Benjamin Franklin on effective rhetoric (was: [GUNS] a comment)
Thu, 3 Jun 1999 16:18:15 EDT

In an earlier post I suggested that flamewars might, among other positive side-effects, encourage the development of increasingly effective rhetorical tools. More recently, various posts have discussed whether responding to anti-gun messages changes any minds. In regard to both notions, allow me to share some comments of Benjamin Franklin.

In his autobiography, Franklin relates that he enjoyed sharp argumentation in his youth and won a reputation--a justified but not favorable one--for stirring up trouble. He reflected, as he matured, that while fellow travelers often admired his rhetoric and awarded him points for demolishing their common opponents, he never seemed to change anyone's opinion on the merits of their disputes. Instead, Franklin discovered, his chastened adversaries merely retreated in anger to find new (and seldom better) justifications for their views or merely to repeat more heatedly what they had already asserted in vain.

That Franklin found it easy to attribute such reactions to human pride and irrationality soothed him, but still left him with empty victories. Franklin thus resolved to find more convincing rhetorical tools, ones that would both root out error *and* encourage the adoption of more correct views.

Franklin furthermore discovered, as he matured, that he had in many cases embraced false tenets. He began to espouse a philosophy quite akin (I daresay) to the pancritical rationalism that Max More has ably described. Thus Franklin resolved to always preface his claims with, "It seems to me that," "Evidence suggests that," "One might reasonably assume that," and so forth. This, he found, not only proved more honest and accurate, but also proved more apt to gently sway his listeners. He even organized a wonderfully successful debate and discussion society--the listserv of his day, I suppose--around such principles of rhetoric.

Franklin's autobiography includes a great many other useful and entertaining observations about rhetoric, practical ethics, and human nature. I wholeheartedly suggest it to transhumanists of all stripes.

T.0. Morrow