An Introduction to the Strategic Introduction

In the Ad Herrenium, the author explains how to come up with an opening (exordium) first. He tells us that an exordium is the first part of a speech and by it the mind of the listener is constituted to listen.

How then do we achieve this end?

Being ancient, he thinks in terms of causes. Given a cause, he says, for the suitable exordium, we must consider the kind of cause. Then he practically gives us a flow chart:

There are four kinds of cause:

  1. Honorable (honestum)
  2. Discreditable (turpe)
  3. Doubtful (dubium)
  4. Petty (humile)

Now that we have identified the kinds of causes, we need to apply the theory of exordia to those causes. To do so, we first note that there are two kinds of exordium.

  1. The direct opening (Principium in Latin, Prooimion in Greek)
  2. the subtle approach (insinuatio in Latin, Ephodos in Greek)

I’m going to ignore the confusion of language that I come across when I compare texts and that you dont’ care about unless you are into the technical side of this matter and just turn to the practical path that I have found helpful.

Remember that our speech (or as I use it, essay) will be driven by one of four causes as listed above. Therefore, we should ask: how do I apply these two kinds of opening to each cause?

To that end, let’s look first at the direct opening. What is its purpose? Our author tells us: “The Direct Opening straightway prepares the hearer to attend to our speech. It’s purpose is to enable us to have hearers who are attentive, receptive, and well-disposed”

Let me interject how much more useful this is than the common approach these days of telling students they need a “hook.” I want the reader to be attentive, receptive, and well-disposed to my speech.

OK, let’s apply that:

  1. If my speech is doubtful, then I will build my exordium on achieving the good will of my listener so that when I get to the part he is less likely to accept I will have won his favorable disposition.
  2. If my speech is petty, then I need to get his attention.
  3. If my speech is discreditable, I’m going to have to use the indirect approach unless I can earn the listeners good will by attacking my opponent.
  4. If my speech is honorable, then I can use the direct opening if I want, but I don’t need to.

I’m a bit puzzled by this, because he doesn’t talk about when you need to make the audience receptive. I will assume that he doesn’t do so because you always need a receptive audience.

In any case, we now have four kinds of cause and three states of mind we need in our audience. We have applied at least two of those states to the four causes and noted that some causes require particular attention to certain states.

The question now becomes, how do I achieve each state?

First, how we do make them receptive? He presents us with a deceptively simple approach: “we can have receptive hearers,” he tells us, “if we briefly summarize our cause and make them attentive; for the receptive hearer is the one who is willing to listen attentively.”

That sounds simple enough, and it would seem open to argument. But remember that this is a direct opening, which implies that the speech is either honorable (you are preaching to the choir), petty (they just want you to get it over with), or doubtful (you need their goodwill). He’ll come back in a moment to how we can earn their goodwill.

Meanwhile, now that he has told us that we make them receptive by getting their attention, or rather, by making them attentive, he proceeds to advise us how to make them attentive, giving us three basic options:

  1. Make a promise (I’ll come back to this)
  2. Tell them to pay attention (think Marc Antony: Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears)
  3. Enumerate your points, which means, as I understand, simply tell them how many you have. At first this seems trivial, but I find this makes it much easier for an audience to listen for the simple reason that the first question any audience has is “How long is this going to take?” If you say, “I want to make three points,” you have given them bearings. It makes it much easier to pay attention.

So let’s talk about the first option, making a promise. The promise, of course, is about what you are going to talk about. You can promise that you will discuss one of the following:

  • Something important
  • Something new
  • Something unusual
  • Something concerning the commonwealth (the city, state, country, etc.)
  • Something concerning the hearers themselves
  • Something concerning religion and the immortal gods

For example, you might say, “I want to talk to you tonight about something that concerns you personally,” or “Our topic tonight is [education and freedom], a topic that touches deeply on the well being of our country itself,” or “This morning we are going to discuss something a bizarre,” etc.

Now we come to the real challenge. You can make them receptive and attentive by standing on your head, but earning their good will is something altogether more difficult. That is why, if our cause is discreditable, we have to turn to the indirect or subtle approach.

Nevertheless, we cannot assume our audience’s good will. We must earn it, and our handbook gives us four options to help us do so:

  1. We can talk about ourselves
  2. We can talk about the person of our adversaries
  3. We can talk about our listeners
  4. we can talk about the facts themselves

We can talk about ourselves either positively or negatively. Positively, we can discuss the services we have rendered and our past conduct toward

  • The Republic
  • Our parents
  • Our friends
  • The audience

Negatively, we can plead for the aid of the audience while we present our

  • Disabilities
  • Need
  • Loneliness
  • Misfortune

Simultaneously, we confess that we have no other hope than those who hear us.

Second, we can discuss our adversary with the intention of bringing them into odium, unpopularity, and contempt. As you read this section, notice how much of the blogosphere and current news follows this pattern.

You can make them odious by showing that some act of theirs was

  • Base
  • High-handed (subperbe – think Tarquinius Superbus)
  • Treacherous (perfidiose)
  • Cruel (crudeliter)
  • Impudent (confidenter)
  • Malicious (malitiose)
  • Shameful (flagitiose)

You can make them unpopular (invidiam) by presenting their (some of this is kind of funny)

  • Violent behavior
  • Dominance (potentiam)
  • Factiousness
  • Wealth
  • Incontinence (lack of self-restraint)
  • High-birth
  • Clients (yikes!)
  • Hospitality (huh?)
  • “Club allegiance” (sodalitatem)
  • Marriage alliances

Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of these in and of themselves. What you have to show is that they rely more on any of these supports than they do on the truth.

The third way you can win the good will of your audience is to discuss the person of your your audience. Here you should talk about three things:

  1. Judgments they have already rendered
  2. The esteem they enjoy
  3. “with what interest their decision is awaited.”

The second and third are pretty straightforward. On the first, you should mention how their earlier decisions demonstrated

  • Courage
  • Wisdom
  • Humanity
  • Nobility

Finally, you can earn the good will of your audience by talking about the cause itself. If you take this course, then you will extol your cause with praise and disparage the cause of your opponent with disparagement.

So much for the direct approach. First, determine the kind of cause you are defending. Then determine to use the direct approach (or else read a later blog post). Then follow the guidelines above to make your audience receptive, to secure their attention, and to earn their favor.

We are discussing rhetoric, not math, so there are no guarantees that your strategy will work. But if you are aware of these options, you will both present a better case for your own cause and be better able to anticipate the strategy of your opponent.

In Level II of the Lost Tools of Writing, we introduce the strategic introduction in lesson 3.

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Do Inalienable Rights Exist? Part 2

Aristotelian political theory posits that the role of government is to foster human flourishing. The concept of human flourishing depends on central aspects of Aristotelian metaphysics and ethics. Metaphysically, the decisive thing is the concept of form. Ethically, the decisive thing is virtue.

Form may briefly be described as what makes a thing what it is, and may be contrasted with attributes. Attributes are aspects of a thing that the thing may have or not have, but which don’t change what the thing is. The color of one’s skin, for example, does not change whether or not one is a human being. Being dead would change whether or not one is considered human, and so life must belong to the human form.

Aristotle’s ethics can be understood as the description of the human form, and the practical ways in which one can most exhibit the human form. The goal of Aristotle’s ethical inquiry is simply the practical question of how one may best manifest what it means to be human (which is just “form” said another way).

The details concerning the nature of form and the specifics of the human form do not need to be dealt with here. However, one must grasp that the ethical life is the life that best shows what it means to be a human being, and that some humans conform to this more than others.

We might use an example from sports to make this clear. When an athlete puts on a great performance we say: that’s what this game is all about. An athlete’s great performance shows the nature of the sport in a more complete way than an ordinary performance.

When Aristotle speaks of virtue, he means human excellence. This includes the cultivation both of the soul in education and of the body in exercise. The above example of the athlete is not a metaphor for virtue, it is an example of virtue in its physical aspect.

The ethical person draws together excellence in all spheres of human life (the sphere of the mind, the body, the social, the religious, and so on), uniting these excellence through the course of his life and manifesting them within a political community. This is the context within which Aristotle situates his political thought.

Aristotle characterizes the purpose of government as maintaining a virtuous citizenry. Thus, the government acts rightly by placing limits on the behavior of citizens, and not only in the public realm. The habits developed in what we would think of as the private sphere are essential to developing virtue.

A good government limits the bad behavior of its citizens, often with punishment, and rewards good behavior with an eye particularly to fostering excellence. For this reason in ancient Greece, perfecting one’s body through public exercise and one’s mind through learning were not a private matter, to be done if one wished or abstained from as one pleased, but a public duty.

Rights do not limit the government’s actions, but practical concerns do. Society may wish to enjoin all to deeply expound on classic works of literature and run marathons, but practical concerns militate otherwise. Such policies may simply be unfeasible, they may cause unintended effect, or they may even have the opposite effect. Thus, we may formulate the purpose of government as creating virtuous citizens so far as is practical.

Where do rights fit in? Absolute rights, the kind of rights a person possesses without restriction, are necessarily excluded. The end of government must limit any rights. However, the right to farm on a piece of property, so long as one uses it well, fits in with the purpose of government both because farming is a virtuous activity and because in order for citizens to be virtuous they will have to be fed. The “rights” in Aristotelian political theory are always dependent on proper use of that right.

What would this look like today? What if, instead of arguing about one’s right to health care, or one’s right not to be taxed to pay for the health care of others, we asked what health care policy most engenders virtue? What if, instead of arguing about what economic policy will lead to maximal growth and efficiency, we asked what sort of economy brings out the best in human nature? (And shouldn’t we be appalled by Adam Smith’s suggestion that to act selfishly in a free economy would be identical to acting beneficently? ) What would the national security debate look like?

Most importantly, for Christians at least, we should ask which sort of political theory best comports with Christian theology and practice: that of virtue or that of right? Or is there a third possibility?

Your theory of writing

People of a more practical bent will sometimes suggest they don’t have a theory. Others argue that theory is a distraction or isn’t important.

Those positions (each a caricature in itself) hold a view of theory that arises from a reaction to the overly academic approach we take to writing. The great temptation for any teacher or school is to isolate what happens in the school or classroom from the rest of life and then to exalt it over things outside the school or classroom.

When schools do that, people outside the schools can overreact the other way and deny the importance of what happens in the school. And to the extent that the school overvalued itself, the anti-school people will be right.

The only value of education is what it actually accomplishes in the soul and for the life of the student.

All of which is preamble to indicate the unnecessary tension between theory and practice that I pointed to in my previous post.

My thesis here is simple: since, as we have perhaps already established, we all have a writing theory, that theory forms our expectations and practices as writers and teachers. 

The cosequence of my thesis is that the theory we hold, therefore, effects the quality of our instruction and the degree of our mastery of the art.

For example, if a student thinks that writing is a great mystery, a gift descending from the gods, he will practice accordingly. He may pray a lot if he wants to write well, but he won’t try to exercise a discipline he doesn’t believe exists.

Put in that caricature, that position might seem absurd, but that caricature expresses rather nicely the unconscious presupposition I held as a high school student. It’s easy to see why, because to this day the achievements of the great poets leave me breathless and, to be perfectly honest, often envious.

How was Shakespeare able to write the way he did? How could Chaucer so continually throw out lines with such grace and subtlety? How could John Donne hide so many, many layers of meaning in the 14 lines of a sonnet.

It’s no wonder that Homer begins his epics with the words “Sing goddess…” and Milton, “Sing heavenly muse.”

And both were, I’m certain, quite genuine in their appeal. Their theory of poetry led them to call for divine help.

So does mine.

Shakespeare seems not to have held such a theory. He was, one might say, a more secular poet, certainly than Homer or Milton, if not Virgil (Arms and the man I sing).

Behind those prayers lay a theology and a cosmology and an anthropology that inform every line of the poets’ work.

The absence of such lines in contemporary poetry indicate a different theology, cosmology, and anthropology.

When a person writes, he comes to the task with beliefs about how important writing is, the source of the power to do it, and how one practices it. Writing workshops and classes are not the place to teach such things. They already embody them in their modes and structures.

For example, the typical school class assumes that writing is taught by a text book through exercises and that pretty well anybody can teach it with the right text book. Administrative structures and assessment expectations pretty well demand this theory, if it isn’t in place ahead of time.

What I mean is that, given how we run our schools and hold them accountable, we need to believe that writing, like everything else in school, simply needs to be administered to the student in the right dosage. Then a standardized test can take our temperature – it can tell us whether we succeeded.

A workshop, on the other hand, will recognize the need for judgment and direct feedback.

At CiRCE, for example, we believe that writing can be learned only through an apprenticeship. Writing is a craft, and a craft can only be learned through coaching by a master. That is why we put so much emphasis on the need for the teacher to understand the ideas taught in our Lost Tools of Writing program.

Writing, like every art, requires judgment. That is why people often say, “There are no rules.”

They are almost right. The one rule is propriety. This directs the teacher’s and students’ attention away from rules to purpose and nature, because propriety is determined by the nature and the purpose of the act, the actor, and the other participants in the act.

And propriety requires judgment.

And judgment takes awareness of principles, understanding of the nature of the act, process, and artifact, knowledge of the thing represented in the writing, wisdom, and clarity of purpose.

Writing needs to be taught practically – it’s a craft.

And you can never develop the judgment writing requires if you don’t thoroughly understand the rules of normal writing.

Practical writing, therefore, is always taught within a theoretical framework, a paradigm if you like. The failure to teach children spelling, grammar, and usage in the contemporary school arises from a theory of human nature, of education, and of writing that undercuts all three, as reflected in the growing inability and unwillingness of the people to communicate with any care or depth over the past few generations.

So to become a great writer or to help your students become one, you’ll want to do what you can to clarify your theory. The good news is that that clarification begins with common sense observations.

More good news: there are plenty of sources available to develop your theory of writing in dialogue with others. But be careful. If you read what other people say, you might not be looking at what writers do and how children learn. The value of what others say comes in the rather obvious fact that they’ll see things you can’t see and if they’ve written something it almost certainly has been thought about for a while. But if the theory is bad, the thought will only make it worse.

Some sources:

  • Aristotle: Poetics (short read, worth reading a lot over the years. This still drives most movie writing)
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Read his comments to the players in Acts 2 and 3 (if my memory is on)
  • Wendell Berry: Standing By Words (simply incredible)
  • Anything about theory by Ezra Pound. Watch out for his politics.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biologia Literaria (probably the hardest of these to read – don’t start with this)
  • Louis Markos, Teaching Company series on the History of literary criticism. Very nice introduction to theories over time, (though I think he misunderstood Plato’s point in the Republic).

I’ll leave it there for now. Those will do for one or two lifetimes anyway.

Aristotle, Rhetoric, and Freedom

I’ve been arguing for some time through this blog that we cannot be free people if we don’t master the arts of freedom, which were known historically as the liberal arts (not the modern evasion often called “general studies”). To Aristotle, freedom depended on people’s ability to communicate freely and effectively. So he wrote a handbook on rhetoric, which begins like this:

Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic. Both alike are concerned with such things as come, more or less, within the general ken of all men and belong to no definite science. Accordingly all men make use, more or less, of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others.

The other day I quoted Adler to the effect that everybody is a citizen and a philosopher. I would add that to the extent we deny these roles, we are slaves.

If we do not participate in the governance of ourselves, our families, and our communities, we cannot be free people.

If we do not learn to think with our own minds, making decisions based on sound principles and seeking truth because it is good, we belong to the people who do this thinking for us.

Aristotle underscores this truth by emphasizing that rhetoric (our civic faculty) and dialectic (our philosophical faculty) are universal arts. We are all responsible for our use of them. If we neglect them, we are not free people and frankly don’t deserve to be free people.

It follows that a great way to eliminate freedom is to involve people so deeply in their work, school, or voluntary associations (that just triggered a really disturbing page I read in a book about Bolshevism – I’ll try to find and post it tomorrow) that they have no time to participate in government or philosophy.

If you love freedom, please devote yourself to the study of Greek so you can remind us about what we’ve lost. Odysseus poked out my eye and I’m afraid I’ve gone from no perspective all the way to blind.

The mark of an educated man

“It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits;”

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Here is one of the most important principles of thought ever expressed and one that has been universally neglected in our day. We look for scientific precision in our study of literature, for artistic judgment in math and spelling.

When we assess, we look for statistical variation of immeasurable matters.

Why? Because we don’t know the nature of the subjects we are studying. Until we do, we should ask more questions and make fewer assertions.

Only the classical curriculum resolves this problem for the simple reason that Aristotle, who was wrong about things for which he lacked tools, saw into the nature of the subjects and elucidated them for us. Because he paid attention. He looked closely and steadily at reality. He didn’t exclude the bits he didn’t like, as the naturalist and the spiritualist do.

May we who seek to restore the classical tradition take confidence in its enormous achievements and not settle for anything less than the attainment of this “mark of an educated man.” It will require a curriculum that reflects this principle and a mode of teaching that honors it, but with courage and wisdom we can get there.

Literary Quiz

Answer below:

Thanks to all who participated. The answer is Edgar Allen Poe, who “invented” the short-story in the late 19th century. There were stories that were short before then, but he saw into the heart and soul of the short-story and was able to explain it to others. Since then, it has become one of the most powerful and dramatic forms of writing available.

One of these days I hope to develop a workshop on how to write a short story (and therefore how to read one). Interested?

Loving to learn while I teach

Aristotle began his Metaphysics with the claim that “All men by nature desire to know.” He proceeded to support his argument by pointing out that we keep our eyes open. Much of the time we do so because of the pleasure gained by perceiving what is around us.

Schools were established on the notion that learning and knowledge are a good thing and CiRCE is strongly effected by our desire to learn and to help others love learning.

So when I went to Veritas School in Austin this past week, I was excited about the things I would learn, though of course I didn’t know what they would be. But I knew I would learn for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I was doing teacher training. When I do teacher training I both model and discuss one or both of the two classical modes of instruction: mimetic and Socratic.

Teach that way and you will learn wonderful and surprising things. For example, I learned that because an addition sign is a horizontal line crossing a vertical line (perpendicular) and that a subtraction sign is a horizontal line without the vertical line one can say to the child that “the addition sign adds a vertical line to a horizontal line” while “the subtraction sign subtracts the vertical line from the addition sign.”

Some kids would enjoy knowing that so they deserve to.

I also noticed for the first time that two parallel lines are used to form an equal sign because the lines are equal to each other.

I get excited about things like that.

I also got pretty excited when someone pointed out that when a child has an undeveloped soul he doesn’t have many alternatives to the temptations thrown at him. In other words, when a child is little and he learns a lot of history, fairy tales, Bible stories, great music, good dances, etc. he will have that in his soul’s storehouse. Then, when he is a teenager and the meaningless garbage of kitsch culture draws him, he’ll at least have alternatives. He’ll have an appetite for things that taste much better.

It reminded me again of how important those grammar school years are. We must use them to fill the children’s minds with Philippians 4:8 quality stories: things that are true, noble, just, lovely, admirable, praiseworthy, virtuous. It’s hard enough to make sound decisions when you are given these things. What hope do our children have when their souls are neglected until it’s too late.

I had a wonderful time in Austin and hope to post a note or two more about what I learned. But I have to take this moment to say a great big “Thank you” to the folks at Veritas and to pray for God’s blessing on your work.

If you are intrigued by the University Model of schooling, the folks at Veritas are creating a model worth emulating.

Thank you!