James M. May: How Donald Trump Wins Arguments

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by James M. May

Can Ethical and Emotional Appeal Carry Donald Trump to Victory?

People love Donald Trump. People hate Donald Trump. He presents himself as a rule-breaker and an independent thinker, but is he perhaps following some very old rules? Is he a student, two millennia removed, of the great orator Cicero?

More than two thousand years ago, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Rome’s finest orator, published his masterful treatise, On the Ideal Orator. It constructed a portrait of the person Cicero would consider to be his perfect public speaker. Now, more than two millennia later, we find politicians in the public eye employing many age-old techniques of persuasion, for good or for ill, and with varying results.

In On the Ideal Orator, Cicero bases his system of persuasion on the Aristotelian notion of three main sources of proof to use in persuading people: logos (rational argumentation: I make a good case), ethos (the presentation of character: don’t you think I’m a reliable guide?), and pathos (the arousal of emotions in the audience: don’t you feel the way I do?).

Rational argumentation has its foundations in two basic processes, induction and deduction. But not many would say that rational argumentation via induction and deduction has been a strong suit for either presidential candidate this year. Both resort almost continually to the other two sources of persuasion, ethos and pathos—and this seems particularly true of Mr. Trump.

Proof based in ethos persuades by effectively presenting the speaker’s character. If you win the admiration and approval of your audience, they’re ultimately more sympathetic to your argument. Hand in hand with the positive self-fashioning of your own persona goes the negative character portrayal of your opponent. “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco,” and “Crooked Hillary,” have all had a taste of Donald Trump’s negative character portrayal tactics, and certainly there will be more to come.

But it is in the presentation of his own persona that Mr. Trump seems once again to have defied all tradition and convention. Consider what character traits Cicero identifies as most effective in winning over the confidence and sympathy of a speaker’s audience:

Now people’s minds are won over by a person’s prestige, his accomplishments, and the reputation he has acquired by his way of life… The effect of such things is enhanced by a gentle tone of voice on the part of the speaker, an expression on his face intimating restraint, and kindliness in the use of his words, and if you press some point rather vigorously, by seeming to act against your inclination, because you are forced to do so. Indications of flexibility…are also quite useful, as well as signs of generosity, mildness, dutifulness, gratitude, and of not being desirous or greedy. Actually, all qualities typical of people who are decent and unassuming, not severe, not obstinate, not litigious, not harsh, really win goodwill, and alienate those who do not possess them. (On the Ideal Orator 2. 182)

Are these the character traits that anyone could use to define Donald Trump’s public persona? Cicero, like most modern-day political pundits, would be flabbergasted to see Trump’s success—both in the primary run and now in the actual presidential campaign, in the face of flaunting such long-standing conventional wisdom about rhetorical self-fashioning. Surely, the absence of such traits largely explains Mr. Trump’s negative approval ratings; it must, however, also account for a good deal of his success.

Indeed, it appears that Trump has purposely defied age-old traditions in fashioning an ethos that is markedly unrestrained, obstinate, brash, and in-your-face. But isn’t he here following Cicero after all? Has he not made it his special strength to create his own character, his own ethos—his own image? All the voters who say they know he’s trouble but still want to vote for him are not being persuaded by his rational arguments—they’re sold on the ethos.

The third source of proof is pathos, persuading by appeal to the audience’s emotions. The speaker’s goal is to sway the feelings of his listeners so that they will side emotionally with him. Cicero realized the great power of argument based on emotional appeal, often calling it the most effective means of persuasion. For him, ethos involved knowledge and exploitation of the milder emotions, while pathos dealt with the more violent emotions:

Related to this [i.e., ethos]…is the other mode of speaking I mentioned, which stirs the hearts of the jurors quite differently, impelling them to hate or to love, to envy someone or to want his safety, to fear or to hope, to feel favor or aversion, to feel joy or grief, to pity or to want punishment, or to be led to whatever feelings are near and akin to those other such emotions… But such enormous power is wielded by what one of our good poets rightly describes as “soul-bending speech, the queen of all the world,” that it cannot only straighten up someone who is bending over and bend over someone who is standing, but also, like a good and brave general, take prisoner someone who is offering resistance and fighting back. (On the Ideal Orator 2. 185-187)

If Mr. Trump is largely unconventional in shaping an effective and attractive political ethos, he embraces fully the Ciceronian notion of pathos. Democratic commentators on Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention harshly criticized it for its dark tone, its negative view of the country, and its fear-mongering, perhaps not fully appreciating that such a tone was precisely what Trump was aiming to set. Cicero wouldn’t have been fooled, and might well have admired it.

So Mr. Trump has cleverly and successfully identified a collection of emotionally-charged issues—from the ever-increasing national debt to illegal immigration to the threat of domestic terrorism—that have some significant resonance with a large portion of the electorate. He plays upon fears that certainly have legitimacy for many people (e.g., the loss of jobs or the threat of a terrorist attack), and he offers hope that these fears and anxieties can be allayed with a change in leadership (“Make America Great Again!”). The crowds that he has attracted and the enthusiastic, sometimes almost frenzied reactions that he evokes, testify eloquently to the power of emotionally-based persuasion, what the Roman poet called “soul-bending speech.”

Relying on the emotions as sources of persuasion through the effective use of ethos and pathos is a tactic as old as oratory itself. Several of Cicero’s own surviving speeches show a heavy, sometimes almost exclusive reliance on these modes of proof at the expense of rational argument, especially when the facts of his case were weak or lacking. As we enter the final months of the presidential campaign, we are already witnessing (from both sides) an increase in attacks on the opponent’s character and more flagrant appeals to emotion. If Trump wins, the experts will have many things to say. I hope at least a few of them remember to say something like, “and you know, Cicero was right.”

Click through for an analysis of Ms. Clinton’s oratory vis-a-vis classical norms.

MayJames M. May, Professor of Classics and Kenneth O. Bjork Distinguished Professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, is the author of How to Win an Argument: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion (Princeton).

Emperor Nero and the “unteachability of mankind”

the emperor nero barrett jacketAncient Rome has long been a source of fascination and enjoys a significant presence in popular culture, though in film and fiction, the life depicted is often highly romanticized. In their new book The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources, Anthony Barrett, Elaine Fantham, and John Yardley use source material to examine the life of one of Rome’s more notorious and extravagant figures: murderer, tyrant, and likely madman Emperor Nero. The book offers a comprehensive history of Nero’s personal life in the context of historical events that happened during his rule, such as the great fire of Rome. The three authors recently answered some questions on the enduring allure of Rome and in Nero.

There seems to be considerable popular interest in ancient Rome at the moment. Can you explain this?

AB & EF & JY: This is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. Interest in antiquity does seem to have waned during the middle ages, but it enjoyed a vigorous revival with the renaissance, beginning on the fifteenth century, and that interest has never died away. That said, we do seem to be particularly fascinated by the ancient world at the moment. It may be that modern life, so utterly dependent on machines and technology, where so many of our daily transactions are conducted through the computer, without human contact, has created a void, and a general attachment to the past, when life seemed so much more interesting and romantic, is one of the things that we use to fill it. Within the general area of antiquity, the Romans have particular appeal, for the West at least, perhaps because their empire represents the first manifestation of a global superpower, governed by people who are in many respects so different from us, yet, in their ambitions and their motivations, are strikingly similar to us. There are in addition two fortuitous factors. One is that the traditional birth of Christ occurred at the time of the birth of the Roman empire. The over-towering place of the Christ story in the thought of the West has by association kept the Roman empire in our consciousness. Also, at a mundane level, Rome just lends itself well to film and television, with its rich use of imagery and symbols to convey the phenomenon of power. As a consequence, some of the most popular cinematic spectacles, from Quo Vadis, to Spartacus, to Ben Hur, to Gladiator have Rome as their setting and inspiration.

There is a general fascination with Roman Emperors, but Nero seems to attract more attention than most. Why do you think that is?

AB & EF & JY: That is a undoubtedly true. Basically, people find villains engrossing. We may admire Mother Teresa or Saint Francis of Assisi, but for most of us the Jack the Rippers and Vlad the Impalers of this world are far more compelling and entertaining characters. Nero has a special reputation for villainy, and a number of factors have come together to foster that reputation. Perhaps first and foremost, he appears in the Christian tradition as the Antichrist, the first emperor to persecute the Christians after their supposed role in the Great Fire. And he is traditionally blamed for the martyrdoms of the two earliest great champions of the Christian cause, Saints Peter and Paul. We also have reasonably detailed accounts of Nero from three ancient authors, Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio, which ensures a rich store of anecdotes. These anecdotes may be of highly dubious validity, but that does not prevent them from being vastly entertaining. Additionally, Nero was not only cruel, other emperors were no less so, but he disgraced himself in Roman eyes by his public performances on the stage and on the racecourse, providing yet another store of irresistible anecdotes. Finally, there is the simple chance fact that a combination of larger-than-life historical events, which have provided themes for generations of writers and artists over the centuries, occurred during his reign: the murder of his mother, the Great Fire of Rome, the rebellion of Boudica, his melodramatic yet tawdry suicide. Caligula, with a similarly villainous reputation, for similar sorts of reasons, comes a close second, but Nero gets the top billing.

There is a popular belief that Nero was mad. Is that your conclusion too?

AB & EF & JY: Defining and identifying madness is a difficult process, and the tag of ‘mad’ is used loosely to cover anything from wacky eccentricity to severe mental illness. Assessing someone’s psychological state is a great challenge; it is striking that experts who testify in court proceedings after lengthy one-on-one interviews and full access to the patient’s clinical history are often met with scepticism, even ridicule. Thus one has to be even more wary about trying to assess the mental state of someone who lived two thousand years ago and whose conduct is known from incomplete records, produced well after the fact by writers who are hostile to their subject and as often as not relish the prospect of telling the lewdest and most outrageous anecdotes they can amass. It would be dangerous to make broad statements about Nero’s mental health. His conduct does seem to be outrageous at times, but we have to remember that he was only sixteen when he was thrust overnight into a position of enormous power, surrounded by fawning toadies willing to applaud his each and every act. It is probably little wonder that he behaved at times like a spoilt teenager.

There is perhaps one troublesome pattern detectable throughout his adult life that does seem to point to something disturbing. Nero seems to have had a tendency to fall under the spell of powerful women, and his ultimate response to their dominance was invariably a violent one, thus he murdered his mother Agrippina and he reputedly kicked to death his wife Poppaea. He also had a supposed proclivity for look-alikes of these powerful women, using courtesans and actresses (essentially powerless females) to impersonate them. The stories might be fabrications, of course, but the fact that they form a repeated pattern gives them an aura of authenticity. Perhaps something of interest there for the psychologists.

Academics who write about ancient history seem to be more interested in the sources than in the actual events. Can you explain this?

AB & EF & JY: No history, of any period, can be a perfectly accurate record of events. The instant we report on the past our reports are contaminated by the social and intellectual baggage that as historians we carry into the discussion. But for the history of much of the world in recent centuries we do have a considerable body of archives and material records that makes possible a fairly reliable reconstruction of past events. As a broad principle the further back we go, the more tenuous the records. This does not always hold true: we have, for instance, fairly detailed accounts of the Rome in the last century BC, but have very sketchy information about the early middle ages from the fifth century AD on. But as a general broad principle, the historian of a period of history separated from our own is going to face enormous difficulties. The records are in most cases lost or fragmentary, and the contemporary accounts make no pretence of the principled search for the truth that we expect of modern historians. Consequently it is often difficult for the students of ancient history to reconstruct even a reliable outline of events, let alone identify broad historical development. It is admittedly the case that for the Julio-Claudian period we are relatively fortunate, and can draw on the accounts of a number of ancient writers. Yet the material that they have preserved is often inconsistent and even contradictory, and at times reaches levels of absurdity that beggar belief. For much of Nero’s reign we would be hard put to say in which city he was present at any given time, in whose company he passed his time, how he spent the large part of his day. As a consequence as historians we have to spend much time and effort in an attempt simply to work out what was happening. The narrative of past events can be a stimulating and exciting one, but first of all we must work out how to put a reliable version of that narrative together.

What is the main thing that Nero can teach us today?

AB & EF & JY: It is always risky to draw close analogies between events that happen in widely separated periods that have different social and political contexts. That said, it is possible to discern some identifiable common themes that seem to run throughout human history. Perhaps the main thing that Nero teaches us, ironically, is what Churchill called the confirmed unteachability of mankind. In AD 37 the Roman world, including its governing classes, embraced with gusto a youthful and almost totally unknown emperor who had no proven talent for government and virtually no experience of it. His qualifications seem to have consisted exclusively of a general affability and good family connections. This youthful emperor was Caligula, and his subsequent reign was a disaster. Less that 20 years later, in AD 54, Rome went through almost the same scenario, when an even younger and even less experienced Nero was enthusiastically greeted as the new emperor, because of those very same personal qualities, family connections and an amiable manner. It is unsurprising that the net result was quite similar, but it does seem surprising, even astonishing, that Romans had not learned at all from their previous experience. But, as Churchill seemed to have perceived, that reason may derive from a basic flaw in our make-up. The concept of ‘never again’ has a brief shelf-life in the store of human experience.

Anthony A. Barrett is professor emeritus of classics at the University of British Columbia. His books include Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome. Elaine Fantham is the Giger Professor of Latin, emerita, at Princeton University. Her books includeRoman Literary Culture: From Plautus to Macrobius. John C. Yardley is professor emeritus of classics at the University of Ottawa. His books include Alexander the Great: Historical Sources in Translation. All three recently collaborated on The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources.

Throwback Thursday #TBT: Erwin Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (1992)


Throwback Thursday: Week 3


Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period

It’s Thursday again, folks, and you know what that means: time for a Throwback (#TBT)! This week’s #TBT honors Erwin Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (1992), another fundamental text found in the Princeton Legacy Library. Here’s a little bit of information on your favorite relic – both a literal and figurative designation, in this case:

This volume presents the most important portions of Erwin Goodenough’s classic thirteen-volume work, a magisterial attempt to encompass human spiritual history in general through the study of Jewish symbols in particular. Revealing that the Jewish religion of the period was much more varied and complex than the extant Talmudic literature would lead us to believe, Goodenough offered evidence for the existence of a Hellenistic-Jewish mystic mythology far closer to the Qabbalah than to rabbinical Judaism.

David M. Hay of Studia Philonia Annual 1 praises the volume, saying that, “[s]ince [Jacob Neusner’s one-volume abridgement] presents the fruits of Goodenough’s decades-long study of ancient Jewish art, climaxed by his study of the third-century synagogue at Dura-Europas, it is probably the best introduction to Goodenough’s mature thought. Neusner contributes a twenty-nine-page foreword that explains the enduring importance of the entire thirteen-volume work.”

And if we’ve peaked your interest with this book, you can find similar materials over in Mythos: The Princeton/Bollingen Series in World Mythology. We hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Throwback Thursday (#TBT), and we’ll see you next week!