News and events Tilburg University

Words need not be weapons; democratic decisions can be made together

Published: 26th September 2022 Last updated: 26th September 2022

How do you use words as weapons in democracy? If words can be weapons, then physical violence is no longer necessary, stated the Roman Cicero. Since the Renaissance, Cicero was considered one of the most important Roman thinkers, and his ideas on debating have been at the foundation of democracies like the US and UK. Retorica and ad hominem arguments play a major role in the House of Representatives, and in the modern media that have become an increasingly important political factor. However, we can also choose other sources of inspiration to reach decisions with each other, for example rabbis, Jesus, and the Germanic people, argues outgoing theologian Professor Bart Koet on Sept. 23.

In the science of history, there seems to be a reversal in recent years of the thinking prevalent since late last century, that no sound lessons for the present can be drawn from the past. The same applies to theology: if done carefully, we can at least be made to think by historical examples.

Koet examined several texts that have influenced our thinking about how to make democratic decisions together. For example, rhetorician Cicero left us his texts to use words to persuade the opponent, to teach and arouse emotions. In doing so, by the way, he did not shy away from using ad hominem arguments, arguments that play on the person.

Jesus used words in the form of a search together in times of much violence (the Roman rule). He told parables and often asked questions to make both his followers and his opponents think. 

Best fit method

According to historian Tacitus, after large gatherings in which debates were held over much food and even more drink, Germanic people came to decisions the next day when they were sober. And in the model of Jewish rabbis, people collectively make decisions about how the world is arranged, by majority vote, although they must respect minorities. Just for tactical reasons: in the future they can still be of value. And clearly, words can be very powerful and can even act as weapons.
Using examples from the past, we can examine which method of fighting with words suits us best.

Prof. Dr. Bart J. Koet studied theology and philosophy. He combined many years of scholarly work at various universities in the Netherlands and Germany with part-time work in a theological praxis. He became part-time associate professor of early Christian literature at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology in 2009.  Since 2014, he combined that with a regular New Testament professorship. Uniquely, as a Bible scholar, he was also a long-time spiritual caregiver in the Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam. In his pastoral work, he discovered the importance for dreams of inmates. This led to his scientific publications and pastoral practice paying much attention to interpreting dreams. Since 2009, he has led international projects resulting in authoritative publications on leadership in the early church, making him increasingly one of the most recognized specialists in that field in the world.  

More information
Prof. Bart Koet will deliver his speech on Sept. 30 at 4:15 p.m. in the university's auditorium, with live stream. The title of the speech is: The word as a weapon! Four voices from antiquity aired: Cicero, Tacitus, Jesus and Rabbi Eliezer. You can contact science editor Tineke Bennema, tel. 013 4668998 and at persvoorlichters@tilburguniversity.edu.