JR'S Free Thought Pages
Precept or Example by A. C. Grayling (The Form of Things: Essays on Life, Ideas and Liberty in the 21st Century, 2007, pp. 125-27)
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com
On The United States, Democracy and Presidential Elections: This was written a couple of years before the current race for the Democratic nomination which like all the others has been reduced to a farce and disgrace by the media and the very process itself. The status of democracy in Canada and most other so-called “democracies” in the West is probably not much better. Joe Lunch Bucket once again will have the privilege of going to the polls and deciding what multi-millionaire corporate backed lackey to vote for. [JR]
Is it better to teach by precept or by example? A paradox infects the first method, and a problem infects the second. The paradox in the first is that only the wise can learn from precepts, but, being already wise, they do not need them. The problem in the second is that example is a hit-and-miss teacher,-some see the point, others do not, and yet others see it well enough, but do not like it.
These reflections are prompted by the fact that the United States is currently engaged in teaching democracy to the rest of the world by precept, but not by example. On the contrary, the dismaying spectacle of presidential and congressional elections stained by slur and smear, whose participants need millions of dollars just to get near the starting post, where serious doubts attend the electoral process - fraud-prone electronic ballots, deliberately abbreviated electoral rolls, emotion-directed advertising - and where more than half the electorate fail to take part, is scarcely a shining example of democracy at work. The main lesson it teaches is how to preserve the status quo; the point is neatly captured by Gore Vidal's remark that the US is governed by a single political party with two right wings.
The United States is in fact a plutocracy, a polity in which wealth is the basis of power. At current values it takes a hundred million dollars to be elected (cynics would say: to purchase the office of) President of the United States. The campaign which raises the most money has the best chance of winning, because money means advertisements, mobility for the candidate and his [sic) staff, leaflets, flags, razzmatazz, lobbyists, research, polling and all the rest of the expensive business of trying to win. In fact this price-tag is considerably too low, because running for President is a life-long task in which many further costs have to be paid, and not just in cash, to get into the right position even for a chance of nomination.
Theoretically, a democracy is a political entity in which anyone should be able to stand for election simply on the basis of his or her attributes and ideas. But even in Britain elections cost millions, from the deposit each candidate must put down in order to stand in a constituency, to the advertising costs involved in putting across one's own message and inflicting damage on the opposing message.
In ancient Athens the qualification for office was eloquence. At first blush this seems a questionable aptitude; do we not have plenty of untrustworthy examples - the glib and oleaginous politician, the fast-talker, the smoothie, the snake-oil salesman? It is true that when antiquity's Sophists set to work, teaching anyone who could afford the fee 'how to make the worse case seem the better' as one of them put it - thus inventing 'spin' -the persuasive tongue began to seem a disingenuous thing.
But the reason that Sophists could sell the art of eloquence at all was that in the pristine state of the ancient polities, eloquence was a mark of intelligence, knowledge, experience and good judgment. These qualities by themselves make anyone eloquent; they speak with the tongue of nature. No one thus equipped need learn the tropes of rhetoric or the psychology of persuasion, still less the power of the calculated witticism and the covert insult.
Despite claiming the name, the ancient Greek democracies were anything but: slaves, women and men under thirty, between them constituting the vast majority in each state, were voiceless. Among the enfranchised remainder, such differentiating factors as reputation and personality might work their magic, but it was only later in the Greek city-state's history that family name, wealth and the ossification of institutions leached power from the 'agora' (the forum, the open space where the men of the state gathered to debate) and put it into the hands of those with a knack for manipulation.
Among the drawbacks of the democracy of eloquence was the fact that there was no guarantee that the most persuasive speech contained the best advice. But the Athenian agora was not an assembly of fools: very often what made a speech the most persuasive was precisely that it contained the best advice, and the listeners knew it when they heard it.
It is not clear, in short, that the money and calumny of our modern hustings serve us better.
A C Grayling Bio
Anthony Grayling MA, DPhil (Oxon) FRSL, FRSA is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford. He has written and edited many books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are a biography of William Hazlitt and a collection of essays. For several years he wrote the "Last Word" column for the Guardian newspaper and is a regular reviewer for the Literary Review and the Financial Times. He also often writes for the Observer, Economist, Times Literary Supplement, Independent on Sunday and New Statesman, and is a frequent broadcaster on BBC Radios 4, 3 and the World Service. He is the Editor of Online Review London, Contributing Editor of Prospect magazine. In addition he sits on the editorial boards of several academic journals, and for nearly ten years was the Honorary Secretary of the principal British Philosophical Association, the Aristotelian Society. He is a past chairman of June Fourth, a human rights group concerned with China, and has been involved in UN human rights initiative. Anthony Grayling is a Fellow of the World Economic Forum, and a member of its C-100 group on relations between the West and the Islamic world. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and in 2003 was a Booker Prize judge.
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