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Good News About Debt

Confession time: when I return from trips I am tired and grumpy and don’t feel like doing anything. So this morning, I was sitting querulously at my desk when I looked up over an easy chair that is sitting in my office while my daughter waits to move it into her apartment and I saw this book: The Rule of Metaphor, Paul Ricouer.

Just the sort of thing I need to distract myself from the miseries of daily life. So over I walked, up-picked it, and in-sat myself the chair. (I get like this after trips).

Whereupon I oped the book to the first chapter, which was entitled: Study 1: Between Rhetoric and Poetics: Aristotle.

Now my mental juices were flowing. Try to imagine my excitement when I read these words:

The historical paradox of the problem of metaphor is that it reaches us via a discipline that died towards the middle of the nineteenth century, when it ceased to be part of the collegial cursus studiorum. [Interjection: this Latin-dropping nearly made my unsteady heart skip an extra beat]. This link between metaphor and a dead discipline is a sourc eof great perplexity: does not the return of contemporary thinkers to the problem of metaphor commit them to the hopeless project of resurrecting rhetoric from its ashes?

But wait, as the TV commercials are still silly enough to say, there’s more!!

… A reading of Aristotle tells us that we must begin cautiously. First of all, a simple examination of the table of contents of Aristotle’s Rhetoric shows that we have received the theory of figures of speech from a discipline that is not merely defunct but amputated as well.

Oh man, this is good. What he means is that rhetoric (the discipline he’s talking about) is a dead discipline, but not only that, it’s isolated from every other subject. It’s off all by itself, with no connection to other subjects. He goes on (!):

A theory of argumentation (inventio, the ‘invention’ of arguments and proofs) constitutes the principal axis of rhetoric and at the same time provides the decisive link between rhetoric and demonstrative logic and therefore with philosophy (this theory of argumentation by itself takes up two thirds of the treatise).

So many beautiful thoughts are flooding my mind that I can hardly track them, much less record them in this blog post. Truly, this is one of those rare passages that weaves so many threads together as to make an elegant, charming, and, dare I say without much hyperbole, breath-taking tapestry.

For one thing, Ricoueur has outlined the whole catastrophic error of modern education in three paragraphs, both theoretically and practically. He shows us that rhetoric died in the 19th century. He further shows that before it died, it was amputated. After all, amputated limbs don’t do much good. Still more, he shows that rhetoric was murdered and amputated only after it was misunderstood and displaced.

Rhetoric, in the tradition, was not another subject. Indeed, it was not a “subject” at all. It was an art, and an art that was essential to the study of every other “subject” (which I put in quotation marks, not to condescend to or frighten the reader, but because Aristotle would have spoken of arts and sciences, not the more vague “subjects.”). Nor was it merely, as we approach it today, the art of persuasion. For Aristotle, rhetoric was “the art of discovering the best argument.”

For Aristotle, and for the Christian classical tradition, rhetoric was a rich field of study in which the study learned, first, to build a solid argument for a position. What we now have spun out as “critical thinking” was an essential part of the art of rhetoric. This is why one of the most common remarks users of LTW pass our way is how unique and fantastically beneficial the canon of invention is. No other writing program, they tell us, teaches it.

That’s because LTW is a classical rhetoric program. Classical rhetoric is not a specialized subject. It is the core skill of the educated mind. This is still true today, whether people rightly name it or not. People still need to learn how to think and to communicate those thoughts to others. More than ever, perhaps; though I cannot see how there was ever a time when civilized life didn’t depend on apples of gold in settings of silver. The classical renewal has always been the answer to the breakdown of civilization. It is today as much as it ever has been. A right understanding of the nature and place of the art of rhetoric is essential for us as we seek to reinstigate the classical dream in our schools and homes.

One final word from Ricoeur on parting:

The history of rhetoric is an ironic tale of diminishing returns. This is one of the causes of the death of rhetoric: in reducing itself thus to one of its parts, rhetoric simultaneously lost the nexus that bound it through dialectic to philosophy; and once this link was lost, rhetoric became an erratic and futile discipline. Rhetoric died when the penchant for classifying figures of speech completely supplanted the philosophical sensibility that animated the vast empire of rhetoric, held its parts together, and tied the whole to the organon and first philosophy.”

In other words, when rhetoric was an art used to know and communicate truth, it had a power to bless and enrich those who experienced it (and everybody does). But when faith in knowable truth was lost, rhetoric lost its link to the rest of learning and “became an erratic and futile discipline.”

Don’t let it be erratic and futile in your curriculum. If it is not the disciplinary goal and core of your K-12 program, you don’t have an integrated curriculum because there is no other discipline powerful enough to integrate it. Consequently you are working much harder than you need to and your students are more frustrated than they need to be.

But the good news is very good: academically and pedagogically, it’s fairly easy to give rhetoric its place. It just takes courage to remember who your students are and what your obligations are to them.

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