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The Relation of Rhetoric to Reality

July 18, 2011

The word rhetoric bears an unfortunate stigma today. It is the general perception that rhetoric amounts to little more than a bundle of self-interests wrapped with a thin layer of truth. We may glimpse at the cause for this perception by first reflecting upon the relation of images to reality.

Richard Kearney writes in the Wake of the Imagination,

The culture of the Book is being replaced, it would seem, by a culture of the Image. Some even claim we are entering an era when reading may become an anachronism, little more than a nostalgic luxury.

The contemporary eye is no longer innocent. What we see is almost invariably informed by prefabricated images. There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the image of today and of former times: now the image precedes the reality it is supposed to represent. Or to put it in another way, reality has become a pale reflection of the image.

Today’s images have increasingly shied away from reflecting reality in order to project a fabricated alternative. For instance, the purpose of an advertisement is to lead the patient (prospective customer) toward a desirable end that results in a profit for the seller and some perceived satisfaction for the consumer. The ad projects a possible reality that may be purchased. The customer does not conform or submit to a transcendent reality, a reality outside of himself, but selects the reality, one option among many, that will satisfy an individual desire. It is a purchased reality.

Kearney is arguing that at one time people believed reality preceded the image, whereas now, the image precedes the reality. C. S. Lewis was making a similar argument near the end of his third essay in the Abolition of Man.

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.

The distinction is important. On the one hand, the image was perceived as a reflection of the reality that preceded the image. In this way, the image was prescriptive insomuch that it presented a reality to which the patient ought to conform. On the other hand, the image is believed to project a desired reality that may or may not bear any likeness or relation to truth. The patient need not conform to anything for he is rather in the business of conforming the world around him to his own passions, wishes, or likes. In other words, we are no longer constricted to three wishes granted only when the lantern is rubbed, and even then upon certain conditions. We may seek to fulfill as many wishes we like. There was an ancient wisdom that left us with only three, and even those were hard to come by, that understood much more deeply the danger of giving too much reign to the carnal appetite.

Now replace the word “image” with the word “rhetoric,” and you begin to see the cultural temper surrounding our popular perception of rhetoric. As it is commonly used by politicians and salesmen, rhetoric promises something. It says nothing about what ought to be, or what we ought to love. It projects a fabricated reality. It works from what the majority, or club members, want. The rhetorical formula first describes the desired object, and then promises its possession to the many.

However, rhetoric has not always been perceived in this light. Consider rhetoric in the sense proposed by Socrates who argued that the rhetorician must know truth in order to lead the soul to truth. The duty of the rhetorician was to lead the soul toward truth. He must know the object toward which he wishes to lead the pupil. The goal of the rhetorician was not to package his own interests and cast them upon the crowd, but to unveil the glories of the natural and created world so that the crowd may gaze upon truth. The rhetorician sought to make visible the ideas of wisdom and virtue, truth and beauty.

Rhetoric ought to lead one to a true reality that first informs, and second, conforms the soul to reality. It is falsely perceived to be a matter of projecting a fabricated reality that aims only to appease one’s appetites. And because of this position, rhetoric is a critical factor to an authentic education.

This argument requires that we first settle upon a definition of rhetoric. Second, consider an educational principle that embodies the nature of rhetoric. And third, suggest possible applications of true rhetoric in the field of education.

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One Comment
  1. “The goal of the rhetorician was not to package his own interests and cast them upon the crowd, but to unveil the glories of the natural and created world so that the crowd may gaze upon truth. The rhetorician sought to make visible the ideas of wisdom and virtue, truth and beauty.”

    Buck, thank you for this clear, concise idea. I look forward to unpacking this idea at home with my own kids and in my community.

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