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Richard Weaver’s The Ethics of Rhetoric

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Richard Weaver
The Ethics of Rhetoric
Muriwai Books, 2017 (1953).

The great task that lies ahead of us is to persuade our people of the rightness of our ideas. It behooves us, then, to study the art of rhetoric, or persuasion. Richard Weaver’s The Ethics of Rhetoric is a rigorous and intelligent introduction to this vanishing art.

The book begins with a chapter-length analysis of Plato’s Phaedrus, whose discussion of eros serves as an extended metaphor for the use of rhetoric. Following Plato, Weaver argues that all rhetoric is a form of eros.

In the first part of the dialogue, Phaedrus recites a speech by Lysias in which it is argued that non-lovers should be favored over lovers. The non-lover is more neutral and objective, and he is immune to passion and jealousy. Furthermore, being seen with him does not attract attention. These arguments correspond to the view that speech should serve purely utilitarian ends and exhibit “a simple instrumentality, showing no affection for the object of its symbolizing and incapable of inducing bias in the hearer” (p. 7). (Weaver warns against an overly literal interpretation of the dialogue, noting that the first speech is preceded by Socrates’ condemnation of attempts to explain myths in rational terms.)

Socrates then discusses, in two successive speeches, the differences between the evil lover and the noble lover. The evil lover abuses the beloved and is driven by selfish desire. The non-lover is indeed preferable to the evil lover. But not all love is evil. The noble lover regards the beloved with pure reverence, and his madness ennobles both parties.

Like the lover, rhetoric contains something beyond mere truth. Its departure from a strictly objective account of reality renders it akin to the lover’s madness. Effective rhetoric attracts public attention, like the lover, because of its boldness, distinctive style, and nuanced language. These additional elements represent “a desire to bring truth into a kind of existence, or to give it an actuality to which theory is indifferent” (p. 25). This addresses the charge that rhetoric is the enemy of truth, which conflates “real potentiality” with its opposite. In its highest form, rhetoric is the servant of truth.

The difference between the lover and the non-lover is analogous to the difference between old-fashioned oratory and modern “public speaking.” Unlike the stiff and artless speeches delivered by modern politicians, the best orations are characterized by impassioned zeal.

Weaver states that effective rhetoric must include dialectic as well as rhetoric in the narrow sense. In the Phaedrus, for example, Plato artfully combines dialectical analysis with allegory (the Chariot Allegory).

Weaver uses the Scopes Trial of 1925 to illustrate the difference between dialectic and rhetoric. The prosecution argued from a dialectical position, claiming that Scopes had broken the law by teaching human

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evolution. The defense, unable to dispute this, argued from a rhetorical position; they addressed the higher-level implications of denying the veracity of evolution. But this was outside the purview of the trial, which was strictly about whether or not the law had been broken.

In the following two chapters, Weaver outlines the difference between arguing from circumstance and arguing from definition. Arguments from circumstance are based on expediency and precedent. They do not appeal to higher ideals or principles. Weaver cites Edmund Burke as an example of someone who frequently used this type of argument. For instance, in his speech to the House of Commons delivered on March 22, 1775, Burke argues that Britain should seek conciliation with the American colonies on the basis of their prosperity, strength, and growing population. He dismisses the idea of forcing the colonies into submission as impractical, again framing his argument in terms of expediency.

Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was grounded in arguments of a similar nature. He argued that the French should take their cue from precedent instead of seeking to overthrow the established order. The philosophical impetus behind the Revolution, in his view, was too theoretical and disconnected from circumstance. He had a pronounced aversion to metaphysics: “I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them” (p. 72).

Weaver cites Lincoln as an example of someone who, by contrast, rarely made arguments from circumstance. He consistently based his arguments on definitions and axioms, as one might expect of someone who studied the law and Euclidean geometry. His First Inaugural Address [2] contains, by Weaver’s count, eight arguments from definition. For example, the following is one of his arguments against secession: “If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it?”

A similar line of thought undergirds his famous “House Divided” speech. For Lincoln, operating from principles first precluded compromise. Either such principles were politically actualized, or they were not.

Arguments from circumstance are the weakest and least philosophical of all arguments because they are short-sighted and lack an absolute reference point. One’s position comes to be defined in relation to the more far-sighted and principled side. This is precisely the problem with mainstream conservatism.

Weaver claims that the liberal argues from circumstance, while the “true conservative” argues from definition. This is somewhat misleading, given conservatives’ well-established preference for the former type of argument. Perhaps a better distinction would be between conservatives and radicals (in the purest sense of the word “radical,” which derives from the Latin radix, or “root”).

There is a place for arguments from circumstance, but we should use them with caution. Since they are informed by human affairs, which lack permanence, they are flimsier and lend themselves to compromise. Our main argument, therefore, should be that white nationalism is inherently moral and right, regardless of circumstance.

In the following three chapters, Weaver turns from issues of substance to issues of style. The first of these contains a detailed discussion of simple and complex sentences as well as advice on the usage of the noun, adjective, adverb, verb, conjunction, preposition, prepositional phrase, and participial phrase. The most interesting idea put forth in this chapter is that the spirit of an era is reflected in its rhetoric. Weaver suggests that the measured prose of Johnson and Gibbon, with its balanced compound sentences and systematic use of dependent clauses, reflects the spirit of the Enlightenment.

Weaver devotes a chapter to Milton’s prose, which he admires for its vigorous style. He lists three of Milton’s greatest virtues as a writer. First, he refused to simplify his writing at the expense of the ideas he sought to articulate. The intricate, precise construction of his sentences always serves a particular end. Second, his prose brims with passion and vitality, like the noble lover in the Phaedrus. Third, he often uses pairs of words similar in meaning to express a single idea, which adds color to his writing.

Here is a passage quoted by Weaver in which the abovementioned characteristics are particularly evident:

Thus then did the spirit of unity and meekness inspire and animate every joint and sinew of the mystical body; but now the gravest and worthiest minister, a true bishop of his fold, shall be reviled and ruffled by an insulting and only canon-wise prelate, as if he were some slight paltry companion: and the people of God, redeemed and washed with Christ’s blood, and dignified with so many glorious titles of saints and sons in the gospel, are now no better reputed than impure ethnics and lay dogs; stones, pillars, and crucifixes, have now the honour and the alms due to Christ’s living members; the table of communion, now become a table of separation, stands like an exalted platform on the brow of the quire, fortified with bulwark and barricado, to keep off the profane touch of the laics, whilst the obscene and surfeited priest scruples not to paw and mammock the sacramental bread as familiarly as his tavern biscuit. (p. 153)

Of course, it would be silly for us to imitate Elizabethan prose, but Milton’s impassioned style and command of the English language are worthy of emulation.

The next chapter is devoted to what Weaver terms the “spaciousness” of old-fashioned rhetoric and oratory. By this he is referring to the fact that orators in the past spoke in language that “[echoed] over broad areas” (p. 169). In other words, they looked upon their subject from a great height and spoke in generalities without apology. Weaver quotes from the address delivered by John C. Breckenridge on the day that the United States Senate Chamber became the new legislative chamber of the Senate:

And now the strifes and uncertainties of the past are finished. We see around us on every side the proofs of stability and improvement. This Capitol is worthy of the Republic. Noble public buildings meet the view on every hand. Treasures of science and the arts begin to accumulate. As this flourishing city enlarges, it testifies to the wisdom and forecast that dictated the plan of it. Future generations will not be disturbed with questions concerning the center of population or of territory, since the steamboat, the railroad and the telegraph have made communication almost instantaneous. The spot is sacred by a thousand memories, which are so many pledges that the city of Washington, founded by him and bearing his revered name, with its beautiful site, bounded by picturesque eminences, and the broad Potomac, and lying within view of his home and his tomb, shall remain forever the political capital of the United States. (p. 176)

Modern writers would balk at the generalities in this passage (“noble public buildings”; “treasures of science and the arts”; “a thousand memories”). Weaver comments that the phrase “a thousand memories” is particularly notable because it speaks to an awareness of temporal continuity that is quite rare today.

Weaver argues that “spacious” rhetoric is aesthetically superior to overly particular and narrow language, which vulgarizes the subject at hand — much in the same way that only viewing a painting up close prevents one from being able to fully appreciate it. It is not a coincidence that the decline of great rhetoric and oratory has accompanied the decline of liberal education and the fetishization of hyper-technical, specialized knowledge. Weaver remarks that “[it] was one of Cicero’s observations that the orator performs at “the focal point at which all human activity is ultimately reviewed”; and Cicero is, for connected reasons, a chief source of our theory of liberal education” (p. 174).

Weaver proposes that people in the past felt freer to speak in generalities because certain fundamental principles were held in common. Now that the very foundations of our civilization have been called into question, that consensus has deteriorated. Although this state of intellectual and moral anarchy would appear to be a form of freedom, people are, in reality, much more constricted. It has become much more difficult to stake out bold claims, as every single judgment one makes along the way will be disputed.

Weaver does not bring up the subject of race, but it is worth mentioning. Oratory can only truly flourish in homogeneous settings, which are most conducive to collective rapport. The orator is a folk hero, a representative of his culture and people. His aim is not so much to convince, but to remind his audience — in whom he sees his own reflection — of what they, on some level, already believe.

In the penultimate chapter, Weaver contrasts the “spaciousness” of old-fashioned rhetoric with the crabbed style of modern sociological writing. The dilemma of the social scientist, according to Weaver, is that “he can neither use his terms with the simple directness of the natural scientist pointing to physical factors, nor with the assurance of a philosopher who has some source for their meaning in the system from which he begins his deduction” (p. 189). As a result, sociological writing consists of muddled and mostly meaningless verbiage.

Narrow-minded pedantry is the enemy of artful rhetoric, and sociologists are humorless pedants par excellence. The most obvious manifestation of this is their obsession with empiricism, which Weaver identifies as an attempt to compensate for their weak dialectical framework. One amusing example of their pedantry is their perpetual reluctance to come to definitive conclusions. Every judgment must be cloaked in layers of qualifications. Another example is their conspicuous fondness for Latinate terms. Weaver suggests that this can also be attributed to the progressive’s optimistic conviction that society is endlessly improvable. Latinate words have a sanitized, euphemistic quality that their blunter Anglo-Saxon counterparts lack (e.g., “impecunious” vs. “penniless”). This appeals to “insulated and daintified” social scientists and bureaucrats (p. 201).

The style of sociological and journalistic writing has bled into modern political rhetoric. Hitler remarks in Mein Kampf that his opponents spoke “in the style of a witty newspaper article or of a scientific treatise, avoided all strong words, and here and there threw in some feeble professional joke.” A master of rhetoric and oratory, Hitler thoroughly rejected this style and instead spoke with raw emotion and charisma.

In the final chapter, Weaver lists terms that are “rhetorical absolutes” in modern political discourse. “Progress” and “science” are two prominent examples. Both have taken the place that God once occupied; people routinely invoke “science” as if it were a singular, quasi-anthropomorphic entity. Another example is the term “democracy.” Weaver echoes Orwell’s observation [3] that few agree upon what “democracy” actually means, but it is universally considered to be a good thing. Likewise, the term “fascism,” in Orwell’s words, “has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’”

Most of Weaver’s arguments and observations can be condensed into the following point: The noble rhetorician is passionate, bold, and resolute, and he eschews neutrality, caution, and convenience. His prose reflects, in both content and style, his rejection of the spirit of modernity.