Language is Sermonic

Language Is Sermonic

“Language is Sermonic”

OUR AGE HAS witnessed the decline of a number of subjects that once enjoyed prestige and general esteem, but no subject, I believe, has suffered more amazingly in this respect than rhetoric.  When one recalls that a century ago rhetoric was regarded as the most important humanistic discipline taught in our colleges—when one recalls this fact and contrasts it with the very different situation prevailing today—he is forced to see that a great shift of valuation has taken place.  In those days, in the not-so-distant Nineteenth Century, to be a professor of rhetoric, one had to be somebody.  This was a teaching task that was thought to call for ample and varied resources, and it was recognized as addressing itself to the most important of all ends, the persuading of human beings to adopt right attitudes and act in response to them. That was no assignment for the plodding sort of professor. That sort of teacher might do a middling job with subject matter courses, where the main object is to impart information, but the teacher of rhetoric had to be a person of gifts and imagination who could illustrate, as the need arose, how to make words even in prose take on wings. I remind you of the chairs of rhetoric that still survive in title in some of our older universities. And I should add, to develop the full picture, that literature was then viewed as a subject which practically anyone could teach. No special gift, other than perhaps industry, was needed to relate facts about authors and periods.  That was held to be rather pedestrian work. But the instructor in rhetoric was expected to be a man of stature. Today, I scarcely need point out, the situation has been exactly reversed. Today it is the teacher of literature who passes through a long period of training, who is supposed to possess the mysteries of a learned craft, and who is placed by his very speciality on a height of eminence. His knowledge of the intricacies of Shakespeare or Keats or Joyce and his sophistication in the critical doctrines that have been developed bring him the esteem of the academy. We must recognize in all fairness that the elaboration of critical techniques and special approaches has made the teaching of literature a somewhat more demanding profession, al though some think that it has gone in that direction beyond the point of diminishing returns. Still, this is not enough to account for the relegation of rhetoric.  The change has gone so far that now it is discouraging to survey the handling of this study in our colleges and universities. With a few honorable exeptions it is given to just about anybody who will take it. The “inferior, unlearned, mechanical, merely instrumental members of the profession”—to recall a phrase of a great master of rhetoric, Edmund Burke—have in their keeping what was once assigned to the leaders.  Beginners, part-time teachers, graduate students, faculty wives, and various fringe people, are now the instructional staff of an art which was once supposed to require outstanding gifts and mature experience. (We must note that at the same time the course itself has been allowed to decline from one dealing philosophically with the problems of expression to one which tries to bring below-par students up to the level of accepted usage.)  Indeed, the wheel of fortune would seem to have turned for rhetoric; what was once at the top is now at  the bottom, and because of its low estate, people begin to wonder on what terms it can survive at all.

We are not faced here, however, with the wheel of fortune; we are faced with something that has come over the minds of men. Changes that come over the minds of men are not inscrutable, but have at some point their identifiable causes. In this case we have to deal with the most potent of cultural causes, an alteration of man’s image of man. Something has happened in the recent past to our concept of what man is; a decision was made to look upon him in a new light, and from this decision new bases of evaluation have proceeded, which affect the public reputation of rhetoric. This changed concept of man is best described by the word “scientistic,” a term which denotes the application of scientific assumptions to subjects which are not wholly comprised of naturalistic phenomena. Much of this is a familiar tale, but to understand the effect of the change, we need to recall that the great success of scientific or positivistic thinking in the Nineteenth Century induced a belief that nothing was beyond the scope of its method. Science, and its off-spring applied science, were doing so much to alter and, it was thought, to improve the material conditions of the world, that a next step with the same process seemed in order. Why should not science turn its apparatus upon man, whom all the revelations of religion and the speculations of philosophy seemed still to have left an enigma, with the promise of much better result?  It came to be believed increasingly that to think validly was to think scientifically, and that subject matters made no difference.

Now the method of scientific investigation is, as T.H. Huxley reminded us in a lecture which does great credit to him as a rhetorician, merely the method of logic. Induction and deduction and causal inference applied to the phenomena of nature yielded the results with which science was changing the landscape and revolutionizing the modes of industry. From this datum it was an easy inference that men ought increasingly to become scientists, and again, it was a simple derivative from this notion that man at his best is a logic machine, or at any rate an austerely unemotional thinker. Furthermore, carried in the train of this conception was the thought, not often expressed of course, that things would be better if men did not give in so far to being human in the humanistic sense. In the shadow of the victories of science, his humanism fell into progressive disparagement. Just what comprises humanism is not a simple matter for analysis. Rationality is an indispensable part to be sure, yet humanity includes emotionality, or the capacity to deal and suffer, to know pleasure, and it includes the capacity for aesthetic satisfaction, and, what can be only suggested, a yearning to be in relation with something infinite.  This last is his religious passion, or his aspiration to feel significant and to have a sense of belonging in a world that is productive of much frustration. These at least are the properties of humanity.  Well, man had been human for some thousands of years, and where had it gotten him: Those who looked forward to a scientific Utopia were inclined to think that his humanness had been a drag on his progress; human qualities were weaknesses, except for that special quality of rationality, which might be expected to redeem him.

However curious it may appear, this notion gained that man should live down his humanity and make himself a more efficient source of those logical inferences upon which a scientifically accurate understanding of the world depends.  As the impulse spread, it was the emotional and subjective components of his being that chiefly came under criticism, for reasons that have just been indicated.  Emotion and logic or science do not consort; the latter must be objective, faithful to what is out there in the public domain and comformable to the processes of reason.  Whenever emotion is allowed to put in an oar, it gets the boat off true course. Therefore emotion is a liability.

Under the force of this narrow reasoning, it was natural that rhetoric should pass from a status in which it was regarded as of questionable worth to a still lower one in which it was positively condemned.  For the most obvious truth about rhetoric is that its object is the whole man.  It presents its arguments first to the rational part of man, because rhetorical discourses, if they are honestly conceived, always have a basis in reasoning.  Logical argument is the plot, as it were, of any speech or composition that is designed to persuade.  Yet it is the very characterizing feature of rhetoric that it goes beyond this and appeals to other parts of man’s constitution, especially to his nature as a pathetic being, that is, a being feeling and suffering. A speech intended to persuade achieves little unless it takes into account how men are reacting subjectively to their hopes and fears and their special circumstances.  The fact that Aristotle devotes a large proportion of his Rhetoric to how men feel about different situations and actions is an evidence of how prominently these considerations bulked even in the eyes of a master theorist.

Yet there is one further fact, more decisive than any of these, to prove that rhetoric is addressed to man in his humanity  Every speech which is designed to move is directed to a special audience in its unique situation. (We could not except even those radio appeals to “the world.” Their audience has a unique place in time.) Here is but a way of pointing out that rhetoric is intended for historical man, or for man as conditioned by history.  It is part of the conditio humana that we live at particular times and in particular places. These are productive of special or unique urgencies, which the speaker has got to recognize and to estimate.  Hence, just as man from the point of view of rhetoric is not purely a thinking machine, or a mere seat of rationality, so he is not a creature abstracted from time and place.  If science deals with the abstract and the universal, rhetoric is near the other end, dealing in significant part with the particular and the concrete.  It would be the height of wishful thinking to say that this ought not be so.  As long as man is born into history, he will be feeling and responding to historical pressures.  All of these reasons combine to show why rhetoric should be considered the most humanistic of the humanities.  It is directed to that part of our being which is not merely rational, for it supplements the rational approach.  And it is directed to individual men in their individual situations, so that by the very definitions of the terms here involved, it takes into account what science deliberately, to satisfy its own purposes, leaves out.  There is consequently no need for wonder that, in an age that has been influenced to distrust and disregard what is characteristically human, rhetoric should be a prime target of attack.  If it is a weakness to harbor feelings, and if furthermore it is a weakness to be caught up in historical situations, then rhetoric is construable as a dealer in weaknesses.  That man is in this condition religion, philosophy, and literature have been teaching for thousands of years.  Criticism of it from the standpoint of scientistic Utopia is the new departure.

The incompleteness of the image of man as a creature who should make use of reason only can be demonstrated in another way.  It is a truism that logic is a subject without a subject matter.  That is to say, logic is a set of rules and devices which are equally applicable whatever the data.  As the science of the forms of reasoning, it is a means of interpreting and utilizing the subject mattes of the various fields which do have their proper contents.  Facts from science or history or literature, for example, may serve int eh establishment of an inductive generalization.  Similar facts may be fed into a syllogism.  Logic is merely the mechanism for organizing the data of other provinces of knowledge.  Now it follows from this truth that if a man could convert himself into a pure logic machine or thinking machine, he would have no special relation to any body of knowledge.  All would be grist for his mill, as the phrase goes.  He would have no inclination, no partiality, no particular affection.  His mind would work upon one thing as indifferently as upon another.  He would be an eviscerated creature or a depassionated one, standing in the same relationship to the realities of the world and the thinking technique stands to the data on which it is employed.  He would be a thinking robot, a concept which horrifies us precisely because the robot has nothing to think about.

A confirmation of this truth lies in the fact that rhetoric can never be reduced to symbology.  Logic is increasingly becoming “symbolic logic”; that is its tendency. But rhetoric always comes to us in well-fleshed words, and that is because it must deal with the world, the thickness, stubbornness, and the power of it.[1]

Everybody recognizes that there is thus a formal logic.  A number of eminent authorities have written of rhetoric as if it were formal in the same sense and degree.  Formal rhetoric would be a set of rules and devices for persuading anybody about anything.  If one desires a certain response, one uses a certain device, or “trick” as the enemies of the art would put it.  The set of appeals that rhetoric provides is analogized with the forms of thought that logic prescribes. Rhetoric conceived in this fashion has an adaptablility and virtuosity equal to those of logic.

But the comparison overlooks something, for at one point we encounter a significant difference.  Rhetoric has a relationship to the world which logic does not have and which forces the rhetorician to keep an eye upon reality as well as upon the character and situation of his audience.  The truth of this is seen when we begin to examine the nature of the traditional “topics.”  The topics were first formulated by Aristotle and were later treated also by Cicero and Quintilian and by many subsequent writers on the subject of persuasion.  They are a set of “places” or “regions” where one can go to find the substance for persuasive argument.  Cicero defines a topic as “the seat of an argument.”  In function they are sources of content for speeches that are designed to influence.  Aristotle listed a considerable number of them, but for our purposes they can be categorized very broadly.  In reading or interpreting the world of reality, we make use of four very general ideas.  The first three are usually expressed, in the language of philosophy, as being, cause, and relationship.  The fourth, which stands apart from these because it is an external source, is testimony and authority.

One way to interpret a subject is to define its nature—to describe the fixed features of its being. Definition is an attempt to capture essence.  When we speak of the nature of a thing, we speak of something we expect to persist. Definitions accordingly deal with fundamental and unchanging properties.

Another way to interpret a subject is to place it in a cause-and-effect relationship.  The process of interpretation is then to affirm it as the cause of some effect or as the effect of some cause.  And the attitudes of those who are listening will be affected according to whether or not they agree with our cause-and-effect analysis.

A third way to interpret a subject is in terms of relationships of similarity and dissimilarity.  We say that it is like something which we know in fuller detail, or that it is unlike that thing in important respects.  From such a comparison conclusions regarding the subject itself can be drawn.  This is a very common form of argument, by which probabilities can be established.  And since probabilities are all we have to go on in many questions of this life, it must be accounted a usable means of persuasion.

The fourth category, the one removed from the others by the fact of its being an external source, deals not with the evidence directly but accepts it on the credit of testimony or authority.  If we are not in position to see or examine, but can procure the deposition of some one who is, the deposition may become the substance of our argument. We can slip it into a syllogism just as we would a defined term.  The same is true of general statements which come from quarters of great authority or prestige.  If a proposition is backed by some weighty authority, like the Bible, or can be associated with a great name, people may be expected to respond to it in accordance with the veneration they have for these sources.  In this way evidence coming from the outside is used to influence attitudes or conduct.  Now we see that in all these cases the listener is being asked not simply to follow a valid reasoning form but to respond to some presentation of reality.  He is being asked to agree with the speaker’s interpretation of the world that is.  IF the definition being offered is a true one, he is expected to recognize this and to say, at least inwardly, “Yes, that is the way the thing is.”  If the exposition of cause-and-effect relationship is true, he may be expected to concur that X is the cause of such a consequence or that such a consequence has its cause in X.  And according to whether this is a good or a bad cause or a good or a bad consequence, he is disposed to preserve or remove the cause, and so on.  If he is impressed with the similarity drawn between two things, he is as a result more likely to accept a policy which involves treating something in the same way in which its analogue is treated.  He has been influenced by a relationship of comparability.  And finally, if he has been persuaded to read the world as the speaker reads it.

At this point, however, I must anticipate an objection.  The retort might be made: “These are extremely formal categories you are enumerating.  I fail to see how they are any less general or less indifferently applicable than the formal categories of logic.  After all, definitions and so on can be offered of anything.  You still have not succeeded in making rhetoric a substantive study.”

In replying, I must turn here to what should be called the office of rhetoric.  Rhetoric seen in the whole conspectus of its function is an art of emphasis embodying an order of desire.  Rhetoric is advisory; it has the office of advising men with reference to an independent order of goods and with reference to their particular situation as it relates to these.  The honest rhetorician therefore has two things in mind: a vision of how matters should go ideally and ethically and a consideration of the special circumstances of his auditors.  Toward both of these he has a responsibility.

I shall take up first how his responsibility to the order of the goods or to the hierarchy of realities may determine his use of the topics.

When we think of rhetoric as one of the arts of civil society (and it must be a free society, since the scope for rhetoric is limited and the employment of it constrained under despotism) we see that the rhetorician is faced with a choice of means in appealing to those whom he can prevail upon to listen to him.  If he is at all philosophical , it must occur to him to ask whether there is a standard by which the sources of persuasion can be ranked.  In a phrase, is there a preferred order of them, so that, in a scale of ethics, it is nobler to make use of one sort of appeal than another?  This is of course a question independent of circumstantial matters, yet a fundamental one.  We all react to some rhetoric as “untruthful” or “unfair” or “cheap,” and this very feeling is evidence of the truth that it is possible to use a better or a worse style of appeal.  What is the measure of the better style?  Obviously this question cannot be answered at all in the absence of some conviction about the nature and destiny of man.  Rhetoric inevitably impinges upon morality and politics; and if it is one of the means by which we endeavor to improve the character and the lot of men, we have to think of its methods and sources in relation to a scheme of values.

To focus the problem a little more sharply, when one is asking men to cooperate with him in thinking this or doing that, when is he asking in the name of the highest reality, which is the same as saying, when is he asking in the name of their highest good?

Naturally, when the speaker replies to this question, he is going to express his philosophy, or more precisely, his metaphysics.  My personal reply would be that he is making the highest order of appeal when he is basing his case on definition or the nature of the thing.  I confess that this goes back to a very primitive metaphysics, which holds that the highest reality is being, not becoming.  It is a quasi-religious metaphysics, if you will, because it ascribes to the highest reality qualities of stasis, immutability, eternal perdurance—qualities that in Western civilization are usually expressed in the language of theism.  That which is perfect.  Therefore, if it is possible to determine unchanging essences or qualities and to speak in terms of these, one is appealing to what is most real in so doing. From another point of view, this is but getting people to see what is most permanent in existence, or what transcends the world of change and accident.  The realm of essence is the realm above the flux of phenomena, and definitions are of essences and genera.

I may have expressed this view in somewhat abstruse language in order to place it philosophically, yet the practice I am referring to is everyday enough, as a simple illustration will make plain.  If a speaker should define man as a creature with an indefeasible right to freedom and should upon this base an argument that a certain man or group of men are entitled to freedom, he would be arguing from definition.  Freedom is an unchanging attribute of his subject; it can accordingly be predicated of whatever falls within the genus man.  Stipulative definitions are of the ideal, and in this fact lies the reason for placing them at the top of the hierarchy.  If the real progress of man is toward knowledge of ideal truth, it follows that this is an appeal to his highest capacity—his capacity to apprehend what exists absolutely.

The next ranking I offer tentatively, but it seems to me to be relationship or similitude and its subvarieties.  I have a consistent impression that the broad resource of analogy, metaphor, and figuration is favored by those of a poetic and imaginative cast of mind.  We make use of analogy or comparison when the available knowledge of the subject permits only probable proof.  Analogy is reasoning from something we know to something we do not know in one step; hence there is no universal ground for predication.  Yet behind every analogy lurks the possibility of a general term.  The general term is never established as such, for that would change the argument to one of deductive reasoning with a universal or distributed middle.  The user of analogy is hinting at an essence which cannot at the moment be produced.  Or, he may be using an indirect approach for reason of tact; analogies not infrequently do lead to generalizations; and he may be employing this approach because he is respectful of his audience and desires them to use their insight.

I mentioned a moment earlier that this type of argument seems to be preferred by those of a poetic or non-literal sort of mind.  That fact suggests yet another possibility, which I offer still more diffidently, asking your indulgence if it seems to border on the whimsical.  The explanation would be that the cosmos is one vast system of analogy, so that our profoundest intuitions of it are made in the form of comparisons.  To affirm that something is like something else is to begin to talk about the unitariness of creation.  Everything is like everything else somehow, so that we have a ladder of similitude mounting up to the final one-ness—to something like a unity in godhead.  Furthermore, there is about this source of argument a kind of decent reticence, a recognition of the unknown along with the known.  There is a recognition that the unknown may be continuous with the known, so that man is moving about in a world only partly realized, yet real in all its parts.  This is the mood of poetry and mystery, but further adumbration of it I leave to those more gifted than I.

Cause and effect appears in this scale to be a less exalted source of argument, though we all have to use it because we are historical men.  Here I must recall the metaphysical ground of this organization and point out that it operates in the realm of becoming.  Causes are causes having effect and effects are resulting from causes.  To associate this source of argument with its habitual users, I must note that it is heard most commonly from those who are characteristically pragmatic in their way of thinking.  It is not unusual today to find a lengthy piece of journalism or an entire political speech which is nothing but a series of arguments form consequence—completely devoid of reference to principle or defined ideas.  We rightly recognize these as sensational types of appeal.  Those who are partial to arguments based on effect are under a temptation to play too much upon the fears of their audience by stressing the awful nature of some consequence or by exaggerating the power of some cause. Modern advertising is prolific in this kind of abuse.  There is likewise a temptation to appeal to prudential considerations only in a passage where things are featured as happening or threatening to happen.

An even less admirable subvariety of this source is the appeal to circumstance, which is the least philosophical of all the topics of argument.  Circumstance is an allowable source when we don’t know anything else to plead, in which cases we say, “There is nothing else to be done about it.”  Of all the arguments, it admits of the least perspicaciousness.  An example of this which we hear nowadays with great regularity is: “We must adapt ourselves to a fast-changing world.”  This is pure argument from circumstance.  It does not pretend, even, to offer a cause-and-effect explanation. If it did, the first part would tell us why we must adapt ourselves to a fast-changing world; and the second would tell us the result of our doing so.  The usually heard formulation does neither.  Such argument is preeminently lacking in understanding or what the Greeks called dianoia.  It simply cites a brute circumstance and says, “Step lively.”  Actually, this argument amounts to a surrender of reason.  Maybe it expresses an instinctive feeling that in this situation reason is powerless.  Either you change fast or you get crushed.  But surely it would be a counsel of desperation to try only this argument in a world of suffering from aimlessness and threatened with destruction.

Generally speaking, cause and effect is a lower-order source of argument because it deals in the realm of the phenomenal, and the phenomenal is easily converted into the sensational.  Sensational excitements always run the risk of arousing those excesses which we deplore as sentimentality or brutality.

Arguments based on testimony and authority, utilizing external sources, have to be judged in a different way.  Actually they are the other sources seen through other eyes.  The question of their ranking involves the more general question of the status of authority.  Today there is a widespread notion that all authority is presumptuous. (“Authority is authoritarian” seems to be the root idea); consequently it is held improper to try to influence anyone by the prestige of great names or of sanctioned pronouncements.  This Is a presumption itself, by which every man is presumed to be his own competent judge in all matters.  But greater impossibility all the time, as the world piles up bodies of specialized knowledge which no one person can hope to command, arguments based on authority are certainly not going to disappear.  The sound maxim is that an argument based on authority is as good as the authority.  What we should hope for is a new and discriminating attitude toward what is authoritative, and I would like to see some source recognized as having moral authority.  This hope will have to wait upon the recovery of a more stable order o f values and the re-recognition of qualities in persons.  Speaking most generally, arguments from authority are ethically good when they are deferential toward real hierarchy.

With that we may sum up the rhetorical speaker’s obligation toward the ideal, apart from particular determinations.  If one accepts the possibility of this or any other ranking, one has to concede that rhetoric is not merely formal; it is realistic.  It is not a playing with counters; its impulses come from insights into actuality.  Its topic matter is existential, not hypothetical.  It involves more than mere demonstration because it involves choice.  Its assertions have ontological claims.

Now I return to the second responsibility, which is imposed by the fact that the rhetorician is concerned with definite questions.  These are questions having histories, and history is always concrete.  This means that the speaker or writer has got to have a rhetorical perception of what his audience needs or will receive or respond to.  He takes into account the reality of man’s composite being and his tendency to be swayed by sentiment.  He estimates the pressures of the particular situation in which his auditors are found.  In the eyes of those who look sourly upon the art, he is a man probing for weaknesses which he means to exploit.

But here we must recur to the principle that rhetoric comprehensively considered is an art of emphasis.  The definite situation confronts him with a second standard of choice.  In view of the receptivity of his audience, which of the topics shall he choose to stress, and how?  If he concludes that definition should be the appeal, he tries to express the nature of the thing in a compelling way.  If he feels that a cause-and-effect demonstration would stand the greatest chance to impress, he tries to make this linkage so manifest that his hearers will see an inevitability in it.  And so on with the other topics, which will be so emphasized or magnified as to produce the response of assent.

Along with this process of amplification, the ancients recognized two qualities of rhetorical discourse which have the effect of impressing an audience with the reality or urgency of a topic.  In Greek these appear as energia and enargia, both of which may be translated “actuality,” though the first has to do with liveliness or animation of action and the second with vividness of scheme.  The speaker now indulges in actualization to make what he is narrating or describing present to the minds’ eyes of his hearers.

The practice itself has given rise to a good deal of misunderstanding, which it would be well to remove.  We know that one of the conventional criticisms of rhetoric is that the practitioner of it takes advantage of his hearers by playing upon their feelings and imaginations.  He overstresses the importance of his topics by puffing them up, dwelling on them in great detail, using an excess of imagery or of modifiers evoking the senses, and so on. He goes beyond what is fair, the critics often allege, by this actualization of a scene about which the audience ought to be thinking rationally.  Since this criticism has a serious basis, I am going to offer an illustration before making the reply.  Here is a passage from Daniel Webster’s famous speech for the prosecution in the trial of John Francis Knapp.  Webster is actualizing for the jury the scene of the murder as he has constructed it from circumstantial evidence.

The deed was executed with a degree of steadiness and self-possession equal to the wickedness with which it was planned. The circumstances now clearly in evidence spread out the scene before us. Deep sleep had fallen upon the destined victim and all beneath his roof. A healthful old man, to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers of the night held him in their soft but strong embrace. The assassin enters, through a window already prepared, into an unoccupied apartment. With noiseless foot he paces the lonely hall, half-lighted by the moon; he winds up the ascent of the stairs, and reaches the door of the chamber. Of this, he moves the lock by soft and continued pressure, till it turns on its hinges without noise; and he enters, and beholds the victim before him. The room is uncommonly open to the admission of light. The face of the innocent sleeper is turned from the murderer, and the beams of the moon, resting on the gray locks of the aged temple, show him where to strike. The fatal blow is given! and the victim passes, without a struggle or a motion, from the repose of sleep to the repose of death! It is the assassin’s purpose to make sure work; and he plies the dagger, though it is obvious that life has been destroyed by the blow of the bludgeon. He even raises the aged arm, that he may not fail in his aim at the heart, and replaces it again over the wound of the poniard! To finish the picture, he explores the wrist for the pulse! He feels for it, and ascertains that it beats no longer! It is accomplished. The deed is done. He retreats, retraces his steps to the window, passes out through it as he came in, and escapes. He has done the murder. No eye has seen him, no ear has heard him. The secret is his own, and it is safe!

By depicting the scene in this fullness of detail, Webster is making it vivid, and “vivid” means “living.”  There are those who object on general grounds to this sort of dramatization; it is too affecting to the emotions. Beyond a doubt, whenever the rhetorician actualizes an event in this manner, he is making it mean something to the emotional part of us, but that part is involved whenever we are deliberating about goodness and badness.  On this subject there is a very wise reminder in Bishop Whately’s Elements of Rhetoric: “When feelings are strongly excited, they are not necessarily over-excited; it may be that they are only brought to the state which the occasion fully justifies, or even that they fall short of this.”  Let us think of the situation in which Webster was acting.  After all, there is the possibility, or even the likelihood that the murder was committed in this fashion, and that the indicted Knapp deserved the conviction he got.  Suppose the audience had remained cold and unmoved.  There is the victim’s side to consider and the interest of society in protecting life.  We should not forget that Webster’s “actualization” is in the service of these.  Our attitude toward what is just or right or noble and their opposites is not a bloodless calculation, but a feeling for and against. As Whately indicates, the speaker who arouses feeling may only be arousing it to the right pitch and channeling it in the right direction.

To re-affirm the general contention: the rhetorician who practices “amplification” is not thereby misleading his audience, because we are all men of limited capacity and sensitivity and imagination.  We all need to have things pointed out to us, things stressed in our interest.  The very task of the rhetorician is to determine what feature of a question is most exigent and to use the power of language to make it appear so.  A speaker who dwells insistently upon some aspect of a case may no more be hoodwinking me than a policeman or a doctor when he advises against a certain course of action by pointing out its nature or its consequences.  He should be in a position to know somewhat better than I do.

It is strongly to be suspected that this charge against rhetoric comes not only from the distorted image that makes man a merely rationalistic being, but also from the dogma of an uncritical equalitarianism.  The notion of equality has insinuated itself so far that it appears sometimes as a feeling, to which I would apply the name “sentimental plebeianism,” that no man is better or wiser than another, and hence that it is usurpation for one person to undertake to instruct or admonish another.  This preposterous (and we could add, wholly unscientific judgement, since our differences are manifold and provable) is propagated in subtle ways by our institutions of publicity and the perverse art of demagogic politics.  Common sense replies that any individual who advises a friend or speaks up in meeting is exercising a kind of leadership, which may be justified by superior virtue, knowledge, or personal insight.

The fact that leadership is a human necessity is proof that rhetoric as the attempt through language to make one’s point  of view prevail grows out of the nature of man.  It is not a reflection of any past phase of social development, or any social institution, or any fashion, or any passing vice.  When all factors have been considered, it will be seen that men are born rhetoricians, though some are born small ones and others greater, and some cultivate the native gift by study and training, whereas some neglect it.  Men are such because they are born into history, with an endowment of passion and a sense of the ought.  There is ever some discrepancy, however slight, between the situation man is in and the situation he would like to realize. His life is therefore characterized by movement toward goals.  It is largely the power of rhetoric which influences and governs that movement.

For the same set of reasons, rhetoric is cognate with language.  Ever since I first heard the idea mentioned seriously it impressed me as impossible and even ridiculous that the utterances of men could be neutral.  Such study as I have been able to give the subject over the years has confirmed that feeling and has led me to believe that what is sometimes held up as a desideratum—expression purged of all tendency—rest upon an initial misconception of the nature of language.

The condition essential to see is that every use of speech, oral and written, exhibits an attitude, and an attitude implies an act.  “Thy speech bewrayeth thee” is aphoristically true if we take it as saying, “Your speech reveals your disposition,” first by what you choose to say, then by the amount you decide to say, and so on down through the resources of linguistic elaboration and intonation.  All rhetoric is a rhetoric of motives, as Kenneth Burke saw fit to indicate in the title of his book.  At the low end of the scale, one may be doing nothing more than making sounds to express exuberance.  But if at the other end one sits down to compose a Critique of the Pure Reason, one has the motive of refuting other philosopher’s account of the constitution of being and of substituting one’s own, for an interest which may be universal, but which nonetheless proceeds from the will to alter something.

Does this mean that it is impossible to be objective about anything?  Does it mean that one is “rhetorical” in declaring that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points?  Not in the sense in which the objection is usually raised.  There are degrees of objectivity, and there are various disciplines which have their own rules for expressing their laws or their content in the most effective manner for their purpose.  But even this expression can be seen as enclosed in a rhetorical intention.  Put in another way, an utterance is capable of rhetorical function and aspect.  If one looks widely enough, once can discover its rhetorical dimension, to put it in still another way.  The scientist has some interest in setting fort the formulation of some recurrent feature of the physical world, although his own sense of motive may be lost in a general feeling that science is a good thing because it helps progress along.[2]

In short, as long as man is a creature responding to purpose, his linguistic expression will be a carrier of tendency.  Where the modern semanticists got off on the wrong foot in their effort to refurbish language lay in the curious supposition that language could and should be outwardly determined.  They were positivists operating in the linguistic field.  Yet if there is anything that is going to keep on defying positivistic correlation, it is this subjectively born, intimate, and value-laden vehicle which we call language.  Language is a system of imputation, by which values and precepts are first framed in the mind and are then imputed to things.  This is not an irresponsible imputation; it does not imply, say, that no two people can look at the same clock face and report the same time.  The qualities or properties have to be in the things, but they are not in the things in the form in which they are framed by the mind.  This much I think we can learn from the great realist-nominalist controversy of the Middle Ages and from the little that contemporary semantics has been able to add to our knowledge.  Language was created by the imagination for the purposes of man, but it may have objective reference—just how we cannot say until we are in possession of a more complete metaphysics and epistemology.

Now a system of imputation involves the use of predicates, as when we say, “Sugar is sweet” or “Business is good.”  Modern positivism and relativism, however, have gone virtually to the point of denying the validity of all conceptual predication.  Occasionally at Chicago I purposely needle a class by expressing a general concept in a casual way, whereupon usually I am sternly reminded by some member brought up in the best relativist tradition that “You can’t generalize that way.”  The same view can be encountered in eminent quarters.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was fond of saying that the chief end of man is to frame general propositions and that no general proposition is worth a damn.  In the first of these general propositions the Justice was right, in the sense that men cannot get along without categorizing their apprehensions of reality.  In the second he was wrong because, although a great jurist, he was not philosopher enough to think the matter through.  Positivism and relativism may have rendered a certain service as devil’s advocates if they have caused us to be more careful about our concepts and our predicates, yet their position in net form is untenable. The battle against general propositions was lost from the beginning, for just as surely as man is a symbol-using animal (and a symbol transcends the thing symbolized), he is a classifying animal. The morality lies in the application of the predicate.

Language, which is thus predicative, is for the same cause sermonic.  We are all of us preachers in private or public capacities. We have no sooner uttered words than we have given impulse to other people to look at the world, or some small part of it, in our way.  Thus caught up in a great web of inter-communication and inter-influence, we speak as rhetoricians affecting one another for good or ill.  That is why I must agree with Quintilian that the true orator is the good man, skilled in speaking—good in his formed character and right in his ethical philosophy.  When to this he adds fertility in invention and skill in the arts of language he is entitled to that leadership which tradition accords him.

If rhetoric is to be saved from the neglect and even the disrepute which I was deploring at the beginning of this lecture, these primary truths will have to be recovered until they are a part of our active consciousness.  They are, in summation, that man is not nor ever can be nor ever should be a depersonalized thinking machine.  His feeling is the activity in him most closely related to what used to be called his soul.  To appeal to his feeling therefore is not necessarily an insult; it can be a way to honor him, by recognizing him in the fullness of his being.  Even in those situations where the appeal is a kind of strategy, it but recognizes that men—all men—are historically conditioned.

Rhetoric must be viewed formally as operating at that point where literature and politics meet, or where literary values and political urgencies can be brought together.  The rhetorician makes use of the moving power of literary presentation to induce in his hearers an attitude or decision which is political in the very broadest sense.  Perhaps this explains why the successful user of rhetoric is sometimes in bad grace with both camps.  For the literary people he is too “practical”; and for the more practical political people he is too “flowery.”  But there is nothing illegitimate about what he undertakes to do, any more than it would be illegitimate to make use of the timeless principles of aesthetics in the constructing of a public building.  Finally, we must never lose sight of the order of values as the ultimate sanction of rhetoric.  No one can live a life of direction and purpose without some scheme of values.  As rhetoric confronts us with choices involving values, the rhetorician is a preacher to us, noble if he tries to direct our passion toward noble ends and base if he uses our passion to confuse and degrade us.  Since all utterance influences us in one or the other of these directions, it is important that the direction be the right one, and it is better if this lay preacher is a master of his art.


[1] I might add that a number of years ago the Mathematics Staff of the College at the University of Chicago made a wager with the English Staff that they could write the Declaration of Independence in mathematical language.  They must have had later and better thoughts about this, for we never saw the mathematical rendition.

[2] If I have risked confusion by referring to “rhetoricians” and “rhetorical speakers,” and to other men as if they were  all non-rhetoricians, while insisting that all language has its rhetorical aspect, let me clarify the terms. By “rhetorician” I mean the deliberate rhetor: the man who understands the nature and aim and requirements of persuasive expression and who uses them more or less consciously according to the approved rules of the art.  The other, who by his membership in the family of language users, must be a rhetorician of sorts, is an empirical and adventitious one; he does not know enough to keep invention, arrangement, and style working for him.  The rhetorician of my reference is thus the educated speaker; the other is an untaught amateur.