Analogy as Persuasion

As well as clarifying the unfamiliar, analogies often have considerable persuasive force. Before we look at an example, though, we need to distinguish between logical and rhetorical analogies. In logic, analogies are a special form of proof; we are not concerned with them here.

Our interest is exclusively in rhetorical analogies, and rhetorical analogies never constitute logical proof. At best they are what has been called "a weak form of reasoning." They merely suggest that because A resembles B in certain respects, it also resembles it in others. But since the resemblance between A and B is never total and exact, what is true of one cannot necessarily be applied to the other.

For example, some political thinkers have used the "similarity" of a state to a ship to justify an authoritarian society. They argue that a ship can survive storms only when authority is completely in the hands of the captain, who rightfully demands unquestioning obedience. So, they conclude, a state can survive only if its citizens submit unhesitatingly to an absolute ruler. But, of course, ships and states are not identical. What may be needed for safety at sea cannot be assumed to apply to good government on land. Such analogies which claim to "prove" unwarranted conclusions are called "false" or "unfair."

But even though they are not a form of logical proof, rhetorical analogies can be very persuasive. Consider this one used by Abraham Lincoln in a speech opposing the spread of slavery to territories outside the South:

lf 1 saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. Much more, if I found it in bed with my neighbor's children, and I had bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, take it no man would say there was any question how i ought to decide. That is just the case. The new territories are the newly made bed to which our children are to go, and it lies with the nation to say whether they shall have snakes mixed up with them or not. It does not seem as if there could be much hesitation what our policy should be.

Lincoln's argument simply assumes that slavery—the wrong and does not prove it. But most of his audience would not have needed proof. The essential point is that slavery should not be allowed to spread beyond the South, and the analogy is a striking, forceful explanation of why not.

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Project Management Made Easy

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