Title: Saving Persuasion – A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment
Publisher: Harvard University Press, London
It is not as odd as it may seem on a first encounter to question our capability of thought. On the one hand, the symptoms of basic thinking are undoubtedly day-to-day present and we might even posit a “common rationality” (of some sort) against which hardly any argument could be presented. The basis of our “natural” thinking matches habitually with more logic-like bases of mathematical processes. That is to say, even if we might not notice it plainly, we commonly make use of (more or less correct) inductions and deductions, and more generally handle many forms of reasonableness. Around these areas, as long as we settle for low range scientific statements, a conspicuous practical judgment concept ends debate and makes the subject unexciting.
Even so, when scholars move further along and outside the subject of “basic thinking”, some problems may arise quite pronto, and as they add new pieces to the game, it becomes troublesome and, in that, up for debate. In “Saving Persuasion”, Bryan Garsten surveys particularly this kind of forward-pushing when considering judgment. The main topic may be then stated as follows: “Do citizens have the capacity of exercising practical judgment in public deliberation?” As we can see, some explicit changes occurred in the way the subject is discussed. To begin with, we might notice that “the human” from the first point of view became a “citizen” and that “reason” became “public”. More significantly, whereas basic thinking could have been traced independently of other entities, citizens can judge only within a “public deliberation” situation. Structured as a pros and cons study, Garsten’s account on persuasion tries to overcome the negative side (as it can be drawn out from the title, he is “rescuing” something) by systematically emphasizing its misfitting. Suggestively put together, the book is divided into two main chapters: “I. Against Rhetoric”, “II. For Rhetoric”. We will here comply with the author’s choice of presenting the subject.
On the bad, mistrustful and skeptical side we find three major political thinkers: Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Kant. First one’s presence in the list is not at all surprising. Hobbes’s criticism against rhetoricians and orators goes hand in glove with his more general mistrust for citizens’ capacity to exercise practical judgment. It is somewhat funny, notices Garsten, that Hobbes both “insisted that metaphors should be utterly excluded” from public speech and yet “not only did he fill his book with metaphors; he titled it with one”. This kind of “rhetoric against rhetoric” that the 17th century produced through Hobbes was to be the final one: the new function of rhetoric was to end its old ones. “The crucial judgment that independent individuals made in the political realm was that they should alienate their private judgment” to the Leviathan (who, of course, would duteously prevent the war of all against all).
Our second contestant’s presence in this list of unworthiness is reasonably suspicious. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose name was tantamount to Illuminism, and whose theory of natural morality influenced if not sparked off the French Revolution? He, a critic of individual thought? Well, not really, if we set his social contract alongside Hobbes’s. But still, argues Garsten, his notion of internalized sovereignty (each individual can and must judge for himself, must “consult the secret voice of his conscience”) is merely a disarmed version of Hobbesian’s Leviathan. Which means that “the judgments people were thought to consult where those they made by themselves” but only if and when they have adopted “standpoint of citizenship”. The sovereign’s sword might have been eliminated, but it is clear from the chosen words that “one could not be a man and a citizen altogether”. Rousseau’s words are strikingly familiar for those who made acquaintance with Hobbes’s “public reason”: “with the result that each individual believes himself no longer one, but a part of the unity and no longer feels except within a whole”. Again, the same as the two-sworded Sovereign would protect peoples from universal warfare, internalized sovereignty would achieve a higher form of freedom, which is expectably called: “moral freedom” (TBR: “citizens’ way of being free”).
It is noticeable, as we move along the “Against Rhetoric” list, that the grounds for suppressing the politics of persuasion (and the lurking misgiving which it entails) become more subtle. Garsten ends his agenda with Kant’s political thinking and this is altogether peculiar. We might ask again the same type of questions that Rousseau’s thereness called for. Kant, who virtually invented the concept of free thought, critical thinking and so on, must he be put side by side with “the doubters”? Is not freedom of thought an equivalent for “lack of authority”? Kant’s answer to this question is worthy of full quotation: “Freedom of thought … signifies the subjection of reason to no other laws that those which it imposes on itself; and its opposite is the maxim of law-less use of reason … [I]f reason does not wish to be subjected to the law which it imposes on itself, it must bow beneath the yoke of laws which someone else imposes upon it; for nothing – not even the greatest absurdity – can continue to operate for long without some kind of law” [emphasis mine]. That being so, reason is not so much a personal quality of judgment, more a state of affairs, a point of agreement between free citizens, a public feature – therefore not very different from Rousseau’s raison publique. Its main purpose is to create and sustain enlightenment, the main attribute by means of which persuasion and rhetoric could be avoided. Kant’s famous description of rhetoric as is quite a telltale: “treacherous art which means to move men in important matters like machines”.
The outcome of the first part could be similarly straightened out by forming backwards a “conceptual link-up”: Kant’s free thought is reason’s way of envisaging Rousseau’s internalized sovereignty, which might be easily seen as a milder version of Hobbes sovereign, the champion of distrust towards citizens’ practical judgment (who must all “submit their Wills, every one to his Will, and their Judgments to his Judgment”). Needless to say that, in these conditions, democracy figures either as supremacy of scholars or republican composure, either as Machiavellian autocracy.
Let us now move forward to the “For Rhetoric” standpoint. The two main celebs sustaining this frame of reference are Aristotle and Cicero. I think it is appropriate to restate these two viewpoints into one conjointly, since few (or unimportant) differences could be brought up. Although supported in each case with different arguments, confidence in the human capacity to use judgment in politics is somewhat a shared premise for both accounts on the subject. Likewise, although pictured in different political environments, rhetoric is seen not –any more– as a “counterpart of cookery” (as Socrates did), but as a “counterpart of dialectic” (Aristotle), and probability as “the best estimate of truth” (Cicero). While Aristotle’s trust in judgment is more consistent with his general political thought and metaphysics, Cicero’s position is questionable to some extent. For Aristotle, one basic idea is pointed out as ultimate (expressed in the Rhetoric as well as in the Nicomachean Ethics): if true and false positions were argued with equal skill, the true one would seem more persuasive. As doubtable as this standpoint may seem, at least it is overall present in Aristotelian argument.
On the contrary, Cicero is in a more delicate situation. How could a skeptic like him rely on “citizens’ firm moral compass” or “their capacity of judgment as a principle”? Or, as he himself phrased it in Academica, “how could an avowed skeptic have been so certain of Cataline’s guilt?” As the argument develops, Cicero might be accused of expressing dogmatic convictions when protecting the practice of rhetoric, but his strong beliefs do not concern truth but mere truthful opinions (namely, ideas containing parts of truths, linking by this opinion to knowledge). As Garsten puts it, he was convinced only of his skepticism.
It cannot pass without remark the fact that none of these five standpoints does fulfill the promise of a decisive finish. Nonetheless, if something is brought home that must be the point that many (or the main) efforts to avoid rhetorical controversy tend to produce new and potentially more dogmatic form of rhetoric: rhetoric of Transcendent Sovereignty (Hobbes’s), prophetical nationalism (Rousseau) and public reason (Kant). I believe these comparisons are adequately dealt with, at least in terms of pointing out disadvantages and fast roads to demagogy. The ad hominem of course (the accusation of inconsistency “rhetoric against rhetoric” which fits all three), but even as the author dwells on each theoretical stance, is hard to not agree with the inherent dogmatism of anti-rhetoricians. Ultimately, the possibility of argumentation is given by the very chance of bringing forward different positions, of splitting up when it comes to defending opinions and ensuring the protagonist-antagonist situation. Even if Hobbes has a point in portraying men as children of pride¸ it might be childishly useful to avoid connecting the external arbitrator and the people with artificial chains.
The book finishes with a chapter of uncertain outcome. The underground reasons beneath Bryan Garsten’s little representative offices theory in the last section felt something like: “Now that we’re here, we might as well go too far”. By taking James Madison’s constitutional view as a starting point, Garsten argues that he has find the “constitutional system meant to protect and facilitate sustained dispute, drawing it toward less demagocic and more deliberative forms of controversy”. That is, to retell once again Persuasion’s story as a dialectical, namely at resolving conflicts and deciding matters, rather than just motivating us to act. However, the author quickly mentions that the latter goal is not at all a second-rate distinction, but an encouraging and “compelling motivational defense”. I think the political mini-chapter with bureaucratic is an example we could have done without.
“Saving Persuasion” deserves wide attention in the “quixotic quest” (James Arnt Aune) of defending free deliberation and it certainly deserves the Thomas J. Wilson 2005 prize of Harvard University Press. Let’s just say it must be also read with plenty of attention, inasmuch as it too is aimed at persuading.
 “Two arts, or would-be arts, are counterparts by standing in the same relation to their respective objects. Rhetoric is the counterpart of cookery, according to Socrates, because it is a counterfeit of justice in the way cookery is of medicine, aiming at pleasure rather than the good of the soul and relying on mere experience rather than knowledge” (Ian Worthington – A Companion to Greek Rhetoric)