Building and Babbling
Updated: Sep 12, 2022
The Great Books. The seven liberal arts. Cultivation of wisdom and virtue. Teaching to the whole man. The quadrivium and trivium. Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.
Within this surging wind of Christian classical education in the United States, what is this rhetoric that everyone keeps talking about and why is it so important?
Scott Crider writes in Aristotle’s Rhetoric for Everybody,
“Rhetoric” has been—since its ancient invention and until now— a suspect study. Even its prominent defenders in the tradition—Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and Erasmus, for example—handle it with the kind of care one reserves for dangerously powerful things … that one may practice rhetoric well or badly, but everyone practices it.
Crider goes on to describe the various ways in which the art of rhetoric may be considered,
Human beings are essentially language animals, and, since rhetoric is one of language’s necessary forms, we are essentially rhetorical animals. The art simply acknowledges that fact of our nature. This art can be thought of in relation to its ancient competitors (philosophy, for instance, and poetry), or in relation to the other two arts that with it make up the medieval trivium (grammar and logic/dialectic), or in relation to its contemporary studies (speech and communication or rhetoric and composition). But it is one essential, good art.
Rhetoric is indeed the title of a particular class taken by students during their time in the Rhetoric School, wherein they specifically study and practice the art of Aristotleian rhetoric. But as displayed in the quotation above, it also coins a base of humanity; one in which we practice within the full spectrum of subject matters and life - depending on how you are using the term, of course.
And to be clear, it is indubiously dangerous. We are able to construct scaffold for Babel Towers with the beams of credibility, informative logic, and studying our audience. It is something that has been done time and time again throughout the course of history. Just as the physical ziggurat was a sore attempt by man to climb too close to the sun, so our thoughts made manifest through language thrust us beyond what is true, good, and beautiful. In consequence, we live in the world of babbling, connoting the name, Babel, itself which is a translation of the Sumerian Ka-dingir, ‘confused medley of sounds’(Etymology Online).
And although we dwell in corrupted territory, cathedrals spanse strong, withstanding the winds and the heat of time, both in form and contemplative norms resting in rose windows that need only be hit by the sun. Thus, the pursuit of rhetoric is worthy, necessary, and possible.
The Lost Tools of Writing published by the Circe Institute defines rhetoric as,
Rhetoric is a liberating art, defined by Aristotle as ‘the art of finding all the available means of persuasion.’ It is not merely the competitive art of persuasion, nor does it take place in a vacuum. Practically, rhetoric is the art of decision-making in community and its end is the harmony and well-being of community (11, LTW III).
Thus, we have language in community for the sake of the liberated man and for the good of his city. Language in consideration of the past, present, and future. Language spoken or written, although traditionally spoken. Language confined to what Aristotle calls the common and specific topics — the topography of our words in mind and deed — to syllogisms and enthymemes — to ethics and emotions. The art is an art of harmonizing. It is an undoing of corrupt scaffolds for the sake of man’s soul and society so that cathedrals may flourish in their stead. It is a tuning fork for the sounds that compound into expression. It is good.
And if it isn’t good, we are sowing and reaping dangerous dischordants, which ultimately lead to death.
So, why rhetoric? Because our children must know the power of words and how they construct ideas, and once those ideas are cultivated and communicated, what has been left in their wake. Has the community been beamed with truth-light and life? Has the individual honored the order found within creation? Or have they merely exercised raw power to facilitate darkness-dwelling?
It sounds dismal, yet we know the True Scaffold on which the Harmony of all creation sways and sings. And it IS good.