Friday, January 12, 2007

A Rhetorical Victory

Lest someone conclude from my review of Swaine's book that I peddle only in attacks, I post a soon-to-be published review on Bryan Garsten's book "Saving Persuasion." It is slated to appear imminently in "The Weekly Standard" - which, very likely, CAN be found at a newstand near you.... Read the book - it's excellent.


Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment by Bryan Garsten

Harvard University Press, 2006

Reviewed by: Patrick J. Deneen, Georgetown University

There is a storyline that underlies much contemporary teaching of the history of political thought. In the beginning were the Greek philosophers who, while subtle and profound, nevertheless at the end of the day were unreconstructed elitists. Plato, for one, viewed democracy as a form of mob rule and urged instead governance by specially-trained philosopher-kings who had superhuman abilities to discern and apply the solutions for the problems of cities. Aristotle, if apparently more sympathetic to democracy, begins by excluding broad swaths of people from citizenship, including slaves, women, and “vulgar mechanics” – blue collar workers, in a manner of speaking. By the time you account for all the excluded classes of people in Aristotle’s “democracy,” what’s left of the citizenry looks increasingly like Plato’s elites.

As the story continues, the Greek view held sway for much of human history, essentially until the Enlightenment with the rise of a kind of “democratic faith” expressed by such thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and, at times, John Stuart Mill. If occasionally expressing reservations about democracy, nevertheless such thinkers inaugurated an era marked by growing belief in the moral progress of humanity from brute existence to increasing refinement and even “perfectibility.” Such thinkers rejected the dour Greek view of human capacity for rational self-rule and increasingly endorsed democracy as not only practicable, but the only justifiable form of political organization. As our enlightenment has continued, we rejected not only the ancient pessimism about democracy, but even the residual reservations about democracy of the early modern period, and have now reached an age in which democracy is universally recognized as the only justifiable form of government. Today’s academy, where inheritors of Rousseau, Kant, and Mill reign, is the locus of articulations of defenses of more extensive democracy – in John Dewey’s words, a belief that the cures for the problems of democracy lie always in more democracy. A dominant school of thought in today’s academy seeks to extend “deliberative democracy” in all instances, articulated and advanced by such thinkers as the late John Rawls and Juergen Habermas. We have come a long way from the cramped ancient view, now having achieved an enlightened rejection of elitism and an embrace of democratic egalitarianism and supreme confidence in the democratic capacities of the people.

So the story goes, and students are rarely advised that the evidence may not fit the narrative. Putting aside cant (if not Kant), clear-eyed thinkers cannot avoid noticing that the apparent contemporary confidence in democracy in fact masks a deep and pervasive mistrust toward broad swaths of the citizenry which might, in an open democratic setting, introduce to the public square what modern “deliberative democrats” regard as “unreasonable” arguments. Modern academic democrats offer extensive and elaborate criteria for what arguments and reasons can be admitted into political discourse. Designating acceptable arguments as ones that clear the bar of “public reason,” today’s most ardent democratic thinkers seek to ensure that a mechanism is in place to prevent the inclusion of arguments – or citizens who make them – who might question the basic liberal orthodoxies of the day. Through this pre-definition of what constitutes “reasonable” arguments, such thinkers ensure that there will be very little disagreement among pre-screened “deliberative” citizens. Unreasonable arguments include any reasons that appeal to religious grounds; arguments that can be deemed to be based upon unreasoned prejudice, such as those based upon tradition or custom; and, essentially, any arguments that would limit the contemporary assumption that “democratic” means thoroughgoing individual autonomy. Restrictions on abortion, divorce on demand, gay marriage, or any other arguably debatable issues are regarded by contemporary “democrats” as beyond the pale of acceptable democratic discourse. Today’s democrats are, all too often, highly self-satisfied in their felt sense of intellectual superiority to previous thinkers who expressed concerns about democracy, yet often even more restrictive about who is permitted full democratic access than those previous thinkers they excoriate.

Bryan Garsten, currently an assistant professor of political theory at Yale University, has masterfully documented the origins of this modern mistrust of the masses and the rise of exclusionary procedural liberalism in his recent book Saving Persuasion. Contemporary thinkers have long been aware that the roots of contemporary versions of “deliberative democracy” lie in the philosophical reflections of thinkers ranging from Thomas Hobbes to Immanuel Kant. Garsten ably explores the ground that animated the early modern exclusionary move toward “public reason” (a phrase first used by Hobbes and then later reiterated by Kant), namely, those fears held by early-modern thinkers that arose over religious divisions marking the Reformation. In the face of Protestant preachers appealing to the individual “conscience” of members of their flocks, and the fears of widespread division that would result from each person following his or her own belief in what the word of God demanded in the current conflicts, thinkers like Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant each appealed to a form of “public reason” as a standard that would garner greater societal conformity to the pronouncements of one sovereign. “Public reason” became the measure of what “reasonable people” would agree to if they actually thought reasonably about a particular issue. The conclusions demanded by “public reason” were thus invoked in the name of the people, as being those decisions the people would reach hypothetically under optimal philosophic circumstances. Public reason thus maintained the patina of democratic legitimacy, even as it justified extensive and even absolute rule by, alternatively, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Rousseau’s Legislator, and Kant’s “enlightened ruler” whose advisors consisted of – yes, little surprise – the professoriate.

But Garsten’s account is even richer, and more revealing, than those studies that recognize the animating fears of these thinkers (fears that explain the contemporary resurgence of interest in “public reason” in the wake of the widely acknowledged demise of the “secularization thesis”). For Garsten further recognizes that the form of discourse that was rejected by early-modern proponents of public reason was not unreason, but rather, persuasion based upon classical rhetoric. Persuasion and rhetoric were explicitly the object of attack and derision by thinkers ranging from Hobbes to Kant, and remains regarded with deep and abiding suspicion by contemporary liberal thinkers who associate rhetoric with the unreasonable manipulation of people’s emotions, fears, and prejudices. Indeed, the thoroughgoing victory of this viewpoint goes a long way in explaining the pejorative understanding with which most people today regard the very word “rhetoric.”

In contrast to contemporary assumptions that ancient thought was a repository of anti-democratic elitism, Garsten shows how classical thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero defended a politics of rhetoric and persuasion on both prudential and principled grounds. According to these ancient sources, a politics based upon persuasion assumes that people begin with different stances but that, through a thorough exploration of an issue by a series of well-trained orators, some portion of the citizenry can be led to change their initial view on a matter or issue and the polity can set a course with the support of a considerable majority of that citizenry. A politics based upon extensive use of rhetoric thus contains several assumptions that are categorically rejected by theories of “public reason.” First, it holds that no argument should be pre-judged to be out of bounds: even those arguments that might, according to some, appear to be “unreasonable” might in fact have a basis in the shared reality of a polity and prove justified according to the shared reasons of a polity. Political decisions are best reached politically – through the give and take of political debate and discourse – rather than by the imposition of a standard of “pubic reason” pre-determined by intellectual elites. Secondly, it assumes that the citizenry possesses a store of “common sense” that has its source in the shared life of a city. Such a view argues for the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of opinion and tradition, and against the often hurried imposition of pure theories upon an imperfect polity. The politics of rhetoric is a politics of patience. Third, a politics that stresses rhetoric places an emphasis upon the faculty of judgment, and thus, in the language of Aristotle, in the development of phronesis, alternatively translated as “prudence,” or “practical wisdom.” One size does not fit all: political circumstances will always demand reflection and judgment of a citizenry that is itself educated by and through oratory. Lastly, a politics of rhetoric assumes that citizens can and ought to be moved by an appeal beyond narrow self-interest and can be persuaded that the common good may and can justify changing one’s mind in light of one’s interest more broadly conceived.

As may be obvious, theorists of “public reason” favor courts and bureaucracies for the pursuit of the politics of “reasonableness”: harboring fears of a democratic citizenry, they seek out political venues that can arrive at “reasonable” decisions in the name of the people but are in fact likely to be least influenced by the people. A politics of rhetoric and persuasion favors legislatures and more local public venues of the sort Tocqueville extolled in his 19th century tour of America. Beneath heated contemporary debates over judicial activism and top-down bureaucratic uniformity lie a deep set of philosophical debates about the nature of democracy itself, debates that Garsten ably traces and clarifies.

Garsten does not ignore the legitimate fears of classical and contemporary critics of political rhetoric: opening a significant sphere for the employment of political rhetoric always invites the possibility of manipulation and demagoguery. Yet, Garsten also rightly recognizes that, in a democracy, rhetoric is always likely to be employed in the effort to secure political advantage. A democratic polity that does not give rhetoric some pride of place – including an education in rhetoric, not only of orators, but of those citizens who will more often be listening than practicing oratory – leaves the field largely open to the manipulators and demagogues. If contemporary suspicion toward manipulative rhetoric would seem to be justified, that is perhaps one gets the rhetoric that one expects. Rather than shrinking from widespread civic deliberation in the name of “public reason” pre-determined by elites, Garsten rightly calls for today’s citizens to “once again look directly at one another and speak directly to one another.” Note that neither silence nor shouting are commended in a politics of rhetoric, but, above all, speech to, by, and among citizens. In a polity in which rhetoric is no longer derided and gains esteem, it might be expected that politics itself might come to be regarded as enobling and worthy of our shared devotion.

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