“Grammar speaks, dialectic teaches words, and rhetoric colors words.” -Medieval maxim for the Trivium
In the last two articles about the liberal arts, we discussed Grammar and Dialectic. We learned that grammar speaks about matters of conscience by equipping the student to justify knowledge through myth. We also learned that dialectic teaches words by equipping the student to justify knowledge through reason and dialogue. Today we look at the third part of the maxim, ‘Rhetoric colors words.’ Rhetoric colors words by equipping the student to justify knowledge through persuasion oriented towards truth and directed at himself and others.
When rhetoric first came on the scene in ancient Greece one form began to emerge and two purposes began to rise along with that form. The form became what we know as the five canons of rhetoric, which we will go into momentarily. The first purpose, held by a group called the Sophists, was persuasion aimed at only the appearance of truth. This purpose played out in a variety of public settings where the so-called rhetor would be marveled at for his art and awarded for his ‘wins’ over others. This is what most people think about when they hear or use the term rhetoric today. In ancient times, these men were referred to as Sophists, not rhetoricians. There is, however, another part of the story and another group of people who practiced this art in a very different way. This group, most often philosophers and some politicians, had as their purpose, persuasion aimed at truth. Truth was king and truth was the goal of the discourse, even if that meant the speaker was found wrong. In fact, the person who could not “win” the dialogue was actually called the winner, because to the ancients, being cured of a false view of reality and in turn discovering truth was the greatest good of all. They thirsted after truth and went to great lengths to apprehend as much of it as they could. Socrates is probably the greatest example of this. He never cared how he looked to others, he just wanted the truth, he focused on asking questions and when he did assert, he was clarifying and synthesizing what he heard others say. Furthermore, he never hurried the process of tying down an opinion on something. Socrates knew he needed curing just as much as the next man. Listen to how Crider explains this take on rhetoric.
“…rhetoric is a liberal art which liberates one both to defend oneself against untrue persuasions and to fashion true ones. Often, those untrue persuasions are one’s own; after all, we are all familiar with the sophist within, that part of us who arises, especially in haste or anger, to utter sham arguments that –in calmer, more reflective moments– we know are mistaken. So rhetoric can free one even from one’s own ignorance, disclosing the weaknesses of one’s own idea; having done so, it can free others. Indeed, in freeing others, one frees oneself.” – Scott Crider, The Office of Assertion
When I first considered this, it seemed counter-intuitive that persuasion could be a means of coming to terms with truth. However, if you think back to our article about Dialectic, you may remember that in order for a person to make a belief his own –he must wrestle with it, using words rightly, and in community. Rhetoric perfects this process, or should we say, colors this process. Of course this does not mean it won’t get messy, but it does mean there is a form we can practice in our lives and in our teaching that helps us lead ourselves and our students towards truth. Corbett says that “Rhetoric is the art or the discipline that deals with the use of discourse, either spoken or written, to inform, or persuade, or motivate an audience; whether that audience is made up of one person or a group of persons.” Aristotle explains this art even further by saying “rhetoric is the art of seeing, in each particular case, all the available means of persuasion” and through this art both rhetor and audience can discover greater levels of truth for the good of the individual and the community.
This is the vision of rhetoric a Christian classical education is after. Therefore, for us, a course of study in rhetoric involves two main categories, learning all the means of persuasion and their correlating particulars and learning how to see, in any realm of knowledge, which modes of persuasion ought to be used, given the people and circumstances involved.
Forms and Skills
The first category: learning all the means of persuasion and their correlating particulars happens through a formal study of rhetoric. Formal rhetoric begins with the kinds of persuasive discourse and the modes of persuasion and is fleshed out through the canons of rhetoric.
Kinds of Persuasive Discourse
Within the realm of rhetoric, there are three kinds of rhetorical writing and speaking, deliberative, judicial, and ceremonial. Deliberative discourse or writing deals with the future and is most often used in politics and public forums. Deliberative discourse is what you would use if your were trying to persuade someone about what they ought to do or what they should refrain from doing. Judicial discourse is most commonly seen in the courts of law. Judicial discourse is concerned with the past, and it seeks to “defend or condemn someone’s actions.” Finally, ceremonial discourse is concerned with the present, and it seeks to inspire or please an audience. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and modern-day preaching are good examples of this third kind of discourse. Once the rhetor knows which kind of discourse he would need to employ, he would then decide the modes of persuasion he would use.
Modes of Persuasion
Ethos, pathos, and logos are the primary modes of persuasion. Each of these modes appeal to a different aspect of man. Logos is persuasion that appeals to the rational nature of man, pathos is persuasion that appeals to the emotional nature of man, and ethos is persuasion that appeals to the ethical nature of man. The rhetor would have to judge which modes were most appropriate based on the subject being discussed and the nature of his audience and circumstances. The rhetor would then use the canons to discover content for the rhetorical discourse that fit into these modes.
Canons of Rhetoric
The five canons of rhetoric are invention, arrangement, elocution, memory, and oratory. Invention governs discovering information and proofs for your discourse. Arrangement governs sorting through, selecting, and placing the various pieces of the discourse. Elocution governs the placement of the right words in the right places. Memory is all about learning your piece by heart or memorizing it and lastly, oratory governs how you perform your speech.
Learning to See & Discern
The second part of a rhetorical education, learning how to see which modes of persuasion ought to be used in a given situation, is more abstract, but the principles are important enough that I feel compelled to mention them here.
First of all, learning to see happens through the formal study of rhetoric, but really begins with and depends on the musical education Clark and Jain refer to in The Liberal Arts Tradition. In essence, what you are doing here is listening, attending, and discerning throughout the rhetorical process. You are applying all that you have learned through your course in grammar and dialectic. You are honoring the nature of things–especially the nature of man–and you are responding appropriately to creation and participating imaginatively with it. The capacity to discern is gained through a grounding in piety, wonder, and a grammatical and dialectical approach nature-study and myth.
To understand the importance of the role piety plays we have to understand the power of rhetoric. When you apply the art of rhetoric to some topic or question your discourse has the ability to embody something that has the power to lead souls.
“The study of rhetoric educates one in a particular liberty, the liberty to handle the world, to remake it, if only a little, and to hand it to others in a shape which may influence their actions.” Through this “office of assertion,” the writer is a leader of souls. As Plato explains in the Phaedrus, rhetoric is “the art of soul-leading by means of words.”…Such soul leading is a liberal power, one which in its finest and fullest manifestation is a form of love: the finest rhetorician not only loves wisdom, but also loves others who do so. The finest rhetor, then, is a friend.” Scott Crider, The Office of Assertion
The other part of this friendship, which helps us to see, is a commitment to wonder or, as David Hicks refers to it, a spirit of inquiry. The rhetor, whose goal is truth, should be marked by his classical spirit of inquiry.
“General curiosity, imagination in forming hypothesis, and method in testing them, then, mark the classical spirit of inquiry. This bent of mind allows the educated man to go on educating himself or extending the realms of knowledge for his fellows.” – David Hicks, Norms & Nobility
This kind of disposition is cultivated beginning in the years preceding the formal study of rhetoric, the years filled with story, song, art, and liturgy; the years of grammar and dialectic. Through wonder, piety, and -for the Christian- the Holy Spirit the student of rhetoric is equipped to apprehend the nature of things and apply this understanding to his inquiry into a topic, the arrangement of his findings, the selection of rhetorical devices, and the refinement of composition and his chosen mode of delivery.
Rhetoric, a Course of Study
The modern student of rhetoric attends to all of the above mentioned and employs them in their compositions and discourse related to the ideas and questions they encounter in their study of history and the great books of western civilization. In our homeschool community, we accomplish this course of study through a humane letters course, which includes The Lost Tools of Writing, history, literature, picture/composer study, and speech & debate. We also study Shakespeare and theater. The Lost Tools of Writing is the first three canons of rhetoric. Speech & Debate and Theater are the last two canons. We use the content from literature, art, music, and history in our writing, speeches, and debates. We use Shakespeare as our content in theater and the skills the students learn in theater eventually inform their discourse in the Humane Letters course, along with Speech & Debate. There are several resources out there to help you teach these arts in your home. The CiRCE Institute, Classical Academic Press, and our Expanding Wisdom Google+ Community all provide opportunities and support as you learn to teach these arts.
In you are looking for even more help than that, our homeschool community has a few more spots in the High School class, you can learn more here. If you are not local to north Charlotte, but still would like some extra help with the study of rhetoric, the CiRCE Institute has an online academy where they teach The Lost Tools of Writing and the Great books. I actually teach with them and am teaching The Lost Tools of Writing Level 1 and Greek & Roman Epics. There is also a host of other teachers, who teach LTW level I, LTW level II, and a few other great books. We would love to help if we can. You can learn more about The Academy here.
“What is the end of persuasion in an academic community? The truth of the matter at hand, not as an object possessed, but as a disposition toward the subject, a disposition that is truer than before the rhetorical moment, a disposition shared with one’s audience. That disposition is, according to Socrates, the highest good of human life, for, as he would have it, the unexamined life is not worth living. The care of words and things –that is, the care of things through the care of words– in a generous, disciplined forum: this human activity is rhetorical throughout, the true influence of friends who have, as Phaedrus puts it at the close of the Phaedrus, “everything in common”, in particular the shared motion toward the real.” Scott Crider, The Office of Assertion
The need for morality and love is great as we encounter the art of rhetoric. It has been my experience that the best rhetoricians are those who understand the nature and the forms of rhetoric, stay close to Christ, repent often, hold their ideas loosely, and have a high view of man. I feel overwhelmingly blessed to have been taught by some of these and hope that one day I can be like them. Maybe if I keep attending to the forms of this art, pursuing wonder and piety, and reading lots of great books in community I, and my students, will have a great chance of becoming like those teachers, but more importantly like Him, our Lord. Join the Conversation here.
Expanding wisdom, extending grace,
Resources used in Research
The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain
The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph
Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education by David Hicks
Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward Corbett and Robert Connors