Peter Jones

Ancient and Modern: Aristotle on Balls

The reason why shadow chancellor Balls is such a liability is that he is incapable of understanding how other people feel. That may not matter in relation to the opposition — they do not care how he feels either — but it does, for what one would have thought were fairly obvious reasons, when he is dealing with us. Aristotle (384–311 bc) explains why.

In his brilliant Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle devotes considerable space to a discussion of the emotions and the way in which they may be manipulated to one’s advantage. He is especially interested in anger and its opposite, praotês, which means ‘calm, mildness, patience, tractability, good temper’. ‘We are angry with those speakers who belittle us,’ he points out, ‘but calm toward those speakers who treat us as the speakers would treat themselves; since no one would ever disregard or belittle himself.’ We also appreciate a little humility, he goes on, ‘for such speakers appear to be agreeing that they are inferior, and an inferior person would never belittle another.’

Aristotle illustrates the point charmingly from Homer’s Odyssey, when dogs rush out to attack Odysseus, but he cunningly sits down and (apparently) defuses their anger. Again, we stay calm before those we respect but also those we fear; presumably Aristotle is thinking of someone who would fight back if we got angry, though politicians can do nothing about us throwing things at the telly when they are on. All these, Aristotle concludes, should be borne in mind by someone who wishes to win an audience over.

This is the very last thing that Balls seems to understand.

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