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.

A little more McCain

Some reviewers are suggesting the speech was boring and didn’t deal with policy. Well, maybe. I suppose it depends what matters to the listener.

Government is about trust. The fact is, we are going to know almost nothing the president or any member of congress does. We’ll hear about half a dozen issues on which they vote. But they’ll vote on hundreds of bills. Everything depends on whether the person is trustworthy AND competent.

What a political audience wants from a speaker is to be persuaded that he can be trusted. Sometimes rhetoric, narrowly considered, accomplishes that. Sometimes character, the core of rhetoric, is required.

McCain gave me permission to shamelessly love my country again last night, and I appreciate that a lot.

A friend tells me that her daughter doesn’t believe anything politicians say because they’re just political. Well, at least she doesn’t believe in democracy!

Nature and Convention and the culture wars

RV Young puts it this way:

According to the reigning heterodoxy, absolutely nothing is “for all time”; and works of literature do not bespeak the “soul of the age,” so much as they conceal, even while embodying, its ideological and economic imperatives. Hence the clamor from powerful forces within the academy of the”opening up” or dismantling of the “canon” of “classic” works, for the abolition of the very notion of “great books.” Should this view prevail, then the question, “Why we teach what we teach?”, would be no longer moot, but merely meaningless. Although pretexts for teaching this or that text would abound, there could be no reasons, since rational discrimination among the “products” of deterministic cultural hegemonies is impossible. If a work of art, literature, or philosophy is not intrinsically valuable, is not great on its own merits, then it can only be of interest as an event or phenomenon, exercising more or less influence over the course of history…. As Cicero points out, “All the arts, which pertain to humanity, have a certain common bond and are joined together among themselves as it were by a certain kinship.” It is this element of common humanity that is crucial to curricular decisions and is, indeed, the only basis for the integrity of university professors as scholars and teachers.

At War With the Word

The literary departments of our universities do not, generally, believe that humans share a common nature that can be refined by encounters with great works. Instead they argue that all artists need to be deconstructed to show their ideological convictions and how they were parasites on the powers of the day.

Shakespeare was neither “the soul of his age,” nor, “for all time” because that would require that an age have a soul and that human nature transcends an age. The truly great radical relativists are perfectly aware that their criteria apply to them as well. They realize they write because of their will to power. They make no apology, therefore, for their assertions of control.

In literature, as in grammar, we can see that unless we are governed by nature and nature’s law, we are necessarily either tyrants or slaves. We cannot be free people. That is why grammar and rhetoric are the necessary arts of a free people and why they must be taught according to nature and not merely according to conventions and usage: because grammar and rhetoric have a necessary and unbreakable link to politics. Human nature dictates it.

In short, if we are governed merely by conventions we are slaves. If those who govern us and we ourselves submit to nature, then, and only then, can we be free people. For to be free people, we must not only be free, we must also be people.