Aristotle and Pam on The Political Rhetor. Series. 6.1. Intro.

“The political orator* aims at establishing the expediency** or the harmfulness of a proposed course of action; if he urges its acceptance, he does so on the grounds it will do good; if he urges its rejection, he does so on the grounds that it will do harm; and all other points, such as whether the proposal is just or unjust, honourable or dishonourable, he brings in as subsidiary and relative to this main consideration.”

(Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Dover Publications, 2004. p 13)

*Oratory is one kind of rhetoric, written speeches and gestures are also rhetoric.

**By expediency is meant the fit (suitability) of some course of action with the likelihood that it will achieve some desired end or goal.

My husband thinks this passage utterly banal, as is his opinion of much of what Aristotle has to say. Fair enough. After more than two millennia some of Aristotle’s observations are bound to get old. But only as old as the phenomena they continue to describe. Such as the aims of the political orator, which are now just as then. And so, banal though this passage may be, it’s worth wondering at the beast whose actions it describes. The political rhetor.

The political rhetor isn’t shy, and can be found wherever people congregate — in churches, board rooms, and union halls. Civic centres, auditoriums, and Gala Balls. But the most practicable way to make your study of this animal is to turn on your television or computer. There you’ll find, at the stroke of a key, Sanders and Biden and Trudeau and Macron and Johnson and Merkel. And Corbyn and May and Cameron and Sanchez. Bolsonaro, de Sousa, Tsai Ing-wen, Netanyahu, and Modi. And Trump. Pick any one or a number of these politicians, especially around election time. And listen. Not so much for what each are saying, but what each are doing by what they’re saying; i.e. pay attention to the perlocutionary value of what they’re saying.

A perlocutionary speech act is something uttered (or written) to bring about a desired effect in the listener (reader). So by perlocutionary value is meant the likelihood of the utterance to bring about the desired effect. [For more information on Speech Acts, see J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. (Delivered at the 1955 William James Lectures, Harvard University.)*]

Aristotle says,

Political speaking urges us either to do or not do something: one of these two courses is always taken by private counsellors, as well as by men who address public assemblies. (13, Rhetoric).

Let’s use an analogy of oaring a sea-faring boat to exemplify the perlocutionary force of political rhetoric; that is, not only how politicians move the body politic, but also to which end(s).

Two political rhetors are seated at the front of an enormous sea-faring vessel. Each has qualified as a coxswain. But since each has an ambition to rise to admiral of the fleet, neither intends to work together. Rather they enter into a competition to steer the rowers to this end. The rowers are the body politic, which includes you and me. The rowers at the bow can see the coxswains, but those at the aft only hear their calls. As for what the rowers see of each other, the starboard crew is blind to the port as the port crew is blind to the starboard. Just as the fore crew is blind to the aft, and the aft to all but the back of the next row’s heads. Blind to others in the polity as each rower may be, she tastes her seat-mates’ sweat and feels a twitch whenever their muscles fire.

The coxswains attempt to sway the vessel in opposing directions, one to the land of This Way. The other to the land of That Way. The rowers pull their oars. With each pull, they feel for the turbulence of water against the blades — and in the rhythm of their neighbours’ breaths –which signals a change in speed or direction. And they listen for the coxswains’ calls.

One coxswain calls, beware the cannibals who will eat your flesh in the land of That Way. The other calls, beware the sweet song of the sirens who would dash you against the rocks along the cliffs of This Way. One calls, In the land of This Way, we will share from the bounty of a giant cornucopia. The other, In the land of That Way you will each have your own cornucopia. I will release you from the shackles around your ankles, cries one, This Way lies freedom! Liar!, cries the other. You would free the rowers from chains only to feel the crack of a whip on their backs. Go That Way, and you’ll each be your own master!

Which way will you pull your oar, and which way will I pull mine? Will we keep the beat through the length of our seat, and will we pull on time?

The coxswains call and call and call until a critical mass of rowers synchronize. Until the vessel heaves and rolls as it turns This Way or That Way, to uncharted lands. And an admiral rises from the seat at the bow.

* Austin’s How to Do Things With Words is broadly available. Check out Amazon,

You’ll also find all kinds of resources about Austin and Speech Act Theory on You Tube. For an overview of J.L. Austin’s work, try this series sponsored by The Nature of Writing (a writing resource developed by Conrad van Dyk, professor of English at Concordia University of Edmonton, AB, Canada. ):

Categories: Political Rhetoric

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4 replies


  1. Editing. Please wait. –
  2. Thoughtlets .viii. –
  3. Thoughtlets .xxv. –
  4. A meditation on the character of a political speaker and, by extension, a voter –

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