Edifice Metaphor

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Meditation on Leland M. Griffin, “The Edifice Metaphor in Rhetorical Theory,” Speech Monographs, 5 (Nov. 1960), 279-92.

There is a fundamental relationship between rhetoric and architecture. Building one’s case is analogous to building a fine structure. It is the relationship of discourse-as-heard and structure-as-seen. Quintilian wrote, “. . . we are like those who build with a wall of unhewn stone: we cannot hew or polish our words to make them fit more compactly, and we must take them as they are and choose suitable positions for them.” The rhetor, like the builder, must give expression to form. What are the resources by which we accomplish this task? We use words. We fashion a fine structure by combining good reasons with passion to pique the imagination, which stirs the emotions, which moves the will. The end of persuasion is action, and in order to move the audience to action, one must paint vivid images with words.

Facts give arguments weight. Images give impact!

Vivacity is a key concept in classical rhetoric. The lively idea is what is “striking” to the audience. The opposite of a lively idea is a dead one. So, vivid imagery is key to giving one’s argument rhetorical potency. If one’s argument is potent enough, and the audience will supply a little imagination, through the use of metaphor, one can be transported. As Griffin makes clear, metaphor has the power to transport.

Abbot Suger of St. Denis declared that the ornamentation of the golden altar of St. Denis could transport him through “worthy meditation . . . transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial . . . in an anagogical manner.”

Have you ever been in a beautiful cathedral or an elaborate, ornate building that draws your gaze heavenward? I went to graduate school at the University of Washington. The Graduate Reading Room there reminded me of a “cathedral of learning.”

Here is a picture of it.

You can’t really tell, but the ceiling panels are adorned with gilt trinitarian designs all down the 80 yard long hall with huge stained glass windows and mahogany paneling, 8 feet high. This room is always quiet. It inspires a sort of reverence by its very architecture. When I grew tired of pouring over documents, I remember distinctly, turning my gaze toward the ceiling and getting lost in appreciation of the timeless beauty of the space; the interplay between form and time. Griffin continues:

What was true of the small and precious stones of the church was true of each massive block and buttress; of every arch and vault and spire; of every unseen thrust and counterthrust of rib and pier that divided and subdivided each center of weight and stress: all members worked and in their working led to beauty . . . a vast icon which in its own anagogical manner could transport the beholder from earth to heaven.

So, you’re not just building a basic structure, you’re attempting to build a thing of beauty, a fine edifice that has the potential to move the hearers; to transport them. Hopefully this vision inspires you to go beyond simply giving a speech for a grade. Here is a final thought from Richard M. Weaver . . .

Now, let’s get busy building your speech! It’s time to visit the “Speech Builders Emporium.”

  • Wheel your cart down this aisle to gather tools and materials: Invention
  • Wheel your cart down this aisle to develop your “blueprint:” Disposition
  • Wheel your cart down this aisle to add beauty and form to the basic structure: Style

Head spinning?


Grab a cup of coffee and go here to recall why we’re doing what we’re doing: Overview