Ancient and modern

The post-truth is out there

10 June 2017

9:00 AM

10 June 2017

9:00 AM

In a political ‘post-truth’ world, currently the subject of a slew of books, emotions and personal belief are said to shape opinion more than ‘objective’ fact. But as Aristotle pointed out in his Art of Rhetoric (4th century bc), there are facts only about the present and past; about the future, politics’ main concern, there are only interests and aspirations.

Anyone who addressed the Assembly, he said, must know the facts about revenues — sources of income and expenditure, and where to spend and cut; about present and potential military strengths, and in what areas (and the same about other states, so as to know whom to attack and whom not); about defensive strengths and weaknesses; about food supply — home-grown, imports and exports — and their potential for trade agreements; and legislation (‘for in laws lie state security’).

In all these areas, he said, knowledge of history and of other state’s practices were also important.


The purpose of all this, Aristotle continued, was to promote some desired outcome, which for him was ‘happiness’. This, for most people, he suggested, could include wellbeing combined with virtue; self-sufficiency; pleasure (including health) combined with security; and abundance of possessions and slaves, together with the power to protect and use them.

These topics he then enlarged upon, pointing out that the aim of persuasion was to find out how best to achieve those outcomes.

To do this, said Aristotle, you must appeal to people’s sense of advantage. So Aristotle then produced further lists of what people considered absolutely, or relatively, advantageous. The ‘absolute’ category included, for example, wealth, friendship and justice, the ‘relative’ what was rarer, longer-lasting, home-grown, what wise men thought good, everything one wanted to be rather than seem, and so on.

For Aristotle, all these means of persuasion drew upon understanding what humans wanted: they were his ‘objective facts’ about human nature. And what does ‘post-truth’ have to say on that subject?

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