Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Kathleen Parker: Plato, Aristotle and, Oh My, Trump Trump Brings in Philosophers with a Rhetoric

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Kathleen Parker: Plato, Aristotle and, Oh My, Trump Trump Brings in Philosophers with a Rhetoric

Article excerpt

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- When it comes to rhetoric, Plato was right and Aristotle -- not so much.

Distilled, Aristotle thought rhetoric good for democracy, though his definition of "by the people" was closer to our Founding Fathers' intent of only certain people than to today's more-the- merrier model. Given this assumption of a narrow, educated, self- governing populace, Aristotle likely envisioned that those practicing rhetoric would be guided by accepted rules of argument and engagement, emphasizing ethos (trust and credibility), pathos (appropriate use of emotion) and logos (logical argument and facts).

Plato, who was Aristotle's mentor, thought otherwise -- that rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, in the wrong hands was dangerous and likely to be abused to appeal to people's base motives. He foresaw the unethical, dishonest uses that a skilled but immoral speaker could put his persuasive powers to, with credulous people eager to believe or buy whatever he was selling.

Which brings us unavoidably to Donald Trump, as if you hadn't guessed.

We at least owe Trump thanks for bringing these two ancient philosophers out of history's woodwork and back into the conversation. Trump also has inspired reconsideration of rhetoric's rightful place in the classroom, where it was once considered an essential component of "a gentleman's" education.

One such classroom can be found at the University of Virginia Law School, where I was recently a guest lecturer. What better time to be reviewing rhetoric's ancient rules and modern applications than during a presidential election that features one of the most blazing examples of unsavory rhetoric since Clark Stanley boiled a live rattlesnake at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

It turned out that "Stanley's Snake Oil" had nary a drop of reptile adipose but was instead a mixture of beef fat, red pepper and turpentine. Even if it had contained l'huile de serpent, the liniment would have been ineffective as a curative. Rattlesnake oil contains only a third of the vital acid found in the widely popular Chinese snake oil of the time, which was made from water snakes. Thought you'd like to know.

So, the question for today's class: Is Trump the huckster that Plato predicted would someday organize an angry mob into a proud army of anti-intellectual patriots inoculated to facts and reason?

Why, yes! But don't take my word for it. Consider instead the appraisal of UVA law professor Robert Sayler, who has co-written a book with Molly Bishop Shadel, "Tongue-Tied America," as a template for would-be high-school rhetoric teachers. …

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