In his essay “Why No Civility is Possible Today,” Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. writes that, “A common good can be worked out among those citizens who may prudentially disagree on this or that point of policy.” It is necessary for citizens to come together and debate because there is almost never one single way to accomplish a worthy aim. However, although prudential argumentation may be necessary and even good, citizens can only accomplish good ends insofar as they hold a shared—and, still better true—vision of what man is and what the world is. Our present moment, Fr. Schall continues, is marked by a dire absence of such a shared vision. “No common agreement” he writes, “can be found when the very first principles of reason are said to be mere opinions, when they are based on what we will have, not on what is right to have.”
That there may be rival arguments concerning a given ethical or political question, and that these rival arguments evince a deep fissure in our society, is not in and of itself new. In his 1981 study After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre observes that most contemporary moral utterances are employed to express dissimilarities, and that most of the debates in which such disagreements are expressed have an “interminable character … they apparently can find no terminus. There seems to be no rational way of securing moral argument in our culture.”
MacIntyre goes on to give examples of three rival arguments concerning abortion in order to demonstrate that logic is not lacking: the conclusions follow from the premises. What accounts for the interminability of the arguments between these rivals is that each argument’s founding premise is radically different from the others, thereby creating a conversation wherein there is “no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another.”
Irrational Assertions Stated as Fact
And yet, there is a more alarming explanation to the “slightly shrill” tone of contemporary debates defined by “pure assertion and counter-assertion.” Regularly, at least one side of a given public debate relies less on internally logical, contradictory positions, and more on irrational assertions stated as fact. As Western society fragmented, and more and more people were unable to appeal to shared definitions and premises, many began to take the proliferation of different “perspectives” on a given moral question as evidence that our “value judgments” result from nothing more than our feelings on a given matter. For instance, our inability to arrive at a single definition of marriage results not only in two conflicting definitions of marriage, but the accusation that a defense of marriage as procreative in nature is nothing more than, say, one’s subjective, emotional displeasure at the thought of homosexual sex.
When we are unable to invoke compelling reasons against one another, the following question arrests us, forcing our hands up: Isn’t your shrillness evidence that you lack any good reasons? We too often find that our stances embody what MacIntyre calls “emotivism.” Emotivism is the doctrine “that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.”
There are conscious and unconscious emotivists, and while they may differ little in practice the former are able to openly acknowledge that agreement in moral judgment is possible not by rational methods, but by “producing certain non-rational effects on the emotions or attitudes of those who disagree with one.” As John Maynard Keynes noted concerning the emotivist approach to argumentation, “victory was with those who could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction and could best use the accents of infallibility.” Analyzing this passage, MacIntyre observes that when emotivists express their attitudes they cloak their feelings and preferences in a manner that bestows on them an objectivity they simply do not possess.
The Problem with Emotional Appeals
This is a dire situation for many reasons, one of which is that we seem to be living after rhetoric, or at least we are living in a time almost entirely divorced from the classical practice that is rooted in Aristotle. Rhetoric, as Aristotle defines it, is “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion.” As some may remember from a college composition class or a high school forensic league, the primary rhetorical appeals are ethos, or persuasion through appeal to character/ethics; pathos, or persuasion through appeal to the audience’s emotions; and, finally, logos, or persuasion through appeal to logic, reason, or rational argument. What I mean, when I suggest that we are living after rhetoric, is that if a large portion of the public are persuaded or try to persuade each other either exclusively or mostly by means of emotional appeals, we are inhabiting a sort of pathological public discourse.
Although a highly emotive public discourse is alarming enough, we must also reckon with the phenomena that many even go beyond the mere reduction of persuasion to emotional appeals. As the 2016 Oxford word of the year, “post-truth” signals, a large number of our fellow citizens either equate appeals to emotion with appeals with facts, or simply reject the importance of facts.
At first, “post-truth” sounds like “postmodern,” and there is some crossover. Postmodernism, which has been the dominant “philosophy” ruling our institutions of higher learning for the last several decades, insists that truth is superstition; there is nothing actual or factual “out there.” Stranger news than this came when Scottie Nell Hughes—just one exemplar of the proliferation of alternative facts—proclaimed on National Public Radio that, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts.” She went on to explain: “One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts; they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way, it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.” Here we witness one of many instances that demonstrate unexpected consonance between a purportedly conservative political figure and postmodern professors. For a long time, the postmodern left has employed radical skepticism regarding truth, regarding facts, to advance an agenda that can be boiled down to lust for power, uninhibited by the need for rational discourse. To what extent is the populist right doing the same?
We Have Abandoned the Art of Rhetoric
There are many and varied reasons we are living after rhetoric, but I have for some time now mused upon one. In The Crisis of Western Education, Christopher Dawson says of ancient Rome that “the tragedy of the educational ideal was that it had been divorced from the social reality.” Rhetoric was no longer needed because what the city needed more was administrators and civil servants. Another way of looking at the decline in rhetoric during the growth of Roman bureaucratization is this: only free citizens who know the import of ordered liberty value rhetoric.
Perhaps our educational ideal is too closely aligned with both immediately pragmatic realities and postmodernism. Perhaps part of the reason why our civil discourse is, as Fr. Schall persuasively and with civility argues, uncivil, is that we have abandoned the art of rhetoric to attend to our contemporary world’s growing demand for bureaucrats and administrators—necessary and often good as such positions can be. In most curricula, from K-12 through the college level, rhetoric rightly understood has been replaced by “composition.” This class typically reflects the bureaucratization of our world, in that students spend more time learning to write proposals or emails than they learn, say, common logical fallacies—or about the attributes of forensic arguments. This class also typically reflects the epistemological premises of postmodernism: teachers will proclaim that there is no truth, there are only sophisticated arguments, which increasingly (and again the conclusion at least logically flows from the false premise) results in ungraded or Pass / Fail courses. Can we expect civic argumentation from students prepared for a hyper-bureaucratic world bereft of first principles? Can we expect students to grasp the greatness and the fragility of authentically free deliberation when most teachers either quarantine them into spaces “safe” from any conflictual public discourse or shrewdly indoctrinate them into identity politics?
Faced with these realities, it is time to again turn toward the ancient art, remembering that, as Aristotle proclaims, “rhetoric is useful [first] because the true and the just are by nature stronger than their opposites, so that if judgments are not made in the right way [the true and the just] are necessarily defeated by their opposites.”
St. Augustine Offers the Solution
We ought to take as our patron in this effort St. Augustine, who, in the last book of On Christian Teaching, insists that “since rhetoric is used to give conviction to both truth and falsehood, who could dare maintain that truth, which depends on us for its defense, should stand unarmed in the fight against falsehood”? Indeed, if we fail to acquire the art of rhetoric, “we would expound the truth in such a way as to bore our listeners, cloud their understanding, and stifle their desire to believe”; we would “be too feeble either to defend what is true or to refute what is false,” even as others would “assail the truth and advocate falsehood with fallacious arguments.”
It is true that when Augustine writes of rhetoric he has in mind the art as practiced by preachers and evangelists, and certainly we are in dire need of artful speakers who are able to make the truths of the Faith clear and compelling in our contemporary moment. But future preachers are not the only ones who need such training. Augustine, like so many of us, spoke to those who shared neither a common vision of man nor of the world. The difficulty, it seems, is that to do so meaningfully oftentimes one must persuade one’s opponent not that his argument is illogical—for, as MacIntyre demonstrates, even those who hold that abortion ought to be legal possess logical arguments—but that his premises are false. In our time, this may mean demonstrating that an emotion is not a fact, and demonstrating further the consequences that may come from conflating the two. This is a much taller task.
The skilled rhetorician who strives to persuade those who do not share many or all of his premises must “aim at commonly held opinions [endoxa],” and to aim at commonly held opinions (or premises), one must come to know his opponent’s positions from the inside out. Many are either too lazy or too self-satisfied or too terrified to do so, even as, in the words of Aristotle, “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Many would prefer to stoop to insults rather than persuade political opponents to abandon their false premises.
In Beyond Radical Secularism, Pierre Manent argues that “we have assumed the right to insult those whom we forbid ourselves to criticize. This is doubtless because criticism demands reasons, and because, when we think reason in general is on our side, we do not feel like having to go look for precise and serious reasons.” Nothing saddens us more, Manent continues, than “having to argue rationally,” and thus we take refuge in mockery and sarcasm. Appealing to the link between liberty and artful argumentation, we must make the case for the restoration of the art of persuasion in our schools. If we fail to integrate the art of rhetoric into our children’s curricula, and if we fail to learn the art ourselves, merely engaging in echo-chambers with other “like-minded individuals,” merely preaching to choirs, we cannot be surprised if emotive assertions, alternative facts, and smug sarcasm continue to lead our national conversations in increasingly harmful directions as millions of citizens are persuaded to support self-destructive laws and policies that undermine the natural order.
Our time has seen an ardent, often well-intentioned, and sometimes confused anticipation of another St. Benedict. Those of us still inhabiting a world wherein sophists assume positions in the highest echelons of our nation would do well to develop communities wherein commitment to the art of rhetoric can be sustained through the dark ages. But such communities hardly merit ends in-and-of themselves. After all, the art of rhetoric would be arrested in its development if it didn’t take as its end the persuasion of the opponent.
As Catholics this means that we learn both the premises of our Faith and the available facts pertinent to our “enemy’s” contentions; we must learn the character of our opponent’s conventional beliefs and we must know when and how we can incite anger and even shame. Christ told us that we must love our enemies. But he did not tell us not to have enemies. This the author of The City of God Against the Pagans knew well. Thus we wait for another—doubtless very different—St. Augustine, who remained in the Roman Empire even after its decline, debating and persuading until his death.