The Classics and modernity (#1)

This is a pair of essays on the theme of the Classics and their continuing influence. It’s in two parts: #1 The Classics and Us (the reverberations of the Classical world on our civilisation) and #2 The Classics and Me (the reverberations of the Classical world on me much more personally). So this is #1…


The Classics and Us
Notes on our patrimony: rhetoric, persuasion, and politics

Rhetoric and persuasion

Rhetoric is the art of expression, and that often amounts to the art of persuasion. That is the stuff of politics and commerce, let alone of love, entertainment and literature. It is morally neutral and can be used for good or ill. It can rely on the strictest decency, fair-mindedness, rationality, good evidence and logic; or on craven lies, crafty manipulation, and slovenly sentimentality. Or on any combination of any of these.

Rhetoric is a close relation of dialectic, which is often taken to be a matter of taking both (or all) sides of an argument in turn. Whether Socratic or more modern, the essence of dialectical argument is to suppose that the nearest thing to truth we can attain to is found in the collision of arguments. (NB: Dialectic materialism is another beast altogether.)

Rhetoric is often taken to be the same as oratory, or public speaking. But actually, though an effective speech might not read well on paper, many rhetorical devices will work whether the audience is hearing the words or reading them. There may even be rhetoric in imagery (see below).

Closely allied to the idea of oratory are eloquence and articulacy. Eloquent speech is elegant as well as persuasive. The articulate person can express himself with exceptional fluency, usually whilst ‘thinking on his feet’.

Almost every sort of argumentative trick or ruse or device or conceit or procedure that anyone has ever used was identified and codified by Greek and Roman writers

This almost uncanny sense that our speech, however original it seems, has already been classified and anatomised is closely allied to the even odder idea that language obeys laws of grammar which were likewise first discovered (or at least first classified) in the classical period. The laws of language and the laws of arithmetic and logic seem to run together and to lie embedded in human consciousness in some way.

Persuasion and politics

It has seemed to statesmen and leaders of every generation and most civilised countries that the Classical rules of rhetoric were as useful in their times as they had been in Athens and Rome. The argumentative tools of the trade have remained largely unchanged (though now in newspapers and on TV or social media, rather than the platforms of the Forum); so too do the underlying objectives and problems of political persuasion.

The elites of every period after the Classical were aware that the power, and maybe even the right, to rule depended on persuading the lower orders that the privileged were worth preserving in their privilege. (See Tom Holland’s Rubicon on how that worked in the Roman Republic.)

In the classical period, bread and circuses and other shows were deployed to satisfy the masses, whose support mattered alike to politicians (not quite democrats in their sharing of power) and dictators (not quite total in their control of it).

My grasp of the relatonship between the Roman masses, the middle class, and the patricians, is shaky. I think the plebs were, technically, merely the non-patrician or knightly classes; they had voting rights based on citizenship not property; for considerable periods, their electoral powers produced laws which affected only themselves; similarly, they could veto some laws passed in the senate, but the senate could veto any law passed in their assembly. Roman decomcracy was not remotely direct in the Athenian sense. It wasn’t even in an organised way, representative – and certainly not in the modern sense. One has the impression that Roman politics were a curious hybrid of the obscure, the complex, the traditional and the volatile. I gather all this from Holland and Harris; I think it is in John North (whom I have yet to read fully on the topic); it seems to be the burden of Norman Davies and of Hugh Thomas, in their door-stop tomes.

In our time, the universal suffrage (the adult franchise) means that the few who aspire to office now depend totally on the support of the many who merely vote.

In the representative democracies of the West – and in an age of the welfare state and tax giveaways – political bribery remains important. Of course, there is now a very nuanced calculus: nearly everyone pays taxes and wonders whether they are getting good value from them. (The poor – and probably even the bottom half of earners – really do rather well, but often do not realise it.) It matters even more now than it did in classical Rome what citizens can be persuaded to think. But there is no right or wrong in politics: neither state nor the individual can ever see be sure what is the right thing to do, practically or morally.

“False consciousness” (a persistent delusion as to one’s real self-interest) may be as much a factor in politics as are our inevitable human ignorance and asymmetries in information. Indeed there is a strand of post-modern commentary that thinks politicians and capitalists (not least in the entertainment and social media industries) delude and distract the masses into acquiescence. (Naom Chomsky and, much more recently, Naomi Klein became famous with a line like this.) They do so, one might add, in ways which would be thoroughly recognisable to the classical mind, which would have been brilliant at deploying modern tools of manipulation.

Elitism and representative democracy

The biggest difference between the classical period and ours is that political elites, then regarded as natural or inevitable or desirable (though not perfect, and as being open to corruption and persuasion and even overthrow), are now fashionably regarded as likely to be unwise, or wicked, or profoundly self-interested and perhaps replaceable by crowd-wisdom or rendered irrelevant by plebiscitic rule (literally, rule by the plebs rather than representatives elected by the plebs).

The divine right of aristocrats, and later of monarchs, was a feature of classical debate and became the post-classical norm for medieval (and even later) Europeans. The increasing role of persuasion in politics sprang in part, but at root, too, from the growing scepticism – especially in the last 500 years – about the idea that merit can be god-given to certain persons and can be inherited. (Note Holland on the way Romans were both attached to and cynical about the aristocracy.)

In our time, there is hot dispute about the merit of inherited advantage – whether in rank, status or wealth – and there is room for some surprise that families can still confer great advantage on their offspring in spite of generations of compulsory and free education, and of other measures promoting social mobility.

In effect, until the electoral reforms of the 19th Century and after, our polity remained similar to classical politics in being a matter of plebs exerting pressure through their elected, and sometimes populist, tribunes; whilst a patrician senate (the House of Lords) and the monarchy represented the old guard, often with very wide support; and the mob of poor voters and disenfranschised were occasionally volatile and needed to be handled, but had less day-to-day power than the number of their votes might imply.

The age of mass electorates widened the differences between the two periods. Modern political allegiances align even less well than historically with class or self-interest (socialists are often middle class; the working class are often at least as right-wing as the Tories); the middle class is now enormous; and social hierarchies are much more fluid and interwoven than they were two or even one millennia ago, and somewhat more fluid in this century than in the last two or three. In effect, the modern versions of the mob, plebs, and patricians are often indistinguishable. Politicians have to find common ground between them in very subtle ways.

Oddly, socialist leaders are almost as much an elite as conservative ones. Their fathers and grandfathers were often middle or upper class and they are usually professional seekers of office, sharing much the same education and career expectations or aspirations. Almost all modern politicians try to seem ordinary. Socialists, naturally, deploy every device of rhetoric to try to detach the masses from the latter’s lingering sense that inequality to some degree or other remains necessary even to such affluence as the poor have or hope to attain. This has proved difficult: a vast majority of British citizens either admire or accept the power of free-market capitalism; anyway – like or loathe capitalism – the Tories are widely accepted as understanding and managing it better than the left.

The upshot of the changes – and of various scandals about the supposed excesses of legislators, mostly imaginary since few have been enriched by their election or office – is that we now have a political class that feels it must at least seem to abase itself, in a strategy which has not yet appeased stroppy and cynical voters. Voters hardly know how to admit that they might admire cleverness, success, boldness and leadership in their leaders.

Bureaucracy and probity

Indeed, the voters’ distrust of elites and elitism, which obviously threatens representative democracy, may also subtly undermine the faith in honest administration which was a trait of British life, invented largely in the 18th and 19th centruies and derived from the Classics.

One important strand of English writing style has flowed from a standard of clarity reasonably supposed to have derived from an admiration for the grammar, rhetoric, and style of such Classical authors as Cicero. This style, seen perhaps in the 18th Century Gibbon, but certainly in the 19th Century Thomas MacAulay the great Trevelyans, and the once-popular Liberal historian and politician H A L Fisher (1865-1940), is known as Mandarin English, from the way it characterised British government documents from the days (perhaps they are not yet dead, as their EU colleagues testify) when the world looked to British bureaucrats for clarity, brevity and dry wit in official documents and debate.

Clarity was seen as being the handmaiden of decency, and the combination has been part of the glory of British government, at home and abroad, for generations. It was the same Classicists of the mandarinate who mastered the periods and clauses of Mandarin English – MacAulay and the Trevelyans – who also proposed a new, meritocratic professionalism in the Civil Service at home and abroad, in keeping with their view of the best of Roman administration.

Stanley Baldwin: Classics, rhetoric and decency

Luckily, many of our politicians, especially those on the centre right, do make a sort of stock in trade of something like realism. They avoid the outright pandering to mass prejudices or ignorance which is the mark of the worst of the persuader-class, especially of the Fascist kind.

The Conservative Stanley Baldwin, arguably Britain’s most successful politician ever, was a curious mixture of Classical austerity, sentimental populism, and political realism. He seems to have been in two minds as to whether civilisation had advanced much. In 1925, as Prime Minister, and speaking to classicists, he told them: “The difference between the Greek Sophist and the modern demagogue, it is said, consists in this: the one displayed his ingenuity by appearing to prove that which his hearers knew to be false, the other displays it by appearing to prove that which his hearers wish to be true.” (Reference: Stanley Baldwin, in his essay Truth and Politics, in On England, 1926, citing C Cornewall Lewis, Use and Abuse of Political Terms.)

There are several debatable issues here, but the main one is that Baldwin argues that the Sophist was out prove that argument could prove anything (and in the process became the byword for speciousness). But he notes that the modern persuader (he might have meant, politician, or adman, or propagandist or even comedian) is at risk of pandering (may be under sepcifically modern pressure to pander) to his or her audience, whatever good sense might require. He doesn’t explicitly calibrate any differences in degree of such risks and pressures between then and now, but he might well have felt them to be increasing.

This worry about modernity is as old as the hills, of course. It is easy to forget that the classical period was riddled with nastiness (and political gangsterism was common) and ours has much goodness (not least in its politics). And yet the classical Roman, especially, retains his hold on our imaginations as stalwart, rugged, and straightforward.

Contrary to his worries about demagoguery in one essay, in another Baldwin thought that his age was on the brink of a new straightforwardness in political speech, in which rhetorical flourishes would be exposed as phony.

He may have thought, in the 1920s and 1930s, that the mass education and mass franchise would bring about a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the very advantaged minority and the relatively advantaged vast majority of modern societies. It is hard to see that phenomenon in some of unrealism of the modern romantic left, not least as they disdain to be led by people who are well-educated and rich (two visions of poshness which don’t really hold water). On the other hand, Cicero would have been quite at home with – if disparaging of – the way the oratory of the modern tribunes of the people seeks to manipulate the plebs and the masses. And isn’t it right (as Martin Wolf points out in the FT) that modern extremes of inequality may lurk behind the extraordinary phenomenon of the relatively poor in the US hollering to be led by a blustering plutocrat (literally, a person who is rich not least by inheritance) who has their measure so precisely? And there may be something in the idea that the UK, in Boris Johnson, also has its charismatic blond chancer, who – like The Donald – cuts through every sort of stereotype to be a perfect match for Jeremy Corbyn.

Take your pick between the gloomy view that modernity has seen the voters go to malleable mush and the slightly more cheerful one that politics has become quite a precise retail business of policy-making for canny and cynical shoppers. Either way, the management of complex abstract data is now as much a part rhetoric as is exhilerating flattery.

Baldwin was surely right to wonder whether modern politicians could maintain the pietas and civitas of their Roman forebears. He perhaps saw these qualities as something like dignity, seriousness and public spirit. Modern electorates do not willingly reward such qualities and in the wake of scandals real and imagined amongst our commercial and some professional leaders, we might be inclined to think that the rot has gone quite deep.

In an age of spin, just beginning in Baldwin’s time, and now endemic, we can readily find timely his warning that the Roman polity and Empire started to collapse when the Roman’s word was no longer trusted.

William Waldegrave is a Tory politician of enormous promise who turned out to be out of his time. He thinks ours is the post-Beatle age which turned away from the Classics. That is an important theme in his rather lovely memoir, A Different Kind of Weather. One could as easily have said that, unlike Baldwin in his time, Waldegrave was just the wrong kind of Roman for his.

Researching these themes

Tom Holland’s Rubicon seems very fine. Baldwin’s On England is fascinating. Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy is really fabulously instructive as well as thrilling. Imperium, the first volume, may pack the most punch so far as these themes are concerned, but Pompey and Dictator are also marvellous.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy site is very good on almost all philosophical issues. Its account of Aristotelian Rhetoric is a bit academic but pretty clear on both the political and social context of Aristotle’s work, and the nuts and bolts of his anatomy of rhetoric.

This St Andrew’s University classics site is fun and sparky because it shows how rhetorical principles are in play in various very recent political examples.

This University of Kentucky site is not unique, but it is a nice and clear – and citable – anthology of rhetorical terms with their classic roots laid bare.

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Publication date

26 April 2016


Mind & body