Responsible rhetoric is a rhetoric responsible primarily to the truth. It measures the degree of validity in a statement, and it is aware of the sources of controlling that it employs…
Editorial Note: The text of “A Responsible Rhetoric” is taken from a transcription of a tape recording of a speech Richard M. Weaver delivered for a “Great Issues” seminar of senior undergraduates at Purdue University, March 29, 1955. The present title seems to have been assigned to the speech by the transcribers. In the bibliography of Weaver’s manuscripts, it is listed as “The Theory of Rhetoric as a Means of Assaying Arguments.” Edited by Thomas D. Clark (Indiana University East) and Richard L. Johannesen (Northern Illinois University).
Our discourse this morning is not so much about great issues as it is about how to think and talk about great issues. And if that title seems a little presumptuous, I can only hope that what I have to say will bring it down to earth and show that there are issues also in the way in which we choose to talk about issues. Most Americans today accept the axiomatic truths that we live in a free society. I often wonder, however, how many of us realize that a free society is, by definition, a pluralistic society. The pluralistic society is one in which there are many different centers of authority, influence, and opinion competing with one another, arguing with one another, trying by various means to expand their spheres of influence, and producing a great variety of richness and animation. In such a society, there is no single voice, governmental, cultural, religious, or social. There are many voices, each speaking from its point of view and striving to maintain itself in the general competition of belief and support. In dire contrast stands the monistic ideal society, experienced by many millions of persons in other lands, which do have only one voice and which work by many means toward effecting a unanimity of opinion, belief, and settlement on all of the issues of this life. That system bears the name totalitarian, and it is by now an obvious fact that these two are engaged in a gigantic rivalry to capture the imagination of the world.
Having described and outlined this situation, I now wonder the second time of the Americans who realize that a free society means a pluralistic society: How many realize the special demands which a pluralistic society imposes on its members? I am not referring to paying taxes, which you do without thinking. I am referring to just this: The pluralistic society by its very nature tolerates propaganda of all kinds of individual groups, organizations, institutions, and practically anything that is capable of articulation. And it does this on the strength of two suppositions: There are many subjects in regard to which we do not think that we have arrived at the finite in truth. These subjects are still under study and investigation. Not all of the evidence is in, not all of the opinions have been expressed, and therefore, the debate must go on. Hence the activity of our newspapers, public meetings, legislative assemblies, (barber shops, street corners) etc. We accept the fact frankly that most issues, including some of vital relation to our welfare, are still in the realm of deliberative forensics. Then the second supposition.
This is that there exists among our people enough good sense, education, and reflective intelligence to ensure us that in this deliberative process we will come up with the right answer. Not always at once, not always without friction and expense, but in the long run it is felt that we will arrive at more sound conclusions than would, say, a council commissar or some other group delegating exclusive authority to think and to decide. In brief, it is the principle of our society that we can listen to propaganda from all the special interests, including that of an incompetent administration, and do a pretty fair job of sifting the true claims from the false.
I begin, then, with these preliminary considerations: that a free society is a pluralistic society, that a pluralistic society is one with countless propaganda from many sources, and that coping with propaganda requires a wide-spread critical intelligence, which is largely the product of education. It is the last of these points that I wish to deal with directly. Does our educational system prepare people to deal with the vast amount of opinion, argumentation, and special pleading addressed to them today through all the channels provided by modern technology? I am inclined to think that it is not preparing them because we have largely ceased to teach rhetoric. If democracy means anything, it means that everyone is an advocate of policy, he must listen to many arguments, and he must make arguments in refutation. He cannot make his honest-held views acceptable to others and he cannot disarm an opponent of an argument unless he has some understanding of the probative value of statements. What I propose to talk about in the next few minutes I want to refer to as responsible rhetoric.
Responsible rhetoric, as I conceive it, is a rhetoric responsible primarily to the truth. It measures the degree of validity in a statement, and it is aware of the sources of controlling that it employs. As such, it is distinct from propaganda, which is the distortion of the truth for selfish purposes. In this connection, I always like to think of Francis Bacon’s statement “Rhetoric no more teaches man to support bad causes than logic teaches them to reason fallaciously.”
Now the concepts that are involved in this have their foundation in philosophy and as we open this subject with our students at Chicago we say simply that there are four basic ways in which you can talk meaningfully about the world. This is the same as saying that there are four basic ways of thinking about reality or four basic ways of interpreting experience and they are in the language of philosophy: being, cause, relationship, and the fourth, which has a different kind of basis, authority. You can say that a thing is of such and such a kind or that it is the cause of a certain effect or that it has a significant resemblance to something else or that its truth is vouched by somebody that we ought to respect.
The first argument is based on definition. The second is based on cause and effect, the third is based on resemblance or comparison, the fourth is based on the prestige of some authority. Now, what I have just stated in rather abstract language is actually very common and recognizable by everyone, for these are the ways you can talk about things in ordinary discourse. If we say all good citizens are voters, we make a statement of the first class. If we say war is the cause of inflation, we make one of the second. If we say life is like a voyage, we make one of the third group, and if we say the Bible says that the greatest of gifts is charity, we make logic of the fourth. You will recognize that assertions like these are the staple of ordinary expression. Whenever we set out to prove anything to anybody, we find ourselves affirming that a certain thing exists as a member of a class, or that it is known to be connected with a certain cause and effect, or that it has points of significant resemblance with something that is already well known, or that it is stated by some authority and everybody who is anybody is supposed to respect. This is nothing more than an analysis of our actual modes of argument.
Now, I should like to spend more time on the theory of this, but owing to my limited time, I feel I’d never turn to concrete examples and show how these various techniques of persuasion have been employed in arguing positions on the great questions of our history. They are the basic means of persuasion, and you may expect to find one or more of them whenever men are pleading for a cause or a course of action. And to place this in a realistic context, I should like to follow a historical order and take up certain issues according to their appearance in the development of our nation.
If this seems permissible, let me go back to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence is essentially an argument. Jefferson was presenting to a candid world a taste for the independence of the American colonies. The argument is in that logical form known as the syllogism, but we are here interested in its content. Where did Jefferson go for his matter, for the kind of thing that would supply the rhetorical push? And it shows very clearly that he went to the second item on our list, namely, consequences or effects. The great bulk of this document was made out of a detailing of these consequences. He lifted a large number of particulars in which the commoners had suffered by the policy of the King of Great Britain. Most of you recall the tenor if not the substance. He proposed the laws most necessary for the public good. These constitute the celebrated long train of abuses and all of them are, as you will instantly perceive, consequences. Now the argument for consequences rests upon this theory: A grave effect implies a grave cause; and, consequently, a grave cause implies a grave effect. Jefferson was pointing to these facts as grave events. The grave cause, as he saw it, was a desire to reduce the colonies under an absolute discipline and this cause was regarded as reason enough to justify a separation of the colonies from the mother country. It is announced, of course, at the end of the Declaration. If Jefferson could prove the cause, he could prove the right to American independence.
For my next example, I go forward about two generations to the period 1838. It was during this period that a tremendous division raged in the city over the nature of union. It was a time of exceptional friction in which great issues depending upon how the Constitution was to be construed, and the focal point of the debate was whether or not the Constitution was a contract. It was this question that drew forth those famous speeches of Webster, Calhoun, and Haynes which, taken with the Federalist Papers, proudly represent the highest levels of American thinking, politically. I scarcely need point out that this was an argument involving definition, the first argument on our list. If it was possible to define the American Constitution as a contract, certain things would necessarily flow from that definition. It was an important and, of course, different result for the contending party. If it was possible to define it not as a contract but as something binding, another set of results would ensue. Those oratorical giants and their successors wrestled for three decades to decide whether the constitution was this or that genus, in the genus compacts or outside that in some other genus. And you will find Abraham Lincoln presuming this argument in his First Inaugural Address.
I pass on now about fifty years to a period before our involvement in the first World War. This was the period of mounting national armaments accompanied by growing anxieties. There was also a growing resentment against war as a means of settling international differences. One of the most vehement spokesmen against war, and specifically against competitive armaments, was William Jennings Bryan, three times Democratic candidate for the presidency and Secretary of State under Wilson. In one of his speeches against competitive armament, Bryan made use of the following illustration. Two neighbors have gotten into a disagreement and have become angry at one another. One of the neighbors goes out and buys a shotgun for defense. Word of this is soon conveyed to the other neighbor, who goes out and buys a better shotgun. News of this along with much talk about his neighbor’s hostile intention is soon conveyed to the first neighbor, who decides to add still more to his defensive equipment and to be on the lookout for menacing acts. This series of actions goes on and on until one of the neighbors shoots the other in self-defense. In this analogy, the neighbors are any two nations in the world, the shotguns are armies and navies, and those reports sent back and forth are the rumors and statements that create international tensions. It would be needless for me to point out how close this analogy is to the relationship today between the West and the Soviet Union. But our interest in it lies in the content as an argument. It lies in the fact that it derives its force from the comparison of two instances. If the two instances resemble in all important respects and if the first instance proves to armed conflict, then it is probable that the second instance will produce an armed prospect. It is a principle of logic that arguments based on comparison never yield anything more than probability. Probability is a matter of degree. The probability in our case today is a good many degrees short of certain.
Now, if we came down to the present time for an example of the last source of argument, which is authority, one of the great controversial questions of our time has been whether the United States should become involved with other nations in treaties and alliances supporting this and that policy. Those persons who are sometimes called isolationists have frequently evoked the name of George Washington in support of their position that we should not become so involved. Often, they quote the sentence from the Farewell Address: “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of a part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toil of European ambition, rivalship, interest or caprice?” You will recognize at once that this is an appeal relying for its source upon authority. Now the appeal to authority—and we all make appeals of this type—is neither necessarily good nor necessarily bad. It all depends on the authority. Those who think this is a weak argument say that Washington did very well in his time but that was a century and a half ago. He had no conception of America as an imperial world power and no knowledge of the forces operating in this world. He is, in their eyes, a poor authority on this subject. The other side regards Washington as the father of this country, a farsighted statesman, and a man who, because he was present at the birth of this nation, had a deep insight into its essential character and its real mission in the world. Washington, they would say, believed that this nation would serve mankind best by rejecting the devious methods of power politics and by setting an upright example for the rest of the world. In their eyes, therefore, he is a good authority.
By now the question may be posed in your mind, what have these things to do with responsible rhetoric? Granting that they are useful for a man to know when he is embarked upon an argument, in what way do they make you more responsible? Well, he will, of course, never be responsible unless he is willing to be intellectually honest. But granted that, I would say that there are means of showing him the relationship of what he is saying to the truth. Or, expressed in another way, they are means of estimating the real truth value of any assertion or argument. And I think the best way to see this is to turn things around for a moment and look at matters from the other side, to look at some of the tricks that are employed by propagandists. As I said near the beginning, the chief reason people today are baffled by propagandists is that they have such poor understanding of the arts of persuasion. For the tricks of propaganda are nothing more than perversions of the devices of rhetoric. The propagandist is a rhetorician, but a base one, because he is using an accepted machinery of persuasion to seize and not to enlighten and edify.
Let’s inspect a few examples. One of the commonest tricks of the propagandist in any age is name-calling. If he desires us to accept something, he applies a good name to it; if he desires us to reject it, applies an evil one. Name-calling is nothing more on earth but the arguments of damnation because the name is employed to define the thing. Or to put it in a class, if the name applied is a true one, then the argument must be viewed as honest, but the propagandist applies a name which is speciously good. That is to say, it looks good to the uncritical but actually, it is not. To cite one example, such an abuse occurs today, (I am expressing a personal opinion here) with the Taft-Hartley Act being called a slave labor law. This is a name, you see, supposed to put it in a class. Is there any legitimate sense in which those who work under the provisions of that act can be called slaves? I cannot see it and apparently the sober sense of the country has rejected it. The propagandist here is taking over the law and trying to fit it into a category where it does not belong. His process is called a false name. This is, then, a perversion of the argument based on definition.
For the next example, I shall go not to political controversy but to advertisement, a great field, I regret to say, for the abuse of rhetoric. A year or so ago, there appeared in magazines eye-catching full page ads by the manufacturer of a certain metal and the burden of these advertisements was that this metal had won the war.
The argument went about as follows. Without the metal that the company produces, it is impossible to make steel of a certain hardness; and without steel of a requisite hardness, it is impossible to make airplane motors; and without airplane motors, it would have been impossible to win the war. Therefore, this company, or at least its product, won the war. What we have here, ostensibly, is a piece of cause and effect reasoning. But as soon as we analyze it, we see that it is a distortion because what it actually does is confuse cause and effect relationships by insisting that there is one cause when, in fact, multiple causes exist. Granting that this metal was one of the causes of the effect in history, still there were many, many others and no honest inquiry into the causes of the phenomenon would make it appear the one. Short circuiting cause and effect reasoning is one of the easiest ways to deceive people. We must always be on our guard when great effects are claimed for a certain cause or when a certain effect is ascribed to a single cause, as in ascribing the great depression altogether to Herbert Hoover. Causal reasoning is difficult even under the best circumstances, and when a propagandist begins to tinker with it, strange things may appear.
Another type of abuse occurs when people are led along by false analogies. These are arguments based on seeming rather than real similarities. Now, as soon as you begin to examine the points of correspondence, you find that the differences are more numerous or more important than the likenesses. Therefore, the two things being compared are different in a more fundamental way than they are alike. And different things ought to be done with respect to them. Again, I am expressing a personal opinion on this issue, but to my mind one of the most misleading analogies today is the one that usually turns up for giving the vote to eighteen-year-olds. This argument asserts that eighteen-year-olds, being old enough to fight. are old enough to vote. True, only if you believe that fighting and voting are the same kind of thing, which I, for one, do not. Fighting requires strength, muscular coordination, and, in a modern army, instant and automatic response to orders. Voting requires knowledge of men, history, reasoning-power; it is essentially a deliberative activity. Army nudes and police dogs are used to fight: Nobody is interested in giving them the right to vote. This argument rests on a false analogy. People may be misled by analogy when they are not sufficiently critical. I come now to the fourth example in this series.
People may be misled by arguments based on authority when they are not sufficiently critical of the authority being used. But they can be misled in a more subtle way when an argument is expressed in language that distinctly echoes some famous or dear document, say the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address or the Bible. The language then sounds right; it reminds us vaguely of something we have been taught to respect. There is a type of subconscious urge in us to go along because that is the thing. The politicians or advertisers, as you are well aware, are trying to get people on their side by borrowing phrases and other stylistic elements too from famous or authoritative documents. The ethical questions here involved are whether the audience realizes the kind of pressure that is being brought to bear upon them. Thus, as I see it, an elementary understanding of these principles of rhetoric is not only helpful in the making of an argument, it is also most helpful in the criticizing of one and, beyond this, it is a surprisingly effective means of reading the character and intentions of the man behind the argument. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he morally and intellectually. Once this truth is appreciated, you find that you can judge a man not wholly by the specific thing he asks for, but also by the way he asks for it. And the latter insight is sometimes very revealing.
There is one final question lurking in the background of this discussion, which I would like to dodge though I recognize that ultimately it cannot be evaded. This is the question of whether any of these sources of argument, definition, cause. etc., is better than another one or whether it is possible to arrange them in some rational scale and say this is best, this is next best, etc. Personally, I think it is possible to rank them and say that one is better than another, but the reason that I dodge the question is that it leads straight to one’s metaphysics and that, of course, would be a very long argument. Instead of pronouncing upon that question, therefore, I am going to make a suggestion that may start you reflecting upon the matter yourselves.
Follow utterances of some public figure, past or present, in whom you have a strong interest and know what he seems to prefer as the basis of his appeal when he is trying to persuade his audiences. Does he like to define things and argue deductively, does he like to dwell on results, is he fond of analogies, or does he prefer to fall back on authority and argue from the prestige of some great name? You will find that this examination will be both instructive and entertaining, and it may give you an understanding of the figure, the kind of understanding of the figure that you did not have before. It will show you what term he considered most persuasive when he talked about great issues. I am now at the end of my prepared discourse and am now ready to answer questions.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Winter 1976-1977). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.