising as the word ‘rhetoric‘ comes from the Greek meaning simply ‘speech’. However, as Robin Reames explains, rhetoric is a very special kind of speech. She even calls it a ‘metalanguage’ – one that describes and explains how words work.

Specifically, rhetoric is a metalanguage that describes the various moves that make words effective and persuasive (or not). Terms that we really only associate with English literature classes such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, allegory, metaphor, simile and so on, Reames points out, originated in the ancient works of rhetoric, where they were understood as identifying tools useful to persuade and influence. 

Take metaphors, for example. These devices are powerful. And they are everywhere. In fact, even  when we try to dissect rhetoric and discuss argument, we often end up employing them,  particularly the metaphor of war. We may speak of: 

defending a position 

shooting down an argument 

attacking an opponent 

taking a side

Not to forget, there are the constant ‘Wars’ on drugs, or on terror. Even against ‘climate change’!

More generally, though, rhetoricians understand that the human ear is naturally drawn to certain things. It is attracted to rhythm. It likes repetition, yet needs surprise and spontaneity. At times it can be tickled by pauses, at times it detests them. It can attracted by vivid description, at other times it wants crisp logic. The art is know which style to use when.

In Ancient Greece, and for thousands of years after,  the study of how to craft language and deliver persuasive speeches, largely consisted of examination of historical and literary texts and great works of oratory, along with learning the jargon of the different figures of speech. However, at the end of the nineteenth century, perhaps because writing had replaced speaking as the dominant form of education, rhetoric receded from view. 

Reames seems ambivalent whether this is a good thing or not. A theme often returned to in the book is how rhetoric led to the fall of Athens, after fiery speeches, by the likes of Callias an Alcibiades, encouraged the Greeks to vote for a disastrous war on Sicily. The book dwells at length on examples of recent political rhetoric leading to bad outcomes. There  is a long, indeed overlong look at the birther controversy (the one about where Barack Obama was born, the dispute potentially affecting his right to be elected President of the US).

At times, Reames reflects a general academic preference for logic, seen as the highest form of thinking and hence of arguing too. She says:

‘…all of it began with Aristotle. Aristotle conceived of logic as the study of how claims and conclusions of all kinds are proved or justified, and he developed logic and rhetoric side by side to highlight all the ways people produce persuasive arguments and proofs. As you might guess, he did this so that people could make better, more solid, and more reliable arguments.’

Rhetoric, by contrast is seen as deceptive, sneaky, dishonest. Reames writes:

‘… a Sophist could easily supply Callias the necessary verbal weapons to convince himself and others that greed is good, that self-interest is in the common interest, that profligacy is parsimony, and so on.’

And Reames recalls Protagoras’s advice to  Socrates, ‘Let’s face it, ordinary people never notice anything anyway; they just repeat whatever’s dictated to them by the powerful.’ More subtle is a point about rhetoric's employment of emotions as opposed to facts. She writes:

‘Facts are by definition falsifiable, so if something is claimed as a matter of fact, at least in theory it can be disproven or shown not to have happened. This makes them highly vulnerable once they’re used in rhetoric… In contrast to facts, we think of values and emotions as… personal, as things we possess or own. Emotions ebb and flow involuntarily. They are chimeral. Values are context and culture specific. They vary from person to person, society to society. …Because of the relativity and subjectivity of values and emotions, we naturally assume that they are equally relative, subjective, and malleable when they are used in rhetoric. But, in fact, the reverse is true. Compared to facts, values and emotions have tremendous staying power once they are introduced in rhetoric.’

And yet:

‘High ideals like truth, goodness, and even choice have no particular content of their own; they don’t come attached to specific material realities. They can mean different things to different people in different contexts… The flexibility and pliability of values like freedom and choice is why so many of us agree that these are indispensably valuable, while nevertheless disagreeing passionately about specific issues and policies where those values are at stake.’

However, the Ancient rhetoricians recognised that it is hopeless to come to any agreement about what to do about a problem if we do not understand where our views diverge in the first place. And so they used questions to identify where two points of view diverge; to shift the focus from what should be done to what gives rise to disagreements in the first place… to clarify what, exactly, our disagreement is about. Cicero identified only four kinds of questions

  • Question of fact: Does the problem exist? Has it occurred? Does the issue need to be considered? 
  • Question of definition: What kind of problem is it? How should the issue be defined? What category, genre, or discipline does it belong in? 
  • Question of quality: What is the qualitative value of the problem? How serious is the problem? How urgent? Does it need immediate attention, or can it be dealt with at a later date? 
  • Question of policy: What should be done? What action should be taken? 

‘On the most contentious issues, our discussions woefully neglect fact questions and definition questions. If ancient rhetoricians are right, we’d have a better chance of reaching agreements about policy questions if we took the time to ask those questions.’

Reames credits one of philosophy’s understated  female figures, Aspasia, for promoting the use of questions as a debating technique – the method that we conventionally link with Socrates.

‘Though she’s not commonly remembered in this way, it was actually Aspasia who taught rhetoric to the philosopher Socrates. It was from Aspasia that Socrates learned the dialectic method of question and answer for which he is famous. He favored Aspasia’s method precisely “because he wished to present no arguments himself, but preferred to get a result from the material which the interlocutor had given him—a result the interlocutor was bound to approve as following necessarily from what he had already granted.’

The weakest part of the book come, perhaps paradoxically, where it strays into rhetoric itself. There are sections designed to show the foolishness of the author’s father, who subscribed to views about Covid and Global Warming that the author seems to consider self-evidently ridiculous. Her own views are presented as rational arguments, yet are at root irrational, subjective rather than objective. For example, she mocks her father for buying a stock of incandescent lightbulbs rather than following the official requirements to move to LED bulbs to (presumably) save the planet.

‘He valued freedom and choice so highly that he was willing to spend hundreds of his meagre Social Security income [per month] on it.’


‘Energy companies stood to make enormous profits by maximizing the belief that, in spending what little money they have on light bulbs and paying hundreds a month for electricity in their homes, people like my dad were, in fact, exercising their “freedom.” ’

I rather sympathise with her father though here, as I find the light from LEDs cold and flickery. And I know that the costs are rather less in LEDs favour. If her Dad had ten incandescent bulbs running each of them for 100 hours each a month it would still only cost six dollars. Not “hundreds a month”. Here’s the boring math:

A 60W incandescent bulb uses 60 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity every 1,000 hours. At the rate of $0.11 per kWh, it would cost $6.60 to operate ten incandescent bulbs for 100 hours.

The 12W LED bulb uses 12 kWh of electricity every 1,000 hours. At the rate of $0.11 per kWh, it would cost $1.32 to operate ten LED bulb for 100 hours.

All of which underlines the real truth about rhetoric which is that, yes, facts are boring while stories, whether true or not, are compelling. That said, this book is a timely look at a vital but neglected aspect of social life.

Reviewed by Martin Cohen


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

By Robin Reames 

Basic Books, New York, 2024

ISBNs: 9781541603974 (hardcover), 9781541603981 (ebook)