Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.61

Benedetto Fontana, Cary J. Nederman, Gary Remer, Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy.   University Park, PA:  Penn State University Press, 2004.  Pp. 337.  ISBN 0-271-02456-9.  $55.00.  

Contributors: Benedetto Fontana, Arlene W. Saxonhouse, Gary Shiffman, Russell Bentley, Gary Remer, John von Heyking, Cary J. Nederman and Tsae Lan Lee Dow, Thomas Murphy, John Uhr, Nadia Urbinati, Douglas Walton

Reviewed by Travis D. Smith, Concordia University (
Word count: 2160 words

A fine scholarly volume, Talking Democracy is a salutary corrective to any conception of political theorizing as something of a straightforwardly progressive enterprise which has long ago surpassed the wisdom of the ancients, who remain only to be caricatured or pillaged. The editors accomplish this by assembling a diverse collection of essays which draw upon pre-modern political thought in order to assess the idea of deliberative democracy. The contributors illuminate the shortcomings of that present-day endeavor to design the best regime by retrieving an understanding of deliberative practices and democratic realities which deliberative democratic theory forgets or abstracts away from, whether neglectfully or willfully. Above all, the book demonstrates the wrongheadedness of imagining the possibility and supposing the desirability of liberating deliberation from rhetorical persuasion. Despite its undeniable abuses, rhetoric has a connection to deliberation that is not only inescapable but also beneficial in a democracy where every citizen by right possesses a share in ruling but hardly everyone can or should be expected to acquire the experiences and qualities needed to satisfy the intellectualistic and moralistic standards of legitimate political participation according to the deliberative democratic theoretical model. The editors promise that the book will delineate the strengths and weaknesses of deliberative democracy through an historical survey of theories of political rhetoric, but the balance of the book is decidedly unfavorable. "Deliberative democracy looks to an ideal so far removed from possible actualization that it no longer should be assigned critical or regulative status," the editors conclude, observing that the theory "produce[s] a desiccated, abstract model of democracy, one which cannot do justice to the multifarious nature of human and social life" (p. 18).

Although the book is generally united in its overall purpose, it is divisible into two parts. The first seven chapters, which constitute the core of the book, analyze the arguments of specific ancient and medieval authors. The final four chapters then complement them nicely, elaborating further the defense of political rhetoric through an investigation of some modern thinkers and recent literature.

The defense of political rhetoric advanced in this volume is many-sided. Much of it intends to dispel the misconception borne of certain modern prejudices that all rhetoric is mere rhetoric, duplicity aimed at gaining an unjust advantage, whereas the respect due to autonomous individuals requires securing their consent through disinterested appeals and rational negotiation. Nederman and Lee Dow, writing about John of Salisbury and Christine de Pizan, go so far as to argue that in imperfect societies it is necessary for the virtuous person to employ "deceitful linguistic practices" and arm himself with an "arsenal of untruth" (p. 193), not only to disguise and protect himself, but also to better society. Truthfulness is an unqualified good only where the perfect democracy is already established. It cannot be expected to bring it into being. Remer elucidates Cicero's defense of manipulative speech in circumstances where the partiality of individuals threatens justice and the long-term common good. Similarly, Urbinati's chapter on J.S. Mill's feminism illustrates how political pamphleteering, which is never strictly logical nor impartial, is needful in order to advance radical social changes consistent with greater democratic justice. Her chapter defends Mill against those critics of his who fault him for not being the sort of rigorous analytical thinker that they prefer.

The contributors to this volume appreciate and defend the complexities of the human condition against efforts to neuter it in the name of ennobling it. They recognize that democratic politics invariably involves interest and prejudice, desire and caprice, competition and conflict, and that the non-rational aspects of human existence need attention and direction. Contrasting deliberative democratic theory with the understanding of public speech found in Plato and Aristotle, Bentley finds that it "rests on an artificially thin moral psychology that neglects the interplay among emotion, perception, and reason" (p. 116). In his essay on Augustine, von Heyking notes the anti-religious tendency of deliberative democratic theory and explores its general lack of appreciation for the significance of affective bonds, the shared memories and peculiar linguistic practices of particular societies, and even the advantages of a due pursuit of glory as components of enduring political communities. Deliberation always takes place in the midst of these complicating features of political life and cannot be grounded on contrived strategies for suppressing or escaping them.

Democratic politics requires taking action under conditions of competition and uncertainty. Running through this volume are arguments which draw upon classical philosophy to demonstrate why the model of deliberation in deliberative democratic theory excels instead at generating conversation and indecision, in large part because it demands too much consensus and certainty. Shiffman's study of Plato reveals the deliberative democrat's conception of political discourse as a kind of "cognitive talk therapy" (p. 87) which undermines the legitimacy of ordinary democratic processes and is, by design, unable "to reach any definite conclusion" (p. 104) upon which to take action. Saxonhouse's analysis of Thucydides emphasizes the imperfections and ambiguities in democratic deliberations that result from the failings of human memory, the difficulty of detecting bias and assessing prejudice, and the questionable reliability of experts. Given that democratic citizens are understandably and permissibly self-interested, democratic assemblies invariably lack "the luxury of listening to or engaging in discourse among those motivated by communal welfare and marked by mutual respect" (pp. 60-61). Urbinati draws upon Aristotle to remind us that deliberation is always about reaching probable conclusions about things which could be or turn out otherwise. Walton works to rescue Aristotle from overly rigorous logicians who overrate deduction, restoring some respectability to the use of arguments which are at best plausible and rely heavily on appealing to popular opinion, at least where that opinion is relatively well-informed. Political rhetoric is necessary because of the deficit of certainty in politics, because "language can never do anything more than communicate and make persuasive arguments concerning partial truths that are perpetually subject to misunderstanding," as von Heyking explains (pp. 166-67).

Friends of democracy who are students of the ancients concede that it is a flawed regime, but in being attentive to its flaws without trying to cure them, they seek to make the best of it. Democracy is based on recognizing consent as the authoritative claim to rule. But if consent is only reckoned legitimate when it is given to the reasonable results of disinterested deliberations, then it is tantamount to recognizing only reason as having an authoritative claim to rule. But democracy is prudently founded upon a suspicion regarding wisdom's claim to rule, or at least, the pretension of any claim to represent the claim of reason. The ancients knew that the rule of reason is something that men should not expect in practice, and that even if it were best in theory, trying to manufacture it is inadvisable. Furthermore, supposing it could be brought about, they knew that it would be far from democratic.

Surveying the ideas of Gorgias, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Tacitus, Fontana argues that a conception of philosophical conversation divested of manipulative rhetoric is inherently aristocratic. Along these lines, Remer suggests that the effectual truth of deliberative democracy would be government by "academic colloquium" (p. 161).1 Remer joins Fontana in arguing that the proper exercise of eloquent speech in democratic decision making processes, rather than representing disrespect for persons, actually treats democratic citizens with the proper respect due to them. It acknowledges their natural concern for their self-interest while endeavoring to persuade them to revise their perceived self-interest. It makes allowances for differences among people, bringing them to practice toleration toward each other and have sympathy for each other while remaining in contestation with each other. It requires leaders to understand the people, to make genuine efforts to communicate with them on terms they understand, to obtain their real consent and personal commitment -- in order to actually lead them toward what will be good for them, which in turn brings leaders the good reputation they seek. "Arguing in public" and "struggling for the hearts and minds of the populace," argues Shiffman, "is a way of showing respect for voters" (pp. 111-12). Bentley adds that given the diversity found within a democratic public, leaders need to be able to bridge disparate interests and appeal to a variety of audiences, psychological types, moral positions and intellectual talents. Indeed, Bentley finds deliberative democratic theory flawed because it supposes that there are neutral ways of framing debates, whereas free peoples feature not only "conflicts over moral positions," but also "conflicts between narratives about who 'we' are" which inform the positions people take (p. 130). He argues therefore that democratic citizens need to learn better how to identify, employ and evaluate rhetorical speech, distinguishing its better uses from worse, and not simply decry and debunk it universally.

Contributors to this volume also express admiration for the reasonableness of existing modern democratic practices and institutions and defend them against plans to perfect them by formally rationalizing them further. For instance, Uhr admires the separation of powers in the modern state for its ability to promote listening, both between branches of government and between citizens and their magistrates and representatives. Deliberative democrats, he claims, overlook this development in their emphasis on speaking. Murphy compellingly argues that deliberative democracy mistakenly imposes values and practices which have developed thanks to a culture of literacy and tries to impose them upon the public sphere where they lose their distinct advantages. Historically, the development of print culture allowed for the wider circulation of contestable ideas and gave private individuals relative safety as anonymous readers to judge them for themselves. The open communication of face-to-face public dialogue which deliberative democrats exalt threatens to limit the freedom to think and speak, since the ideal conditions of independence and equality needed to fulfill their theory's promise are unattainable.

In a certain sense, deliberative democracy is an attempt to replace politics with participatory governance. It has trouble with the possibility of what Shiffman calls "incorrigible disagreement" (p. 94), the idea that some quarrels will not be settled with words. It supposes, I would propose, that a defiant spirit like that of Polemarchus, who provocatively asks, "Could you really persuade if we don't listen?",2 can always be tamed through amicable dialogue. Deliberation without rhetoric however requires limiting the uses of language. But limiting the uses of language is best achieved by limiting the exercise of thought. Both Shiffman and Bentley suggest that deliberative democracy aims more at reaching agreement than accomplishing anything. It primarily hopes to affect minds rather than actions. It intends to make people think right. Bentley argues that achieving what it calls reciprocity would require first reaching "doctrinal harmony" (p. 126), and that this would entail "a possibly invasive form of civic education" (p. 132).

Thomas Hobbes was the first great modern philosopher to diagnose rhetoric as a disease, ordering its excision from politics. But Hobbes's own arguments against rhetoric are replete with rhetoric.3 It is as if speech needs to be abused in order to persuade people not to abuse speech. What is needed as a companion to this volume is a classical analysis of the rhetoric of the theory of deliberative democracy. There is something telling about just how much its proponents want it to be a practical possibility, how much conviction they have that it would work. Now it strikes me that the depiction of deliberative democracy in this volume is less nuanced than when the theory is perceived as it portrays itself, which may be seen as a deficiency. It is almost as if the contributors have already interpreted the theory in a way that treats many of its principles and components as rhetorical. Deliberative democrats do not entirely neglect the ancients, but it is worth investigating further how they use them selectively and creatively. They claim to respect and accommodate views which are not strictly rational, but do they include them only to humor them, expecting to weed them out or enlighten them? Such a tactic would be shrewder than simply excluding them. Anticipating reasonable consensus may well involve being confident that those who do not want to be judged irrational will be shamed into reforming or silencing themselves. If Augustine is right that official neutrality in politics may be "a ruse for domination," as von Heyking observes (p. 181), then the language of reciprocity, publicity, accountability, opportunity and the other more compelling elements of deliberative democratic theory need to be examined in terms of their emotional appeal, with reference to the temperament and prejudices of its intended audience, with sensitivity to the hopes and dreams of those who feel its pull.

Independent of the specific issue of deliberative democracy, the next time you encounter an otherwise serious scholar who is nevertheless tempted to question the relevance of the classics for contemporary normative political theory, point them in the direction of this book. He or she will be reminded how impoverished political theory would become should it elect to disregard the riches of its classical origins.


1.   Compare Peter Berkowitz, "The Debating Society," The New Republic, 25 November 1996, 36-42.
2.   Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 327c.
3.   On Hobbes's rhetoric against rhetoric, see Bryan Garsten, Saving Persuasion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

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