Wed, 27 July 2016
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have defined rhetorical history. Today is a re-record from when we were doing our "villians of rhetoric" series, but since we just recently did an episode where I apologized for being too hard on Kant, here's the original castigation. Enjoy!
Today we continue our podcast series on villians of rhetoric with Kant. As in Immanual Kant, and not ‘I can’t stnd him” I’ve actually been to Kant’s hometown, Kohnisberg, which is now Kaliningrad Russia. And when I say Kant’s hometown, I mean the town where he was born, studied and died. In his whole life he never even traveled more than 10 miles fromKonigsberg. He might not have been much of a traveler, but he had a spectacular philosophy career. He was apopular teacher and had success in fields of physics and natural science, but he didn’t really get into philosophy, hard core philosophy, until he was middle aged. And the emphasis is on “hard.” His critique of pure reason was 800 pages and dense dense philosophy, even for German philosophers. It wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves. But Kan revised it in a 2nd edition and eventually his philosophical work became popular. You know, for German philosophy. His ideas about Enlightenment were controversial, and he had to skirt censorship and even the King’s criticism. His disciples battled his detractors and Kant became the most important German philosopher since Christian Wolff and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. His ideas are quintessentially Enlightenment: agnostic, rationalistic, and committed to individual inquiry of philosophy instead of relying on tradition, including the classical tradition. Kant suggests that there is a thing-in-itself that exists out the in world, but that we are only able to encounter it through our senses and experiences.
Also, he didn’t like rhetoric.
And, brother won’t he let you know it. Rhetoric, he says “merits no respect whatever” because of several complaints: first, that rhetoric is just style. Kant says in the crituqe of judgment athat rhetoric is only “the art of transacting a serious business of the understanding as if it were a free play of the imagination (V 321), In this he makes the same complaint against rhetoric that some of our other villains—Ramus and Montaigne—have made: rhetoric is nothing more than style. By removing invention from the canons of rhetoric and focusing only on style, Kant can focus more on his idea of truth being something just out there rather than something constructed socially. As scholar Robert J Dostal says, “With Kant rhetoric is reduced to a matter of style—dispensable in serious philosophical matters. The requirement [of rhetoric] that one know men’s souls is eliminated in view that it is sufficient merely to speak the truth” (235).
Kant’s other complaint, like Agrippa, Jewel, Patrizi and Hobbes is that rhetoric is immortal. When Kant reads the classical rhetoricians he feels an “unpleasant sense of disapporival” because he finds rhetoric “an insidious art that knows how, in matters of moment, to move men like machines to a judgement that must lose all its weight with them in calm reflection” (V 327). In other words, if people would just sit down and think, really think like a philosopher, they’d come to the right conclusion, but these nasty rhetors mislead them with their tricky words. In this sense he defines rhetoric like this “Rhetoric, so far as this is taken to mean the act of persuasive, ie the act of misleading by means of a beautiful illusion ”
Kant wasn’t the only Enlightenment philopher to criticize rhetoric. Descrates points out that you don’t need to study rhetoric to be a good speaker because “those who reason most cogently, and work over their thoughts to make them clear and intelligible are always the most persauve even if they … have never studied rhetoric.” Like Kant, Descartes believes that if you just speak the truth you don’t need rhetoric. Kant wan’t alone in thinking that rhetoric was dangerously misleading, either. John Lock wrote that “all the art of rhetoric […] are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions and thereby mislead the judgment and so indeed are perfect cheat” So Kant had good company in disliking rhetoric. But can Kant be reconciled to a sympathetic view of rhetoric?
Scott Stroud thinks so. Stroud, who works here at the University of Texas (hook ‘em horns) is the author of a book coming out in October called Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric that aims to rehabilitate Kant to rhetoric. He claims that Kant didn’t really have the same definition of rhetoric which we have—he too, was influenced by villains of rhetoric like Plato and Ramus, and when he says he hates rhetoric, he means he hates something different. Since the book hasn’t come out yet and my Delorian is out of gas, I can’t tell you all of the arguments that Stroud will make in Kant and the promise of rhetoric, but I can tell you what I’ve gleaned from his earlier articles. One of them goes in the back door of rhetoric but looking at education. In 2011, Stroud’s article “Kant on education and the rhetorical force of the example” approaches a possible Kantian rhetoric through Kant’s ideas on education.
Kant says he hates rhetoric, but he loves education and was looking for a way to teach without coersing. So remember how Kant called rhetoric a “beautiful illusion”? Stroud argues that what Kant is objecting to is what Kant else where calls the “aim of win[ning] minds over to the advantage of the speaker before they can judge and to rob them of their freedom” (5:327). In this senese, Stroud says that Kant isn’t anti-rhetoric, but anti-bad rhetoric. The word rhetoric had been so pejorativized by Kant’s time that it came to be synonymous with manipulation and in opposition to individual consideration. So earlier, when we said that Kant was all about the freedom to think without the contraints of tradition? This is that same concern. As Stroud puts it, “What Kant is objecting to is the fact that such rhetorical deception moves people without their choosing the maxims of action, or without an accurate knowledge of what principle they are acting.”
Using illustriative examples, though, can enable the student (or the audience member) to think for themselves. Again, from Stroud, “Kant did not fear the skillful orator. He feared the skillful and non-moralized orator. Examples employed by a cultivated rhetor (a teacher, a preacher, etc.) are engaging because they partake in the lively form of narrative and they readily make themselves available for moral judgment.” Through the educational example, Stroud rehabilitates Kantian opposition to rhetoric. “The way examples operate in Kant's educative rhetoric is by evoking the experience of transitioning from the prudential stage to the moral stage of development in the subject's interaction with the example at hand.” Whether young students or adult audience members, these subjects can be taught without being coersed.
So maybe Kant isn’t truly a villain of rhetoric, but a victim of other villains who made rhetoric such a dirty word that he couldn’t imagine a rhetoric that could be moral and individually affirming. A rhetoric that could be called a Kantian rhetoric.
Wed, 20 July 2016
Just a heads up, this is a re-recording of an earlier podcast, so it's not chronologically accurate. Like, I didn't just submit my dissertation, I got it approved, defended and bound on linen paper. Boom! Okay, anyway, that's the warning, but really, if you've recently finished a dissertation and think its as interesting as I think mine is, you should email us at email@example.com. That way I can be all, "hey, that's great!" and maybe we can do an episode on it. There you go.
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people, and movements
Now some of you who listen to my podcasts may think, wait a second, we've talked about Gorgias already. The Dialogue? Yeah, but this isn't the Gorgias. This is Gorgias himself. The actual man Gorgias. He was an actual person and he was extremely popular as a rhetorician. People loved him. He was like a rock star.
There are very few rhetoricians who get a shiny gold statue made of them. In fact, I personally don't know anybody who has a shining gold statue but there's one man specific - Gorgias who did. It was solid gold. This was one of the many honors that Gorgias was awarded that are usually reserved for citizens, but Gorgias was a foreigner. In fact he traveled from place to place. He never really stayed still -- a lot like a rock star. Because of this, he was also sort of had that rock star reputation of not really being the most level headed or moral, sort of a person. But he was really, really good at what he did. And when you're a rock star you have to find even greater challenges.
So one of the challenges Gorgias set for himself was to write and encomium of Helen. First let me explain a little bit about Helen. We're talking about Helen of Troy here whose position in Greek society was not eh.. great. [laugh] Helen of Troy was seen as sort of the personification of sort of just lustiness and sort of infidelity and things like that. She did not have a high position.
An encomium is a specific genre of speech or writing where you sort of praise somebody who maybe didn't get a lot of praise. So you can think of analogies nowadays would be something like, maybe an encomium of Eve if you were writing in the middle ages or you might do an encomium of Bella from Twilight. So why did he do this? Why did he attempt an Encomium of Helen? Well partially he said, it was fun. He says I wished to write a speech which would be a praise of Helen and a divergent to myself which is also a little bit cocky. He's saying oh, it's so easy. Look at me do something fun like an encomium of Helen. But there's also a deeper, philosophical meaning here with Gorgias, just like how people can find meaning in rock stars' lyrics that they think is far deeper than just something fun. Gorgias was also making an argument about the power of language. Arguing implicitly that his speech has been effective by saying that language is extraordinarily powerful and that was what was behind Helen's abscondence.
So while he's describing that Helen couldn't help herself, everybody else in the audience is being swept away too. This is a page [inaudible][00:03:19] . A really playful piece, not a serious piece of deliberative or judicial rhetoric. Something that's a little bit just you know, sort of fun and curious to think about. It's also sometimes called paradoxalogia which is sort of where you set up something that sort of is in contrast and because of this paradoxalogia, it does seem a little bit contrary to have an orator tell you to be wary of the things people say in beautiful ways because they can lead you astray. He's kind of saying watch out, I can make you do whatever I want you to do when he writes a speech talking about how powerful speech is. He's certainly not making a case for straight talking the way he's speaking. But he's mostly focusing that speech can be good and bad and immensely powerful and that makes Gorgias himself into a sort of you know, benevolent dictator of people's emotions and opinions.
So how does he do it? How does he persuade people that speech is so powerful? Partially because the beautiful way that he speaks it. He is known for devices like antithesis that are sometimes even called Gorgiatic. So the way that antithesis works is you have one thing and an opposite thing. So he'll say a lot of things that sort of balance. "Opinion is slippery and insecure" he says, "emptying it into slippery and insecure successes." So you have sort of this really clear parallelism that he uses a lot. He describes cities and [inaudible][00:04:45] power, body and beauty, soul and wisdom, action and virtue, speech and truth. By creating connections between these things, he sets the stage for his thesis about the necessity of the speaker to speak and potentially lead people astray against their inability to stop the speaker. So he uses two metaphors significantly when he talks about speech. One is that speech is a lord and the other is that speech is a drug. Two metaphors that describe the irresistible nature of speech as well as the speech's power to be both benevolent or maleficent.
So he uses a lot of antithesis to sort of argue that speech is a powerful lord and overall he says that if Helen was you know, physically taken away, if she was kidnapped and drawn bodily, we wouldn't judge her. But being persuaded by speech is just as powerful as being carried away physically. So he says if she was persuaded by speech, she did not do wrong but was unfortunate instead. Since speech and stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nurture pity, it has the power of drugs over the nurture of bodies. This is a really powerful view. With such a speech that sort of gaily twists the knife into his critics that say that what he's doing is useless or superficial, he creates a really fun speech that also makes a powerful argument for the power of rhetoric and lays the group for future rhetoricians and sophists. Now not everybody loved Gorgias as sort of the father of sophistry. Aristotle of course, criticizes Gorgias' showmanship and money grubbing. He is also Socrates’ foil in the Gorgias, but even so-called early sophists like Socrates felt like Gorgias didn't really write an encomium. Not really in praise of her, but in defense of her.
Next week we're going to talk about Isocrates' Encomium of Helen. And in the meantime, think to yourself, what are some institutions or people that are usually criticized that, through the power of rhetoric, can also be rehabilitated? Does rhetoric really have the possibility to sweep people away as powerfully as physical action? Well, we'll have to think about those questions next time when we think about Isocrates' Encomium of Helen.
Wed, 13 July 2016
Bootstraps, Victor Villanueva
What does a rhetorician look like? When you imagine a rhetorician, maybe you see some white-toga-ed Roman, crossing his legs under his seat, holding a stylus to his chin. Or maybe you imagine a tweedy early twentieth century rhetorician, shaking out a newspaper and frowning. Or maybe you even imagine a contemporary rhetorician, presenting at the Rhetoric Society of America in front of a powerpoint presentation. But here’s a question for you--did you imagine a white rhetorician?
Today on Mere Rhetoric, we talk about Victor Villanueva’s book Bootstraps: from an American Academic of Color, which interrogates our discipline’s white privilege and privileging. But before we get to that, let me start out by thanking some people. First off, much thanks to the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas at Austin for supporting the show, including letting me record in this great recording booth with great people like Jacob here to record and edit. Also, thank you to everyone who took the time to leave a review of Mere Rhetoric on iTunes. Also thanks to my fiance Krystian for always believing in me. Know how you feel when you get written comments on end of semester evaluations? That’s how I feel everytime someone leaves a review. Finally, since I just came back from a conference where I got to meet some great people who like the podcast, I’d like to give a big shout out to Clancy Ratliff for showing me a great restaurant in Lafayette and her student Nolan, who let me jabber about the connections between creative writing and composition while he showed me where my next session was. If you have strong opinions about the best place to eat in your hometown, or if you have a suggestion for the next episode, why not drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org? Okay, enough business--let’s get to it.
I first became aware of the racial imbalance in rhetoric at my first RSA conference. Sharon Crowley was giving one of the key addresses, talking about racism in our students, in our institutions, and at one point I looked around at the audience--and wondered about racism in our own field as well. There were a few black and brown faces, but almost everyone in the great hall was white. We couldn’t, I realized, talk about racism in our classrooms and our colleges without interrogating our own racial assumptions.
That’s exactly what Victor Villanueva sets out to do in Bootstraps. Villanueva is a hot shot rhetorician, by almost any standard possible. He’s received the David H Russell Award for Distinquished Research, the Exemplar Award and Scholarship in English and was Rhetorician of the Year in 1999. Side bar: I did not know there was an award for being Rhetorician of the Year. Somehow, I imagine a People Magazine spread like for Sexiest Man Alive, but with pictures of academics mid-gesture in a lecture or thoughtfully frowning at a computer. Villanueva has also published and edited over 80 books including the essential anthology Cross Talk in Composition and Rhetorics of the Americas: 3114 BCE to 2013 CE. Guy knows his stuff. When you are literally rhetorician of the year, you must be the quintessential rhetorician, confident and poised in your rhetoricianness.
You’d think so.
In Bootstraps, Puerto-Rico-born Villanueva weaves autobiography, scholarship and teacher research together into an exploration of how the academic world can seem uncomfortable and unwelcoming to academics of color. He himself, for his PhD and his 80 books, when he writes about himself in the third person “He still suffers [the fear that he isn’t as smart as he thinks] today, thirty years later, PhD, publications and all… He has seen the liberal’s fear of being honest with people of color about their abilities; the fear of being considered a bigot .. He has seen that tokenism, even when well-motivated, even though somehow necessary, makes things seem equitable when they aren’t equitable at all… he always wonders if, maybe, he isn’t as smart as people think” (13).
Little commentary here: this feeling, like you don’t belong, is called impostor syndrome and it’s pernicious among graduate students, more especially people who already feel like they don’t belong, as Villaneauva says about his own PhD “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but knew I was getting into something not intended for the likes of me” (xv). I remember when I got accepted at the University of Texas at Austin, I had nightmares that I hadn’t been, in fact, accepted, but had been allowed to complete on a reality to show to gain entrance into UT Austin. “Who Wants to Be a Longhorn?” Other graduate students, professional athletes and actors, and anyone who feels like they got into something for which they secretly might not be qualified suffers from this feeling. We’ll talk about more impostor syndrome in another podcast, but for our purposes here, the key thing to remember is that academics of color, even when they are invited into programs and departments warmly can still doubt the sincerity of the welcome. They can doubt themselves, when the culture has been insisting for their whole lives that academia is “not intended for the likes” of them.
Villanueva’s education in the 60s certainly didn’t forsee a brilliant rhetoric academic career for little Victor. His first school that assumed that “you people need to learn a trade,” in the words of one of his teachers (3) and at the next one the PE teacher shouted “Go home and get a haircut! And don’t come back until you do!” So, he didn’t (38). Yeah, that’s right--Villanueva, probably one of the most important rhetorical authors of the later 20th century didn’t graduate high school, but the high schools he would have graduated perpetually underestimated him. Only through detours in the military did he finally come to Tacoma Community college: “I wanted to try my hand at college, go beyond the GED. But college scared me. I had been told long again that college wasn’t my lot” (66).
So I started this podcast talking about Sharon Crowley’s speech at RSA, and she shows up at a crucial point in Villaneuva’s life because it was Crowley, “the first person he had ever read who had written of the sophists--a bigshot” (118) who offered him a job. It’s not a happy ending though--material conditions are hard for any young academic and more especially those who don’t have large family resources.
One of the reasons why he had been underestimated is that he was a minority in the nation. That’s a word that’s hard to pin down or used too casually, but Villanueva makes a distinction between the immigrant and the minority: “We behave as if the minority problem where the immigrant problem,” (19) and all we need is to make the minority sound or act like the majority. “The difference between the immigrant and the minority amounts to the difference between immigration and colonization” (29). He tells the story of two of his students arguing about English’s role in the composition classroom. “Both are Latinos, Spanish speakers, but Martha is Colombian; Paul is Puerto Rican. Martha, the immigrant. Paul, the minority. Martha believes in the possibilities for complete structural assimilation; Paul is more cautious” (24). “The immigrant seeks to take on the culture of the majority,” he suggests, “and the majority, given certain preconditions, not leaves of which is displaying the language and dialect of the majority, accepts the immigrant. The minority, even when accepting the culture of the majority,is never wholly accepted. There is always a distance” (23).
“The code switcher is a rhetorical power player,” he quips, pointing to how bilinguals recognize intuitively the fluid nature of language, the rhetorical nuances that comes from understanding the inexact nature of self-translation (23).Villanueva points out that we often assume that cultural shifting happens naturally, without any work, when, in fact, it’s very hard to try to keep both of your identities as an other-American. Villanueva tells of his own personal experience with assimilation when he was drilled into strict prescriptivist English as a young boy in Puerto Rico. He was criticised for speaking with an accent, but “there was no verbal deprivation at play, just a process that takes time, ‘interlanguage’ to use a sociological term” (32). Eventually he read and listened and spoke more in English until “the accent disappeared, and Spanish no longer came easily, sometimes going through French or through Latin in my head, the languages of my profession, searching for the Spanish with which to speak to my family. Assimilation” (33).
But it’s very difficult to try to be perfect at Spanish and perfect and English. “Biculturalism,” he writes, does not mean to me an equal ease with two cultures. That is an ideal. Rather, biculturalism means the tensions within, which are cause by being unable to deny the old, ot the new ...I resent the tension, that the ideal is not to be realized, that we cannot be the mosaic … nor can we be the melting pot if that were the preference” (39). Those old metaphors, the mosaic and the melting pot, don’t do enough to describe all of the cultures in the country and the complex ways those cultures relate.
The first step, it is implied, is just to make the implicit explicit and recognize that culture is necessarily complex and changing. “It is not enough to recognize and make explicit our cultures. We need to recognize cultures in the context of other cultures, since none of us can be monocultural in America. Mexican americans may have a culture in common with many Mexicans, say, but Mexican Americans also have a culture in common with fellow Americans” (57). It’s like the classic 1997 film Selena where Selena’s dad points out the frustration of trying to navigate two culture and two languages, “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!”
Selena’s dad is right. It’s additionally important not to essentialize. “Puerto Ricans may be ‘Hispanics.’ Yet our history in general and our history as it pertains to the United States is very different from the histories of both the Mexican American and the Mexican” (57). These differences are sometimes bluntly painted over, through terms like Hispanic or even “minority.” Villanueva tells ruefully of being asked to review an article on Mexican rhetoric, even though he isn’t Mexican, but even if had been Puerto Rican rhetoric, he’s a classicist, working on the sophists. He knows about Isocrates best, so why would he be pigeonholed in this way?
If it’s not obvious by now, Villanueva is also heavily influenced by Marxist thought. He suggests that the ultimate goal of the field of Rhetoric and Composition is to develop the “organic intellectual,” a theory from Antonio Gramsci about the combination of personal experience and academic learning--much like the book Bootstraps itself. Don’t ever say Villanueva doesn’t practice what he preaches. The organic intellectual doesn’t stay in the ivory tower, but “is involved ‘in active participation in practical life’ … an intellectual liaison between the groups seeking revolutionary change and the rest of civil society” (129).
This perspective should influence everything we do in our weird academic culture--the way we teach our classrooms and the things we research and publish, the way we structure our departments and graduate programs and admissions and graduation requirements.
Villanueva ends the book with a call that I find pretty darn stirring. I’ll give him the last word: “As our status as workers becomes more apparent and as we come more in contact with more of those who are intellectuals from non-traditional backgrounds, we find ourselves in a potentially decisive moment. The moment is right for America’s intellectuals in traditional academic roles to help organize intellectuals recognize themselves as such and to begin to fuse with them--creating Gransmi’s new intellectuals” (138)
Wed, 6 July 2016
Welcome to MR, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Today or rather, the day I wrote this, I got some bad news, so to make up for it, I get to talk about Jeffrey Walker, who is one of my favorite people ever, and I get to talk about one of my favorite books, too, his Genuine Teachers of This Art, subtitled Rhetorical Education in Antiquity.
Basically Walker’s arguing that rhetoric as a field is, at its very core, pedagogical. It’s not just practice of rhetoric or analysis of rhetoric, but that both of these really come into being through the teaching of rhetoric. As he says “by defining ‘the art of the rhetor” as the art of producing a rhetor, one puts the other definitions into relation. The pedagogical project sets the agenda for the critical-rheoretic one and determines the appropriate objects of study… Its pedagogical enterprise is what ultimately makes rhetoric rhetoric and not just a version of something else” (2-3).
Walker’s title comes from a line from Cicero’s dialogs on the orator. Antonius describes Isocrates’ subsequent rhetoric teachers as the “genuine teachers of this art” and Isocrates does feature heavily in how we think about rhetoric and the teaching of rhetoric.
At the center of this text, Walker does the incredible work of reverse engineering the techne or art of rhetoric that Isocrates may have written. We think Isocrates wrote such a treatise. Zosimus’s Life of Isocrates in the the fifth century wrote “It is said that Isocrates also wrote an art of rhetoric bu in the course of time it was lost” (qtd. 57) Cicero, too, and Quintilian, seem to take it for granted that Isocrates had a complete rhetoric treatise. We might, Walker points out, not impose our own publishing tradition on what this would look like. Isocrates’ treatise on rhetoric would be, like Aritotle’s probably was “a ‘teacher’s manual’ or ‘toolbox’ containing an organized and thus memorizable and searchable, collection of ‘the things that can be taught’ and a stock of explanations and examples” (84).
Combining shorter pieces of Isocrates’ with cited fragments and other sources’ admiration, parody and allusion, Walker reconstructs what this lost document might look like. He suggests that by looking at, say, the legal arguments of Isocrates, you can see evidence of a “rudimentary stasis system”: did they do it? how bad was it? was it legal or right? if it was right was that because of advantage, honor or justice? Of course there’s a bunch of stylistic rules some of which seem uniquely suited to Greek language and culture. And, of course, imitation is paramount. Over all, it seems that Isocrates’ pedagogical philosophy “assumes an ideal student of ready which who can take the imprint of the stylistic models set before him and can quickly come to imitate and absorb them” (153).
One of the key pedagogical assignments, then, is declamation. We don’t think of performance and acting as part of rhetorical discovery, but back in Isocrates’ day,speaking was extremely important, and the old debate practice of speaking your opponents’ words was a key pedagocial practice. Not just your opponent, but just “others” with whom you may or may not agree, sort of playing a part and trying on an argument. Think of it a little as if you were doing mock trial back in high school and some peopel are given the role of defense counsil and some are prosecution and some are witnesses: you have the facts of the case, but then you play the role the best you can within that structure. It’s invention, but also acting and it can be an effective pedagogical tool. As Walker puts it “the student was(is) freed from the pressure to discover the ‘correct answer’” (198) and “because the the student is playing a role, his or her youthful ego is not at stake, and it is possible to both play with the lines or argument and to reflect on them as well” (199).
If you have a question about some of the verbs and pronouns used in those last quotes, it’s because Walker doesn’t just study this stuff--he teaches it. Since his whole argument is that rhetoric is about being a teacher, he doesn’t shy away from describing how contemporary first year composition can embrace “rhetoric [as] an art of cultivating a productive, performative capacity” and unabashedly declares that “Rhetorical scholarship that made no consequential difference to what rhetors/writers do, or to how rhetors/writers are trained, would have little point. Perhaps that is obvious. Yet it is easy to forget” (288). Man, I get chills reading those words. I should take a moment here to say that if you use rhetorical methods from the ancients, like closely imitating exemplors or trying on other arguments, why not shoot a line at Mere Rhetoricpodcast@gmail.com? I’d love to hear about it and maybe we could do an episode just on the history and benefit of, say, imitation or declamation.
Okay, here’s the last word from Dr. Walker, though “Ancient rhetorical education appealed to the desired that brought the motivated student to it and that persists today: the desire expressed by Isocrates’ students to say admirable things; or Plato’s Phaedrus’ remark that he would rather be eloquent like Lysias than rich; or Plato’s Hippocrates’ wish to learn to speak ‘awesomely’ like Protagoras … Rhetoric, as a paideia, was a ‘sweet garden’ where the young could experience and enact such things as theater, as game, and in so doing could cultivate their dunamis for wise and eloquent speech, thought and writing in practical situations as well as develop an attachment to a dream paradigm of democratic civic life” (293-4)
Wed, 29 June 2016
[SHAKERS & INTRO SONG]
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric. A podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, movements, and terms that have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren and today, I'm going to finally follow up on a promise that I made earlier.
Do you remember when we were talking about Hermogenes? The hairy hearted hero who came up with a lot of extra ways of dealing with things. Well I said back then that I would come back and talk with you about stasis theory which is pretty fantastic and guess what? Now I'm finally living up to that promise.
If you haven't listened to the Hermogenes of Tarsis podcast, you can go back and listen to that for some more details but we're going to focus on the basics today. Think back of the last time you had a really bad argument. Not just like a shouting, throwing dishes argument, but an argument where everyone seemed to be talking past each other. Like you couldn't even agree on what it was that you were arguing. This is a pretty common experience. I've been through it and I'm pretty sure you've been through it too. And in fact, back in the earliest ages of rhetoric in fifth and sixth century B.C. in Greece, there were rhetoricians who were beginning to recognize that we need to think about what we're arguing about when we're arguing with other people. Sometimes you may think that you're arguing about what to do when really the person you're arguing with doesn't believe you need to have any action because nothing has happened.
Trying to sort these out has become sort of stasis theory. Aristotle loosely references the topic by recognizing there's a need to know something about the facts, the definition, the quality and policy of arguments but he never really talked about the need for individuals to come to an agreement about what it was that they were arguing about.
The first person to really articulate this is Hermagoras of Temnos who in the second century B.C. really went in depth in it. And he's the one who set out the four elements of stasis as we recognize them today. These four elements sometimes get a little bit tweaked into five elements or in fact all the way up to the 13 that Hermogenes did but in our context, we're just going to talk about the four.
These four are pretty easy to remember and they can make a real practical difference in the way that you argue today as well as the way that you look at other people's arguments. Stasis comes from the same place as sort of standing, right? So you know homeostasis for example, sort of where you are in your biology of not getting too much or too cold, your sort of standing in the middle. Stasis sort of lets you know where you stand in the argument and where your opponent stands. For me it's helpful to think about this as standing on a platform and if you and your interlocutor are standing on the same platform, you could have worthwhile conversation instead of trying to shout up to somebody standing above you or shout down to someone standing below you.
So let's go through these four stages and talk about how you might go up the staircase with your interlocutor to discuss a different issue. The first and most basic level is just fact. Did the thing itself exist? So famously, a rhetorical scholar named John R.[inaudible] applied this to talking about global warming. So if you're talking with somebody about global warming, the first thing to asses is do you both believe that in fact the Earth is getting warmer? Do you agree on fact? If you guys are already in agreement about this, then maybe what your discussion is is about the next level up.
So go up those stairs if you both agree and talk about the next level. Definition. But if you don't agree about fact, that's what you're going to have to argue about. Did something happen? What are the facts? Is there a problem? Where did it come from? What changes happened to create this problem and is there anything our arguing about it can do? These are some of the facts you would have to argue out with your interlocutor. But if you both agree, you can go upstairs to definition.
Continuing on with our example of global warming, definition is where you talk about what the nature is of the problem. So with global warming, is this a man-made issue or is this just a periodic cycle? What exactly is this issue? What is it related to? What are the parts of this issue? And how are those parts related?
Once you agree about definition, maybe what you need to be arguing about is quality. Is it a good or a bad thing? How big of a problem is this? Who's it going to affect and how much? Is this a crisis we need to resolve? Again, thinking about global warming. Is global warming going to cause catastrophic climate change that destroys human life as we know it? Or is it just an excuse to break out the shorts for a little bit? Quality sort of talks about how big or how much the issue is.
Also you have to think about what the costs are with quality. So with global warming, what's the cost of stopping global warming? Should we stop all manufacture for example? Or transportation? Is it more important to focus on "the short term health of the economy or the long term stability of the climate?"
Okay so when John R. [inaudible] says we've exhausted questions about quality, the next stage is policy. So if you and your interlocutor agree that there is such thing as global warming, it is man-made, and it is a really bad idea, the next step is to talk about what do we do about it? Is the better choice to ban plastic bags or make people ride only on commuter buses or change to nuclear power? Or any of the other things that people have suggested to try to stop global warming? All of these issues are about policy. What do we do now?
You'll see lots of different applications to this idea of stasis. In fact, Quintilian goes through the stasis when he talks about making an argument. He gives the example of somebody saying, "you killed a man" and in response the accused says, "yes, I did kill." Okay so they agree on fact but the accused says, "it is lawful to kill an adulterer with his paramour." So now he's making a discussion more about the quality and the definition. But then the person who accuses says they were not adulterers and so it contests that idea. So the argument has moved from a question of fact, was somebody in fact killed? To a question of definition and quality - was it murder? Was it a bad thing? And for whom?
This is a really fun game to play when you watch law and order and I have to confess a lot of times I kind of geek out watching the attorneys make arguments that go from fact to definition even to policy when they get to sentencing. I mean is it better to send a troubled kid to a mental asylum or to juvenile delinquency? Mostly though I just love law and order.
Stasis is really useful, not just in sort of how we analyze things but also how we conduct conversations with others. Sometimes those bad arguments we have, don't need to be so bad if we just stop and think about what is it we're really arguing and how can we stand on common ground with those we speak?
Wed, 22 June 2016
[acoustic guitar music]
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people, and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren, and every time we do Mere Rhetoric, I hope you feel like it's a cozy introduction to some of the people who have been part of rhetorical history at different times and places. But it's rare that I actually get to talk about somebody who I've sat next to, and I've eaten lunch with. And in fact, I got to eat lunch twice with today's topic, Suresh Canagarajah. Canagarajah is kind of a hero of mine, and he's a really amazing scholar and just a really nice human being. I met him for the first time when I was a beginning graduate student, and I was at a really small conference -- small enough that they were willing to pay for us to eat lunch together every day, and I got to sit next to Suresh Canagarajah, who is one of the superstars of that particular conference, which focused mostly on multilingual writers and different writing traditions.
So it was such a big honor to get to meet him. And not only did I get to meet him, but he was really nice and sort of soft-spoken. Later, I actually got to see him, talk with him a little bit at this last year's MLA in Vancouver. And again, he was just really nice and generous, and... I don't know, I just really enjoy spending time with Suresh Canagarajah. So today we're gonna talk little bit about him, and I hope you spend time with him right now and get to enjoy the time that you spend here.
Okay, so the reason why I was a little cowed by Suresh Canagarajah is he's done some really important work. His book, Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching, won the MLA's Mina Shaughnessy award in 2000. Later, another book that he wrote, Geopolitics of Academic Writing, won the Gary Olson Award from the Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition in 2003. So he's kind of a hotshot. His work focuses, like I said, mostly on different ideas of teaching English, and the ways that English becomes part of the cultural capital in other traditions. And to be able to get at this idea, he focuses at the very beginning in the former British colony of Sri Lanka, which is where he's from. Canagarajah himself is a multilingual writer who had to negotiate identities as a Sri Lankan, as well as a scholar in rhetoric. So his background sort of uniquely prepares him to be able to talk about resisting linguistic imperialism in English teaching. This book focuses on how, quote, "The classroom culture is a site where the agendas of the different interest groups get played out, negotiated, and contested," end quote.
Teaching English in a country where they have other linguistic traditions is always going to be a question of power. And there's conflicting attitude and behavior about students regarding English study. On one hand it opens up a lot of possibilities for them, especially economically and in terms of power. But on the other hand, they have, quote, "conflicts in having to indulge in a communicative activity, from which they have to keep out their preferred values, identities, conventions, and knowledge content," end quote. So you can feel a little bit like you're betraying you own language, our own writing tradition, and even your own values when you engage in academic writing -- or any other type of writing -- in English. These students have to, quote, "negotiate with English to gain positive identities, critical expression, and ideological clarity." And they will become insiders and use the language in their own terms, according to their own aspirations, needs, and values. This seems like a high order for teaching English and making sure that the people who come from other language backgrounds aren't isolated, that they can use the dominant discourses from the perspective of their vernacular standpoint to creatively modify the codes, not just buy into the standard American English, but sort of have a way to feed back to American academic English from their own traditions, and bring what they have to the table as well. This of course has application in the classroom.
So he says, "The end result of this pedagogy is a critical awareness of the rationale, rules, and consequences of the competing discourses in the classroom and outside." So there's a lot of emphasis in Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching, on the teaching aspect. But everything that he says about teaching can apply to other ways that English remains the lingua franca of academic writing. So you can think about this in terms of articles that get published in academic journals, or the way that conferences are conducted -- the fact that when I go here Canagarajah speak, he has to speak in English, and that puts us at a different power dynamic than maybe it would be if I had to meet him and speak in Tamil.
So when he goes about talking about the potential for linguistic imperialism in teaching English, he comes at it from an ethnographic perspective. Particularly an ethnographic perspective that takes in his own culture. In some circles, talking about sort of your own lived experience can be called autoethnography. Autoethnography looks at your own group, your own circle, and sort of yourself as a participant in this particular group. Canagarajah defends the use of autoethnography because, he says, "It gets you into doors that you wouldn't get into otherwise." For example, he points to closed faculty meetings, or casual conversations. When he talks about autoethnography, it's perhaps a controversial methodology because there can be questions about how much disclosure he has in those closed faculty meetings and other situations. But on the other hand, it makes you sure that you're proceeding from an insider's perspective and not being imperialistic in the ethnography that you're doing.
Now, his book about resisting linguistic imperialism in English teaching was controversial sort of itself. Robert O'Neil argues that people learn English, quote, "to communicate with people who do not speak the same language," end quote, instead of communicating with your own people. And that it's not just about the sort of insider, talking to each other situation. There are nationalists, as well as universalists, who either reject English study as nationalists, or embrace an English that is, quote, "expansive, malleable, and neutral." Canagarajah is sort of proposing something else, where English is not neutral at all, but it's sort of a necessary -- I don't want to say evil, but a necessary [inaudible] for a lot of people to enter discussions of power.
Canagarajah draws on a lot of other theorists, including Phillipson, who really focuses on the native speaker fallacy, which is this idea that if you're a native speaker, somehow you understand English than somebody who isn't a native speaker. And Phillipson's work has been really important in questions of TESOL. And it's kind of fitting that Canagarajah has just recently become the editor of TESOL Quarterly, which is the journal that focuses on teaching English to speakers of other languages. So it's -- You can see sort of a clear trajectory in the work that he does.
More recently though, his work has sort of expanded from looking at world English’s in terms of groups that speak English outside of the United States, to linguistic and dialectic variety in all of its situations, including African American vernaculars. He's interested in how new forms of globalization, quote, "lead to fluid, discursive, and linguistic practices between communities." And he's interested in all of the different ways that we look at English, and why we can find other strategies that will treat English, quote, "as a heterogeneous language, made up of diverse varieties of equal status, each with its own norms and system." This work has also sort of applied to different ways that people publish in English in different situations as sort of diaspora communities. The panel that I was able to listen to him speak at MLA focused on these multiple English’s, and what might be termed as experts' right to their own language. That is to say, once you get enough cachet, you can bring in your own linguistic tradition and your dialect, and nobody's going to think twice of it. But if you're a novice, then you might be stuck speaking something that looks a little bit more like bland, imperialistic American academic English. So Canagarajah is a really amazing scholar, and he's really done some interesting things. I recommend you, check out some of the books from him -- especially Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching.
No matter how you feel about the role of English in American academic writing, it will definitely spark some conversations that you can have with other scholars, or even just thinking about it yourself. But even if you don't get a chance to read Canagarajah's work, I can hope for you even the greater honor that you will be able to meet him at a conference sometime.
Wed, 15 June 2016
[acoustic guitar music]
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, terms, and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren.
If you're listening to this podcast, you're probably somebody who's interested in the power of language. You're probably an English major or a Rhetoric and Writing major, or you're at least taking a class in it.
But there are a lot of different disciplines that we've all interacted with. Whether it was a required biology class when you were an undergraduate, or a course in statistics you're taking right now. One of the things that's difficult to tease out in rhetoric and composition is how different disciplines create different types of writing genres and different forms of writing. This is one of the things that Susan Peck MacDonald encountered in the early 1990s. In her book Professional Academic Writing, she thinks about writing in these different disciplines as a spectrum. She sees these academic disciplines may be roughly ranged on a continuum by the degree to which their knowledge-making goals and practices are in the foreground. But even though she puts them around a continuum, she's not saying that there's anything wrong with having different types of knowledge-making goals, nor is it too, as she says, "deny that there may be other goals in the social sciences and humanities, but it serves as a focal point for exploring the differences among the disciplines."
So along the spectrum, she posits on one side, academic fields are arrayed more or less on a continuum, from the hard sciences to the soft humanities. And in this way, she realizes that a lot of the work that's been done by people in the humanities has been to what she calls "debunk" -- fields that are harder than the field that they're written in. So something about being in the humanities makes you want to prove that science isn't just objective. And she says that this debunking, quote, "suggests there is a strong tendency toward rearguard action, stemming from perceived loss of power, desire for enhanced status, and intellectual insecurity among social scientists and humanists." While that may be true, sometimes I do think we suffer from what she terms "science envy".
So I think it's fair to sort of re-approach this question of disciplinarity from what it would be like within that actual discipline. So that's just what she's done. She's compiled these three sort of representative groups: the humanities, the social sciences, and science. And she's put them along this continuum. So representing science, she has psychology, specifically infant attachment research. So this is, you know, how much babies are attached to their mothers and what impact that has and how to test that. The sort of stuff where you actually have people in white lab coats standing behind two-way mirrors, observing stuff happening. Then in the middle, she has social sciences, which in this group is history, which sometimes looks a little bit more like humanities and sometimes looks a little bit more social studies-ish. Then on the far end, she has humanities. And the group that she looks up is new historicists, which in the mid-90s were kind of a big rising star in the world of literary studies. So she puts these groups along the continuum, and then she tries to find, what are some of the representative articles of it? So she gets some journals that are representative in the field of these three different studies. And what she does is she begins to look at the writing styles, even down to the very level of sentences. She says that academic writing may be readily described as a vehicle for constructing and negotiating knowledge claims.
So she suggests that the different types of knowledge claims that these three groups are making is going to be represented in the type of sentences that they use. And so to be able to do this, she codes these sentences in seven different groups. The first group are the groups that she calls "phenomenological". These are things -- in the first place, particulars. Specific people, places, things. In the second place, she puts groups of things. So groups of people, places. In the third group, she talks about attributes of those things. So for example, Queen Elizabeth's desire is an attribute of a particular, Queen Elizabeth. And she suggests that these groups that are more phenomenological are probably going to be less based in really knowledge-dense disciplines. The next class are the epistemic classes, and these include reasons, research, -isms like Marxism or feminism, and appeals to the audience, like "we think this," "we think that". What she found is that literature leans heavily towards the phenomenal cases -- a lot of particulars and a lot of attributes. While psychology is a little bit more epistemic; reasons dominate, with a little bit of research as well, and some talk about groups. In between them, history focuses on groups, and then a little bit on attributes. So by looking at the distribution of the subjects of the sentences and these different disciplines, MacDonald has sort of teased out that the types of writing that they do, down to the very sentence level, may represent what the priorities are for the different disciplines. From this, she's sort of able to describe her theory that she articulates at the beginning of the book, that some disciplines are rural, and others are urban. I really like this metaphor, because it provides a really clear visual representation of what happens in the knowledge-making of these different groups. In the sciences, things are very dense. You have a lot of people working in a very small area. So you can imagine a skyscraper with thousands of scientists all working on one part of one gene, all the time.
Things move very quickly, you have to publish very fast off of your results, things are always changing. This is why perhaps in the sciences, they favor a style like APA that highlights the dates. On the other side of things, you have very rural disciplines. So you can think of these as homesteaders, people who don't like to be fenced in. And in fact, sometimes in the humanities, if anybody gets too close to you and starts doing the same sort of research you're doing, you purposely might change your focus and get a little bit farther out into the frontier. These groups are focusing on individuality and novelty in the ways that they approach their research. So once MacDonald has sort of taken a look at all of these different disciplines, the next step is to think about, well how do you learn to write in a discipline?
As she says, "Any suggestions about changing in academic writing involve understanding of the complexities of the different writings styles. So blanket condemnations of passive verbs for instance, or prescriptions for vividly concrete verbs, are largely ineffectual because they do not take into account either the historical situatedness, or the complex of knowledge-making goals and rhetorical situations represented in different kinds of academic writing," end quote. So if you worked in a writing center for example, it might be tempting to see a lab report and begin to criticize them for having passive verbs, when actually that's very appropriate in that kind of discipline. I think what MacDonald is suggesting here is that disciplines are unique from each other, and it might be worthwhile to sort of appreciate where they're coming from and just kind of accept it. If you're learning to write within a specific discipline, she suggests that you go through four stages. The first is nonacademic writing -- so casual personal writing.
Texts, blogs, things like that. Then in stage two, you learn what she calls generalized academic writing, concerned with stating claims, offering evidence, respecting other people's opinions, and learning to write with authority. Level two is kind of the stuff that we think of as happening in first year composition. In level three, she talks about novice approximations of particular disciplinary ways of making knowledge. So this would be like as you move into your discipline, you begin to write more and more lab reports, or you co-author on a paper -- things like that. Finally, you've reached level four, which is expert insider prose when you're really deep in the discipline. So MacDonald suggests that disciplines aren't all the same. And the types of writing that they do may reflect different priorities. Even though you may be solidly entrenched in the world of English and words, think about that next time you talk with somebody who identifies as an economist, or a psychologist, or a physicist, or a chemist. The way that you talk about academic writing may be very different from the way they do.
[shakers and acoustic guitar music]
Wed, 8 June 2016
Wed, 1 June 2016
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements that have shaped rhetorical history. Contact us at email@example.com or through Twitter @mererhetoricked. This is a rebroadcasted episode
And guys. Guys, today we address the last of the three traditional branches of rhetoric. This makes me sad. We had the Law and Order rush of judicial or forensic rhetoric and the pageantry of epideictic rhetoric and today we come to deliberative, or political rhetoric. And then we won’t have any more branches of rhetoric, because if there’s one thing Aristotle loved, it’s breaking things down into threes.
It is, of course, Aristotle who thought to divide rhetoric into the three genres of judicial, epideictic and deliberative and there’s nothing that says rhetoric always fits into these handy three categories, but it was convenient for Aristotle to do so. Think about it: Three branches of rhetoric. One of them, the judicial, focuses on the past—did the accused do something accuse-worthy? One of them—epideictic—focuses on the present—let’s celebrate how great this day is right now. And so one of them, deliberative rhetoric, will focus on the future. Judicial, epideictic, deliberative; past, present, future; law, community, policy.
It’s deliberative rhetoric that focuses on determining a future course to take. Traditionally, this was read strictly, as a matter of political debate by those who had authority to determine policy for a city state—should we go to war with Sparta? As Aristotle says, deliberative rhetoric "aims at establishing the expediency or the harmfulness of a proposed course of action; if he urges its acceptance, he does so on the ground that it will do good; if he urges its rejection, he does so on the ground that it will do harm." Aristotle gave two pairs of criteria for practitioners of deliberative rhetoric to keep in mind as they chose their debates. First, the moral—is it good or is it unworthy? Good or unworthy includes ethical concerns, but not exclusively that. Remember that for Romans “virtue” meant “manly” and “gentleman” used to mean a rank and not a compliment, so in some ways, worthy has to do with a specific set of political and social ideals and not just some sort of kindness-first morality that seems more natural to contemporary readers. It may be “good” to go to war to avenge some perceived slight to the country’s aristocratic pride, if pride is considered a moral priority. Aristotle lists things that are “good” like good birth, bodily stature, wealth and reputation, which might seem a little shallow alongside ethical virtues like justice, courage and generosity.
The second pair of criteria are even more pragmatic: is it advantageous or disadvantageous? In this pairing, you can see these less squishy values becoming more important. The country needs money and war with Sparta will bring spoils and rewards. War with Sparta will increase our reputation as a fearsome city state. Things like that. So that’s Aristotle for you: deliberative rhetoric deals with the future, and you can argue about whether an act is good or whether it is advantageous.
But a lot has happened in the years and centuries and millennia since Aristotle. Mostly we keep going back to the divisions that Aristotle came up with, even though we have changed our ideas of democracy and deliberative rhetoric for that matter. Oh, but don’t worry—Aristotle isn’t the only person willing to divide things into three parts! G. Thomas Goodnight, a rhetoric professor at the University of Southern California, studies argumentation, especially deliberative rhetoric, and he decided that deliberative rhetoric can take place in what he calls three spheres—the public, the technical and the private. The public is the one that is most familiar to us.
We think of deliberative rhetoric as necessarily political, but that is not necessarily that case. If deliberative rhetoric just means “forward looking,” and “policy deciding” it doesn’t just have to be about whether we should go to war with Sparta—and not just because the city state of Sparta isn’t much of a threat anymore. No deliberative rhetoric can also include private arguments: from questions as trivial as “where should we go for lunch today?” To as important as “should our family accept that job in North Dakota?” and “should Billy join the marines?” These instances of deliberative rhetoric are usually informal—we have a speaker of the house, but we don’t have a speaker of the home. They are, however, no less important. Consider the impact during the 60s and 70s of a hundred thousand private deliberations over how to treat people of other races, or the family debates about moving to the city during the industrial revolution. Private sphere deliberation matters.
Technical deliberation is the deliberative rhetoric that takes place among experts who have specialized knowledge of the subject matter. For instance, you might think about a group might come up with professional standards or expectations like the rules of conduct for lawyers or teachers. They set rules of their own group. Technical deliberation might also result in suggests or recommendations for other groups. A group of climatologists, for example, might write a brief on climate change, or a congress of feminist scholars might make a declaration on pornography, something that everyone argues over until they can agree on a common stance. These experts can debate in a very technical and in-depth register.
When private and technical deliberation can’t get the job done, it’s time for public sphere deliberation. Goodnight classifies the public sphere as the "argument sphere that exists to handle disagreements transcending personal and technical disputes." Once things enter the public sphere of deliberation, Goodnight says it’s time to focus on the common good—not just what’s right for individuals or families, and not just for groups of experts, but for everyone in the public.
And that’s the general gist of deliberative rhetoric.
Thanks for listening. If you like the podcast, why not go on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and leave a nice review? Everyone likes good reviews. Or tell me directly by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Wed, 25 May 2016
Crisis looms in ancient Rome: the uneasy triumvirate between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus rests on thin bonds that seem inevitable to break. The Senate supports Pompey, but Caesar has successfully (and illegally) conquered Gaul, winning wide-spread military support. Everything seems primed for disaster. In fact, in less than a decade, the Great Civil War, the death gasp of the Republic, will spread across the whole breadth of the empire, changing forever the political and social life of Romans. This, of course, is the best time to write a treatise on rhetoric.
Or it is if you happen to be Cicero. Cicero, a political player as well as rhetorician, saw in the dis-ease of Rome a need for leaders who could be well-informed about the issues, but also know how to effectively persuade those around them to order and peace. The risks are high and the need is pressing, both for the empire in general and for Cicero in general—he’s been exiled, his home has been destroyed by political thugs and his life is in danger for criticizing high-ranking leaders, including Ceasar. But he also knows that this isn’t the first time that the Roman world has been rocked by political instability and needed strong leaders versed in rhetoric. So when he sits down to write his rhetorical treatise, he sets it not in the current period (far, far too risky!) but back fifty years ago, just before another civil war would destroy the peace of the Roman Republic.
The dialogue is written almost dramatically as three historical figures gather together in the peace of a patrician home “during the days of the Roman Games”: Lucius Crasses, Marcus Antonius, and Scaevola. They are joined by the young men Sullpicius and Gaius Cotta. Cotta suggests that in this peace “Crassus, why do we not imitate Socrates as he appears in the Phaedrus of Plate? For your plane tree has suggested this comparison to my mind, casting as it does, with its spreading branches, as deep a shade over this pot, as that one cast whose shelter Socrates sought “ (I. vii.28). You might remember from our Pheadrus podcast that Socrates normally engages in dialogues in the city, in the market or gymnasium or private people’s houses, but in the Phaedrus, Socrates gets a little topsy-turvey by going out in nature, giving long speeches instead of dialectic and—most shockingly of all—defending rhetoric. Well, looks like Crassus and Antoius are going to be similarly inspired by the setting to break with tradition—these are powerful Roman men who take action in politics and war and the business of running an empire. They are manly men, not like the Greek philosophers—the unmanly ninny GReekling-- who unambitiously ponder the meaning of things like philosophy and rhetoric instead of taking over the known world. In fact, Crassus seems to even have to describe rhetoric in terms of what it can do in terms of political power. And he starts by telling the most important creation story of the history of rhetoric.
This story, as the legand goes and Crassus relates, starts with “brute creation” and the point that while human beings are slower, and weaker and less deadly than other animals they do have one advantage—they can discourse. So the orator created “our present condition of civilization as men and as citizens, or after the establishment of social communities, to give shape to laws, tribuals and civic rights?” (I.viii.33). Even today, Crassus says, the orator upholds his own dignity and the safety of “countless individuals and of the entire state.” Scaevola the cynical points out that orators also have caused great disaster to the state.
So the discussion quickly turns to how to educate the orator to be the best kind of person, morally and intellectually, to lead the state towards greatness. Crassus (Cicero stand-in) and Antonio (C’s brother’s stand-in) debate requirements for the good rhetor—is it art or natural ability? It’s less of a clear-cut debate than you’d think, and Antonius sort of switches positions between the first and second book. Generally, both of the agree that “Good speakers bring, as their peculiar possession, a stule that is harmonious, graceful, and marked by a certain artistry and polish. Yet this style, if the underlying subject matter be not comprehended and mastered by the speaker, must inevilably be of no account or even become the sport of universal derision” (I.xi.50). That sport, incidentally, being the fruitless apolitical sophistry of the Greeklings that these political Romans despise.That’s what Crassus calls “Greeklings who are fonder of argument than of truth” But if there’s good content to oratory, then that’s worth while—that’s something that can actually DO something.
But this education, to know everything you speak on, is hard to come by. Should orators be generalists or specialists? All of this takes a lot of “zeal and industry and study” (475), to be “he who on any matter whatever can speak with fullness and variety” (I. xiii.59) because “it is nearer the truth to say that neither can anyone be eloquent upon a subject that is unknowen to him. “ That means lots and lots of study—of Roman laws, above all else, but also on physiology, trade, astronomy grammar, all of it. Antonius, again the fly in the ointment, points out that it would be impossible to develop the kind of breadth that Crassus describes: “I cannont deny that he would be a remarkable kind of man and worth of admiration; but if such a one there should be or indeed ever has been or really ever could be, assuredly you would be that one man.” (I.vxi.) Wow. Ancient Romans had really mastered the art of the compli-insult. Okay, so what is rhetoric, then? Is it a specialized skill that only a few experts master or is it something added on to these other skills? Besides, Antonius observes “not a single writer on rhetoric has been even moderately eloquent” (I.xx.91). that’s a good burn, too, and one that you still here in rhetoric: we study this stuff all the time, so why aren’t we giving the speeches that inspire the world? How can we be so dull when we’re supposed to be experts in this stuff?
Crassus points out that he’s talking about an ideal and that ideal is hard to achieve, maybe even impossibly, but it is important to have the idea “picture to ourselves in our discourse an orator from whom every blemish has been taken away and one who moreover is rich in every merit”—what would that look like? First there would be some physical characteristics—the orator who can’t speak, and speak loudly and clearly, won’t got far. And there whould be a “natural state of looks, expression and voice” for oratory (I.xxvvii.126) and good memory.There should be natural talent, but also passion and willingness to work to improve. This passion for betterment is critical, Crassus muses “What else do you suppose young Cotta, but enthusiasm and something like the passion of love? Without which no man will ever attain anything in life that is out of the common” (I. xxix.134). And even if someone doesn’t have all of these natural abilities, their training can help them to do a little better. “those on whome these gifts have been bestowed by nature in smaller measure, can none the less acquire the power to use what they have with propriety and discernment and so as to show now lack of taste.” (I.xxvii.132). Even if you aren’t the ideal orator, you can get much better with practice.
The next day, the group is joined by Quintus Catulus and Gaius Julius Ceasar. Catulus for his part, argues that Oratorys “derives from ability, but owes little to art” in other words, it’s just a knack after all. This time Antonius fights back, kind of reversing his previous position. Antonius points out that “there are some very clever rules” that can make an audience friendly to a speaker and establish goodwill. But soon the whole conversation focuses back on the importance of being widely educated, especially in law and civil right.
So what are the takeaways from The Orator? Over all it’s a long description of the importance of eloquence.
“Eloquence is dependent upon the trained skill of highly educated men” (7) and “no one should be numbered with the orators who is not accomplished in all those arts” of the well-educated (53), because “excellence in speaking cannot be made manifest unless the speaker fully comprehends the matter” (37). Good will and delivery also emphasized. To educate, imitation comes first (265), then gradually more serious argumentation, although there are rhetorical geniuses. Performance should have genuine emotion behind it (335). There are a variety of acceptable styles (II. 23). (which we’ll talk about in a later episode) and different parts to speech and preparing a speak—and I know it sounds like we’re deferring, but we’ll talk about those in the future too. We have an entire episode prepared for talk about these parts of preparing a speech. Generally, thought, this treatise argues that over all Eloquence “is one of the supreme virtues” (II.43)
But the fact that this treatise talks so seriously about rhetoric and its philosophy is in some way worth remarking on in itself. There’s some jingoistic feelings that manly Roman empire-building is much cooler than sissy Greekling philosophizing going around the culture and De Oratore is no exception that. I always think it’s funny how the speakers in this dialogue go out of their way to insist that they aren’t really sitting around philosophizing, and if they are, it’s only because it’s a state vacation and they kind of have to. The comparison with Plato’s Phaedrus are apt: here are Roman politicians who are acting out of character because of the circumstances and talking like philosophers. But while Cicero has his characters insist that the via activa is paramount, the circumstances suggest otherwise. These politicians are all doomed—the crisis in the Republic is about to reach full swing and soon many of the participants will be dead or exiled. Their political influence will be only fleeting, but Cicero’s dialogue invoking them keeps them relevant. The same could be said for Cicero himself in his own time: a brilliant politician, he was unable to stem the tide of violence as the republic descended into autocracy. Cicero was eventually exiled and then murdered.
He wasn’t just murdered but he was also posthumously beheaded, his hands chopped off and his tongue repeated stabbed with a hairpin. Sort of an ignomous end to a great politician. But Cicero the rhetorician seemingly had no end—the impact of his treatises, including de Oratore, dominated medieval and renaissance rhetoric. So for all of the insistence that sitting around theorize isn’t as important as the work of government, it turns out that theory has the longest-lasting influence. Situating de Oretore in the real violence of the Roman republic demonstrates not only the sometimes futile work of rhetoric, but also how high the stakes are in developing rhetors who are well-educated, balanced, virtuous and eloquent.