The relationship between the study of rhetoric and the development of virtue or an ethical sense has been debated since classical times. Discuss how views of this relationship have changed over time, or compare the issue across the Greek/Roman, Indian, and Chinese traditions we’ve discussed.
Beginning with the Greek, particularly Plato and Aristotle, Rhetoric’s persuasive powers enhance and lend to the pursuit of knowledge and truth. However, then just like now, some can argue that rhetoric as a craft, or art, sways ignorance or knowledge toward the rhetorician’s desired outcome. It is my sense that when considering rhetoric this is indeed true, since the purpose of employing the crafts of rhetoric is expediency. Specifically, it is rhetoric’s emotional force that has the power to “bring help to the distressed, to raise the afflicted, to protect the rights of our fellow-citizens, to free them from danger, and save them from exile” in the words of Cicero (13). Still, the rhetorician can choose to employ his art for good or evil. Thus, the argument will remain unsettled. Rhetoric, as the craft of eloquence and persuasion, relies greatly on the moral and ethical virtue of the rhetorician. Classical and modern debate appear to concur. Still, one question remains. Does rhetoric contribute or impede the philosophical, dialectical pursuit of truth?
Both Isocrates and Aristotle defend the use of rhetoric as a valuable art and scholarly pursuit against critics. Isocrates’ “Antidosis” defends the sophists against charges that claim rhetoric is a sham,” having the power to “corrupt” and “demoralize” (198). Perhaps Isocrates goes too far in his value of rhetoric as a superior educational pursuit, being exercise for the brain and all as well as being inseparable of scholarly philosophical, or dialectical, pursuit. I’m more convinced that rhetoric can contribute to a well-rounded education offering students an artful and crafty means to express their learning. In a way similar to Isocrates Aristotle packages rhetoric with the dialectical search for truth and too defends the craft against critics charging immorality. He claims that truth will ultimately prevail and this protects the moral standing of rhetoric. For Aristotle understanding falsity imperatively plays a part in skillful practice of rhetoric. Knowing both sides of an argument, though admittedly “we must not make people believe what is wrong” does not make the practice of rhetoric unethical (1335a).
Knowing well the classical objections to rhetoric’s virtue, Cicero and Quintilian eloquently argue rhetoric as a practice to potentially uphold morality. For Cicero rhetoric upholds the “tranquility” of civilization, taking humanity from “savage life” to “civilized life” and providing “laws,” “judicial procedure, and their rights” (14). He gives his “deliberate opinion” that the “consummate orator is the main security” and ensures that “the safety of countless individuals, and the welfare of the country at large” depends on skillful rhetoricians (14). Though arguably the individual’s greater good may not necessarily be the greater good of all of individuals. But that’s where the virtuous knowledge about and skillful practice of rhetoric becomes even more imperative. In my own contemporary view, understanding rhetoric and its uses, good or evil, protects against its unethical practice. For Quintilian the art of eloquence is a “positive virtue” (2.20.1). He asserts that falsehood sometimes cannot be avoided because “truth is exposed to so many obstructions[;] the orator must use artifice in his efforts and adopt such means as may promote his purpose, since he who has turned from the right way cannot be brought back to it but by another turning” (2.17.29). In short, because ignorance and prejudice inevitably influence all men, orators and audience, rhetoric’s art must rely on any necessary means to achieve expediency, which is its real purpose anyway. Rhetoric itself isn’t unethical, but rhetorician can be.
There is no point in arguing against rhetoric as an art that relies on artifice. Eastern scholars seem to agree that rhetoric has a noble purpose with the potential to reinforce both good and evil. According Xing Lu in “Rhetoric in Ancient China,” Chinese rhetoric has a variety of practicing artists. Though evaluated from a Western perspective by Crump and Dreher, the “you shui,” or “traveling persuaders,” use their “persuasive” powers and “wit” for “their own aggrandizement” (27). In China rhetoric was a welcome practice for ethical purposes as well. Practicing rhetoricians in China include story or book talkers, “professional mediators,” and “diplomatic agents” (27). Further Lu claims that Chinese rhetoric is not all “harmony” (29). Just like classics, the Chinese struggled with “manipulative” and “demoralizing” rhetoric (31). However, one must practice caution when viewing the ethics of Chinese Rhetoric from a Western perspective because misunderstanding and mistranslation can result. Jensen mistranslates “shan she bu bian, bian zhe bu shan” as “[a] good man does not argue; he who argues is not a good man” (38). This inaccurate translation calls into question Chinese values about the ethics of rhetoric. Just as this inaccurate translation from Chinese leaves out shades of “connotative and contextual meaning,” a one-sided view of rhetoric can assume its practice unethical (38). Similarly, Indian rhetoric or the Nyaya Sutra introduces the ethics of debate as multifaceted, ethically. Felicity is the pursuit of debate, a higher moral level achieved through rhetoric, freedom “from ignorance” and liberation from “desire and fear” (Lloyd, 367). I’m not exactly sure whether this “felicity” strives for truth in a sense similar to Aristotle’s and Isocrates’ dialectic. However, it seems to me that Indian rhetoric agrees that debate takes many ethical shades in its persuasive purpose, “vaya,” “jalpa,” and “vitanda.” These translate to “honest,” “tricky,” and “destructive” debate (Lloyd, 368). The art of rhetoric is a virtuous and noble pursuit, where the rhetorician is free to use it to achieve a virtuous or ignoble purpose.
Introducing the question of rhetoric’s relationship to philosophical pursuit of truth serves here as a heuristic to understand the ethics of rhetoric. Through my study I’m reaching the conclusion that the ethical rhetorician in her/his search to understand whether rhetoric is a virtuous, or worthwhile art needs to keep practicing. Since the classics, Truth continues to remain just slightly elusive and so my question goes unanswered. Does the practice of rhetoric help or hinder the discovery of Truth. One thing seems solid at this point. Rhetoric being a noble and virtuous art wields great influence over what has the potential to be truth.
Looking at Western, Indian and Chinese classical rhetorics, we can see both similarities and differences.
Most of the Western rhetoricians we’ve read propose an approach to education. Based on these, how would you generalize a traditional Western approach? Reconsidering the Chinese, Persian, and Indian texts may help to highlight what is “Western.”
As a student and a teacher, perhaps I’m engulfed too deeply in the methods of the Western educational system to perform a discriminate look at a traditional Western approach, but I’d like try anyway. Maybe, just for the sake of allowing myself a buoy outside the system from which my thoughts are constantly submerged. My first response to the question outpours, easily. A Western approach to education is a rational approach based on the acquisition of knowledge discovered through empirical evidence and deductive proof. Yet, a Western educational approach defined that way offers no way to wade beyond the dichotomy between the sciences and humanities seemingly inherent in our educational system. To be more succinct, the education of the brain differs, greatly, from the education of the heart and soul. Allow me to explain. I spent all day Monday selecting questions to include in our district’s English benchmark. The district includes these “benchmarks” as a means to provide the empirical proof for student achievement. The goal is the teach “power standards,” mostly. And these so-called “power standards” don’t necessarily mean they’re more important. They are simply those questions asked more frequently on the state’s standardized test. Additionally, I’m pretty sure that the results on these standardized test will too be used as a reflection of the teacher’s performance. But really, really, are these tests of the “power standards” any indication of a student’s actual academic success? Are there even any objective measurements to evaluate the extent to which the student will find what they learned in school as beneficial for their futures? As a teacher I feel like I’m sinking deeper and deeper everyday into a vast abyss of high stakes testing. I want to blame someone or something. Though I want to stray far away from blaming all of my testing and teaching troubles on this rationalistic approach to education, I’d like to explore the relationship between Western traditional view of education and my troubles.
When faced with the wave of jolted teachers questioning the new realization that in fact we will be teaching to the test next year, one administrator amongst a strong-hold of four united administrators admitted that she “has always” been a “humanistic-type” teacher. As a “humanistic-type” teacher, I knew her. She did teach to the heart of her student. As a principal, she hired me almost immediately after I began teaching. As a district office administrator, she now has changed her mind, believing this data-driven teaching to the test mindedness of our new superintendent will work to improve student achievement. And for a second after hearing her say that, I wanted to believe the same. Now I’m not so sure.
I’m reading Aristotle expecting to find, deductively, the proof that a Western rational educational approach is best. I’m certain that that he, and the other thinker we have read with their well-structured arguments and methods will reinforce the necessity of a data-driven approach to student assessment and achievement. This is not necessarily so. According to Aristotle the rhetorical truth varies greatly on the purpose and audience of the discourse. He goes through laborious pains to categorize and catalog the nature and characteristic of the art of rhetoric. Though Aristotle puts much emphasis on enthymeme and the logical construction of arguments, his approach is mostly “humanistic-type.” Two thirds of his argumentative approach or “modes of persuasion” do their work on the human heart–pathos and ethos. Aristotle defines pathos as “understand[ing] emotions” and ethos as “understand[ing] human character and goodness in their various forms” (1.2.1356a). Aristotle does privilege deduction to induction, but I’m thinking not because it’s more conducive to thinking and learning and searching for truth. Maybe instead, stylistically, it just forms arguments that are easier to follow, especially oratory. During the listening of a speech, especially if it’s long and boring, it is good to know when one needs to pay attention to key areas. I know as an English major and a teacher that there is a front-loaded argument we are all striving to achieve or find, and I’m thinking this comes from us by way of Aristotle. However, this discovery of Aristotle as a “humanist-type” is probably nothing new, no epiphany. I’m still no closer to answering my question. Why test? Or more specifically, why teach to test?
When reviewing Vico and Quintilian, I’m surprised to discover that they too are “humanist-types.” Because I have to close my eyes underwater and I’m drowning in a rip tide of standards and test questions, I’m not easily able to notice that our Western rational approach to education has some heart. Quintilian presents his pedagogy through a systematic and logical approach, but a discovery of some of his methods trenchantly display a softer side. Long before Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Quintilian advocates for teachers “to observe accurately the differences of ability in those whom he has undertaken to instruct and to ascertain in what direction the nature of each particularly inclines him, for there is in talent an incredible variety” (2.8.1). Further teachers should “instruct each pupil in such a manner as to cherish by learning the good qualities inherited from nature, so that the powers may be assisted in their progress towards the object to which they chiefly direct themselves” (2.8.2). Thus, teachers should use knowledge of a student’s natural learning styles and ability to frame teachable moments. In a similar sense, Quintilian does not necessarily focus on product, or test scores for that matter. A student adept in the the rules of “polishing” does not necessarily produce the best product. He even suggests that students who focus too much on rules of refinement, or correction, risk “wearing themselves away with useless labor” and “sink[ing] into silence from too much anxiety to speak well” (10.3.11). Similarly, I am surprised by Vico’s push toward an inductive, if scientific, approach to teaching the whole student. He pushes for a focused and rigorous learning objective, or “aim,” but calls for a return to “ethics.” He believes that tradition has passed down an “excessive amount of attention to natural sciences and not enough to ethics” (33). As Vico suggests we, teachers, should strive to incorporate in “our educational methods” a return to the “human character, its dispositions, its passions” (33). Our current practice of high stakes assessment refuses to work “with the differential features of the virtues and vices, with good and bad behavior-patterns, with the typical characteristics of the various ages of man, of the two sexes of the social and economic class, race and nation, and with the art of seemly conduct in life, the most difficult of all arts” (33). I’m not expert in assessment or test giving, yet, but I’m pretty sure that there are no standardized test questions that address “humanist-type” learning objectives.
Because we are supposed to weight the scores of the standardized district benchmarks no less than thirty five percent of the student’s grade, one teacher argued that writing instruction will have an underprivileged place in the English Language Arts classroom. I agree, writing should have a vital, if not privileged place in classroom assessment. In writing structure and proper lends to clarity and forcefulness. This especially important, and perhaps universal to academic writing. Granted, that form must fit the purpose, but it seems that Western and Eastern scholars can both take an approach to composition centered around coherence and structure. Alexander Bain’s “From English Composition and Rhetoric” focuses on the importance of structure to express the purpose of writing, especially at the paragraph level. The“unity” of the paragraph “implies a definite purpose, and forbids digressions and irrelevant matter” (877). In a similar sense, structure lends coherence, purpose, and continuity of thought in “The Literary Mind and the Carving of the Dragons” by Liu Hsieu. Hsieu suggests that “[s]trict application of literary principles and selective ‘carving’ of material with intrinsic excellence will naturally result in unity, coherence, and order” (180). While student teaching, I overheard an English department discussing the potential of computer assisted assessments for writing. A computer actually reads and grades a student’s paper. This too me sounds like an overemphasis on the evaluating of proper structure. Maybe too much focus in that direction can stifle writing and expression, removing the “humanistic-type” characteristics of writing. Both Hsieu and Bain preempt this sort of conclusion in their work. Bain suggests that acknowledging the use of poetry “language to excite pleasurable FEELINGS” functions to meet a purpose in the composition classroom (875). According to Bain, one of the main reasons of “methodiz[ing]” composition instruction in first place is to provide students with a “copious fund of expression” (874). In comparison, Hsieu implies, lyrically, that it is a balance of emotion and structure that create a successful composition: “And elements of rhetoric should never be without appropriate companions. / Define emotion by the choice of proper tune, / So that they may encircle and respond to each other” (190). Perhaps the teacher wasn’t angry about writing’s marginalized new position. She may have been really arguing for holistic, or “humanistic-type” approach to assessment, and maybe even a return to traditional goals and values in education.
What if the dangerous deluge of high stakes testing that I’m experiencing isn’t because of a Western traditional method of education? I wasn’t looking for the “humanistic-type” aspects that I discovered, almost by accident, floating in the various examples of both Western and Eastern literature. By grasping to some Western traditional values and my ability to tread, strongly, first as a learner, then as a teacher I can make it through this rough swell of data, testing, and scores.
Aristotle. Aristotle’s Rhetoric. 06June2004. Lee Honeycutt. 4 Apr 2009 .
Cicero. De Oratore Book I. Second. London: Methuen, 1904.
Isocrates. Antidosis. Perseus Digital Library. 31Mar2009. Tufts University. 4 Apr 2009 .
Quintilian. Institutes of Oratory. Ed. Lee Honeycutt. Trans. John Selby Watson. 2006. Iowa State U. 3 April 2009. .