Curtis Dozier, visiting assistant professor of Greek & Roman studies at Vassar College, examines whether candidates use Aristotle’s teachings when appealing to voters.
Curtis Dozier received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in 2008 and specializes in Latin poetry, classical rhetoric, and ancient literary criticism. He is currently writing a book on Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria. In addition to his work in the department of Greek and Roman Studies, Professor Dozier serves as faculty advisor to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans studying at Vassar through the college’s partnership with the Posse Foundation.
A common criticism of contemporary political discourse is that it consists of nothing more than sound-bites. It can thus come as a surprise to learn that the slogans of the current presidential candidates incorporate complex rhetorical strategies that can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. For example, the title of Hillary Clinton’s recent book, “Stronger together,” conveys several of the virtues, and evokes several of the emotions, that Aristotle says are essential to persuasion. The word “together” conveys Aristotle’s version of Justice, which consists of people having what belongs to them and not having what belongs to others. It attempts to evoke in an audience what Aristotle calls “friendly feeling,” which an audience feels toward someone who wants the same things that they want. Further, Aristotle recognized that a slogan is the conclusion of a logical argument stated without making its premises explicit, often because the speaker believes her audience will accept those premises without question.
Clinton’s unstated premise might be “A collaborative style of governance is more beneficial than an autocratic one.” Similarly, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” paints Trump as someone who strives to do things of great benefit, a virtue which Aristotle calls “greatness of soul.” The slogan evokes what Aristotle calls “emulation,” the pain we feel when we see something good that we don’t have but believe we could have. And the unstated premise that Trump expects his audience to accept is that America is no longer as great as it once was. Aristotle did not guarantee that using his techniques would make a speaker persuasive in all situations, but his theories do describe very well what our candidates do, not just in their slogans but in all aspects of their messaging to voters. His theories also give us a powerful analytical vocabulary for recognizing what effect that messaging has on ourselves.