Monday, August 18, 2008

On Rhetoric

One of the aims of Classical education is to teach students how to communicate with excellence. Such communication involves not only speaking correctly (through grammar and sound logic), but also in a persuasive manner. Rhetoric is the art of speaking well. As the saying goes, "it is not what you say, but how you say it."

Students in their final years of study in a Classical program will study and practice rhetoric as the capstone of their incremental education. To this end, most Classical schools require all seniors to write, present and publicly defend a thesis in order to graduate. Prior to this, students might practice rhetoric through formal debates for and against specific propositions, including some that might be very absurd. A rhetorician seeks to use the tools of language to convince you of his logic and reasoning.

There are, it seems, some dangers to teaching rhetoric without impressing upon students the gravity of the ethical dimension of the art. In the quest to convince someone, the rhetorician can sometimes employ language in place of, rather than in support of, his argument. This is most commonly seen in politics, and it can be used quite effectively. A skilled rhetorician can paint a picture of tragedy, create a sense of urgency, or weave a tapestry of hope, all through the use of words and language.

In our time, Barrack Obama is an example of a rhetorician of considerable skill who has used it to acquire a following. His speeches are largely full of rhetorical fluff that only seem to convey emotion rather than substance and so I find his use of language questionable. Good rhetoric ought to appeal to good reason. Bad rhetoric rests on emotional manipulation.

While I am still thinking through much of this, I would like to start a dialogue on the ethical responsibility of rhetoricians. Ought we to call rhetoricians out when they descend into manipulation, or is it even a problem worth worrying over?


StaffAction said...

One of the first things that came to mind while reading your post was Lewis's Abolition of Man - specifically the first chapter, men without chests.

Also, remember that Obama does poorly without the use of the teleprompter. This may become obvious to the public during the debates.

dougbaker said...

You say, "Good rhetoric ought to appeal to good reason. Bad rhetoric rests on emotional manipulation."

While I agree in part I am uneasy about juxtaposing reason and emotion. True, you qualify it as manipulation, but would you go on to say that pure appeals to emotion are intrinsically manipulative? From what you say I would guess that you are more comfortable with Paul's letter to the Romans than with the extravagantly emotional Psalms of David or of Korah's sons.

I am glad that you use the word "reason" rather than "logic," but still I would maintain that good rhetoric is generally rife with emotion and with imagery. Its roots in the speaker and its fruit in the hearer lie more in the imagination than in logic.

No one ever made any great decision based on logic. Are you married? Did you marry because logic convinced you that it was in your best interest to marry, and to marry that particular woman? No, of course not. Your imagination carried you away as you played with all of the possibilities that such a marriage might open up.

So it is always: the imagination plays with possibilities and we find ourselves convinced of what we must do. Did Jesus appeal only to reason? Did he not paint word pictures of life and death, of life in the Kingdom, death without? And weren't these blatantly appeals to the listeners' imaginations and their emotions?

Of course, a wise imagination must be tutored by reason and accurate information. Imagination must study. Imagination without reason is folly. But reason alone will never make a decision, it will never be a hero, it will never bear children.

Good rhetoric is reasonable, emotional, imaginative, honest and passionate.

Laura said...

This is interesting... I'm teaching a upper-level class this fall, using Veritas's Omnibus program, that focuses a great deal on rhetoric and argumentation.

Re: Obama, have you seen's "It's Time for Some Campaignin'" video? It's a hoot. "Obama" sings about changing the change we have for the change we want to change, or something like that... priceless.

We ought to call out public figures whenever they rely on emotional manipulation to support their cause -- but the question for me then is, in what context? Christians ought to remind each other to be critical of any ear-tickling rhetoric, and teachers, parents, and pastors have what Ms. Austen would call "an especial" responsibility in this area.