Controlling the Abuse of Rhetoric

posted in: Culture, Dialogue | 0

High on our list of Basic Problems with the World Today is the ubiquitous abuse of language as a means to mislead and falsify. In fact, we’ve dedicated one of the drums in our very limited kit to pounding out messages on the ever-increasing deterioration of “rhetoric” in the classic sense of that word.

As the mandatory trip to the Oxford Dictionary and to Wikipedia quickly discloses, “Rhetoric” is the art of writing and speaking with force and originality. Rhetoric was taught as a basic part of the Trivium portion of a classical education and cannot be mastered except in relation to the Trivium as a whole.

In The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric (1948), Sister Miriam Joseph Rauh, C.S.C., Ph.D. (1898–1982) provided an excellent summary of the Trivium:

Grammar is the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; logic is the art of thinking; and rhetoric is the art of communicating thought from one mind to another; the adaptation of language to circumstance.

. . .

Grammar is concerned with the thing as-it-is-symbolized. Logic is concerned with the thing as-it-is-known. Rhetoric is concerned with the thing as-it-is-communicated.

(For a great, book-length treatment of the Trivium and classical education, get Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty and the Word published by our friends at Angelico Press.)

Modern education has divorced the three arts of the Trivium from each other and from the rest of education and has eliminated any moral component (even the Platonic moral component) from communication. As a result, even speakers and writers well-intentioned toward defending the Truth readily fall into abuses of rhetoric, succumbing to the predominant consequentialist ethic so prevalent in today’s media (hence the distinction between “communicant” and “Communicant”).

John L. Allen, Jr. discusses a particularly clear example of this abuse of rhetoric and offers his own plea on this issue in his recent post in Crux. Cluny’s intent is to eschew participation in the debates of the day, no matter how patent the evils, because there are many, many, far better voices on the Front Line forcefully articulating the Truth in debates.  It is a core part of our mission, however, to keep the classical values alive and strong in today’s culture. Hence, the drum beat.