Aristotle on rhetoric and rationality : a study of Aristotelian political psychology
Verbitsky, Mark Stephen
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This study explores Aristotle’s political psychology, focusing on the lessons it teaches regarding the character of human reasoning. Contemporary political science has largely adopted the behavioral-economic model of political psychology. This model offers many insights into the limits of human reasoning, highlighting in particular the errors and biases that shape our choices. However, these insights come at the cost of an overly narrow view of human reasoning. When such a political psychology is applied to public policy and political rhetoric, it offers lessons on how to direct public action by taking advantage of unconscious thought processes, but it fails to teach how leaders might constructively engage human rationality. I argue that Aristotelian political psychology offers a useful corrective, one that can help us better understand both the potential and limitations of political guidance. To gain access to Aristotle’s political psychology, I begin with an overview of several of his psychological works: On the Soul, On the Motion of Animals, and the Nicomachean Ethics. I focus in particular on the concepts Aristotle uses in his study of human choice, and I draw out Aristotle’s unitary understanding of psychology, meaning the interrelated nature of thought and desire, which in turn illuminates the constitutive role that thought plays in shaping the ends of human action. From this theoretical basis, I turn to a more concentrated study of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, exploring first the rhetorical concepts Aristotle introduces in the work, and then delving into the psychology of persuasion. In this study, I explore the ways that rhetoric necessarily engages the audience’s rationality and judgment. A particularly valuable lesson is the way in which rhetoric can draw out overlooked concerns and thereby broaden the audience members’ considerations, all in order to help them reach conclusions they would not by themselves. Returning to contemporary political science, I argue that Aristotle’s conception of political psychology offers us a better understanding of human choice, and he offers guidance on how rhetoric can be used to refine, rather than only exploit, public opinion.