Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rhetoric and prudence

I can't let the Nobel prize for peace to Obama pass without a comment. Because I haven't seen any particular change on the world scene except Obama's own declarations of good will, I'll do it in the form of a general reflection on rhetoric and prudence.

What is rhetoric and what has to do with prudence? you could ask; or vice versa. Well, everything.

Rhetoric, in the old, full sense of the word, is the art of persuasion: i.e. the art of talking and acting effectively, obtaining the assent of one's interlocutor or audience to what he says or to the course of action he wants. Plato, in his negative moods, found it quite appalling, and styled it as the art of seduction, by which a lover makes the beloved grants him or her her or his favors. However, we like it or not, it is of the essence of democracy as a political regime based on consensus. No one could be elected if he weren't well versed in it.

Obama showed last year to be a master at it.

Prudence, on the contrary, never suffered a bad press with ancient philosophers, but it was quite forgotten with modern ones. It is the art of assessing a situation, so to know what to do (and say) and what not to do (and say). To stay with the example of the seducer, he should know when he can give it a try and when not; but in this case it is just an example, carrying no negative connotations. We need prudence in all circumstances of life, so much the more when we have to take a decision on the spot. Therefore prudence was classified among the four cardinal virtues (besides it, fortitude, temperance and justice).

On this regard Obama… well, I'll let the judgment to my readers.

The reason why we need to be well versed in rhetoric is the same for which we need to be prudent men.

The situations we can find ourselves in are made of a myriad of more or less perceptible or imperceptible signs, by which we can be easily led astray. Again the example of seduction: a woman acts graciously towards me, which might mean…; well, it just "might", but if I am mistaken I'll be bitterly disappointed. Prudence means then to be able to recognize according to circumstances which signs are really pertinent for assessing the kind of situation I am in. Hence, situations aren't like natural species that we can classify in a univocal way, so that, given certain signs, we can be sure of what they are. Neither I can't state my case with an interlocutor or an audience in such an univocal way, made of clear cut definitions and classifications. I need to be able to give them something more significant, that makes them able to assess the situation as I do.

Good rhetoric partakes then of the habit of prudence. Not all audiences are the same: what works with some, doesn't work with others.

What works with Americans, with Europeans, or the Swedish Academy, doesn't necessarily works with the sworn enemies of what we are.

Si pacem vis para bellum (if you want peace, prepare yourself to war), recites an old Latin saying. Here again it is question of prudence. In certain cases it might lead to a destructive armaments race. In others might be the thing to do, and to do otherwise would be taken as a sign of weakness.

Again, how things stand with Obama concerning his prudential rhetoric, I'll leave it to the judgement of readers.



Gabriella said...

OK Obama is a master in rhetoric ... but I thought the Nobel prize was for action not words ;)

Lazy Disciple said...

Dear Gabriella,

I cannot speak for my partner in blogging, but as I read the post, your comment is an excellent synthesis of it.

I mean to say that you are seeing the same thing the HP has drawn out.

That said (and please understand that there is no love lost between me and the POTUS), I did appreciate the frankness of Mr. Obama's remarks to the press corps this past Friday.