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Susan McWilliams' Views of the 2016 Presidential Campaign and Aristotle's Views of Civic Rhetoric

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 7, 2016: Susan McWilliams in political science at Pomona College in Claremont, California, has published her post-election observations about the worrisome language of the 2016 presidential campaign at the website of Commonweal Magazine (dated December 6, 2016):

McWilliams completed her Ph.D. in political science at Princeton University in 2006.

McWilliams' article is titled "In the Beginning Was the Word: The Worrisome Language of the Election." However, even though the title contains the opening words of the prologue of the Gospel According to John, the text of her article contains no mention of that gospel.

Instead, McWilliams refers to Aristotle's claim that people are political animals, a "claim that rested on the fact that people are beings who talk. Because we can use words to reflect and reason with each other, Aristotle said, we are able to discuss the terms by which we want to live. Therein lies politics," McWilliams says.


But McWilliams does not happen to advert explicitly to Aristotle treatise on civic oratory. So I want to highlight certain key points from that treatise, and then review certain points McWilliams makes in her article.

Aristotle discusses three kinds of civic oratory: (1) deliberative rhetoric (involving pro-and-con debate about possible courses of action to undertake), (2) forensic rhetoric (in law courts involving pro-and-con debate about the guilt or innocence of someone as charged), and epideictic rhetoric (involving values, and at time pro-and-con debate about possible values to hold).

In our American experiment in democratic governance, deliberative rhetoric is involved in the pro-and-con debate about proposed bill advanced in legislative assemblies such as the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, and forensic rhetoric is involved in the pro-and-con debates in our courts of law about charges under debate.

In our American experiment in democratic governance, presidential campaigns typically focus on values.

According to Aristotle, in all three kinds of civic oratory, the civic orator uses three kinds of appeals: (1) logos, (2) pathos, and (3) ethos.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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