Of Sophists and Serial Killers

“The Boston Strangler was one of my students. Or so it seems.”

“How,” distinguished law professor Ronald Rotunda asks, “would DeSalvo [aka the Boston Strangler] have been able to talk his way into places where women lived in fear of the rapist-killer?”  Rotunda accepts blame:

My class in rhetoric offered an answer. When giving a speech, the speaker’s goal should be to win over the audience. He must try to be charming and seem genuine. Best of all is to possess that ineffable characteristic known as charisma. None of these qualities can be taught. DeSalvo had them all. He was someone you liked almost automatically. You wanted to trust him, even though you didn’t necessarily know why.

It turns out that I am teaching Political Speechwriting: Theory and Practice this summer myself. And, besides, by what I hope is coincidence, I know more than my just share of serial killers, having been a high school classmate of Ted Bundy, who killed perhaps scores of young women, and having attended college with Randy Kraft (aka “The Freeway Killer). I barely knew Kraft, but I do have memories of Ted Bundy, a good student with no outward quirkiness aside from political ambition. Fortunately, none of my students this term appears to be of this bent—though in a lengthy teaching career I can name several who stand out, for good and for ill.

Perhaps the most obviously deranged student I’ve known was a self-professed Nazi (this, on a military base). Following the course he claimed to have changed his attitude toward Jews, but not toward blacks. I once taught a community-college level class in prison, where I encountered some of the most intellectually astute minority students I’ve ever met. But who knows what Wall Street scandals the Princeton students I precepted one semester have gotten inveigled in? Is not all teaching sophistry—turning young men and women into wise guys?

Thankfully, I’ve had other students who claimed I had changed their lives for the better, simply by teaching ordinary subjects that turned out to be extraordinary for them—Lincoln, Plato, the Constitution. And I’ve even managed to help a few former students get nice jobs writing speeches for important people.

But will teaching Lincoln’s craftiness produce smarter Stephen Douglases (and not Frederick Douglasses)? Obama adviser David Axelrod is supposedly a close student of Lincoln’s political strategy—while no one on the Republican side appears to take Lincoln with any seriousness at all. Will the skill of writing moving speeches be turned in service of vile purposes—from seductive poetry to demagoguery?

Thus the teaching of rhetoric must ultimately be more than rhetorical. Otherwise, as my daughter, then about eight, once complained, I was just helping people cheat. Classicist Seth Benardete, explaining the Republic, once proposed that the core of cosmology is rhetoric (thus explaining ancient, medieval, and modern political philosophy in one turn of phrase). America itself exemplifies this. In America, all notable rhetoric centers on the Declaration of Independence, itself the world’s most extraordinary rhetorical—and a great philosophical—achievement: We Americans celebrate not the day of independence, July 2, but the explanation of that day, provided by the signing of the Declaration.

As cynical as Americans can be, the greatest speeches they have heard point toward self-evident truths about human nature, liberty, duty, happiness and God—the central issues of western civilization. Attempts to be merely clever about such grave matters expose these speakers as charlatans. They are the true sophists, and, alas, they are legion and far more destructive to the nation than a host of serial killers.

Reader Discussion

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on August 02, 2013 at 21:28:52 pm

"Is not all teaching sophistry—turning young men and women into wise guys?"

In college I was a double major: Electrical engineering and human biology. I think neither of those subjects were sophistry. (As has been said, you can rationalize all you like, but the bridge either stands or falls, and all your words can't change that. Engineering is objective that way.) But much of philosophy and law clearly are sophistry, especially constitutional law.

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Brett Bellmore
on August 03, 2013 at 20:43:06 pm

The writer of Ecclesiastes summed it well, when he wrote, 9:3, "...:yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead." And old Puritan in the sixteen hundreds put the finishing touches to the text in human reality, when he preached upon the subject, "Mystical Bedlam," finding that the human heart is the same in all men and is what we use to call an insane asylum or what we now refer to as a psychiatric ward. Jesus summed it up perfectly, when He said, Mt.15:19, "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders,...." Think of bloody dictators of the 20th century. I remember having nightmares after viewing some pictures of one of the concentration camps taken by a member of my second church with an old Browning box camera. I think I shall never forget that prison compound full of dead men's bodies, frozen perhaps by weather, perhaps by rigor mortis in the obscenities of death. We are liable to see even more, along with the holocaust of 55,000,000 abortions, here in America, if the forces now working to produce a full scale revolution succeed, a blow which will send the world back into the Dark Ages with a vengeance.

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dr. james willingham
on August 05, 2013 at 22:36:17 pm

We need faith and science to work together, as Lincoln did in his July 10, 1858 speech about the Declaration: The self-evident truth of equality could be proven by science or by the Gospels.

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Ken Masugi

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