What Aristotle Can Teach Us About Presidential Politics
Politics is about persuasion. Candidates must persuade voters to nominate or elect them to public office. If elected, they must persuade others to enact, implement, and enforce good policies, and reject bad policies. True leaders lead through persuasion, not coerced obedience.
Moreover, persuasion is a skill. No one is born a great leader or politician; he becomes one. By understanding what effective persuasion requires, a person can became a better salesperson, businessperson, lawyer, teacher, military officer, lobbyist, politician – any human activity that involves persuasion and leadership.
Enter Aristotle. Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher. He was, arguably, the greatest philosopher who ever lived. Many consider Aristotle to be the father of logic. His writings, or those that have survived, have also heavily influenced physics, metaphysics, poetry, ethics, politics, and much more. He was also a man of the world, a mentor and advisor to Alexander the Great and other powerful political leaders of his day. And he wrote a highly influential textbook on rhetoric, or the art of persuasion.
Aristotle taught that there are three main instruments of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. Of these, ethos comes first. It refers to a person’s character or credibility. If you have bad character or are not credible (either because you are a liar, or lack the relevant education, background and experience, or for other reasons), no one cares what you say. They cannot trust you. If you have good character, or the necessary knowledge, background, and experience, they can trust you. Trust is essential to persuasion.
Pathos refers to a person’s emotional appeal. Good politicians know how to fire up their supporters and motivate them to action. Think of Marc Anthony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. One of our greatest politicians, Ronald Reagan, used pathos in a historic, emotionally powerful 1988 speech that ultimately resulted in bringing down the Berlin Wall. The “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” line still gives me goosebumps. Emotions are how you establish the mood or mindset that will be receptive to your arguments and reasons.
This brings me to the third element: logos. Logos refers to logical or reasoning ability, your ability to marshal reasons in support of what you want to do. If your statements are a jumble of inconsistent, contradictory, incoherent, illogical, confusing mush, you will not persuade anyone of anything. You will not persuade voters, you will do poorly in debates and media interviews, you will lose the election. You will fail.
I am not telling you anything you do not already know, at least implicitly. How many times have you said that Candidate X lacks the relevant knowledge, background, or experience, or had personal character issues that made him unfit for leadership? That’s ethos. Or that Candidate Y is just plain boring or uninspiring? That’s pathos. Or that Candidate Z did terribly in his last major interview, or would do poorly in a debate, or simply repeats talking points without showing any deeper understanding of the issues? That’s logos.
Without discussing specific candidates, the GOP must find a candidate who has all three elements going for him (or her). Like Ronald Reagan. Reagan was an established conservative and successful two-term Governor of California before seeking the Presidency. He was a passionate, powerful advocate for individual liberty and small government. His supporters loved him. But wait, there’s more! He was also the Great Communicator because he communicated reason and common sense. He seemed right because he was right. Reagan had all the right stuff, not just some of it. He was the total package.
What I learned from Aristotle is how to think about presidential candidates, and politicians generally. When I ask if they can win, I am really asking if they have what it takes to persuade people. Thanks to Aristotle, I know to ask the right questions about a candidate’s ethos, pathos, and logos. Try this with some of today’s political leaders in both parties. It will enlighten you, and it is fun!