Saturday, November 15, 2008

An Ancient Approach to Political Warfare - Part II

Continued from Part I.

Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, contends that “since the objective of rhetoric is judgment… we must have regard not only to the speech’s being demonstrative and persuasive, but also to… bringing the giver of judgment [i.e. the audience] into a certain condition” (2.1). This requires an understanding of the audience and the sorts of things to which they are attentive; thus, Aristotle spends all of Section 7 discussing the possible characters of men who may hear a speech. The rhetors of the Old Testament understood that their audience valued history and historical continuity; thus, they made a point of framing their message in these terms, often invoking the prophecies of old.

This approach to appropriating tradition for propagandistic purposes was not unique to the Greeks or Hebrews, but can be found all over the ancient world. Philip M. Taylor contends that “Rome lacked the rich mythological sources available to Greek propagandists, so it created a mythology of its own” (35) This is, in fact, a sloppy simplification of a far more interesting process: Virgil’s Aeneid did not so much create a mythology as weave together several pre-existing stories of Rome’s founding – one by Aeneas and the Trojan survivors, another by the twins Romulus and Remus – in a way that supported the imperial government. Put another way, he appropriated a tradition, drawing upon its elements and then going beyond it to cover new ground.

Kautilya, an ancient Indian thinker, was a contemporary of Aristotle’s, though 3,000 miles away. He too understood the importance of appropriating tradition and discussed it in his Arthashastra, a handbook of statecraft. He explains that a king who has recently conquered new territory should “adopt the way of life, dress, language and customs of the people, show the same devotion to the gods of the territory [as to his own gods] and participate in the people’s festivals” (13.5.8; Rangarajan’s 741). Note that Kautilya is not interested in any particular quality of local customs, except that they are local and most likely beloved by the people. Though it is highly unlikely that Kautilya ever heard of Aristotle or his work, both demonstrated the same finesse for understanding an audience and the things that will favorably dispose it.

Modern-day practitioners of propaganda and political warfare would do well to learn from the ancients this lesson of appropriation. Americans, in particular, living in a relatively young nation that is more oriented toward the future than the past, tend to undertake their efforts without first asking themselves if there is already a pre-existing tradition whose terms and concepts they might adopt in order to lend their arguments new credibility. This, of course, requires the effort of first learning about foreign traditions and schools of thought, but the price is well worth it.

One of the uncomfortable qualities of Mason’s work is that it raises a difficult problem: what are we to make of an Old Testament that often bears a striking resemblance to propaganda, but which is claimed to in fact be the Word of God? An understanding of the appropriation of tradition helps us resolve some of this dilemma. A God Who acts in human history, Who stoops to make Himself known to mankind, can be expected to reveal Himself in a way that is conducive to the human mind. This is not so much God acting like a man, as it is God speaking to men; the Divine Rhetor understands His audience quite well and tailors His message accordingly. The point may be illustrated in regards to the earlier example of the lands promised to Abraham. God, in drawing a spiritual parallel between Abraham and Solomon, also draws a geographic one, not because the geography is or is not historically correct, but because the human mind appreciates and naturally grasps this sort of physical parallelism. Aristotle and Kautilya would understand the technique; there is no reason we should not.

This post first appeared on The Guild Review earlier this month.

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