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Monday, February 8, 2021

Aristotle on rhetoric #4 - maxims


There’s a technique in cooking called ‘reducing.’ It involves heating a sauce - made up of many complex ingredients - over and over. As the volume of the sauce decreases through evaporation, so the intensity of the flavour increases.

Debaters need to be a bit like cooks, assembling the complex ingredients of their arguments into an attractive, easy to digest form which can be consumed by their audience. Sometimes they need to do some ‘reducing’; evaporating the inessential, boiling their arguments down to their essence.

This is where our last idea from Aristotle comes in: maxims. Aristotle defines maxims as being short, sharp statements which sum up the essence of an argument in very few words.

Maxims can be enormously powerful. Here are two recent examples of them in public life in the UK.

The 2019 General Election

The General Election of 2019 came three and a half years after the UK had voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union. Those three and a half years were characterised by complex, detailed negotiations with the European Union, followed by complex, detailed manoeuvres between the various factions in Parliament. And still the UK hadn’t left the European Union. After three and a half years, almost everybody, bar a few nerdy obsessives, was fed up with the subject of Brexit.

The main opposition party, Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, offered a 107 page manifesto, full of dozens of detailed proposals and policies for governing the country. The governing Conservative party also offered a manifesto, but you wouldn’t know it, because their leader, Boris Johnson, seemed incapable throughout the campaign of saying anything other than three words: ‘Get Brexit Done’. What will you do about transport? Get Brexit Done. What will you do about education? Get Brexit Done. What will you do about the economy? Get Brexit Done. Over and over again. It was a simple, clear message, welcome to large numbers of people, and it worked: the Conservatives won by a landslide.

The Covid-19 crisis

The UK duly left the EU, but that didn’t keep out the coronavirus, giving Boris Johnson’s newly elected government the biggest crisis in a generation to deal with. On March 23rd, 2020, Johnson announced a national lockdown. Persuading people to action - or rather inaction - was now a matter of life and death. So another three words were repeated, again and again, night after night, on every available outlet and poster site: Stay At Home. Stay At Home. Stay At Home. It was simple, clear, spoke to people’s fears, and it worked: polls suggested an unprecedented 91% support for lockdown measures.

How can you use maxims in a debate?

Say the motion is: ‘This house would take down statues of people guilty of racist attitudes or behaviour.’ The proposition could sum up their key argument - that to celebrate racism is to perpetuate it - in the maxim: ‘Racism must not stand.’ The opposition could sum up their key argument - that history must be understood as a whole, and not restricted to contemporary perceptions - in the maxim: ‘Don’t rewrite history.’ Speakers on both sides could return to these maxims throughout the debate, helpfully drawing attention to the point of clash: should historic racism be denounced, or understood?

Maxims aren’t enough by themselves. Saying ‘Get Brexit Done’ is not going to make for a successful completion of the renegotiation of thousands of complex treaties on which the economic health of the UK depends; saying ‘Stay At Home’ does not address either the complex physical and mental health needs of millions of people or the catastrophic economic fallout from the pandemic. However, provided maxims are based on and are derived from a thoroughly argued case - provided the sauce already has all the ingredients before you start reducing it - they can be powerful tools for focusing attention on the essence of your case.

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