BMCR 2007.02.18

Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment

, Saving persuasion : a defense of rhetoric and judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. xii, 276 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780674021686. $45.00.

In the words from Bryan Garsten’s subtitle, rhetoric and judgment are implicitly under attack. His book will provide a defense that will not end a war that began at least as early as Plato’s Gorgias (448d-449b) with charges that rhetoric is a technique without content. The Greek Sophists, like Protagoras, countered with the boast that rhetoric could produce virtue, or at least good citizenship. This war between anti-rhetoricians and rhetoricians continues, with no end in sight, which is an instructive point about the entire project of which Garsten is part. Garsten mentions the “attack on classical rhetoric” (4), and does more than hint that the agon plays an intrinsic role in the narrative: “The politics of persuasion is a politics of disagreement and controversy. Although those who are trying to persuade in any instance seek to end the immediate dispute in their favor, ultimately they also have a stake in the continued availability of persuasion when the next disagreement arises” (210). The “next disagreement” is always already anticipated, the conflicts on par with eternal recurrence. Garsten’s defense of persuasion, buttressed by Aristotle and Cicero, becomes the salvation for persuasion. The attackers appear in the first three chapters (labeled section one, “Against Rhetoric”) of the book, one chapter devoted to each of the culprits: Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant. Symmetrically, we have three chapters for the defense (labeled section two, “For Rhetoric”), two of which resurrect ancient fallen heroes of the author’s narrative: Aristotle, Cicero, Garsten.

The book began as a 2003 Harvard dissertation. Its stated aims (not necessarily the decisive ones) appear in plain language. “This book aims to challenge…conventional wisdom…Its guiding motivation is the thought that 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 to prejudices — is a mode of politics that is worth defending” (3). The self-asserted worthiness of the project is followed by an explanation for the book’s organization. “This book aims to make the case for a politics of persuasion by examining the intellectual roots of the modern suspicion of persuasive rhetoric and then challenging them, pointing the way toward an understanding of deliberation in which rhetoric plays a central role” (4). In short, Garsten’s case depends on a picture of rhetoric under attack by the main figures in the first part of the book, by Hobbes (“Hobbes built his attack …” (31)), further by Rousseau who “accepted and deepened Hobbes’s attack” (55), and by Kant who “attack[ed] the public use of rhetoric” (84). One of the culprits in the narrative turns out to be skepticism, such as Hobbes’ belief that people lacked “access to a natural or shared criterion of judgment” (40). The outer world could be a source of delusion for Hobbes, and Rousseau paints a similar picture in which citizens work best when they seek not others’ views on a matter, but look inward to what their consciences would tell them (62). Kant then emerges on the battlefield to provide, according to Garsten, an elaborate architecture of a priori reasoning that could exist outside of other people’s heteronomous talk (105). Garsten’s reclamation of the usual view of Kant captures the point that Kant endorses skepticism too, aligning him with Hobbes and Rousseau in Garsten’s account. Such skepticism leads to unsavory results. Garsten describes Kant at one point, for example, as an authoritarian figure (106). One can arrive at that view only by stopping short with Kant’s analysis of subjectivity. Kojin Karatani, for example, helps readers to see the poverty of Garsten’s reading. Karatani: Kant is not endorsing the “platitude that one should see things not only from one’s own point of view, but also from the point of view of others. In fact, it is the reverse. If one’s subjective view is an optical delusion, then the objective perspective or the viewpoint of others cannot be but an optical delusion as well”.1 Kant’s stance is to see things neither from his own viewpoint, nor from the viewpoint of others, but to face the reality that is exposed through difference. This exposed space remains outside Garsten’s consideration. Garsten’s book remains exoterically within the confines of choosing sides in the war described above, in his case choosing the triad Aristotle, Cicero, Garsten over Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant.

The author’s intentions, at times, sound egalitarian, such as when Garsten writes that his version of deliberation “requires…that we pay attention to our fellow citizens and to their opinions” (210). Earlier, however, in a paternalistic moment, Garsten says that we must be “protected against the intrusions of unreflective public opinion” (197). The previous quotations encapsulate a familiar tactic at work throughout the text that is not so much a contradiction overlooked by Garsten and the readers for Harvard University Press, but an exo-esoteric politics that Garsten highlights and endorses in his book, and that some academics share, sometimes consciously. It is no accident that Garsten’s reading of Hobbes is, if we can trust the accuracy of the bibliography, influenced, at least in part, by Leo Strauss. (One can also point to more than one article by a source of “inspiration” (216) for Garsten’s book, Ronald Beiner.2) One does not need the shadow of Strauss to make the case about esotericism, since Garsten is not embarrassed by his Janus-faced comments about his “fellow citizens.” Garsten’s fallen aristocratic hero Cicero was not fond of popular opinion either. Garsten does not wince at Cicero’s view of the public as “the ignorant rabble” (171), but recognizes that his readers might. In addition to saving persuasion, Garsten tries to rescue Cicero: “He seemed to think that the public would eventually come to appreciate actions [including murder] that had advanced the common good and that were worthy of glory. In this sense he had, as all orators must, a democratic faith” (171). The idea here, familiar since Plato, is that the public needs to trust its more enlightened, learned leaders. Cicero once told his brother that Cicero’s consulship was the realization of Plato’s dream of the philosopher-king.3

In keeping with the suspicion of the public’s ability to make decisions for itself and simultaneously distinguishing himself from his Habermasian or Rawlsian colleagues, Garsten writes, “The rhetorical approach to deliberation differs from these recent theories in that it appeals to no concept of public reason, accepts that publicity and transparency are not always best, and suggests that partiality, passion, and even prejudice have a legitimate and often productive role to play in democratic deliberations” (5). If transparency is not always best, one interpretive issue is how to know when Garsten himself is transparent with his reader, revealing his true intentions and prejudices with his book? Remember that it is Garsten himself who raises this issue both in this brief moment at the beginning of the book and in the final chapter. What we can know about Garsten, at both the exoteric and esoteric levels, is that he does not trust the public, a public that should be more passionate, he says, but not more precise in its deliberations. The public is apparently not in a position to render rational judgments in the way its aristocratic brethren, the philosopher-kings are. The public apparently does not include women in any important way. Women (even Pythias and Terentia) are of no consequence in this book, either as agents or subjects of rhetoric. We must assume that the living philosopher-kings Garsten has in mind for his readers are part of the esoteric discourse. During their reign, they will look out for our “common good” and we will “eventually” appreciate their efforts, but à la the quotation about Cicero in the previous paragraph, Garsten knows that “we” cannot know this now, but must remain in a state of “democratic faith,” a theology that apparently requires the suspension of inquiry.

Garsten’s endorsement of esotericism runs counter to some traditions of political discourse (Marxism for one) that, in principle, “maintain an open, heuristic, and asymptomatic relation to the truth”.4 On the other hand, that endorsement would be in step with the political context during the time that Garsten was working on the book. Saving Persuasion came into being during a time when the political administration in the United States insisted in public on secrecy, such as an early statement made by President George Bush in his speech to a joint session of Congress in September 2001. Partly as a result of such statements by the administration, it was no accident that the press questioned the role that Straussians played in the federal government.5 Any appropriation of the classical tradition, including rhetoric, by contemporary politicians or political scientists (e.g. Garsten) runs into the problematic, pointed out by Waite, of capitalism, a new, powerful element that was not part of the old context (Waite, 617), i.e. the Aristotelian/Ciceronian context.

Another major difficulty of Garsten’s account of persuasion happens to be his depiction of what rhetoric looks like in practice. Occasionally, he will include the word “dialogue” in the text, but persistently he describes rhetoric as someone talking to, rather than with, others. His extended example of a series of Lyndon Johnson speeches concentrates exclusively on the content of the speeches (based on a New Republic article rather than a recording), as if voice, gestures, and the physical spaces of the speeches are trivial supplements to oratorical success, a view that would be in opposition to some of the most interesting work that has been accomplished in the discipline.6 Garsten’s example of Johnson’s speeches puts the citizens in the passive role of appreciating the great man, though he complains about something similar in Hobbes: “Citizens in a Hobbesian commonwealth resembled the audience at a theater” (67). Citizens who were in Johnson’s space had the opportunity to hear only. Garsten tells the reader that “Johnson spoke to his audiences about small points …” (193). There was no public debate about the content of Johnson’s speeches, any more than the congregation at a church has an opportunity to question the hierophant. Let’s call it a monologue, which is not to say that it is impossible to argue that monologues could be deliberative. “To be or not to be?” Still, rhetoric tends to be a one-way street, to the point that the multi-millionaire Cicero gave up on the people listening to him.7 He opted for being a flaneur. Cicero writes, “Once I had realized that the Roman People [were] rather deaf …, I stopped worrying about what the world heard about me. From that day on, I took care to be seen in person every day” (quoted in Everitt, 70).

“Saving” is a conservative action, and “saving persuasion” turns out to mean a few academic adjustments to the status quo. Garsten probably feels no compulsion to consider how capitalism affects rhetoric, since he explains exoterically that the version of Aristotelian/Ciceronian rhetoric he endorses — focused on a particular interpretation of phronesis that leaves aside the dark side of phronesis (explored by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant) that includes moral deviousness8 — is not intended to result in a substantively different political situation for his readers. Garsten writes, “Aristotelian rhetoric was not meant to justify revolutions or radical reform” (140).


1. See, for example, Beiner’s “Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss: An Uncommenced Dialogue” in Political Theory 18.2 (1990): 238-254. The opening of Beiner’s essay is revealing for the kind of hermeneutical reading likely required for Garsten as well: “Nowhere in Hannah Arendt’s published work does she mention Leo Strauss.” Beiner proceeds to lay out the “tacit” and “latent” dialogue. Call this an esoteric reading, and that is exactly what one needs to be aware of while reading Garsten’s book, since a mere exoteric reading will fail to find the “tacit” and “latent” content.

2. Kojin Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, trans. Sabu Kohso, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003, p. 1.

3. Cicero, On Duties, ed. M.T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991, xi. Garsten refers to the same introduction to this book to make a different point.

4. Geoff Waite, “On Esotericism: Heidegger and/or Cassirer at Davos,” Political Theory 26.5 (October 1998): 614.

5. See, for example, James Atlas, “Leo-Cons; A Classicist’s Legacy: The New Empire Builders,” New York Times (May 4, 2003): sec. 4, p. 1.

6. One fairly recent example is Maud Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995).

7. Anthony Everitt, Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (New York: Random House, 2001), p. 83.

8. See Joseph Dunne’s Back to the Rough Ground: Practical Judgment and the Lure of Technique, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997, p. 260.