Is Politics Reducible to Rhetoric?

The following is only a summary (with some purposely loaded comments) of an aspect of Leo Strauss’ essay “On Aristotle’s Politics,” found in The City and Man, pg. 17-24

Machiavelli held that it was possible for tyrannical power to come about from a “deep knowledge of political things.” The conclusion of the essay on Macbeth shows that perhaps one reason we have an awful politics is that we may have traded our capacity to love in order to become experts in politics, each and every one of us. Too many cooks spoil the brew, as they say. The sophists Aristotle engages disagree mightily with this, for what government does day-to-day anyway is actually done and the knowledge is available handily. What is more difficult is to get power or persuade others to do your bidding. Thus rhetoric becomes, for them, the supreme political art.

I hold that Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, in thinking Washington is a spin machine that is able to dictate how we conceive issues through a passive media, think the sophistic conclusion, but not for the reasons the Sophists held exactly. They seem to think that in a democracy, the tasks with which government is charged can be fulfilled efficiently as long as people participate and are looking for the best solution. In other words, while the sophists dismiss the most practical workings in order to romanticize speech’s power, Colbert and Stewart see the improper use of speech as an impediment to progress, and probably see the properly functioning day-to-day operations as characteristic of progress.

To be even more blunt: the Sophists are shrewder than Colbert and Stewart. The Sophists know as long as there are people, “truth” alone will not be enough, that the political is far more than trains running on time. To use speech well unlocks the imagination: if politics is reducible to rhetoric, then politics could be the sphere where the highest uses of reason are present. The classical understanding, where the city tells us which gods are authoritative, minces no words about this. Our understanding, where we really believe we have separation of church and state (does the decline in religious belief have anything to do with the power of the state, even, or especially when, the state declares itself the advocate of freedom), well.

Against the Sophists, Aristotle argues that while a type of reason, tied to progress, is certainly characteristic of the highest functionings of any given art, it cannot be characteristic of law, for law’s “efficacy” comes from the fact that it is defended by a passion stemming from the ancestral. Old laws are obeyed, not new ones. Jefferson’s proposal to have a revolution every 19 years makes sense given that every generation will feel itself a founding generation: it does not make sense, though, in that it is an attempt of the new to mimic the old, and such an attempt has failure written into it – an actual revolution, every generation? That defeats the point of making laws. What if one generation got the laws right? Politics doesn’t change unless we change completely.

So once we see that “law” could be reasonable, but is really tied to passion in its being and consisting (a law is effective inasmuch as it keeps fiercer passions at bay), we can see one problem with politics being reducible to rhetoric: the assumption, in rhetoric, is that everyone can be persuaded. But everyone cannot be persuaded: that’s why laws exist in the first place (again, the political innocence of Stewart and Colbert should be noted here. Note the difference between “policy” and “law,” and what the word “policy” covers up).

The deliberative function of government isn’t a cute irony when contrasted with the nature of law, for such considerations run deeper. It is brute strength which allows us to survive to some extent. People had to fight and plow fields in order for the city to exist. Aristotle, in speaking of the best polity, allows for the possibility of intelligent men to be slaves to mere brutes, as if intelligence were only an aid to increasing strength which already exists. Plato seems to consider strength a “natural title to rule” (if you’re a feminist, note that to say classical thought is gender discrimination is a narrowing of the problem. The problem is whether any one should be intelligent, whether all intelligence could be is the pain that one is unfree). It should be noted – again, see the essay on Macbeth, linked above – that all of modern science (which allows, at its height, for predictive claims), esp. in this democratic age, is an increasing of power, the use of intelligence for the sake of strength only.

Against the fact of survival, reason needs to be reconceived as more than intelligence, if there is to be anything higher for man. But such considerations, of course, will pull us farther away from the political and law. So again, rhetoric does involve a supreme power, as the Sophists noted. In fact, it is so supreme that it is beyond this world and cannot be used to control others simply. For one needs to actually understand something in order to be controlled, and political considerations, even in this Enlightened age, always start from the fewest assumptions possible.


  1. Wow, I’ll be reading that over and over to see if I can fully grasp at what you’re saying. Wow!

    My weekend was good, sorry yours sucked. You’ll see in a later post, I hope. I am glad you left a post. Reading the stupid is never fun, if you know what I mean….

  2. I’ll look at this more fully as soon as I’m done this pot of coffee and a therapeutic soak in the tub.

  3. What do you make of the idea of policy say in the Taciteans at the end of the 16th century as against law? Their argument was that policy was a descriptive term for actions that a King took when the law was inadequate to provide for the state- in a sense the American revolution and certain of the democrat critiques say of the Patriot Act are critiques of policy from the standpoint of law- that’s not to say they are right. But is that a useful conceptual distinction to employ.

    I must go back to the City and the Man- I read it very quickly last year for a reading group but never really grappled with it properly. I’ve been prejudiced against Strauss by reading lots of Quentin Skinner unfortunately!

    Despite my ignorance of Strauss I’m trying to work out some of the topics you’ve looked at here on my own blog… I’ll link back to you so hopefully you’ll see a technorati track back but I think this relationship between reason and rhetoric is interesting. What by the way do you make of Mandeville and Vico and their theory of state creation in this context- M holds I think that states were created by a wise statesman, Vico by father/priest figures? There is a sort of rhetorical power latent within the Machiavellian idea of virtu as well. Sorry long comment.

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