The Fables of Aesop is out now!

Richard Weaver on Logic and Rhetoric, with a few applications to Debate

I’ve been posting quite a bit on the necessity for formal grammar instruction lately, and I will continue to do so in the days to come, God willing.

Grammar is a language study, one of the three liberal arts. The first.

Then comes logic or dialectic.

And then rhetoric.

For Grammar I have urged people to read The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy.

For Rhetoric I may have a book even more profound and important to recommend. The book is The Ethics of Rhetoric by Richard Weaver.

I can’t recommend it yet because I haven’t read enough of it, but what I have been able to read in my two minute time-thefts has been compelling.

You can perhaps imagine how tempting the first chapter was for me just by its title: “The Phaedrus [a dialogue by Plato] and the Nature of Rhetoric.”

But I was only flipping through, so I went to the second chapter. He begins by asserting that dialectic and rhetoric are two stages of argumentation. Now be patient with me because this next bit bears thoughtful response.

Dialectic is that stage which defines the subject satisfactorily with regard to the logos, or the set of propositions making up some coherent universe of discourse; and we can therefore say that a dialectical position is established when its relation to an opposite has been made clear and it is thus rationally rather than empirically sustained.

He’s only warming up. He has clarified for us what a logos is, at least when the word is applied to an argument. It is the face of the argument – the essence, if you like.

In addition, he has introduced this important idea of a “dialectical position” which is established “when its relation to an opposite has been made clear.” Here is the value of formal debate and its relation to dialectics or logic.

Next he raises the ante just a little bit:

We shall say that facts are never dialectically determined… and that the urgency of facts is never a dialectical concern.

If I were to reduce this to a practical lesson on debate (which it is not, but putting it in these terms may help us understand what he is getting at), I might say, “In a debate, the facts don’t determine who wins. The winner in a debate is the one who gets the logic of the thing down most effectively.”

I put it in that perhaps overstated way to draw out the necessary tension in what Weaver is saying.

But we have to remember that debates are not the place to study physics or history. They are, so far as they are logical/dialectical, the place to practice using logic.

Underlying these statements are two or more assumptions. First, logic is formal. Second, logic is so useful that students should practice using it in contests against each other.

Dialectic, in other words, is not about the way things are or even the way things should be. Perhaps the best way to say it is that dialectic is about the way things might be.

Weaver says

What a successful dialectic secures for any position therefore,… is not actuality but possibility; and what rhetoric thereafter accomplishes is to take any dialectically secured position… and show its relationship to the world of prudential conduct.

I may not be reading amiss to see the trivium placed before us in a rather tidy manner: Grammar, what is actual; Logic, what is possible, Rhetoric what is prudent or desirable.

To apply a stricter interpretation to my argument above, I acknowledge that a debate is not exactly a “dialectical position.” What it shares with the dialectical position is that it defines its position in its relation to an opposite. In other words, every debate debates two sides of an issue, side A and its opposite, side B.

Debate, however, goes further and makes an appeal to prudential conduct. Weaver has shown us that this is the rhetorical element of the debate.

We pass our lives debating issues, not usually consciously. To enter into a debating competition can make a young man or lady more aware of what is always going on in his unconscious mind, thereby giving him more control over it.

These paragraphs from Weaver can help any debater better understand the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of a debate.

The debater would do well, then, to define clearly and carefully the relationship of his position to the other position. It is obvious that they are opposites, and that is a very good place to start (I love the obvious). But if he can demonstrate the particularities of that opposition, he will earn the favor of his judges and make them receptive to his argument.

Once you have secured your dialectic position, then you are able to “show its relationship to the world of prudential conduct,” i.e. tell people why they ought (would be prudent) to do what he is arguing for.

In LTW, we teach students division so they attend to the particularities of the opposition. We frequently argue about things about which we agree or focus on details that do not define the disagreement.

Establishing your dialectical position frees you from that failing.

It also frees you to make your case for the action you contend to be prudent. That’s rhetoric.

So reading Weaver provides practical insight into effective debating.

But there’s more to it than that. Weaver is writing about the ethics of rhetoric, not the pragmatics of debate.

I’m anxious to see where he takes me, because his framework seems to correspond comfortably with reality.

Interestingly, the chapter is entitled Dialectic and Rhetoric at Dayton, Tenn.

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