Written by Stanley Fish, scholar and professor of law at the Cardozo Law School in the US, Winning Arguments—What Works And Doesn’t Work In Politics, The Bedroom, The Courtroom, And The Classroom is an elegant start for those looking to learn the subtle art of persuasion. It looks at why US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric has helped him get this far in the race to the White House, and also travels back in time and space to put together an intriguing selection of winning arguments.
Some things to look out for in the book:
How does Trump get away with absurd arguments? Which rules of argument does he follow and which does he flout? Fish offers in-depth analysis. “(Trump’s) hodgepodge of anecdote, innuendo, braggadocio and bombast led one pundit (Jack Shafer) to say ‘Donald Trump talks like a third grader’.” Fish disagrees. Trump manages to project sincerity, says the author. He tells his audience, “I don’t use teleprompters, I just speak from the heart,” using Aristotle’s premise of “pathos”, or the power of emotional appeal.
Don’t miss the rouse-to-action argument of Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where Antony uses the rhetorical strategy of denial. “I am no orator…to stir men’s blood,” he says, and proceeds to do exactly that.
In the chapter on bedroom arguments, Fish describes the classic back-and-forth man-woman arguments (in verse) between Adam and Eve in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost.
Learning to argue is crucial wherever you are, at home or at the workplace, because, as Fish says, we live in a world of argument. A skill in rhetoric, in argument, then, goes a long way. It can build political orders and civilizations, and determine how they work.
The book also explores several interesting questions: “Is it okay to torture somebody?” “Is personal liberty more important or is it more important to obey the rules of public morality?”
There is much weighty analysis here, and that makes the book a slow read, but Fish writes with such flair that persisting is worth the effort.