Friday, February 23, 2007

Geaghan: "By a certain vile persuasion..."

"The power of discourse stands in the same relation to the soul's organization as the pharmacopoeia does to the physiology of bodies. For just as different drugs draw off different humors from the body, and some put an end to disease and others to life, so too of discourses: some give pain, others delight, others terrify, others rouse the hearers to courage, and yet others by a certain vile persuasion drug and trick the soul."
—Gorgias (c. 490-385 B.C.E.), Encomium of Helen

Socrates ranted against Gorgias (1) and the sophists nearly 2,500 years ago, but their dark art has reached new levels of refinement in contemporary U.S. politics. A case in point is John McCain's disingenuous insistence that congressional Democrats demonstrate the courage of their antiwar convictions by voting to cut off funding for the war in Iraq. The right-wing echo chamber has taken up the chorus for the past few weeks. A recent example is Charles Krauthammer, who has built his entire career as a columnist on being unerringly wrong. He resumed McCain's litany in today's Washington Post: "Of course, the Democrats believe the war cannot be won. But if that's the case, they should order a withdrawal by cutting off funds."

Recent history—as in the 2004 election—shows that it would be a grave mistake to underestimate the Democrats' ability to self-destruct. But the R's have attempted to set such an obvious trap that the D's will likely emerge unscathed. After all, they'll be damned either way. If they cut funding for the war effort, they'll be accused of abandoning the 155,000 troops who'll be in Iraq after the current escalation is complete. If they don't cut funding, they'll be accused of hypocrisy by McCain, Krauthammer and the rest of the unrehabilitated Republican right. (Ah, but that's redundant.) My guess is that the D's would rather be attacked for hypocrisy than betrayal.

The irony of this situation shouldn't be lost on anyone. The Bush administration didn't develop any coherent plans for the occupation of Iraq, failed to competently manage the administration of the country and refused to furnish adequate force levels or equipment to provide security for U.S. troops or the Iraqi people. Now the same gang of incompetents have the audacity to suggest that their political opponents are failing to support the troops.

The notion of sophistry will be useful to keep in mind as we approach another presidential election, and of course the practice is hardly unknown among Democrats. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers an especially helpful definition:
"The aims of the young politicians whom [the sophists] trained were to persuade the multitude of whatever they wished them to believe. The search for truth was not top priority. Consequently the sophists undertook to provide a stock of arguments on any subject, or to prove any position. They boasted of their ability to make the worse appear the better reason, to prove that black is white. Some, like Gorgias, asserted that it was not necessary to have any knowledge of a subject to give satisfactory replies as regards it. Thus, Gorgias ostentatiously answered any question on any subject instantly and without consideration. To attain these ends mere quibbling, and the scoring of verbal points were employed. In this way, the sophists tried to entangle, entrap, and confuse their opponents, and even, if this were not possible, to beat them down by mere violence and noise. They sought also to dazzle by means of strange or flowery metaphors, by unusual figures of speech, by epigrams and paradoxes, and in general by being clever and smart, rather than earnest and truthful." (2)

(1) As for Gorgias, we have to wonder whether his rhetorical skills helped him delay his final crossing of the river Acheron. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he lived to the age of 108 (483-375 B.C.E.); Wikipedia states that he was a mere 105 (490-385 B.C.E.) at the time of his death.

(2) Wikipedia defines sophistry as "rhetoric that is designed to appeal to the listener on grounds other than the strict logical cogency of the statements being made... The essential claim of sophistry is that the actual logical validity of an argument is irrelevant (if not non-existent); it is only the ruling of the audience which ultimately determines whether a conclusion is considered 'true' or not. By appealing to the prejudices and emotions of the judges, one can garner favorable treatment for one's side of the argument and cause a factually false position to be ruled true."

PAINTING: The Death of Socrates (1784-85), by Jacques-Louis David.

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