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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Aristotle on Trump: The Phenomenon of "THE DONALD"

Aristotle on Trump

(and Arms)

Professor Brian Anse Patrick

University of Toledo

It would appear that Aristotle knew Donald Trump, although one might doubt if the reverse is true. About 2,400 years ago in his work known today as Rhetoric Aristotle delineated factors of the persuasive discourse that underlies democracy. His Rhetoric is essentially a work of communication psychology and technique. The basic idea was that in a society of political equals, a person advanced by means of persuasive proposals supported by logical argument and good character. Toward this goal, Aristotle systematically discussed factors and variables affecting communication. Aristotle’s ideas permeate Western Culture and American democracy.  
One of the character types that Aristotle dissects is that of the wealthy man. I can do no better than directly quote The Philosopher, as Aristotle has traditionally been known, who in less than 300 words provides a great deal of illumination on the phenomenon of The Donald:
“The type of character produced by Wealth lies on the surface for all to see. Wealthy men are insolent and arrogant; their possession of wealth affects their understanding; they feel as if they had every good thing that exists; wealth becomes a sort of standard of value for everything else, and therefore they imagine there is nothing it cannot buy. They are luxurious and ostentatious; luxurious, because of the luxury in which they live and the prosperity which they display; ostentatious and vulgar, because, like other people’s, their minds are regularly occupied with the object of their love and admiration, and also because they think that other people’s idea of happiness is the same as their own. It is indeed quite natural that they should be affected thus; for if you have money, there are always plenty of people who come begging from you. Hence the saying . . . ‘whether it was better to grow rich or wise . . . . I see the wise men spending their days at the rich men’s doors.’ Rich men also consider themselves worthy to hold public office; for they consider they already have the things that give a claim to office . . . . The wrongs they do others are not meant to injure their victims, but spring from insolence or self-indulgence.”
There you have it, Trump per Aristotle: arrogance, insolence, self-indulgence while considering himself worthy to hold public office.  And certainly many so-called wise men or our era have lined up en masse at his door. Unlike Aristotle, however, I really don’t know Mr. Trump, and have only fragmentary mass media sources to inform my opinions, but Aristotle’s analysis seems at least ballpark correct.  
            But is all this necessarily a bad thing under present circumstances?
            On the surface, Trump appears no more and perhaps less arrogant and self indulgent than other politicians, such as the Obamas with their lordly taxpayer-financed lifestyle. As to the hubris of regarding oneself as worthy to hold office, many do; look at the gaggle of GOP wannabes. If Trump is indeed venially self indulgent within the limits of moderation, then, so what?  Bill Clinton stained the presidency in any number of dimensions.  Honest veniality in an executive might be a better choice than an ideologically driven extremist. Trump at least appears to be a pragmatist who values a deal. He also appears to know what a good deal resembles, unlike many current leaders. Most would say that Trump has earned his arrogance. If he has sinned, he has done so on his own dime, rather than at public expense. Trump also appears beholden to no one but himself. This may be a big plus, for we know not to whom (or what) most professional politicians have mortgaged their souls, although we intuit that somebody holds the paper.
            In the end, what might trump all other considerations is the Aristotelian rhetorical concept of ethos, the apparent social ethic, the character, of a speaker.  Good ethos equates with virtue. As the Philosopher says, in absence of other information we believe a good man more readily than a bad one, because no one, excepting the extremist, is certain of the correct path to take, or the solutions to all our problems. Aristotle said as much in the 4th Century B.C, and this observation still applies. So we rely on the high-ethos individual to muddle through by doing the right thing based on an apparent virtuous character. Mr. Trump appears fairly virtuous by modern standards.
Trump’s commonsensical outbursts have already affected the other candidates, some of whom appear compelled to alter their droning liturgical styles. By his presence Trump improves the system. My wife approvingly calls him “the Trumpet” for his brazenness. Of course all this bothers media intelligentsia who over-intellectualize mass political drivel. They speak in terms of Trump’s supposedly inevitable destiny to “self destruct” and so forth. Trump is perhaps too abrupt for them. Regarding ethos, Trump seems to appeal to audiences tired of professional purveyors of that which Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt has formally defined as bullshit, which is worse than the lie. The liar at least has some knowledge of truth, merely seeking to deny it, but the bullshit artist soars untethered from reality into a world of self-serving fabrication. Trump may or may not be a good man, but in today’s political ecology he remains an alternative to those surfeit with the professional patter of careerist politicians. In the end it may all come down to ethos.  So Aristotle, it appears, also knows the American electorate better than the pollsters and analysts who have been trying to account for the phenomenon of The Donald. 

Aristotle also discussed the right to keep and bear arms.  He said, "There must be arms. for the members of a community have need of them, and in their own hands, too, in order to maintain authority against disobedient subjects and against external assailants" (from Aristotle's Politics).  Mr. Trump falls on the correct side of this issue.  In this regard Mr. Trump does appear to know Aristotle, and that may be a very good thing for Americans.