Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver

Confession: I like to read more than I like to write. Maybe to put it more correctly, reading is more of an escape for me than writing. That means that there is a stack of books that have been read, but not blogged on, and this is the highest priority. The book is FANTASTIC, if 10-20% of Americans could manage to read it, the quality of our dialogue and understanding of ourselves and the universe would rise exponentially!

"Our difficulty with the Phaedrus may be that our interpretation has been too literal and too topical". It doesn't get a lot closer to the bone than that for a technocratic culture that has lost most of what it means to be human!

In response to a question if Socrates really believes if something in the myth of Boreas and Oreithyia is true, Weaver writes:

"The answer of Socrates is that many tales are open to this kind of rationalization, but the result is tedious and irrelevant. It is irrelevant because our chief concern is with the nature of man, and it is beside the point to probe into such matters while we are yet ignorant of ourselves. The scientific criticism of Greek mythology, which may be likened to the scientific criticism of the myths of the Bible in our own day, produces at best "a boorish sort of wisdom". It is a limitation to suppose that the truth of the story lies in its historicity."
*** historicity can be thought of as "scientific history" -- perfectly factual, verifiable, evidence based history -- which really can't exist, because even the MOST learned current historians can't possibly share the LIVED CONTEXT of the time. As opposed to the "narrative of history". Since all human thought is "story based", so the left attempts to make the "historical story" into an "untrue myth", while making the present into "truth" -- or really a "false truth" that they use their dominance to present as "factually true".

Or to put it in Weaver's words: "... some things are best told by parable and some perhaps discoverable only by parable. Real investigation goes forward with the help of analogy."

We humans have forgotten that all we ever "know" is "known" by a human being -- us. We don't really understand human beings. Consciousness is mostly a mystery. We can't create life, and it is likely that even if we could, our understanding of it would be no greater (maybe less?). The Greeks and Romans understood this, as did our founding fathers -- as in "The Closing of the American Mind", modern man has forgotten.

The start of the book has a discourse between Phaedrus and Socrates on the thought that "people should grant favors to non-lovers rather than to lovers". The essential point is that facts and dialectic are more "real" than rhetoric (lovers speech), so they are "the good". The counter argument is that we are humans, and nobody is moved, nor really "takes facts to heart". Three person's are introduced; the non-lover, the evil lover and the noble lover. Again, "love" is the idea of "bringing the emotions in".

The non-lover is straight forward -- facts and rational argument. Lots of respect for the audience, the assumption being that "they will make up their own mind" (Bush). The noble lover is the leader or speaker that cares deeply (loves) their constituency of people of lesser gifts, and uses his soaring rhetoric to take them to a better place than they would go to otherwise ... what a conservative would see Reagan as, or a liberal would see Obama as.

The evil lover is essentially what the conservative sees Obama as, and many liberals saw Reagan as -- just using the electorate for their own means. Pulling the wool over the eyes of the simpler masses.

As we look now for the parallel in language, we find ourselves confronting the 2nd alternative: speech which influences us in the direction of evil. This we shall call base rhetoric because it's end is the exploitation which Socrates has been condemning. We find the base rhetoric hates that which is opposed, or is equal or better because all such things are impediments to its will, and in the last analysis it knows only its will. Truth is the stubborn, objective restraint which this will endeavors to overcome. Base rhetoric is therefore always trying to keep it's objects from the support which personal courage, noble associations, and divine philosophy provide to a man.

The day that the Democrats conspire to use "Deem and Pass" to ram health care through the congress is a great day to write this. The Democrats want no "market", no Constitution, and in the final analysis, no rules at all to stand in the way of their will to power!

The next section of the book is an excellent discourse on the relationship of fact, dialectic and rhetoric in the context of the "Scopes Monkey Trial". How one of the major problems of discourse, and especially modern discourse is "What is the question?" Are we talking means or goals? Do we believe in law and the Constitution, or did someone "decide behind the curtain" that we were going to throw them out in the name of some "higher value" (like "equality", or "the "right" of health care)?

There follows an excellent discussion that might be titled "ye shall know them by their arguments". Edmund Burke is exposed by this analysis as essentially a liberal, since his arguments are almost always from circumstance, and that is the ground that the liberal feels best upon. "We HAVE to do SOMETHING, there are 45million uninsured in this country"!

Lincoln is shown as a conservative, as his most standard argument is from definition. "If a negro is a man, then ... let me show how you in fact recognize him as a man ....".  Here is an example from Lincoln:

"Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored--contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between right and wrong: vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nore a dead man; such a policy of "don't care" on a question about which all true men do care ..."
There are excellent discussions on how circumstance tends to better appeal to the common man, since examples can be brought to the front (BO putting up someone on stage that lost their insurance, had to stop cancer treatment, or whatever) ... circumstance is easy because it is real and immediate, and allows us to "see ourselves in their place".

Right and wrong, reality, means, principle -- these things are hard. Most of our supposed "good" today is claiming to feel so bad we will send someone a bad check, or demand that our richer neighbor send money to help -- or that our children or grandchildren  cover the cost of our "doing good under the circumstances". We are besieged with base rhetoric;  "how can you stand there doing NOTHING when people are going broke" -- as if random action in the face of problems was somehow virtuous.

This book is certainly not "easy", but I think it is within the grasp of most, and it is an excellent introduction to what is actually going on behind the curtain of a lot of the communication that we are bombarded with today. Highly recommended!

1 comment:

  1. Bill, thanks for this review. My own reading has fallen way off for some reason and I haven't figured out why yet. Maybe too many books that say pretty much weave a common theme perhaps?

    Anyway, I will be getting this one is the hopes that it will break me out of my reading "slump".

    Thanks.

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