The Ancient Greek Strategy for Staying Sane in Today’s Post-Truth World
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The Ancient Greek Strategy for Staying Sane in Today’s Post-Truth World

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The Ancient Greek Strategy for Staying Sane in Today’s Post-Truth World

Robin Reames is a professor of rhetoric who teaches in the English department at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Below, Robin shares five key insights from her new book, The Ancient Art of Thinking For Yourself: The Power of Rhetoric in Polarized Times. Listen to the audio version—read by Robin herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

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1. Rhetoric isn’t what you think it is.

Rhetoric is not lies or deception, hot air, nor is it bullshit. The number one question I get asked when I tell people what I study is, “What is rhetoric?”

Initially, rhetoric emerged in the ancient Greek world because people needed a tool to study how language could be used to wreak political havoc. The idea was that, by seeing how the tricks of language and persuasion worked, people would be less easily tricked. We begin using rhetoric whenever we take a step back from language and evaluate it with a more critical eye. The field of rhetoric developed over hundreds of years as a vast metalanguage—that is, language about language— words that name and describe what language is, what it can do, how it works, and why it’s persuasive. That’s rhetoric.

The funny thing about this question is how totally unaskable it would have been at every period of Western history before this one. That’s because, after its inception in ancient Greece, for more than two thousand years, rhetoric dominated education throughout Europe, the Near East, North Africa, and eventually even America, up until the beginning of the 20th century. It’s only recently that we stopped paying attention to it, but when we begin paying attention, it alters our perspective on a lot, including the truth itself.

2. Truth isn’t what you think it is.

One aspect rhetoricians study is how the idea of truth has changed over time—in the sense of what the word “truth” means. Today, we think of truth as a correct representation of language. Something is true when the words correctly represent the world and false when they don’t. But back at the beginning of the rhetorical tradition, that’s not how people thought about truth.

They thought of truth as something being revealed or undisclosed (the literal meaning of their word for truth was un-hidden). The opposite of truth wasn’t “falsehood” but rather “hiding,” in the sense of keeping something hidden from view or failing to reveal it. In the same way that we’re suspicious today of AI, ancient rhetoricians were suspicious of written speeches because it seemed the speaker was hiding behind written words rather than speaking openly the words that revealed what they thought, revealing themselves to the audience. A written speech was, in a sense, untrue.

“The opposite of truth wasn’t ‘falsehood’ but rather ‘hiding,’ in the sense of keeping something hidden from view or failing to reveal it.”

Believe it or not, we still carry this ancient notion of truth today. It’s a major reason we believe speakers and politicians who tell obvious, boldfaced, even proven lies: when they speak extemporaneously, it naturally seems as though they are genuinely revealing something to the audience rather than hiding behind prefabricated words. In ancient rhetoric, this “showing” and “revealing” that happens in spontaneous speaking was as good as true; and to many people today, it’s still as good as true—whether or not it should be.

3. Facts don’t work like you think they do, either.

We tend to think of facts as fixed, immutable, and unchangeable realities. Logically, it would seem to follow that the more factual a speech is, the more convincing it will be. But oddly, this is not the case when facts are packaged in language.

For a fact to be a fact in the first place, it must be falsifiable. If it doesn’t have the potential of being proven false, it’s not a fact. In rhetorical practice, this means that all it takes for a fact to lose its status as a fact in a speech is for someone to contradict it by saying it isn’t a fact. All it takes for it to seem like Obama might not have been born in the U.S. is for someone to deny he was. Or, for example, for us to believe that the Sandy Hook school shooting, the moon landing, Biden’s election, or insert conspiracy theory here didn’t happen, all it takes is for someone to deny that event’s factual status. In language, facts work the opposite of how they work in life, and it helps to explain why we have so many outlandish conspiracy theories these days. Fact-denial works like a rhetorical snap of a finger. Every time.

4. The same goes for values.

Unlike facts, we think of values as subjective: they are aesthetic, moral, cultural judgements; high ideals, like freedom, the nation, truth, honor, family, and so on. So, we might assume that the more persuasion depends on values, the less convincing it will be. But yet, in rhetoric, the situation is reversed. While speech that relies heavily on facts tends to be quite vulnerable to refutation, speech that relies heavily on values can be very hard, if not impossible, to refute.

Values are difficult to refute because they are abstract. They don’t have any concrete content of their own; they have to be given concrete content by being applied to a certain situation. The value of “freedom” doesn’t have much independent meaning until it’s applied to a specific context where freedom is at stake.

This means that, believe it or not, we share many values in common. Almost everyone would agree that values like freedom, honor, courage, and so on, matter. It’s kind of strange when you think about how polarized our politics are, and how much we distrust each other, given how many values we share in common. Where we disagree, it’s not because we don’t share a given value; it’s because we’re applying values and prioritizing them differently in a specific context.

“Speech that relies heavily on values can be very hard, if not impossible, to refute.”

For example, during the pandemic, many disagreements about stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and vaccines were propelled not by science or facts but by a conflict of values: Liberty versus Safety, Freedom versus Health, the Private Individual versus the Public Good. These were a lot more influential on people’s response to the pandemic than science or fact—actually, where science or facts entered the arena, it was usually treated as a value.

The more one value was treated like an absolute value (not tempered or put in check by another competing value), the more uncompromising and extreme a person’s response would likely be. Often, our most entrenched disagreements stem from treating issues as though one value, and one value only, is all that matters. We can begin to understand each other better when we try to understand how the values we share—rather than one absolute value—are at stake in the issues we confront as a society.

5. We can learn to disagree better by asking better questions.

This is a skill we’ve almost entirely lost today, but it was an entire method in ancient rhetoric. Today, instead of asking questions, we take stands, almost reflexively or automatically. And our stance—on Gaza versus Israel, Black Lives Matter versus the police, Ukraine versus Russia, Trump versus Biden—is typically determined automatically by what “side” we’re on.

We inherit the idea of “taking a stand” in political disagreements from the ancient Greeks. They called it “stasis,” which literally meant “stand” in Greek. But unlike us, the ancient rhetoricians didn’t begin with a stance. They asked a series of “stasis questions” to arrive at a stance.

They believed there were only four possible kinds of disagreements and therefore only four kinds of stasis questions to ask:

  1. Fact: Does a problem exist?
  2. Definition: What kind of problem is it?
  3. Quality: How serious is the problem?
  4. Policy: What should be done about it?

Debates that were not “in stasis” hadn’t yet figured out precisely which issue their disagreement fell under; if not put in stasis, the two sides would simply be talking past each other, with no hope of a resolution.

One reason we talk past each other in public debates these days is that nearly all of our stances focus on policy (question number four) when our disagreements are rooted in another question: fact (question number one). And the funny thing about the fact question is how flexible it is. The ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero was one of the first to point out how malleable and not-self-evident the fact question can be because “it can be assigned to any time.” Everything from “Did Ulysses kill Ajax?” to “If we leave Carthage untouched, will any harm come to the Roman state?” counts as a question of fact. This means that experimenting with the fact question can take a debate in new directions, even with debates that seem totally unreconcilable and entrenched.

Take the border as an example. We go back and forth endlessly over building a border wall, increasing or decreasing policing, increasing or decreasing apprehensions or expulsions, changing or reinforcing amnesty requirements, and so on. All of these are policy positions. But do we ask any questions of fact? Here are only a few fact questions we don’t ask: Do current border policing practices decrease border crossing attempts? Would a more strongly defended border improve the conditions of poverty that migrants are attempting to escape? Would a border wall erode foreign relations with allies to the south? Is there a problem with valuing security over life? Is there a problem with valuing life over security? These are only a handful of the fact questions we might begin asking, on only one of the issues where we are so divided.

“There are countless other ways that the ancient art of rhetoric can help you think differently and think for yourself in this intensely polarized age.”

Depending on which fact questions we ask, not only do our answers vary, but our attention focuses on different aspects of the problem—aspects that might be less irreconcilable than we thought; aspects we might not have thought about by simply taking a stand on policy.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are countless other ways that the ancient art of rhetoric can help you think differently and think for yourself in this intensely polarized age. I grew up in a white, fundamentalist Christian, extremely conservative family in the Deep South, and I mostly believed the ideas I was told. Rhetoric taught me how to question the polarizing things that I was raised to believe were true and to become more critical in a beneficial way. I’ve seen the same thing happen with my students, year after year. I live for those “Aha!” moments when students’ eyes widen because they see how the language is working behind the persuasion.

To listen to the audio version read by author Robin Reames, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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