Consider these two seemingly opposed but somehow related pieces of news from the last few days of the U.S. presidential election campaign.
According to Politifact, a Pulitzer-award winning site dedicated to fact-checking, Hillary Clinton has said mostly truthful things in this electoral campaign, while Donald Trump has said mostly false things: in over 500 statements surveyed for both candidates, more than half of Clinton’s are veridical in some degree (68 half true, 76 mostly true and 71 true) while more than half of Trump’s are falsehoods of several types (63 mostly false, 108 false and 56 lies of the ‘pants on fire’ variety). For comparison, Trump also says truthful things and Clinton also lies, but in both cases to a much lesser degree than they do the opposite (crosscheck against the number above – Trump: 45 half-truths, 35 mostly true assertions and only 14 simply ‘true’ statements; Clinton: 40 mostly false, 29 falsehoods and only seven ‘pants on fire’ lies).
And here’s the kicker: who do you think that people trust the most? A different study conducted by ABC and the Washington Post in the two last days of October has found that more people consider Donald Trump trustworthy than they do Hillary Clinton: 46% against 38%. This may come to you as an unexpected finding, especially if you have followed the presidential debates and took note of how sometimes Donald Trump lied about something that he had just said, either by claiming that he had said nothing of the sort or by interjecting in a baritone voice that whatever anyone else was saying about him was ‘wrong’ while never explaining why. But there we have it: according to the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, who presented these findings on his blog, the factualness of truth and falsehood has nothing to do with the perception of honesty by the common citizen or voter.
Or maybe there’s something here that we have overlooked. I will suggest that there is indeed such a thing, and that it is buried in a few pages of an ancient book which can be considered one of the cornerstones of our civilisation but, as with many of such books, one has to be in need of a fresh look if wanting to really understand its message and why it is still so relevant for us.
If tradition is to be believed, Aristotle was born 2,400 years ago, in 384 BC. If he were somehow time-transported to our era and told that most of the West lives according to the regime he called ‘democracy’, I very much doubt that he would believe us: not only was he deeply suspicious of what democracy could develop into as ‘his’ democracy was a very different beast, created for fear fewer people with a much greater intervention over daily governing issues and also a much narrower scope allowed for elective posts (and a much greater scope for offices whose holders were drawn by lot among the much smaller proportion of citizens in the polity). But he would, I believe, immediately seize upon what is happening in the 2016 U.S. election and the differences between the characters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as well as the resulting perceptions. And I think that Aristotle would immediately identify what is at stake in the current big confusion we make when striving for truthfulness in politics.
In book II, chapter 7 of his Nichomachean Ethics (NE II-7 in the scholastic notation), Aristotle dedicates a few pages to what one could call the ‘social virtues’. The very first of these is parrhesia (παρρησία), which one can translate as truthfulness or frankness ─ literally it means ‘to say everything’ or ’to speak frankly’ ─ and that I will translate here as sincerity. I think it arguable that Aristotle would first commend us for being concerned with truthfulness, as he would concur that truthfulness is indeed the principal ethical foundation of political life. But thereafter he would proceed in his characteristic way to separate between the vices that are correlated to truthfulness and arise out of the exaggerated or defective materialisation of the virtue and would conclude by expecting us to adhere to a ‘golden mean’ ─ a μεσότης or mesotis ─ that would allow for the virtue of truthfulness to subsist in public life. Let’s follow him along for a while.
Both vices correlated with truthfulness he describes with a temperamental example. Firstly we have the kind of person who never says the complete truth, all the truth or what is true in the right quantity. This person, whom he calls the eirôn (εἴρων) is therefore always less than truthful. By the way, that’s where the words irony and ironist come from, as irony is the rhetoric device that allows someone to say less than what one really means, but let’s set aside this acquired sense for now. The second character in Aristotle’s NE II, 7 is the person who always says more than what he or she should, the alazón (ἀλαζών) or braggart, the liar who always lies by exaggeration. The eirón is falsely modest where the alazón is arrogant, but both fail to adhere to a correct standard of civil truthfulness and so, in a sense, both weaken the public credibility of political discourse.
Well, I cannot think of a clearer example of the two temperamental examples that Aristotle put forward in his Nichomachean Ethics than the two that we have in display between Clinton and Trump. And now that you have followed Aristotle and me until this point, I hope that you are also convinced that more perfect contemporary embodiments of the Aristotelian vices than Clinton and Trump are arguably nowhere to be found. Hillary Clinton is the eirón, the person who (maybe out of suspicion and guardedness, as Chris Cillizza suggest) never spells out entirely what she means and makes an art of the understatement, thereby lending an impression of false modesty to all that she says. Donald Trump, of course, is the alazón; there can be no greater braggart than he, it is indeed impossible to find someone who will brag more about himself than he does. There is a word for him in every language, but given the way that he has particularly insulted Hispanics, I think that it is appropriate to call him a fanfarrón. Go look it up in the dictionary. There is simply no better description of Donald Trump than fanfarrón.
Now, I happen to think that Hillary Clinton is mostly a sincere person; she’s been working for a number of good public causes for decades in a way that would not be possible in case she did not really care for or believe in them. But there is no doubt that she does come across as inauthentic. And while I am convinced that Donald Trump is not only insincere but also a high-calibre liar, even I have to admit that he does indeed come across as authentic. In fact, he is an authentic liar.
Sincerity and authenticity
The problem here is that it is easy to mistake sincerity for authenticity. While Aristotle would commend us for our rightful quest for truthfulness in politics, he would rightly chastise us for engaging in an absent-minded, unexamined quest for truthfulness. In our misguided way we have come to believe that the sincere-but-inauthentic and the authentic-but-insincere are in some way equivalent and that both should be disbelieved. Some of us have even gotten to the point where we feel it is better to trust the authentic and arrogant liar, because s/he boasts and brags about his or her defects, than to trust the falsely modest person who tries (and maybe fails) to come across as more virtuous than what we believe s/he can possibly be. If that reasoning were to be followed to its logical conclusion, it would be much better to vote for someone who gladly confesses that he cheats on his taxes, abuses women and dupes his workers and contractors, only to then authentically lie about having confessed it, than to vote for someone who seems to have some trouble about straightforwardly telling us everything about her emails or her pneumonia. Or take it a step further: this would mean not only trusting someone more who boasts about wanting to kill his parents than someone who cannot bring herself to confess that she disliked them, but also using this difference in private attitude as a yardstick for civic virtuous behaviour. In a sense, this is already what is happening, and this is why a ton of very real lies and scandals won’t harm the braggart as much as even the hint of half an unconfirmed suspicion will harm the falsely modest.
At this point, of course, one can see why this is a big problem for democracies and, indeed, for any polity. By messing up our perceptions of sincerity and authenticity we end up substituting a reasoned (and reasonable) approach to truthfulness in politics for just some kind of gut feeling that while appearing well-intentioned is indeed destructive to democracy. And of course, one does not have to mention the Brexit referendum – where the large amount of evidence against leaving the EU was systematically put into doubt or disbelieved while every far-fetched argument for leaving the EU, however unreal, was presented as equally valid or indeed as a distinctly feasible possibility to pursue ─ or the political situation in illiberal democracies such as Hungary and Poland to see conflating sincerity with authenticity can be a very real danger for politics in the 21st Century. An environment of disseminated hypocrisy will lead to a general lack of trust in politics. People will believe that the point in politics is choosing the liar we happen to like the best; or even that there is no choice at all. That’s where we are now.
We are indeed living in times that are prone to instantaneous indignation in a context of shallow collective memory. We don’t quite remember how democracies self-destructed in the 1930s, much less how a 2400-year old philosopher used to decipher the connections between individual temperament and collective well-being in his time. Some people will attribute that to the cumulative effect of technology, mass media and social networks ─ although other periods in the past did suffer from the same symptoms in very different socio-cultural environments. In any case, there is neither an easy nor a desirable way to cut down on our connectedness via technology, news and opinion. All political and cultural prescriptions that depend on turning back the clock are worthless. In a sense, we should be doing just the opposite: turning forward the clock on intellectual tools that have had its usefulness demonstrated by sound reasoning at any point in human history, thus updating their applied philosophical use for our own practical purposes.
One should not want to force people to live as in Aristotle’s times — to Make Ancient Times Great Again. But maybe one could try to educate oneself and others on how to pursue the goals we already strive for, like truthfulness in politics, in a more reasoned way. We should Make Aristotle Great Again by considering anew his distinctions which will allow us to see sincerity and authenticity in a more distinct way and help us achieve what we all wish for collectively.
Or perhaps to paraphrase what they say about America: there is no way to make Aristotle great again without recognising that he was already pretty great in the first place. The real question is how great shall we be at making the kind of political and moral distinctions Aristotle excelled in.
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