Rhetoric: Capstone of a classical liberal arts education

You are here now : » Rhetoric Ring > Language is Sermonic Blog

Just posted this in my rhetoric class forum (1/8/17)

2017 January 8 by

We are watching and discussing “Twelve Angry Men” by way of introduction to a unit on forensic argumentation.  When I encouraged my students to note, as they watch, the differences between jurors deliberating about facts in an actual case, versus how one makes a philosophical (abstract) argument, I wrote:

“Deliberations are different from abstractions are different from calculations.”


no comments

A brief study in rhetorical potency (7 Jan 2017)

2017 January 7 by

Here’s a selection from the psalmody of the day, Psalm 46: 4-8a, from my daily prayer app:

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
    God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts. . . . (for some reason, they excluded vs. 7)  Come, behold the works of the Lord . . .

Beautiful, right?  Nice imagery.  I was attracted to this passage, in part, because of the staccato rhythm of verse 6. So, I took the liberty to tweak the arrangement, just a little, to emphasize the poetic structure, for rhetorical effect.  Here it is:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
     the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
     God will help her when morning dawns.   

The nations rage,
the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice,
the earth melts.

Come, behold the works of the Lord . . .

This rendering is obviously more potent.  Why?  The emphasis intended by the author, King David gets lost in the efficient (in terms of publishing a Bible) sentence or “straight-up prose” structure of the passage. The efficient arrangement sublimates all the nuance and richness of this little passage; the rhetorical/poetic arrangement underscores it.  And this is just one, solitary example.  There are more.  So, what?

The mind equipped to “read rhetorically” (the classically trained mind) God’s Word will have “eyes to see and ears to hear” better the spiritual truths articulated therein. (Not at all intending here to discount the work of the Holy Spirit in illuminating scripture.  My point here is pedagogical.) Greek and Hebrew, because they emerged in oral cultures, relied more heavily than we on the interplay between form and meaning. But something is lost.

no comments

New Year’s Resolution (31 Dec 16)

2016 December 31 by

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It . . . is not irritable or resentful;  it . . . rejoices with the truth.  Love never ends. As for . . . knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child,
I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child.
When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. (abridged from 1 Corinthians 13)

2016 has been a helluva year! Nobody disputes that. Our nation is sorely divided. Nobody disputes that, either. Since the presidential election I have heard many exclaim we need to sit down at the table together and actually listen to one another. I’m not going to lie, I plan to exploit this sentiment. I have been trying my whole professional life to spark a Rhetorical Revolution.

Rhetoric, as I view it, is an art of speaking the truth in love to my neighbor, with my neighbor’s improvement in mind, in a way that fosters mutual respect and love of truth. Rhetoric employs Truth, Beauty, and Goodness to move the soul of auditors toward the Good. This is a very idealized (and Christianized) understanding of rhetorical arts, but not one without adherents amongst great thinkers in the Western Tradition. In this reflection, rather than focus on rhetorical arts, i.e., persuasive speaking, I wish to shift focus, slightly, to the art of shared moral inquiry that precedes the art of argumentation. Given our need to sit down together and hear one another (and, of course my desire to exploit the occasion!!) the rationale for focusing on shared moral inquiry makes sense. Yes? Perhaps the time is ripe?

Shared moral inquiry, involves persons pooling their collective wisdom, intelligence, backgrounds, and perspectives, to inquire into the crux of the matter in a difficult case, to decide a course of action, usually on behalf of another. It is “communal or dialogical,” its aim is action, and it is not adversarial. It is moral reasoning conducted within the setting of deliberations about a dilemma that is too complex for one person to tackle in isolation. Rhetorical reason is integral to success in shared moral inquiry, as are dialectical inference and practical wisdom. Casuistry is a mode of shared moral inquiry.

If rhetorical reasoning, or “rhetorical intelligence” (to harken “emotional intelligence” or “multiple intelligences,”) were to ascend to its former status, persons will have, in their “intellectual toolbox,” a ready means of seeking mutual understanding that has been “out of vogue” since the Cartesian Revolution. For much of history rhetorical reason has been left to chance or native ability, and the speech-making aspect of rhetoric has been privileged so that invention has been associated primarily with building arguments, but neglected as a means of inquiry. However, prior to the Cartesian Revolution, especially in the realm of jurisprudence, rhetorical invention was associated with inquiry into the crux of the matter. And this art of rhetorical inquiry “has not been taught seriously and widely for at least two hundred years” (Bitzer and Black, The Prospect of Rhetoric, 1971, p. 239).

Since this elusive methodology has never been fully explicated, nor stabilized, rhetorical reason has not occupied its rightful place in theory and praxis for 300 years now. Beginning in 2017, I resolve to redouble my efforts to revive rhetorical reason as an architectonic art. If you will join me, and we succeed, we can expect the following fruits to bloom in the desert that is America’s civic discourse:

• Empathy
• Strengthened Social bonds
• Mutual respect
• Responsible action
• Unity (as opposed to division)
• Harmony (as opposed to tension)

These are all potential fruits, of course. There is no guarantee, but one thing is certain: militancy, shouting each other down and sniping isn’t working too well. Do you feel me? Will you join the Revolution?

no comments

Worth a re-post . . . (26 Dec 16)

2016 December 26 by

Just searching for items to include in my forthcoming book on “Rhetorical Intelligence” and found this off in a dusty corner of my hard drive.  For my friends @Ethos Debate:
  On the Art of Argumentation              © 2010-17 Dr. Jim Tallmon

Suppose a person will say, “I know how to apply drugs which will have either a heating or cooling effect, and I can give a vomit and also a purge, and all that sort of thing; and knowing all this, as I do, I claim to be a physician . . .” what do you suppose people would say of him?             from Plato’s Phaedrus  


What passes for debate “theory,” is not theory at all, but stratagems.  There is a sort of wisdom there, to be sure, and it is useful and interesting, but it imparts no art.  It equips one to engage in the form of debate, but supplies little of the substance of debate.  That is why, when one focuses, in the round, solely on debate “theory” so called, focusing doggedly on the flow, very little in the way of substantive argumentation takes place.  It resembles more fast paced posturing, evasion, thrusts and parries and ripostes; the “style” of argument without the substance.  This activity interests only the insider; it imparts a wisdom that profits but little, satisfies even less.  It is soulless.
How has it come to this?  In a word: Relativism.  If truth is subjective, then it is pointless to model debate after the search for truth (which is the presumptive ideal of the game, no?) because the pursuit of truth is reduced to vanity.  So, what is left?  Mastering the stratagems of debate.  But, as Plato has Socrates observe, this is no more an art of argumentation than knowing how to “induce a vomit,” or conduct a purge, makes one a physician (the imagery is apropos).  Knowing, even mastering, techniques related to an art does not constitute an art, but only the “preliminaries to the art.”  The practitioner must possess knowledge adequate to inform his judgment regarding upon whom, and under what circumstances, and how much of a given remedy is appropriate. Anything less is quackery! And please note, the remedies themselves provide the substance of healing arts.  Truth is the remedy, and if one has not the time to ponder truth claims in a round of debate, because covering the flow dominates, leaving no time to check fallacies, or develop substantive arguments regarding specious presuppositions, or because one suspects the judge may consider the pursuit of truth irrelevant in the round, debate is reduced to form without substance.  Debate has the potential to form great habits of mind, and cultivate understanding.  At its worst, it perverts these. Let’s not play the game that way at Ethos Debate!

Ethos Debate is a place where debate is practiced the way it ought to be and where students schooled in “Upside Down Debate” excel in an art of argumentation.  How ought debate to be practiced?  Ideally, it should emphasize substantive argumentation over strategy and debate rules; quick wit informed by truth that matters, over “strategery.”  Notice I said “emphasize.”  It is not an either/or.  A combination of the two is important, but I fear the proper ratios are, in much of American debate, largely reversed.  That is, at least, my perception, based on my biases, developed as they were, long before debate devolved into what it is today.  The seeds of modern debate were there back in the dark ages, to be sure, but today the bean stalk has grown to new “heights” and, up there beyond the clouds, I fear you will encounter nasty giants.  I love you in Christ and pray for your victory.  But, more importantly, I pray that your soul is improved and enlarged by participating in this sport, not warped in the process.

comment (1)

Philipp Melanchthon on rhetoric

2016 December 15 by

Thank you to Rev. Paul Cain for bringing to my attention this terrific manuscript!  It is a fairly typical late-medieval gloss of rhetoric, in which Melanchthon sketches the divisions of the speech, focuses on the forensic/”juridical” genre of rhetoric, then provides a nice little overview of figures of speech (tropes and schemes).  If he had, following Boethius, added a bit about dialectical topics, it would have been a thorough little guide book.

Institutiones Rhetoricæ

no comments

Excerpt from “The Image of Culture”

2016 November 20 by

Nobody does “culture” better than Richard M. Weaver . . .

No one has been able to define exactly how a culture integrates and homologizes the ideas and actions of many men over a long period of time any more than how the consciousness gives a thematic continuity to the life of an individual. As far as one can tell, the collective consciousness of the group creates a mode of looking at the world or arrives at some imaginative visual bearing. It “sees” the world metaphorically according to some felt need of the group, and this entails an ordering which denotes dissatisfaction with “things as they are.” Of course cultures do respond to differences in what nature has provided, such as the sea, or a kind of terrain, or a hot or cold climate, these having the power to initiate imaginative reactions. But man meets the given part way, and then proceeds with something of his own. So cultures reflect different regions and varying kinds of historical endowment. But the decisive thing is the work of the spirit, which always operates positively by transfiguring and excluding. It is of the essence of culture to feel its own imperative and to believe in the uniqueness of its worth. In doing so, it has to reject others which are “objectively” just as good, yet for it irrelevant. Syncretistic cultures like syncretistic religions have always proved relatively powerless to create and to influence; there is no weight of authentic history behind them. The very concept of eclectic religion and eclectic culture derives from an inappropriate analogy which suggests that a plurality can be greater than one. Culture derives its very desire to continue from its unitariness. Perhaps some deep force which explains our liking for figures of repetition is here involved; we feel confirmed through seeing things repeated in the same way, and departures from the form are viewed as laxity or ignorance.

Evidently this is the reason that every culture in the course of its formation sets up directions from which the members are constrained not to depart. Penalties for violation may be no more than cultural, although sometimes they have been moral and legal. The truth is that if the culture is to assume form and to bring the satisfactions for which cultures are created, it is not culturally feasible for everyone to do everything “any way he wants to.” There is at the heart of every culture a center of authority from which there proceed subtle and pervasive pressures upon us to conform and to repel the unlike as disruptive. So culture too is faced with the metaphysical problem of freedom and organization, which rules out the possibility of uncircumscribed liberty. Like all forces which shape and direct, it must insist on a pattern of inclusion and exclusion. This is a necessity of integral being and a fundamental fact to deal with in any plan for its protection.

At this center there lies a “tyrannizing image,” which draws everything toward itself. This image is the ideal of its excellence. The forms that it can take and the particular manifestations that it can find are various. In some instances it has been a religious ritual; in others a sacred scripture; in others a literature which everyone is expected to know ; codes of conduct (and even of warfare) may be the highest embodied form. But examine them as we will, we find this inward facing toward some high representation. This is the sacred well of the culture from which inspiring waters like magnetic lines of force flow out and hold the various activities in a subservience of acknowledgment. Not to feel this magnetic pull toward identification and assimilation is to be outside the culture.

Such centripetalism is the essence of culture’s power to cohere and to endure. There is a center which commands all things, and this center is open to imaginative but not logical discovery. It is a focus of value, alaw of relationships, an inspiriting vision. By its very nature it sets up rankings and orders; to be near it is to be higher; to be far from it in the sense of not feeling its attraction is to be lower. Culture is thus by nature aristocratic, for it is a means of discriminating between what counts for much and what counts for little; this no doubt explains the necessity man feels to create it. It is his protest against the uniformity and dead level of simple succession. He will establish a center of value and see to it that the group is oriented toward it. This is his rejection of any merely naturalistic ordering of his life, his declaration of independence from mere environment. Discrimination, selection, and preference with regard to the tyrannizing image are its constitutives.

For this reason it is the very nature of culture to be exclusive. Without the power to reject that which does not understand or acknowledge its center of force, it would disintegrate. We might say that a culture continues by attracting and attracts by continuing. In this way it maintains its identity.

comment (1)

RhetoricRing.com Celebrates Ethos Debate!

2016 November 16 by

Blast from the past . . . this was fun!


no comments

After the election of Donald Trump

2016 November 12 by

Back in the mid-1980s  I read Dostoevsky’s three great novels, The Possessed, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, all in a single semester.  I found there some really useful insights for we who wish to formulate cures for societal decay.  Let me know what you think . . .

“Lessons from Dostoevsky for Doctors of Culture”

comments (2)

For What It’s Worth

2016 November 8 by

Enjoy this keynote address I delivered back in 2008!  Seems relevant still. Hoping somebody appreciates it someday.


no comments

My next book project

2016 October 24 by

God has granted me a season of repose, the first in my adult life, actually, in which to write and reflect . . . as I acclimate to life in the “weird” environs of Austin, TX!  The occasion of my fifteenth year of involvement in the Classical Lutheran Education movement seems a reasonable juncture at which to share some of the insights gleaned along the way.  I hope to have the collection published by late 2017.

The proposed volume will help teachers of the Trivium—grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric—better understand classical pedagogy. Beyond pedagogy, it is my prayer that my observations will shed light also on a variety of curricular, administrative, philosophical, and practical concerns.  Pastors may even find something of interest here (pertaining to casuistry and disputations) as well as home educators (teaching in tandem dialectic and rhetoric to cultivate wisdom and eloquence).  (All essays have been either presented at conferences or published in one form or another over the past several years, with the exception of two, in progress, that will round out the collection.)   Reflections on Classical Lutheran Education

no comments