Arguing like Cicero
Similar to many libertarians and conservatives, I’m guilty of trying win arguments through logic alone, ignoring that emotion plays a significant part in winning a debate. If one is to persuade, they need to do more than make a logical case.This fact isn’t lost on our opponents on the left who regardless of reason, often call upon the emotions and feelings of their audience to win the day. Climate change is not an argument about scientific fact and economic trade-offs, it’s the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time.’ Policies aren’t measured by their results, but by their intent. How do we win an argument competing against that? The ancients knew the important difference between pure rational argument (logos) and rhetoric. Through the re-discovery of this ancient knowledge we can argue our case and win.
To help me on my quest to become more persuasive, I have read, ‘How to win an argument: an ancient guide to the art of persuasion’ edited and translated by James M. May. May makes the ancient works of Marcus Tillius Cicero accessible and enjoyable for those of us not educated in classics. The book is a primer in the basics of the ancient art of rhetoric and provides a brief survey of Cicero’s surviving works.
Cicero was the great orator and constitutionalist of his day, and while he may have failed to prevent the fall of the Roman Republic to the Populares, he certainly held back the tide of despotism for sometime. We now, in our own time find ourselves fighting a battle of ideas defending traditional freedoms such as free speech, freedom of religion and property rights against modern day Populares. Sometimes it feels that, like the fall of the Roman Republic, the survival of our own civilisation’s institutions are at stake.
Cicero, like Aristotle before him, divided rhetoric into five parts: invention (discovering is thinking out material), arrangement (ordering the material), style (putting the ordered material into the appropriate words), memory (memorising the speech) and delivery (including directives about voice, facial expression and gestures). All five of these elements are important for the orator to be compelling. In antiquity, learned citizens dedicated years to studying rhetoric; now we rely solely on talent and experience, no longer making a study of it.
Argument can be divided into three artistic proofs, Logos (rational argument), Ethos (argument based on character) and Pathos (argument based on emotional appeal). Too often we stop at Logos. We rely on statistics and deductive reasoning to persuade. We can’t imagine why anyone could or would disagree with us when our argument is so clear. Arguing about facts and figures is never going to influence the audience when your opponent is influencing the audience on a deeper emotional level.
Logos has it’s place in argument: it’s the foundation on which your argument is built. Fortunately for us, the logical reasons for our arguments are strong and are built on strong premises. Taxation is harmful to the economy, restrictions on free speech can’t be logically defended and private property is a key foundation of our civilisation. However, this alone won’t win policy arguments.
Ethos, argument based on character is also important. Ethos is persuasion gained through the effective presentation of the speaker’s character, or the character of the person on whose behalf the speaker is pleading. When this is considered it’s not surprising that only now after 20 years, section 18c of the racial discrimination act looks ready to fall. The good character of the young men involved in the QUT case has been effective in convincing many that this law is unjust; this has been contrasted the with opportunistic nature of the complainant. Equally it is important that when we construct an argument that we come across as caring and compassionate. That we make our arguments because we believe they will have the best results for society as a whole. Too often, we make it easy for our opponents to paint us as selfish or greedy. Theresa May warned that Conservative party were known as the ‘nasty’ party. The Howard Government famously was perceived as ‘mean’ and ‘tricky’. This shows it’s important for us to sell the moral case for our arguments and not rely solely on cold logic.
Pathos is a persuasion won through appeal to the audience’s emotions. Arguments are often won through appeal to emotion. We need to find emotional arguments that back and strengthen our logical arguments. The moral argument does not belong exclusively to the left. Is it right that 50% of the population take more from the system then they contribute in tax? Is it right or just that we prioritise environmental ideology over poverty reduction? Is it morally right that people are prosecuted for victimless crimes? We need to tell better stories that evoke the emotions of our audience.
May’s book ends with a Ciceronian cheat sheet for effective speaking, it recommends practice, practice, practice — good rhetoric comes from nature (talent), art (technique) and practice. Fortuity gave you talent, the book can teach you technique, but, the practice is up to you. The only way we’re going to win the battle of ideas is by us getting out there and for us to start changing minds.