Of Sophists and Serial Killers

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“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.