Richard Weaver on Logic and Rhetoric, with a few applications to Debate

I’ve been posting quite a bit on the necessity for formal grammar instruction lately, and I will continue to do so in the days to come, God willing.

Grammar is a language study, one of the three liberal arts. The first.

Then comes logic or dialectic.

And then rhetoric.

For Grammar I have urged people to read The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy.

For Rhetoric I may have a book even more profound and important to recommend. The book is The Ethics of Rhetoric by Richard Weaver.

I can’t recommend it yet because I haven’t read enough of it, but what I have been able to read in my two minute time-thefts has been compelling.

You can perhaps imagine how tempting the first chapter was for me just by its title: “The Phaedrus [a dialogue by Plato] and the Nature of Rhetoric.”

But I was only flipping through, so I went to the second chapter. He begins by asserting that dialectic and rhetoric are two stages of argumentation. Now be patient with me because this next bit bears thoughtful response.

Dialectic is that stage which defines the subject satisfactorily with regard to the logos, or the set of propositions making up some coherent universe of discourse; and we can therefore say that a dialectical position is established when its relation to an opposite has been made clear and it is thus rationally rather than empirically sustained.

He’s only warming up. He has clarified for us what a logos is, at least when the word is applied to an argument. It is the face of the argument – the essence, if you like.

In addition, he has introduced this important idea of a “dialectical position” which is established “when its relation to an opposite has been made clear.” Here is the value of formal debate and its relation to dialectics or logic.

Next he raises the ante just a little bit:

We shall say that facts are never dialectically determined… and that the urgency of facts is never a dialectical concern.

If I were to reduce this to a practical lesson on debate (which it is not, but putting it in these terms may help us understand what he is getting at), I might say, “In a debate, the facts don’t determine who wins. The winner in a debate is the one who gets the logic of the thing down most effectively.”

I put it in that perhaps overstated way to draw out the necessary tension in what Weaver is saying.

But we have to remember that debates are not the place to study physics or history. They are, so far as they are logical/dialectical, the place to practice using logic.

Underlying these statements are two or more assumptions. First, logic is formal. Second, logic is so useful that students should practice using it in contests against each other.

Dialectic, in other words, is not about the way things are or even the way things should be. Perhaps the best way to say it is that dialectic is about the way things might be.

Weaver says

What a successful dialectic secures for any position therefore,… is not actuality but possibility; and what rhetoric thereafter accomplishes is to take any dialectically secured position… and show its relationship to the world of prudential conduct.

I may not be reading amiss to see the trivium placed before us in a rather tidy manner: Grammar, what is actual; Logic, what is possible, Rhetoric what is prudent or desirable.

To apply a stricter interpretation to my argument above, I acknowledge that a debate is not exactly a “dialectical position.” What it shares with the dialectical position is that it defines its position in its relation to an opposite. In other words, every debate debates two sides of an issue, side A and its opposite, side B.

Debate, however, goes further and makes an appeal to prudential conduct. Weaver has shown us that this is the rhetorical element of the debate.

We pass our lives debating issues, not usually consciously. To enter into a debating competition can make a young man or lady more aware of what is always going on in his unconscious mind, thereby giving him more control over it.

These paragraphs from Weaver can help any debater better understand the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of a debate.

The debater would do well, then, to define clearly and carefully the relationship of his position to the other position. It is obvious that they are opposites, and that is a very good place to start (I love the obvious). But if he can demonstrate the particularities of that opposition, he will earn the favor of his judges and make them receptive to his argument.

Once you have secured your dialectic position, then you are able to “show its relationship to the world of prudential conduct,” i.e. tell people why they ought (would be prudent) to do what he is arguing for.

In LTW, we teach students division so they attend to the particularities of the opposition. We frequently argue about things about which we agree or focus on details that do not define the disagreement.

Establishing your dialectical position frees you from that failing.

It also frees you to make your case for the action you contend to be prudent. That’s rhetoric.

So reading Weaver provides practical insight into effective debating.

But there’s more to it than that. Weaver is writing about the ethics of rhetoric, not the pragmatics of debate.

I’m anxious to see where he takes me, because his framework seems to correspond comfortably with reality.

Interestingly, the chapter is entitled Dialectic and Rhetoric at Dayton, Tenn.

A time to Cast Away Stones

The main lesson about the climategate scandal is that you can’t put excessive authority in individual entities. You can’t trust any body with too much power.

That’s the lesson of our economic crisis too.

So why the rush to expand those bodies at the very moment when we are paying such a heavy price for their existence.

It’s the will to security and the fear of freedom.

Practical Teacher Training

When I conduct teacher training, my goal is as simple as I can possibly make it. I want the teachers who sit through it (and stand, and move around, and gather in groups of three and four, and talk) to better understand classical education.

Beause it is classical education we are talking about, I care a great deal about the teachers’ ability to apply what they learn. But that will arise quite nicely from understanding what we are talking about.

At the end of our time together, I hope that the teachers see that all teaching is embodying an idea. I hope they will see that classical education is different from both progressive and traditional education in that it draws what is true and useful from the other forms but reaches higher because it is driven by a higher goal and sees truths the others cannot see.

I hope they will see the different understanding of truth that the traditionalist and the progressive hold and that they can see where the Christian classical vision fulfills and corrects the others.

Furthermore, they will have experienced Socratic discussions, so I hope they will appreciate and think about the communal experience of thinking they have just gone through. If they have been involved, they will be able to think at least a little better, either because they practiced doing it or because they learned a new tool to help them think.

Some teachers will perceive that the mind seeks harmony. The applications you can make to teaching when you understand this principle are endless. The first might be that it underscores the truth of Socrates’ axiom from the Republic: “Great is the power of contradiction.”

Why? Because contradiction is disharmony.

Therefore the teacher who fears the introduction of a contradiction into the classroom necessarily weakens her teaching.

Here is a contradiction: 4+2=X.

It does not. That is why you are putting the answer in the place of the X.

Stories are about resolving contradictions. Celebrate them!

Take a moment and think about a class you are teaching.

Now select an idea you want your students to understand. Keep it simple.

Now think of the opposite of that idea or of a statement that does not agree with it.

When you want your students to think about that idea (which is the only way they can understand it), present the two statements and let them have at it.

Even younger children can thrive on this sort of instruction, because the soul hates contradiction. It loves harmony. So it gets a thrill out of harmonizing apparent contradictions.

Think of the pleasure we will gain from our Lord’s explanations at the end! Now give your students some little examples of that pleasure while you teach!

So I hope teachers gain a profound appreciation for the principle of harmony and the power of contradiction to begin thought -always with the faith that the contradiction can be resolved.

In addition, we take some time learning how to teach any history or literature lesson by asking a simple question: Should X have done Y?

All the attack skills of the reader arise from that simple question, and that simple question should never be forgotten.

Once this ground is covered, I want teachers (and this includes home school parents) to see three of the most powerful teaching tools you can find and to better understand how to use them:

First, the three columns developed by the Paideia Plan: knowledge of content, understanding of ideas, and mastery of a skill.

Next, the essential mode of all instruction: the mimetic. In other words, I want teachers to see how you teach by embodying ideas so your students can contemplate them.

Third, assessment, that most dangerous of all teaching activities. It’s hard to find a better way to undercut your teaching and demoralize your student than by inappropriate assessment.

The modern school seems to have a noble intention. But I am convinced that their failure arises from erroneous theories about what and how we learn, which are rooted, in turn, in an inadequate understanding of what a human being is.

In other words, the disagreements are philosophical, ethical, theological, pedagogical, and even, sometimes, scientific.

And the differences are practical through and through.

On Praying

If we cannot pray; it does not matter what we do.