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Rhetoric, Symbols, and Reality


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The word rhetoric has come bear an unfortunate stigma over the years. Rhetoric, as popularly understood, amounts to little more than a bundle of self-interest wrapped by a thin layer of truth. But this is only one model of rhetoric.

In her book, The Trivium, Sister Miriam Joseph stated that, “Rhetoric is the master art of the trivium, for it presupposes and makes use of grammar and logic; it is the art of communicating through symbols ideas about reality.”

Whether verbal or written, rhetoric is a master art of communication. It incorporates both grammar and logic, though it may do so rightly or poorly—and that is a critical point. Either rhetoric rightly communicates “through symbols ideas about reality,” or it does not. When it does not it communicates something other than reality, instead communicating a foreign, or fabricated reality, thereby forming ideas that do not correspond to reality.

The relationship of symbols to reality determines the core distinction between two varying models of rhetoric. One model of rhetoric makes use of symbols that re-present a reality that precedes the symbol. The other projects a fabricated reality that proceeds from the symbol. A symbol, when considering modes of communication, may take the form of an image or the form of language. We will first consider the relation of images to reality before proceeding to language.

Richard Kearney writes in the Wake of the Imagination,

“The culture of the Book is being replaced, it would seem, by a culture of the Image. Some even claim we are entering an era when reading may become an anachronism, little more than a nostalgic luxury.

The contemporary eye is no longer innocent. What we see is almost invariably informed by prefabricated images. There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the image of today and of former times: now the image precedes the reality it is supposed to represent. Or to put it in another way, reality has become a pale reflection of the image.”

Today’s images have increasingly shied away from reflecting reality in order to project a fabricated alternative. For instance, the purpose of an advertisement is to lead the patient (a prospective customer) toward a desirable end that results in a profit for the seller and some perceived satisfaction for the consumer. The ad projects a possible reality that may be purchased. The customer does not conform or submit to a transcendent reality, a reality outside of himself, but selects the reality, one option among many, that will satisfy an individual desire. It is a purchased reality.

The distinction is important. On the one hand, the image was perceived to be a reflection of the reality that preceded the image. In this way, the image was prescriptive insomuch as it presented a reality to which the patient ought to conform. On the other hand, the image is believed to project a desired reality that may or may not bear any likeness or relation to truth. The patient need not conform to anything for he is rather in the business of conforming the world around him to his own passions, wishes, or likes. In other words, we are no longer constricted to three wishes granted only when the lantern is rubbed, and even then upon certain conditions. We may seek to fulfill as many wishes as we like. There was an ancient wisdom that left us with only three wishes for it understood much more deeply the danger of giving too much reign to the carnal appetite.

Kearney is arguing that at one time people believed reality preceded the image, whereas now, the image precedes the reality. C. S. Lewis was making a similar argument near the end of his third essay in the Abolition of Man.

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”

Now replace the word “image” with the word “rhetoric” and you begin to see the cultural temper surrounding our popular perception of rhetoric. Rhetoric is commonly used to promise something. It says nothing about what ought to be or what we ought to love. Instead, it projects a fabricated reality that appeals to our lower appetites.

However, rhetoric has not always been perceived in this light. Consider rhetoric in the sense proposed by Socrates who argued that the rhetorician must know truth in order to lead the soul to truth. According to Socrates, the goal of the rhetorician is not to package his own interests and cast them upon the crowd but to unveil the glories of the natural and created world so that the crowd may gaze upon truth.

When rhetoric embodies the truth to which it is anchored, it works to first inform, and second, to conform the soul to reality. In other words, rhetoric guides the soul to perceive truth in order that it may rightly imitate the truth it perceives. It is falsely perceived to be a matter of projecting a fabricated reality that aims only to appease one’s appetites. And because of this position, rhetoric is a critical factor to an authentic education.

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