Peter Jones

Beyond words | 26 January 2017

His cavalier attitude to language would have appalled the ancient Greeks

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In his inaugural speech last week, the new President Trump said, among much else, the ‘American carnage’ of poverty, ignorance and criminal gangs ‘stops right here and stops right now’.

Since nobody with the slightest intelligence would offer such hostages to fortune, there is no point in paying attention to what he says, any more than to what he tweets.

This disrespect for words would have appalled the ancient Greeks, who were well aware of the power of language, both for good and ill. The sophist Gorgias, for example (d. c. 380 bc), talked of the superhuman might of logos (‘speech, utterance’) which was such that it could make you feel happy, putan end to fear, remove feelings of grief,and so on.

Logos had another important meaning for the ancient Greeks: ‘reason, debate’ (cf. our ‘logic’). The orator Isocrates (d. 338 bc) put persuasion by logos — rational, public debate — as the driving force behind law and therefore also behind justice, without which civilisation and all it stood for were impossible.

By the same token, however, logos could be perverted to evil ends. This was Plato’s problem with rhetoric. His point was that the audience for a solo oration could not test the quality of the argument by close and persistent interrogation.

‘Convey this message to composers of speeches and written discourses,’ said Plato, ‘that they must defend or prove them by spoken arguments, if they want to be known as true orators or legislators’. That is why Plato wrote his work as dialogues: because it wasas close to the spoken word as he could possibly get.

Mr Trump gives the impression of being a loud-mouthed bully, without interest in dialogue or other points of view, who will say anything to humiliate others and appear a winner (what the ancient Greeks meant by hubris).

Under such a slave to his own amour propre, who seems to think he has merely to speak for it to be done, his advisers will have their work cut out to generate realistic policy in the country’s best interests.