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The Ethics of Rhetoric by Richard Weaver

ethicsofrhetoricSome books are nearly impossible to review.  Such works have no wasted words and cannot be effectively summarized in the space available for any review.  In fact, sometimes the explication of their contents cannot be done more concisely than the manner in which the author himself chose to arrange his words.

Richard Weaver’s The Ethics of Rhetoric is one such book.  It is not a book for everyone.  In so saying, this reviewer does not mean to impute that practically anyone could not read this book, but rather that the will and desire to grasp its contents are probably absent in the majority of the population.

What follows is an attempt to explain some of the first chapter of Weaver’s book.  This exercise is done mostly for the benefit of the writer of this essay, with the hope that it may be of some interest to a few people who happen to stumble upon it.

The first chapter in The Ethics of Rhetoric starts with Weaver’s analysis of Plato’s Phaedrus.  This reader read this dialog years ago and understood none of it, lacking the patience, experience and desire to grasp what the dialog was really about.  Weaver explains that Plato uses the discussion taking place on the surface as a metaphor for the role of rhetoric and the rhetorician.

The term rhetoric has acquired a negative connotation in today’s technocratic society, or as Weaver puts it,  “most readers conceive rhetoric to be a system of artifice rather than an idea,”

The technocrats are those fortunate smart people convinced of their logic, who believe they know what’s best for society.  It is comprised of people that Woodrow Wilson would have idealized as the army of experts he wanted to run government.  But it also makes up a vast percentage of the intelligentsia in America.

This class is the logical progression which stemmed from the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.

The libertarian, the unmoored conservative, and those who call themselves progressives, actually share some commonality in their assumptions.  One of these assumptions is that everything may be boiled down into a neat set of objective facts.

In their view, these facts reflect reality.  By limiting themselves to such a dialectical approach, they exclude potentialities.  Weaver does not argue that a dialectical understanding of reality is unimportant, only that it is insufficient.

To make his point, he dissects Plato’s Phaedrus, which, on the surface is a discourse on whether it is better to be in love, or not in love.  Logically speaking, love is irrational and causes people to behave in irrational ways.   But, beneath the surface, Phaedrus is about the proper use of rhetoric.

In order to get there, Weaver digs deeply into this dialog and finally points out that the “love” being discussed is not really “love” in the true or good sense of the word, but merely lust and base desire.  The conduct that comes from that sort of love really is inferior to the conduct arising from no love at all.

However, the true kind of love is more akin to what one finds in I Corinthians 13, although Weaver doesn’t cite this.  Instead, he refers to Plato’s analysis of these two types of love, represented by the parties in Phaedrus – the non-lover (supposedly purely rational man) and the evil lover.  He contrasts them with the notion of transcendent love as evinced by the “noble lover,” and challenges the notion of man’s supposed desire for rationality.

Love is often censured as a form of madness, yet not  all madness is evil. There is a madness which is simple degeneracy, but on the other hand there are kinds of madness which are really forms of inspiration, from which come the greatest gifts conferred on man. Prophecy is a kind of madness, and so too is poetry.   “The poetry of the sane man vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired madmen.” Mere sanity, which is of human origin, is inferior to that madness which is inspired by the gods and which is a condition for the highest kind of achievement. In this category goes the madness of the true lover. He is in a generous  state which confers blessings to the ignoring of self, whereas the conduct of the non-lover displays all the selfishness of business: “the affection of the non-lover, which is alloyed with prudence and follows mortal and parsimonious rules of conduct will beget in the beloved soul the narrowness which common folk praise as virtue; it will cause the soul to be a wanderer upon the earth for 9000 years and a fool below the earth at last.” It is the vulgar who do not realize that the madness of the noble lover is an inspired madness because he has his thoughts turned toward a beauty of divine origin

Now the attitude of the noble lover for the beloved is in direct contrast with that of the evil lover, who, as we have seen, strives to possess and victimize the object of his affections for once the noble lover has mastered conflict with his own soul by conquering appetite and fixing his attention upon the intelligible and divine, he conceives an exalted attitude toward the beloved. The noble lover now “follows the beloved in reverence and awe.” So those who are filled with this kind of love “exhibit no jealousy or meanness towards the beloved one, but endeavor by every means in their power to lead him to the likeness of the god whom they honor.” Such is the conversion by which love turns from the exploitative to the creative.

… Or as Socrates expresses it, the selfish lover contrives things so that the beloved will be “most agreeable to him and most harmful to himself.”   Emphasis WWTFT

So, what has this to do with rhetoric?  As it turns out, a great deal.

Throughout Weaver’s writing in this book and others, Weaver is concerned with the concept of transcendence, as were the ancients.  What Weaver seeks to do is explain the effect a belief in a higher plane of existence has on human beings and upon society as a whole.  Selfless love is a reach toward transcendent truth.

Rhetoric employed toward such an end is a good thing.

Weaver shows that the false ideal of eliminating rhetoric and boiling things down to a set of objective facts is impossible, but efforts to attain this are harmful in and of themselves.  Human beings are creatures of passion.

Sophistications of theory cannot obscure the truth that there are about three ways for language to affect us. It can move us toward what is good; it can move us toward what is evil; or it can, in hypothetical third place, fail to move us at all.

While this hypothetical third instance is unobtainable in the main, attempting it has been shown historically (and in present day,) to have disastrous results.

Weaver illustrates this quite clearly by comparing Churchill and Hitler as dueling rhetoricians.

Britain and France had come to prefer as leaders the rhetoricless businessman-type. And while they had thus emasculated themselves, there appeared an evil … to whom Europe all but succumbed before the mistake was seen and rectified. For while the world must move, evil rhetoric is of more force than no rhetoric at all; and Herr Hitler, employing images which rested on no true dialectic, had persuaded multitudes that his order was the “new order,” i.e.,  the true potentiality. Britain was losing and could only lose until, reaching back in her traditional past, she found a voice which could match his accents with a truer grasp of the potentiality of things. Thus two men conspicuous for passion fought a contest for souls which the nobler won. But the contest could have been lost by default. 

Winston Churchill likened the future of Europe to “broad sunlit uplands.” Now if one had regard only for the hour, this was a piece of mendacity such as the worst charlatans are fond of committing; but if one took Churchill’s premises and then considered the potentiality, the picture was within bounds of actualization. His “exaggeration” was that the defeat of the enemy would place Europe in a position for long and peaceful progress. At the time the surface trends ran the other way; the actuality was a valley of humiliation. Yet the hope which transfigured this to “broad sunlit uplands” was not irresponsible, and we conclude by saying that the rhetorician talks about both what exists simply and what exists by favor of human imagination and effort.

So rhetoric can be used for good or evil, and depends upon the end which motivates it.  Weaver seems to say that a rhetorician acts as a sort of a soul doctor, guiding people to move from impulse to action.  He contrasts this with dry theoreticians or dialecticians who seek to disambiguate and boil everything down to a set of unassociated facts.  Such people can attain understanding, but cannot “add impulse to truth.”

Rhetoric moves the soul with  a movement which cannot finally be justified logically. It can only be valued analogically with reference to some supreme image. Therefore when the rhetorician encounter some soul “sinking beneath the double load of forgetfulness and vice” he seeks to reanimate it by holding up to its sight the order of presumptive goods. This order is necessarily a hierarchy leading up to the ultimate Good. All of the terms in a rhetorical vocabulary are like links in a chain stretching up to some master link which transmits its influence down through the  linkages. It is impossible to talk about rhetoric as effective expression without having a term giving intelligibility to the whole discourse, the Good.   Of course, inferior concepts of the Good may be and often are placed in this ultimate position; and there is nothing to keep the base lover from inverting the proper order and saying, “Evil, be thou my good.”   Yet the fact remains that in any piece of rhetorical discourse, one rhetorical term overcomes another rhetorical term only by being nearer to the term which stands ultimate. … Emphasis WWTFT

At one point Weaver touches upon a theme that he elaborates upon in a later work, Ideas Have Consequences.

The education of the soul is not a process of bringing it into correspondence with a physical structure like the external world, but rather a process of rightly affecting motion. By this conception, a soul which is rightly affected calls that good which is good; but a soul which is wrongly turned calls that good which is evil.   What Plato has prepared us to see is that the virtuous rhetorician, who is a lover of truth, has a soul of such movement that its dialectical perceptions are consonant with those of a divine mind. Or, in the language of more technical philosophy, this soul is aware of axiological systems which have ontic status. The good soul, consequently, will not urge a perversion of justice as justice in order to impose upon the Commonwealth. Insofar as the soul has its impulse in the right direction, its definitions will agree with the true nature of intelligible things.  Emphasis WWTFT

Reading these words brings to mind Isaiah 5:20

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!

In E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide For The Perplexed, like Weaver in his Ideas Have Consequences, the author posits that it is the notion of transcendence that gives life value and makes human beings greater than animals.  In striving to remove this notion, people are putting blinders on themselves and refusing to acknowledge a greater purpose and more fulfilling existence.  In essence they are putting themselves “outside of the communion of minds.”

…  So rhetoric at its truest seeks to perfect men by showing them better versions of themselves, links in that chain extending up toward the ideal, which only the intellect can apprehend and only the soul have affection for. This is the justified affection of which no one can be ashamed, and he who feels no influence of it is truly outside the communion of minds. Rhetoric appears, finally, as a means by which the impulse of the soul to be ever moving is redeemed.  Emphasis WWTFT

The business of the rhetorician is in things that do not exist in the present.  In other words, the true rhetorician is able to discern the Good that transcends what is right in front of him.

… potentiality is a mode of existence, and that all prophecy is about the tendency of things. The discourse of the noble rhetorician, accordingly, will be about real potentiality possible actuality, whereas that of the mere exaggerator is about unreal potentiality.  

Finally, this notion of transcendent truth is visible and understandable only through metaphor coupled with logic.  Weaver provides an example that decades later resonates for those with ears to hear.

The payment of the just debt is not itself justice, but the payment of this particular debt is one of the many things which would have to be done before this could be a completely just world. It is just, then, because it partakes of the ideal justice, or it is a small analog of all justice (in practice it will be found that the rhetorician makes extensive use of synecdoche, whereby the small part is used as a vivid suggestion of the grandeur of the whole). It is by bringing up these resemblances that the good rhetorician leads those who listen in the direction of what is good.  In effect he performs a cure of souls by giving impulse, chiefly through figuration, toward an ideal good.

Weaver’s lofty thought may seem far removed from pedestrian existence, but the pursuit of the good is not limited to grand passions or great conflicts.  It encompasses people who happily abandon their obligations to pay for over-valued houses and justify their actions because of the unconscionable acts of the big banks. The wisdom of our parents: “Just because everyone does it, doesn’t mean it is right,” is cautionary.  A society guided by moral relativism has chosen “darkness for light, and light for darkness.”


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