Dec 21, 2015
Weclome to mere rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, terms and movement who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and today we’re talking about two influencial chapters from one book: Richard Weavers’ “The Ethics of Rhetoric”
The Ethics of rhetoric was written in 1953, and it definitely feels like it and Weaver was Southern and definitely feels like it. Even though he spent most of his career at the University of Chicago, with Wayne Booth, he kept his summers free to go down to a farm that he kept where he lived an agrarian dream of plowing the family vegetable garden with a mule. He definitely believed in the Jeffersonian ideal of the gentleman farmer, connected to the earth.
Somehow in the middle of all that plowing, Weaver was able to be one of the most important of the “new conservative” branch of thinkers and the leading neo-platonist rhetorician of the 20th century. Weaver believed also somewhat idealistically about rhetoric. He said, “Rhetoric “instills belief and action” through “intersect[ing] possibility with the plan of actuality and hences of the imperative” (28). Rhetoric is “a process of coordination and subordination […] very close to the essential thought process” (210). Thought and rhetoric were interwoven and rhetoric couldn’t be ignored.
There are two chapters in The Ethics of Rhetoric which have had especially lasting influence. The first is a reading of Phaedrus, because Weaver loved him some Plato. Remember when we talked about the Phaedrus? For those of you who weren’t here, it’s a story about Plato giving two opposite speeches about love: in the first, he tweaks an existing speech about the importance of choosing someone who doesn’t love you as your lover, in the second, he repents of the first and gives a speech about how it is good to have a lover who loves you, and at the end, he ends up talking about rhetoric. Some people may say, “what? what’s the connection?” Not Weaver. Weaver says tthat“beginning with something simple” Plato’s dialogue “pass to more general levels of application” and then end up in allegory (4). The lovers are like rhetoric—you can have good, bad and impotent rhetoric. The non-lover is a lie, like “semantically purified speech” (7). Bad rhetoric, like bad lover, seeks to keep recipient weak and passive (11). If we have impure motives towards our audience, we’ll keep them dependent on us, week and passive, instead of empowering them the way that a true lover would. Ulitmately, Weaver believed in an ideal of rhetoric, rhetoric that would make people "better versions of themselves" (Young 135)
Another one of Weavers’ chapters to have lasting influence classifies the very words we use, most famously, “god terms” and “devil terms.” “God terms are those words that, for a specific audience, are so positive and influential that they can overpower a lot of other language or ideas. For Weaver, writing in 1953, he uses “American” as one fo the key political god terms. In contrast to god terms are devil termns and for weaver, writing in 1953, the ultimate devil term is “communist.’ From here, he can set up the language of the McCarthy era nicely, right? The committee on Unamerican activities uses a powerful god term. Most famously, Weaver introduces “god-terms” and “devil-terms” as ultimate terms that are either “imoart to the other [terms] their lesser degree of force and fixes the scale by which degrees of comparison are understood” (212), either positively or negatively (222). When you hear a god or devil term, the defensive rhetorician must “"hold a dialectic with himself" to see if he buys the word as it’s being used.
But additionally Charismatic terms= those terms who have “broken loose [from] referential connetions” which will that “they shall mean something” (eg: “freedom”) (227-8). These terms don’t mean something in particular just “happy feeling.”While, Uncontested term= seems to invite a contest, but not in its context (eg: appealing to “illustrious Rome”) (166). They aren’t really disputed with. Ultimate terms like these are often “a single term [awaits] coupling with another term” (211).
Weaver was also influencial in the rhetoric of poetics because he saw that “Like poetry, rhetoric relies on the connotation of words as well as their denotation.” That is to say, not just what the words mean in the dictionary, but what they mean to a community—communist to a group of 1953 american politicians is a far more fearful thing than its dictionary definition. Like poetry, too, there must be an enthemyme, a truncated syllogism, where the audience fills in the blanks, or as Weaver puts it “The missing propsition […] ‘in their hearts’” (174)
Good rhetoricians, he claimed, use poetic analogies to relate abstract ideas directly to the listeners (Young 132). Specifically focusing on metaphor, he found that comparison should be an essential part of the rhetorical process (Johannesen 23).
Weaver didn’t produce more than a handful of books, possibly also because he died quite suddenly in his fifties, but he had a lasting influence in the Chicago school and elsewhere. Weaver certainly wasn’t a perfect person—for instance, he disliked jazz and that is just plain wrong—and he’s kind of gone out of favor, but reading The Ethics of Rhetoric, you see how crucial his ideas have been to the 20th century revival of rhetoric.