Cultural decadence is all around us, and there is a siren call to submission. But such submission is not worthy of a free people, and we must respond with wonder and beauty, truth and goodness, philosophy and rhetoric…
For those of us convinced that ours is a moment of profound decadence, it quite naturally occurs that we wish for renewal and recovery. There is a temptation, however, to oversimplify the difficulties of such renewal.
Two hard truths to consider. First, recovery will not occur through an action plan or policy. There is no program or agency or bureaucracy which can do this, and the impulse we see to pour more money and energy into some educational reform, some new initiative, some new subcommittee is evidence that we no longer know how the human things work. We assume problems are technical and can be handed to the experts to be solved through technical means. This fundamentally misunderstands the situation. Humans are not problems, or at least humans understood as agents cannot be managed into flourishing. Persons are actors, and to be themselves they must act. Policy and programs are not enough; our dependence on them is proof of anti-culture.
Second, while bad ideas lead to bad consequences, anti-culture is not solved with ideas alone. Bad ideas have the power to destroy, but good ideas are not as capable of repairing. We won’t analyze our way back to flourishing, even though we need good, hard-headed analysis. In addition to the ideas, we need embodiments, institutions to house and enflesh good ideas. Ideas need incarnations, which is to say, a full-orbed culture.
In his remarkable book, The Four Cultures of the West, John O’Malley identifies four phenomena of our tradition, with the tensions and geniuses of each creating our distinctive way of life. He writes:
They consisted in (i) the culture of Isaiah and Jeremiah the prophets; (ii) the culture of Plato and Aristotle the philosophers and scientists; (iii) the culture of Homer and Isocrates, of Virgil and Cicero, the culture of poets and dramatists, of orators and statesmen; (iv) and finally the culture of… artists, artisans and architects, the culture of art and performance.
Real and full recovery will require all four cultures, although here I’ll consider only two: philosophy and oratory.
The relationship between dialectic and rhetoric, philosophy and the poets, has been difficult, in part because of their clash in Athens. Political and legal reforms in fifth-century Athens replaced the traditional structures organized around clan and family with a sort of government in which, in its way, power resided in the citizens as a whole, with the high office open to all. Further, the power of the magistrates at the Areopagus was diminished, devolved to a system of common courts with decisions rendered by juries. As a result, politics “opened up” and became more of a common affair and duty for every citizen who so aspired, even as citizens were more likely to find themselves involved in litigation. In both arenas of public life, eloquence became important, with the citizen most able to speak the citizen most able to exercise power.
Enter the sophists, who claimed to teach virtue, particularly the excellence of speaking well. While methods varied widely, we can broadly distinguish two major schools, both in part defined by Plato’s opposition to them. The first, the school of Protagoras, resolved disputes by examining the arguments on both sides of the question, looking to see which side should be believed and chosen, but in the absence of any objective criterion of truth by which to choose. Truth was inaccessible, and all matters were contestable, with the strongest argument determining the best option. The second school, that of Gorgias, likewise rejected any claims to knowledge, accepting that opinion alone was the guide to action, although Gorgias pictured an audience passive before a speaker moving (or manipulating) them through eloquence, skill, and emotion.
Such explained why Protagoras was accused of making strong arguments weak and weak arguments strong and Gorgias of placing a knife (eloquence) in the hands of madmen. As we all know, Socrates, or at least the Socrates of Plato, was having none of it, and the most intense and dramatic moments in all the dialogues occur in the battles between Socrates and the sophists, especially Polus and Callicles, who represent sheer pragmatism, will to power, and the manipulation of technique in the pursuit of victory and success. Between Socrates and Callicles there can be no compromise, and Socrates (in Plato’s pen) condemns rhetoric as trickery, a kind of make-up covering ugliness and falsehood with a veneer of desirability. For Plato, the good life required knowledge, and it was dialectics, not rhetoric, which allowed the philosopher to attain the truth. Opinion is overthrown by truth through the recollection of the unchanging and eternal Forms grounding the being and intelligibility of all. Rhetoric is not even useful but dangerous, and the rhetorician can teach nothing.
This story we all know; but don’t forget that Plato lost in terms of actual influence, not to Gorgias but to Isocrates, and the Isocratic form of education became the dominant one, not only in Greece but in Rome (through Cicero and Quintilian) and throughout the west. The Renaissance humanists were Isocratic, and the men drafting the Declaration in Philadelphia were, in Russell Kirk’s phrase, more gentlemen than philosophers, educated in civic humanism rather than metaphysics.
Isocrates is not a sophist, although he is a rhetorician, and let’s not conflate the two. Yes, his model of education stressed eloquence, but in service of a “true philosophy,” that is, a wisdom in civic affairs emphasizing moral responsibility and the truth available in concrete and practical action. As Quintilian put it, this is the education of “good men speaking well.”
There is a place for both philosophy and oratory, dialectic and rhetoric. While it is perhaps true that philosophy orients itself to the Truth and rhetoric to the Good, for the ancients the True, Good, and Beautiful were, in the end, transcendentally the same. The true is being insofar as it is known; the good is being insofar as it is willed; the beautiful is being insofar as it is delighted in. This is the mark of how generous and friendly the universe is, for the universe gives itself to us in a variety of ways in keeping with the depths of our nature. We are beings who know, who act, who love, and so being gives itself to be known, chosen, and as a cause of delight.
Wisdom does not apprehend things in their deformation but in their fullness, and we are too much accustomed to viewing philosophy and rhetoric in their diminished forms. What is philosophy? Is it logic chopping? Endless analysis of the arcane and pointless? What is rhetoric? Is it the expediency of the political hack, the public relations officer, the marketer? No. Both philosophy and rhetoric fundamentally concern how to live well, and how to know how to live well, albeit in different modes of discovery. For us now, confined within the immanent frame, increasingly losing our ability to speak and act, both philosophy and rhetoric bear the possibility of conversion, what Plato called periagoge, a turning away from mere satisfaction to the truth.
Philosophy arose when reason was discovered as the “force and the criterion of order”—and such discovery was a remaking of one’s entire life, a periagoge, a conversion oriented by the dominating force of wonder. Rhetoric, too, can reorient us toward the good and away from our current obsessions. True, Isocrates believed in the limits of human knowledge, and did not think that strict episteme was accessible in the domain of civic action, but he did think that the best course of action could be genuinely moral rather than merely technical. The one who spoke well, he thought, possessed sound understanding and so could be practically wise, grasping what was appropriate, fitting, proper—in other words, sound and right reasoning.
This is real wisdom. The moral imagination, to quote Russell Kirk, “strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events… [and] aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth,” especially through the power of tradition, the great and collective exercise of many good women and men to know and love the truth. But a human truth “dealt with in a human way,” the “way of human speech, that gift of the gods.… The burden of human speech was to convey the noble and uplifting ideals that bind society together… and kindle admiration for them.… Eloquence was… geared to the common good… a moral imperative.”
Rhetoric moves us to wisdom with its beauty, and this is no mere aesthetic pleasure, but an encounter with the real, with what ought to be, even as this deep truth is manifest in the concrete, particular, and contingent. We oughtn’t expect the best and most noble of things to reside only in pure thought, after all, but to reveal themselves in actual existing things. And beauty is ordered and normative, no less than wonder.
I claimed above that the nihilistic and technologically deformed culture around us cannot adequately be redressed with ideas and policy alone. Again, I support good ideas and good policy, and the hard work of learning and arguing and defending good ideas and policy. Yet it is not going to be a policy paper which awakens them from their dogmatic slumbers. For those despisers of Western civilization something more fundamental is needed, an awakening, a rediscovery. Something akin to the call to wonder experienced by Socrates, something like the response to beauty which pulls us out of ourselves. Something more like moral imagination, the shocking reentry of purpose and meaning, of transcendent value into the cribbed confines of the immanent frame.
Argument alone is not enough, but through argument, we can make a fundamental proposal, an invitation, person to person, heart to heart, cor ad cor loquitur. If in speech and action we disclose ourselves, we must become the sort of people who have selves which, once disclosed, reveal a world beyond the merely useful and powerful. We must have truthful souls, beautiful souls, souls which, revealed, reveal the true and good and lovely. Souls which speak more than our political beliefs but offer a moral imagination, a culture able to offer meaning to link and all things. But you have to speak these things in order for these to be acted upon, so speak well. And more, be the good person speaking well.
Ours is a time of a profound loss of cultural confidence. The decadent are all around us, we know them; they teach us, they “lead” us, they govern us. It is disheartening to experience. And in such an anti-culture, infected deeply with a kind of nihilistic technological spirit, there is a siren call to submission. Submit to the experts, submit to the technicians, submit to the educrats and bureaucrats. But such submission is not worthy of a free people, not worthy of free women and men. Instead, we choose to act. But in the end, we cannot act unless we can speak. And we cannot speak unless we are well, unless we have become guided by wonder and beauty, by truth and by goodness, philosophy, and rhetoric.
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