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Rhetoric as Truth-Fishing

On seeing the other side and loving your neighbor

It has been said, mostly in old westerns, “don’t change horses in the middle of the stream.” However, that does not rule out going all the way across and deciding you’re riding the wrong horse, or that you crossed the wrong river, or that you’re going in the wrong direction, or that something screwy is going on. Anyway, I have such a story to tell.

Last week I wrote an essay. Not this one. A different one: an essay about The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. As this essay made the final turn and headed towards the barn, I discovered it was only lacking one thing: the truth. I had made it all the way through invention, arrangement, and most of the elocution, and only then discovered my error. I had successfully crossed the wrong river on the wrong horse going in the wrong direction.

Thankfully, I was writing this essay according to a form that won’t let you write without thinking. Not being allowed to not think doesn’t always make writing easy, but it does allow you to identify errors, outside yourself and within. I was struggling with the latter—an error inside me that I was not able to recognize until attempting to complete the essay according to the form I had been handed.

To recap the writing of my erroneous essay: having completed my invention, compiled my outline, and begun the elocution, all was proceeding as planned. Then, I hit refutation. For refutation, I was required to select the two best arguments against my thesis from my invention, to summarize their strengths, and then briefly state why these reasons ought not be considered convincing proofs against my thesis. As I wrote my refutation, I paused. Not a pause like when you step out the front door and the crispness and freshness of morning air compels you to stop for a moment and deeply inhale until your lungs are full of the morning goodness, but a pause more like when you step out the front door, trip over a scooter, and slam your nose into the concrete. You pause there, just for a minute gathering both your temper and your tongue before attempting to stand back up. Writing the refutation had tripped me up because the two arguments I had selected to refute were not unconvincing. In fact, they were pretty good.

Rhetoric is a liberal art because it frees you to consider your neighbor’s argument long enough to love him

Still sure of myself and of my thesis, I skipped the refutation and continued writing. I restated my thesis and began to write my amplification according to the form I had received. This ancient and enduring form requires a student to conclude an essay through a statement regarding to whom the essay matters and why it matters to them. Without hesitation, I was able to identify a group to whom this essay would matter, but when I tried to say why, I tripped over that same, darn scooter again. I felt I needed to write the exact opposite of the points delineated in my outline.

Through this rhetorical ordeal, I discovered that thinking about the issue, completing my invention, selecting my proofs, compiling my outline, and writing the bulk of the essay were all steps that led to writing the refutation and, especially, to the final portion of the refutation where I had to state that the antithesis had no warrant. But it was well-warranted. I had crossed the stream, but I was on the wrong horse.

So, I put all my writing away, and re-read The Tempest. But this time through Shakespeare’s tale, I read with a new perspective, knowing that something inside me did not approve of the judgements I had made the previous three times through the book—a new perspective prompted by a form that forced me to disagree with myself in order to see if I actually agreed with my disagreement.

When I completed re-reading the book, I reviewed my invention and found that the choices I had made a revealed my bias for my previous thesis even while I was supposed to assessing both sides of the argument. I reworked my invention, beginning by selecting my previous antithesis as my new thesis and asking myself which facts from the text either affirmed or negated my new thesis. When I finally made it back to elocution, I was able to rewrite the essay in a fairly brief amount of time compared to the previous ordeal.

I believe my experience embodies, even if just a little bit, why Rhetoric is a liberal art. Through the elements of the classical, persuasive essay, I was given the tools for truth-fishing, and very late in this rhetorical fishing expedition, I caught a whopper. I had been fishing all day; I was near the end of my essay, but when it came down to it, this liberal art freed me to hear a voice that said, “cast your net on the other side of the boat.” It was that “inner voice of unfailing certainty that only negates” referred to in Norms & Nobility, chapter 6. It was my conscience, and the art of Rhetoric had given it a megaphone.

Rhetoric is a liberal art because it frees you, through its form, to consider your neighbor’s argument long enough to see (and perhaps even experience) why they are convinced by it. Not that you have to be convinced—they may be wrong, but rhetoric helps you listen and consider before you finalize a judgement.

Rhetoric is a liberal art because it frees us to listen a little more closely, thereby loving our neighbors a little more like we love ourselves. Is that not the way you would want to be treated?

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