- Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment
Something of what rhetoricians perennially run up against in modern political philosophy is illustrated by a recent article by Jürgen Habermas in Communication Theory. In a searing indictment of contemporary democracy and the mass media, Habermas writes, "Issues of political discourse become assimilated into and absorbed by the modes and contents of entertainment. Besides personalization, the dramatization of events, the simplification of complex matters, and the vivid polarization of conflicts promote civic privatism and a mood of antipolitics" (2006, 422). Any historian of political communication in the Western democracies since the early nineteenth century is bound to be puzzled by this observation, for the emergence of mass democracy in the United States and England, at least, was characterized by intense popular participation in politics, precisely because political campaigns were heavily personalized, dramatized, simplified, and polarized. At the beginning of the article, Habermas praises Aristotle's Politics for its union of normative theorizing and empirical research, forgetting apparently that Aristotle also wrote a normative and empirical Rhetoric.
That Habermas distrusts persuasion is obvious, but what is less clear is how the rhetoriphobia he shares with virtually every modern and contemporary philosopher came about. Bryan Garsten's book—the most important work on rhetoric and political philosophy since Ronald Beiner's Political Judgment—makes the startlingly original argument that the anti-rhetorical stance not only is grounded in a suspicion of private judgment, but that it can be traced back to Hobbes's, Rousseau's, and Kant's fear of the persuasive power of post-Reformation religious enthusiasm. Garsten not only provides provocative rereadings of these three fathers of modern liberalism but also extends our understanding of rhetorical and political judgment in Aristotle and Cicero. His analysis of the problems of persuasion and democracy in the twentieth century, while somewhat less satisfying, includes cogent criticisms of Rawls, Habermas, and theorists of deliberative democracy from what might be called a Ciceronian-Madisonian republican stance. [End Page 94]
Saving Persuasion began as a doctoral dissertation in Government at Harvard, under the direction of Harvey Mansfield—after Allan Bloom, perhaps the most influential and controversial of the disciples of Leo Strauss. Although Garsten's book displays both the virtues and vices of Straussianism, it would be unfair to dismiss it as a neoconservative manifesto for rhetoric. (An enthusiastic review of the book appeared in the neoconservative Weekly Standard in February 2007, illustrating the curious fact that the Right "gets" rhetoric in ways that liberals and leftists do not (Deneen 2007).) Currently an assistant professor of political science at Yale, Garsten also received an MA from Cambridge in political theory and intellectual history. His book reveals the influence of Quentin Skinner and the Cambridge School of political theory, whose insistence on reading political philosophy in its historical context is the antithesis of the Straussian rejection of historicism. Garsten thus combines the Straussian emphasis on close reading with the contextual-rhetorical perspective of Skinner; this unique synthesis enables Garsten to solve some ongoing problems in textual interpretation (especially the relationship between Academic skepticism and Stoic natural law theory in Cicero) while developing interesting causal arguments about the rise of the public sphere in the eighteenth century, the decline of interest in rhetoric by liberal political theorists, and the pathologies of contemporary democratic politics.
The book is divided into two main parts, following an introduction in which Garsten lays out his central thesis: "[A] politics of persuasion—in which people try to change one another's minds by appealing not only to reason but also to passions and sometimes even prejudices—is a mode of politics worth defending. Persuasion is worthwhile because it requires us to pay attention to our fellow citizens and to display a certain respect for their points of view and their judgments" (3). Persuasion rightly understood cannot be reduced either to manipulation or pandering. Rather, persuasion is inextricably linked to judgment, a human faculty threatened by modernity. Judgment is "the mental activity of responding to particular situations" by...