The Limits of Rhetoric

 Roger Thompson

There are none, of course.  Or, so, apparently I’ve convinced a fair number of my students that there aren’t, even without attempting to do so. We’re working through our textbook, one that essentially posits rhetoric as the center of the universe, and while I’m rather keen on the idea, it worries me.  That worry came into sharp focus today.
While discussing Augustine’s argument for a “true” rhetoric, the class moved from broad discussion of the ideas like “truth” and “justice” and “evil,” to a moment of invention when the students pressed for the creation of axial chart in order to help us clarify what we meant by such terms.   So, we created the chart together.   Along one axis was a continuum between truth and falsehood, and along the intersecting axis was a continuum between ethical and unethical.  The upper right quadrant would be those acts that would be most aligned with truth and ethical behavior, and the lower left would be evil and unethical.
I thought the next step would be easy: identify something that we could all agree belongs in the upper right quadrant.  I suggested, innocuously enough I thought, rescuing a child from a burning building.  I figured this noble act would gain immediate support.
I was wrong.  One student disagreed.  Then another.  What if, one said (albeit somewhat jokingly), the child was Satan’s child?  Another offered (not so jokingly), “or Hitler?”  Discussion ensued, some of it compelling, some of it tortuous.  When I suggested we find an alternative, I was, frankly, even more surprised by the solution to our quandary.  The best thing for the upper right quadrant, the class decided, was returning a lost wedding ring to its owner.
I didn’t know what to say.
I still don’t.
Certainly, I think returning a lost wedding ring is a good thing to do, but I suggested to the class that we were essentially arguing that returning a lost wedding ring was higher on the axis than rescuing a child.  We all laughed at the seeming absurdity, but I’m still not entirely certain of my feelings about the class deliberations.  It points to an uncertainty about making ethical claims, and, for me, a confusion about how to go about making those claims.  I’m reminded of previous classes I’ve taught that have been decidedly unwilling to call something “evil.”  Indeed, my own reluctance.   How dare I, I think, presume to label something “evil.”    How dare I think that rescuing a child is any better than returning a lost wedding ring.
All the chit chat about ethics and truth is central to how I teach the rhetorical tradition.  The purpose is not to establish “truth” or any such thing, but instead to examine ways that different figures have constructed and developed ideas about the relationship between language and ethics.   Can one lie and still serve a greater good?  Can an evil man speak truth?  For Augustine, the figure under examination today who prompted our discussion, the answer is pretty clear to the former question.  He establishes his position in his text The Teacher, a little tome that focuses on the ethical use of language.  In it, Augustine makes it clear that the teacher might, on occasion, lie for the benefit of his audience.
I differ from Augustine on this point, but all the wrangling in class today has forced me to think again about his rhetoric.  He grounds his work on hermeneutics, insisting that the first step to persuasion is engagement with a text, in this case a sacred text.  That hermeneutic becomes the foundation for the development of a rhetoric to suit a communication task at hand, and without it, the rhetor acts unethically.  In the case of Augustine’s lying teacher, a clear understanding of that foundational text justifies a momentary lapse of truthfulness so that a greater (in this case, divine) truth can be made apparent.   And so I wondered today, given the apparent spinning ethical compass of my students, what are the texts that are the foundation of their rhetorics?  What stories or narratives have shaped their sense of the obligation as someone who seeks to persuade?
I know there is no single answer to this, but that is precisely my point.  Augustine was able to call not only on a shared, authoritative text in establishing his claims, but a clear method of understanding the text.  My students do not share such a thing, even if some do still have some degree of shared knowledge about a particular sacred text.  Without that touchstone, what becomes the foundation of rhetorical action?  In other words, without a hermeneutic, does rhetoric become the thing we most fear: persuasion without regard to ethics?
For someone like me who worries about the reductive potential of the worst parts of sophistry, I find this worrisome.  It suggests rhetoric without clarity, or worse, a rhetoric without due consideration for justice.  It suggests an inability to make ethical claims, and, if you’ll forgive my extending today’s class discussion a bit too far, it suggest that as a house fire blazes in front of us, we dig about in the sand at our feet seeking a lost ring.
This is rhetoric without limits, persuasion that does harm.
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6 Responses to The Limits of Rhetoric

  1. Gene Hammond says:

    When I was a student at Notre Dame, there was a priest there that I admired very much, but I found myself disagreeing with him fundamentally after, when we were talking about ethics, he expressed disdain for for what called “situational ethics.” I do agree that struggling to discover ethical systems with wide applicability is worth the effort, but ultimately, I think that all healthy ethics are indeed situational. People ultimately come before principles, and rhetoric helps us arrive at a sensible ethical decision in any given situation by helping us sort through, either internally or with others, all those complicated situations and exceptions such as those that came up in Roger’s class.

  2. Roger says:

    Agreed. Deeply situational. So, to torture the metaphor a bit–in some instances, perhaps that ring is more important than the person in the house. Say, if it’s the ring of Sauron. My real quandry is trying to imagine what grounds are being used to make ethical claims, and for me, those grounds are inevitably wrapped not so much in experience, but the stories we tell about experiences (virtual, real, or imagined). How do we access these given the dispersion of shared texts (and I use that term “text” very broadly). Earlier generations may have had recourse to a common text, or perhaps more precisely said, many of our ethical decisions were made with recourse to a shared text. I’m curious about the varieties of texts that are shaping the stories our students tell about themselves, and thus, the decisions they are making. I think there are likely vestiges or markers of those in our students’ rhetoric, but without that shared touchstone, I’m curious about what I’m missing in their understandings or the world.

  3. Patrizia C. Benolich says:

    So much food for thought here. Many thanks! Given the absurdities of absolutism and relativism, I’m tempted to think that admitting to “the limits of rhetoric” is not unlike opening the door to what Simone Weil refers to as “the Infinite Silence of God. To be sure, neither do I know how, being human, we could possibly claim to be anything more than situational in so many of our ethical decisions, and notwithstanding a common text. Perhaps our students understand this even better than we do, and perhaps not. But meantime, apart from Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga… I have no idea which texts of whatever manner constitute a cultural and ethical touchstone for a sizable enough group of our students’ generation. My generation had so many of these widely ‘shared touchstones’ from Martin Luther King, to Thomas Merton, to Daniel Berrigan, to William O’ Douglas, to James Baldwin, even Jerry Rubin, and not to mention, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Grateful Dead, and films aplenty We even had our own counter-cultural idiom… I suppose it’s that so may of us were cut from such similar industrial era fabric, and indeed so many of us even educated by at least three or four working class professors, most of whom went to College on the GI Bill, and, chances are, were renowned poets and writers in their own right. I’m curious too about our students understanding of the world, and now wondering if they aren’t in one way or another telling us all the time. Many thanks again for ringing this bell! I’ll have to keep my ear to the ground….

  4. Cynthia Davidson says:

    I loved this post. I remember absolutely hating the Ethics course I took as an undergraduate, and loving the aspects of philosophy (in other classes) that were about the search for Truth with a capital T. I think the search for truth is something most people, if not all, need to do at some point. Eventually I realized a philosophy major was not for me and moved onto to literature, which was where I found my ethical compass, much more than in my religious background to be honest.

    I guess my question about your students would be, in a real situation, would they act on the premise of the exercise and consider returning the wedding ring a higher-level of ethical behavior than saving the baby that MIGHT be a future Hitler? Or would they go with a gut-level empathy for a baby in a burning building and say, screw rhetoric and ethics exercises?

    I hope the second. So yes, I think there is a limits to rhetoric, or at least, a limits to the kind of rhetorical training we can hope to provide in a semester.

    I think that the deep thinkers among today’s undergraduates do read. Harry Potter, Hunger Games (I’ll pass on Twilight) are fine for setting up the search for a meaningful life. The danger is coming as we hear decisions being made about the practicality of certain disciplines and programs such as the “why teach literature?” debate. Why teach literature when it will not get you a job? A liberal arts education was meant to create meaningful lives, including an ability to make ethical decisions, and it was never meant to emerge from one class, one field of study, one focused rush to a four-year job prep.

  5. Cynthia Davidson says:

    But I should add: the politics of the day are polarized on whether the liberal arts should help students create meaningful lives, as many think that is the “job” of the church or the family or the guru outside of academia. That’s part of the struggle going on. And who should pay for what–if people think they are already finished developing as people, they don’t want to pay us to offer a chance to change their mind, maybe.

  6. Kevin Clouther says:

    Thanks, Roger. Very interesting. Both Gene’s priest and Augustine likely base their ethical systems in absolutes that come from scripture. While as instructors we may not believe in absolutes, or take our ethics from organized religion, I wonder how many of our students do, or at least think they do. In a multi-cultural environment, the notion of “shared knowledge about a particular sacred text” fascinates me. I suspect a number of our students “live by” the Bible or Torah or Quran, but almost all of them have processed these texts in translation and through idiosyncratic filters of family, community, and minister. Even the students who have touchstones, so to speak, may not have them at Stony Brook in the way priests at Notre Dame or Augustine’s compatriots did. Of course, none of this brings you any closer to resolution.

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