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Recovering the Humanity of Rhetoric

What is rhetoric? You’ve probably heard or thought of rhetoric as the art of persuasion. Fans of Aristotle will probably think of it as the art of finding the available means of persuasion. If you follow in the vein of Quintilian, you will probably think of it as the art of persuasion toward truth (and goodness and beauty). For those of you who have heard Andrew Kern speak on the topic, you’ve probably picked up something along the lines of rhetoric being the art of decision-making in community. One of these is decidedly not like the others.

So, why could, possibly even should, someone view rhetoric as the art of decision-making in community? Let’s begin by reimagining each of the Trivium arts in this way. Grammar is the art of reading and writing; it includes how to do these things as well as understanding language and ideas, and therefore how to interpret them. Grammar, in this sense, is the art of harmonizing an idea. If I were to point to a giraffe and say, “That animal is an owl,” my sentence would be in discord. If I were to follow what I have learned from the art of grammar, though, I would have to say, “That animal is a giraffe.” Now, my sentence would be in harmony. Grammar is the art of harmonizing an idea.

Logic, then, can be understood similarly. Logic is the art of harmonizing ideas. I have two ideas: “All men are mortal” and “Aristotle is a man.” When I harmonize these ideas, I can conclude, “Therefore, Aristotle is mortal.” Using the art of logic, I have harmonized the ideas. If I had concluded, “Aristotle is immortal,” then my ideas would have been discordant.

Rhetoric, it should be clearer now, is the art of decision-making in community because it is the art of harmonizing the ideas different people hold. If my neighbor holds to the idea that Brutus should have assassinated Caesar while I hold to the idea that Brutus should not have assassinated Caesar, my use of rhetoric to communicate to him my perspective is an attempt to bring us into harmony with one another. By this, we are more than just redefining rhetoric however; this idea of rhetoric as a tool of harmonizing neighbors can be seen in its canons. Let us consider the first three.

Invention. The first canon of rhetoric, Invention is the collection of tools we use to discover or find all of the possible information related to a question that requires resolution. I identify my question, “Should Brutus assassinate Caesar,” and then I use the tools of Invention to uncover all related information to my question. Using these tools properly, I define the terms properly, uncover all possible relationships, and identify all of the arguments for and against the decision. By this, I honor truth, goodness, and beauty, but I also honor my neighbor. I honor him, and therefore his humanity, by willingly and intentionally discovering not only why I should believe what I believe but why he believes what he believes. It might just be that we are brought into harmony because I realize he is in the right and change my own views. If not, I proceed to the next canon.

Arrangement. The second canon of rhetoric, Arrangement is the collection of tools we use to logically and coherently order our thoughts for the sake of our audience. Note those last words: for the sake of our audience. Rhetoric is humanizing because everything we do in Arrangement is for the sake of my neighbor. When I open my address with an exordium, I am not violently and forcibly imposing my words on his attention. I am inviting him, welcoming him into a conversation. When I follow the exordium with a narratio, I am communicating that there is certain background information he needs to be able to come to this conversation with understanding. When I set forth the division, I am admitting that we are in agreement on many things, but honestly identifying the narrow point on which we disagree. When I tell my neighbor how many points I will have in the enumeration, I am giving him the heads up as to what the extent of his commitment will be to this conversation.

When I move into the body and I begin repeating my thesis and my proofs (first stated in the introduction, then again to open each proof, and finally re-stated in my conclusion) I am honoring his attention. I am helping him to follow my arguments. And, even if he were to momentarily daydream or lose attention, he would know exactly where we are when he recovers his attention. In the same way that a reader highlights or underlines in a book, or even when a reader flips back a page to recall what point the author is on, the listener needs to be able to do the same. He cannot, however, because the address is spoken. The speaker provides those highlights for him. I am acknowledging the humanity of my audience even here. When I move on to the refutation, by addressing his strongest arguments, I am honoring the fact that he is a human being with real ideas and real issues and real reasons for believing what he believes. We dishonor our neighbors when we reduce their beliefs to straw man arguments, or worse, to something they don’t even believe.

In the conclusion, when I close my address with an amplification, I am not making an emotional appeal, à la an SPCA commercial with a Sarah McLachlan song, in order to manipulate or guilt my neighbor into agreement. I am gently reminding him that even if my arguments up until this point have not persuaded him, there are people or things out there that he cares about, and this issue, it affects them. In a sense, I am saying, “Please, if for no other reason than that, give my arguments a fair hearing.” It is not just what I say, though, but also how I say it that is humanizing.

Elocution. The third canon of rhetoric and last one to be discussed here, Elocution is the collection of tools we use to communicate our thoughts well. Elocution, however, is not simply adding ornamentation to our address for the sake of wowing our audience, impressing our audience, or overwhelming our audience. We use good English grammar and vocabulary because we honor the human mind’s need for clarity and precision. We use schemes and tropes, not as ornamentation, but as the natural outworking in human language to satisfy the human mind’s need and desire for goodness and beauty. The address we give is not a tree decorated with ornaments but is a tree bearing fruit. Our neighbors do not desire plastic bulbs hanging from dried out limbs; our neighbors desire the goodness of a freshly picked, ripe, juicy fruit. Elocution is the tool that provides for them the latter.

Rhetoric is the art of bringing harmony to a community. We recover the humanity of rhetoric when we use its tools faithfully and honesty. The art itself demands such honoring of our neighbors. Like any tool, however, it can be easily corrupted and reduced because of the power it offers its user. Knowing that rhetoric is a powerful tool for the persuasion of others, it can easily become a weapon, wielded for the destruction of my neighbors and their beliefs. But it does not have to be.

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