Midterm 5001

Set A:

The relationship between the study of rhetoric and the development of virtue or an ethical sense has been debated since classical times.

  1. Explain the classical and Enlightenment definitions of rhetoric and propose a contemporary definition. Account for differences between the three.

Classical definitions of rhetoric centered around virtue, speaking ability, persuasion, the distribution of knowledge, and the creation of better men (Isocrates 185). Rhetoric was seen as a skill which was necessary to becoming a productive member of society. As Antidosis shows, the way students should be effectively taught how to be good orators was an academic endeavor that had more importance than the learning of science and mathematics. The ability to argue, persuade, and impart knowledge was seen as an ability which the elite of society should be proficient in. While the teaching of this was extremely important, it was also believed by many, like Isocrates, that being a good orator was a talent that could not be taught for some (Isocrates 201). Classical rhetoric centered on oral ability, since it was believed by many, like Plato, that writing was a means of stepping away from truth rather than a way to organize and record thought. For this reason, rhetoric did not include that craft of writing, only the craft of speaking, argument, and persuasion. It would not be until Quintillian that writing would be seen as useful in the construction of thought.

Rhetoric was also seen as an art that should strive for morality but which found itself in a perpetual grey area. In Gorgias, Socrates and Gorgias debate whether or not rhetoricians can be moral with their superior powers of persuasion over that of philosophers. This important area helped to define rhetoric as an art that at times needed to forego morality in order to do what was best for the people, who may be more ignorant than those with the responsibility and know-how to lead them. It was important that those who were proficient in rhetoric were moral citizens, however, these same citizens also needed to have the ability to decide when morality needed to be set aside for the greater good. In this way, rhetoricians did not always act morally, and this ability made it uncertain whether or not being a moral or ethical person had anything to do with being a good orator. Overall, the classical definition of rhetoric relied heavily on being a good citizen and being a moral and/or virtuous person.

Enlightenment definitions of rhetoric focus more on logic and science rather than morals and ethics. The concept that a good rhetorician has fine-tuned argumentative skills is still present from the Classical definition. However, the ability to argue begins to rely more heavily on scientific facts and logic instead of the use of rhetorical devices and philosophy. Vico points out, however, that the progress of science, while it has moved mankind forward in many respects, has impeded the creative abilities of students and potential expert rhetoricians (14). In addition, the movement towards memorization, facts, and science has also drawn attention away from ethics and inquiry into human nature (Vico 33). So, while the ability to impart knowledge and speak eloquently were still highly valued, using rhetorical skill in order to teach or emphasize ethics was not prioritized.

Alexander Bain argues that “Rhetoric discusses the means whereby language, spoken or written, may be rendered effective” (875). I believe that this definition efficiently encompasses the way rhetoric is viewed today. Rhetoric has many different mediums now, and technology is only allowing for its scope to expand. Today, rhetoric can be found anywhere from academic texts to Ebonics and text messaging. Eventually, the rhetoric of hypertext may be a field of study. Communication changes constantly, but as long as humans are creating a system of symbols to communicate, whether it be done with pencil and paper or pixel, there will be an underlying rhetoric to it all in some capacity.

I am also partial to Bain’s definition because in no way does it mention anything to do with virtue or ethics. While I think that a rhetorician should have a sense of virtue and ethics, I feel that this is something that is not, and should not be taught in schools. Because these two qualities tie in so heavily with religion and personal belief, it has been impossible and inappropriate to try and include in education. Their definitions alone I find extremely problematic. Kenneth Burke’s discussion of Terministic Screens show that terms and concepts vary from individual to individual (45). For example, some may equate virtue and ethics with the teaching of Christianity, while some may define it in terms of Wicca or Atheism.

I believe that this is essential to understanding the changing definition of rhetoric. In Classical times, the search for truth, beauty, and justice were key to living a responsible life. Being virtuous or ethical was important to being a good orator because these skills were seen as essential to the inner workings of their society as well as a pursuit of divine knowledge. The period of Enlightenment and the progress of science show that the coming of knowledge also meant a departure of the uncertain. Facts left no room for speculation in various areas anymore, and focus turned from higher and more divine endeavors to earthly ones. The acceptance of writing in the definition of rhetoric is proof of this: Where once it was believed that writing was a corruption of the spoken word and another step away from truth, it is now seen as an invaluable tool by which to improve not only the spoken word, but thought and communication as well.

Bain’s definition also leaves out whether or not truth should be, or need be a part of rhetoric at all. Our last class discussion had to do with politics and public speakers and their tendency to be masterful liars when the moment suits them, and often times this casting away of morals has nothing to do with the ignorant audience they are responsible for. Today, they lie, or deliberately attempt to mislead even the most educated among us in order to achieve their goals. The lack of morality or virtue in a speaker, when undetected, is unable to stop a corrupt person from making it into a position of power if their rhetorical abilities are strong. When it is finally discovered, it is often too late.

Today, as a student of rhetoric, although ethics and virtue are a part of regular discussion, I have never once been told by a professor that my grasp of rhetoric was lacking due to a deficiency in my morals or virtue. I have, however, been reminded considerably that my powers of persuasion, argumentation, and oral presentation could all use improvement. In preparation to teach an English 1000 class, I, and no doubt many others, design their syllabi in the hopes that they will be able to effectively get their students to grasp the concept of the narrative, persuasive, argumentative, and expository essays along with all the technical aspects of compulsory reading responses in between, not that they will exit the class more virtuous than when they began it. Like the Enlightenment period, today rhetoric is concerned more with facts, structure, organization, and technicality. However, unlike Vico, we may not have the luxury of striving to implement more ethics into the classroom, especially when the prominent concern has to do with passing a test.

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Set B:

Looking at Western, Indian and Chinese classical rhetorics, we can see both similarities and differences.

  1. Is it possible to really understand the rhetorical tradition of another culture?  Explain why or why not, based on the arguments of Ezzaher Yameng Liu, Lu Xing and using examples from these texts and the Wenxin Diaolong, Nyaya Sutra’s and Incoherence of the Incoherence as needed.

Lu Xings attempt at translating the English word for “rhetoric” into Chinese demonstrates that understanding the rhetorical tradition of another culture only comes close to being possible if an individual is bi-lingual and bi-cultural in what he or she is examining. The simple fact that many languages do not translate over perfectly shows how easy misinterpretation of another culture can be unless one is versed in that culture already. Xing, as intelligent and capable as she is in both English and Chinese, has to construct an elaborate parallel to “rhetoric” using Chinese, but even she admits that this translation is “comparable”, not exact, “I will argue that the Western study of rhetoric is comparable to the Chinese Ming Bian Xue, literally translated as ‘the Study of Naming (Ming) and Argumentation (Bian)’, while it conceptually encompasses the study of language art, logic, persuasion, and argumentation” (Xing 4). Personally, I feel that her attempt is probably the best that we will ever come by. However, this translation of “rhetoric” only treats the word itself, not the other many underlying aspects of rhetoric that are imbedded in its use.

Xing wisely disclaims, “While I do not intend to impose Western notions of rhetoric upon the Chinese experience, I do consider it useful to identify universally shared and yet culturally specific vocabulary and concepts, in the interest of promoting rhetorical studies cross culturally” (Xing 4). Rhetoric, as a part of a human culture, also includes historical aspects that could not possibly translate across cultures with mere vocabulary. “The meaning and interpretation of a people’s rhetoric are always derived from and influenced by its social, political, and philosophical contexts” (Xing 5). How does one translate Western political context into Eastern political context? How can one translate so much history, social concepts, and philosophy across such a simplified boundary as vocabulary?

One could argue that the flaw in Xing’s argument “that a Western scholar with both linguistic competence in the target culture and training in both Western and Eastern thoughts is better qualified to interpret and translate Eastern texts than an Eastern scholar with little knowledge of the Western thought and language. In other words, a bilingual and bicultural person is better prepared to translate and interpret the nuances of cross-cultural meanings in any given text and, therefore, more able to create a ‘fusion of horizons’ (Gadamer, 1989)” (Xing 11). What she could be forgetting is that while a bi-cultural and bi-lingual individual may have a more adept capacity to translate and interpret across cultures, without an arsenal of samples, texts, and studies at their disposal, how could it be said that they are truly proficient enough in the literature of both cultures to make a translation which takes all aspects of a culture’s rhetoric into account?

Yameng Liu makes a strong argument against attempts at translation in this way. Matalene’s first mistake in attempting to become proficient in Chinese rhetoric was in using only one sample of student writing by which to judge an entire culture’s past and present rhetorical experience. One sample cannot possibly accurately reflect the feelings and thinking of an entire culture. To believe this is to submit to the idea that Orientalism or Occidentalism should be listed among the sciences. In Incoherence of Incoherence, Ibn Rushd discusses some of the philosophical differences between two peoples within the same culture: “Therefore the Mu’tazilites assumed that these attributes in the First Principle refer to its essence and are nothing additional to it, in the way in which this happens with many essential qualities in many existents, like a thing’s being existent and one and eternal and so on This comes nearer to the truth than the theory of the Ash’arites, and the philosophers’ theory of the First Principle approaches that of the Mu’tazilites”. So, if one were translating a text from the Mu’tazilites in order to get an idea of Persian rhetoric, his or her view of their rhetoric would be incomplete unless they also examined texts from the Ash’arites. This problem can be further exacerbated if one considers that even within a sub-culture of a culture that there are also men, women and classes with various levels of education and experience. Their work contributes to the rhetoric of their culture as well.

Liu and Xing both also point out that at times one culture has the ability to taint the other. Xing referred to this as Orientalism and Occidentalism (14-15). These generalizations of how one culture views another are fairly common even today. One might argue that those attempting to translate across cultures are more than likely fairly aware of these prejudices and are capable of casting them aside in order to ensure that their task is completely professional and objective. Liu’s article, however, showed that not only did Matalene’s initial “experience” of Chinese rhetoric was not only flawed because it was not truly a “firsh-hand” experience, but also because her perspective had been tainted by the work of Oliver and Kaplan; “First, the conclusions that she seems to have drawn from her independent, first-hand experience of Chinese rhetoric are actually established scholarly opinions on the subject” (Liu 321). It wasn’t that Matalene had not done enough extensive research on Chinese rhetoric, it was that the research began to skew Matalene’s view into the views of others. This is a bit scary because this happened to someone who was trying very hard to form their own opinion and make their own translation of Chinese rhetoric, but they were unable to because they relied too heavily on secondary sources.

I personally feel that Xing makes a good argument for the bi-lingual and bi-cultural individual as being the most capable of being a translator of cultures. However, I think that in order for this to be completely possible, this individual should be substantially well-read and educated in both cultures as well. Even after all of that is accomplished, though, I believe the last obstacle in this task, language, is ultimately the one that will prevent true and complete understanding between cultures always. As a second language learner, I have experienced first-hand the difficulty in translating words and meaning into English. Being bi-lingual and bi-cultural is certainly an advantage, being well-read and educated is a must, but even all of these skills combined will only achieve something close to understanding, not equal to it.

1 comment for “Midterm 5001

  1. April 2, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Mariana, in Set A, you make a clear argument; I wonder whether in contemporary classrooms, passing tests and getting good grades are what now define virtuous behavior?

    In Set B you make an excellent argument that we can’t achieve perfect understanding, though we can get close. You make a particularly good point about how the diversity of any culture makes it hard, if not impossible, to get a complete picture of the rhetoric, even for an insider.

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