Not all the writings by Immanuel Kant are impossibly difficult to read and understand. In fact, one of his best known essays, “On the Beautiful and the Sublime”, is relatively brief, it is written in clear prose and it addresses its topic with some very acute observations.
The essay may also hold some significance for certain of our current political maladies. It may be important because it deals with the subject of rhetoric, a matter very much on the minds of philosophers in the Eighteenth Century. It is also a topic that pertains to President Obama–both in his obvious abilities as an elective politician as well as in some of his difficulties as Chief Executive of the United States.
The study of rhetoric is, of course, a study of the art of persuasion by manner and speech. In the ancient world it was deemed an art of such crucial importance that over time it was analyzed and elaborated as a set of principles into a virtual science. In his essay Kant attempts to illustrate an important difference between two of its major techniques. His explanation may have important meanings for our president.
According to the philosopher the most common technique of rhetoric is that of the beautiful. It is a form of speech that captivates the audience and wins acclamation by its attractiveness. It has the appeal of spring flowers, of grazing flocks, of a ray of light against the shadows. One might say this was the approach Mr. Obama employed to achieve the most impressive and improbable victory in recent American political history.
But Kant explains another type of rhetoric as well. It captures and compels the audience in a different way. This approach, the sublime, has an element of terror or dread, it evokes awe and even fear. It gives the impression of a granite peak, a raging storm, a violent crash of ocean waves. As a method it achieves it purpose by what might be called the strength of personality.
If we set aside political views and ideology for a moment we can evaluate President Obama simply as a man, a man who must use his manner and speech to achieve a public purpose. In doing so we might find a lesson for him in the writings of Immanuel Kant.
There is a time for attractive words and a time for emphatic words. President Obama used one approach to attain office. But perhaps he needs to learn the second approach to fulfill the obligations of that office.