Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Rhetoric versus Logic

Rhetoric formed one of the three basic elements of education which were called the Trivium - these were rhetoric, logic and grammar. The trivium - in varying combinations - formed the basis of education in the territory of the Classical era Roman Empire for most of two thousand years.

Rhetoric is, roughly, the art of effective communication - and especially refers to formal public communication: to oratory, letters, official documents, and to the canonical forms of expressive writing such as poetry.


Although I first came across the ancient conflict between rhetoric and logic in Robert M Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which I read in 1976 - my current interest in rhetoric comes from the Great Schism in Christianity when the Western Latin Roman Catholic Church diverged from the Eastern Greek Orthodox Church.

In the era of Classical Rome, rhetoric was primary, but throughout the first millennium AD the Latin West progressively gave primacy to logic over rhetoric, while the Greek East retained to the end an emphasis on rhetoric as the main focus of education.


Rhetoric is deeply unfashionable in the modern West; having for 100 years at least had almost wholly negative connotations.

"Rhetoric has come to mean an windy way of speech, marked by a pompous emptiness and insincerity, and trotted out as a trick on any occasion calling for solemn humbug.

"It did not mean this to the Middle Ages. To them it meant the whole craft of writing, the arts and devices by which whatever you had to say could best be varied, clarified and elaborated; it even included the study of appropriate gesture."

Nevill Coghill. Geoffrey Chaucer. Longmans, Green and Co, 1956.  p15.


By contrast, logic is - even nowadays, when its practice has seldom been less rigorous - accorded a theoretical deference.

The primacy of logic was at the root of the Roman Catholic Church, and led to that high development of formal education in the Medieval Universities of the West (such as Paris, Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge) which was scholasticism: characterized by a prolonged training by means of lectures, commentaries and disputations. This led onto modern science.


For the Classical Romans, rhetoric was primarily the training of orators or public speakers, with structuring and delivering speeches of praise or blame; while for the Byzantine Romans (as for the Western Medieval era) rhetoric was more concerned with written communication: especially with learning and applying the proper forms for writing letters and official documents.


There's a lot that needs to be said about rhetoric, and its loss from modern life. But one aspect is that when logic replaced rhetoric in the West this was not a like-for-like replacement.

Logic has pretensions to being the primary mode of evaluation and indispensable; while rhetoric is a second order, subservient discipline.

I mean that while logic (or philosophy, or dialectic, or science) has been put forward as the master evaluative discipline; rhetroic is not and cannot be a master discipline.

Rhetoric is in itself neither the good nor is it bad, 'the good' is located elsewhere and above rhetoric.

For Classical Romans rhetoric was subject to religion and ethics; for Byzantine Romans rhetoric was subject to Christianity. The value of effective rhetoric came from that which it argued. 

But logic has claimed to be the good or behaved as if it were the good, and claimed to be the truth or behaved as if it had an unique access to the truth - and these claims and behaviours have been accepted in practice, as well as in theory.


One aspect of this relates to 'the university' as a cultural institution. To the Latins the university - as the summit of formal education - was (in its ideal form - e.g. Paris around the time of Aquinas) the prime location of human legitimacy, and the expert logician provided the underpinning for culture including the proper formulation of Christianity.

Reading accounts of the Western Medieval education, I am filled with something akin to awe at the rigour and precision, the scope and thoroughness, leave aside the sheer duration of, the philosophical education.

Yet, at root, I think all this was mistaken, a wrong emphasis, and something which has led to much that is bad about society now - indeed to the fatal weakness of modernity.


For the Byzantine Orthodox tradition, the university was merely one of several means to the end of an education in rhetoric - and rhetoric was much less important to the East than logic was to the West.

With rhetoric at the focus of education there was no danger of an academic discipline taking-over official, legitimate public discourse in the way that logic/ dialectic/ philosophy/ science has monopolized official, legitimate public discourse in the West.

(Not that modern Western public discourse is logical! Nothing could be further from the truth. But the dominant discourse of legalistic bureaucracy is an evolutionary descendant of logic - and excludes the rhetorical, along with 'the good'.)

This could not have happened in the Byzantine Empire because rhetoric is intrinsically, obviously, a second- order activity - the good (truth, beauty and virtue) lay elsewhere, and rhetoric could only serve truth - rhetoric could not masquerade as the good.


The communications of Byzantine bureaucrats were apparently full of flowery, insincere and bombastic rhetoric - which signalled social status and cultivation - but this fault does not seem anything like so destructive as the deadly, deathly, life-sucking, uni-dimensional 'rational'-yet-lying communications of modern Western administrators - a legacy of the Western side of the Great Schism and its over-valuation of logic above rhetoric.


  1. It would be useful to take up your final paragraph again and to explain it more fully. I, for example, don't understand what you are saying there at all.

    Courtiers tell polite lies. "The King is ill advised" means "the King is a moron who makes abysmal decisions." Etc.

    Modern courtiers blithering on about the benefits of diversity don't seem that different to me from Medieval courtiers blithering about the greatness of their lieges or Byzantine courtiers blithering about the greatness of the Emperor. It's all ugly and boring, but the badness of modernity seems to have more to do with the substantive content of modern ideas than with the dryness or scientism of their expression.

  2. In medieval Europe books were rare handmade works of art. Books could not be dealt to everybody for personal use, so the teacher spoke or sang the text to the audience, or students would take turns doing the same. Remembering and understanding large texts was essential. Words were written together without punctuation marks, and they implied rhytms and melodies. The texts were in essence undivided wholes. Thinking alone meant often speaking, humming or singing those thoughts. Learning, studying, debating, teaching and thinking were much more social processes than today. The texts were like living things, reproducing the life of their creator. Knowledge was shared and widespread among the learned, and dictatorial, restricted, secretive and cryptic nanoniches were not only non-existent, but impossible.

    Punctuation marks, indexes and mass printing changed this. Studying became more silent and lonely. Texts became divided and parts were selected from them with the help of indexes. Understanding became more fragmented, coldly utilitarian and imcomplete. Instructions for building e.g. a machine could be picked from a large text, but people forgot that the surrounding information is at least as important.

    This created the groundwork to the building of the knowledge system where people are increasingly unimportant and replaceable cogs in machine like system, although these changes could have been used in better ways.

    In 18th and 19th century the changes in system principles was completed. Let's take psychiatry as an example. Before the change psychiatry uses e.g. the following methods:

    - Intrigues, tricks, schemes and shrewdness which corresponded to the weaknesses, delusions, paranoias etc. of the patient. E.g: 1. Patient refuses to eat, but drinks water. Water and food is withheld from him. When he is really thirsthy and demands water, he is given bread, and water is given only in condition he eats the bread first. Patient eats voraciously and after this normal eating is restored. 2. The healing story is woven into the delusions and paranoias of the patient. The target of paranoias, household helper, is sentenced in a fake trial to a fake sentence. Doctors conduct fake studies to find out if the shirts really were poisoned and "they were". Doctors say that the toxins require special antidotes that only the doctors can give. Also the patient must come to a safe place (psychiatric hospital), because there might be other hostile people around his house. Patient accepts these measures willingly and is eventually cured 3. Patient is violent. Big and strong page with a calm and commanding voice gathers all the patient's attention towards him. At the same time other pages come nearer from the blind side and nail him against the wall with iron poles that have semi-circular open ends. 4. Patient thinks he is a king and demands imperiously that other people treat him accordingly. Doctor spices his food with a medicine that makes him sick and causes diarrhea. Doctor says to patient that he is so afraid of him and his (king-like) power that he is sick. Doctor talks to the patient sternly and doesn't accept any of his delusions, and explains and shows how false they are. Doctor uses other, mostly demeaning methods to subdue the delusions of the patient. Eventually patient admits that he was wrong and healing process begins.

    Continued ...

  3. Part 2.

    - In the end of treatment the patient produces the final truth that signifies he is cured. He acknowledges he erred, was delusional, crazy etc., he accepted the treatment and now he has espoused new and better thinking, emotional reactions, lifestyles, work, eating and sleeping habits, etc.

    - Whatever the treatments are and however they are evaluated, the patient is regarded as a full life force engaged in a battle of wills and strength with the psychiatric hospital staff, and full partner in producing the truth and healing; perhaps more important partner, because he produces the final truth. Patients' will and life force matters, even if the treatments happen to be brutal; in matter of fact brutal treatments acknowledge implicitly, perhaps unwillingly, the great life force of the patient.

    In this psychiatric play the patient can still e.g. act according to his will and interpret according to his will, and it has effects on the final results and society's concept of reality and truth. E.g. the patient can play sane until he is released. He can say to himself that the pages subdued him only because of greater numbers, tools and because he doesn't have eyes in the back. The doctor used his medicine etc. tricks, but the patient has his own tricks and methods of influence. After treatment the patient have many possibilities to become invisible to the society and live his life in his own way, if he finds suitable local place. The society has weak surveillance systems and records of patients are localized in psychiatric hospital, generally nothing is known about them in other areas and other bureaucracies. Etc.

    The patient is an unique personality and force etc., and even his illness is many respects unique and treated as such; no two patients are the same


    Continued ...

  4. Part 3.

    In modern psychiatric treatment the patient is a faulty and replaceable cog in the machine, system. He causes disturbance in the system and is given treatment because of it. The doctor is representative of the system, and produces the truth from beginning to end, especially the whole final truth. The patient, his will, his thinking, his life force and his unique qualities doesn't really matter unless they have some significance to the functions and categorizations of the system. The personality of the patient is made as non-existent as possible and replaced with individuality tag, which is the system's way of identifying the individual cog anywhere. The information about the patient is spread or spreadable to anywhere and can be used as a part of efficient and possibly pre-empting surveillance and control. The patient belongs to a psychiatric category, and as category unit system treats him. When all personal and unique qualities (read: human qualities) is stripped away from the patient, any psychiatrist can recognize the patient's category and order the standard treatment assigned to that category. The doctor can be more easily trained and needs less experience, and the same applies to the pages. The doctors and pages are as replaceable as the patients, although it is useful to the system to leave some illusions of importance to the doctors. Standard treatment is always almost exactly the same, so it is much easier to apply fast and time and time again, in conveyer belt style, "efficiently", in clockwork synchronicity between units and functions. Like personalities, traditions, identities, ethnicities, customs, cultures etc., i.e. all uniqueness and humanity are complicating problems to the system, so they are ignored, suppressed, forbidden, stigmatized and/or destroyed by the system. Instead of people creating system suitable for humans, system tries to make humans more like mass produced machines.

    These same changes apply to other areas of society and science.

    Thus our machine system began it's function (not life) as a revolution of knowledge, who, how, where, in what times and why uses, produces and controls knowledge. All the consequent problems and eventual destruction of the system is produced by this initial error in arrangement of society. The system should have been categorized from the beginning as a dangerous, easily spreading cancer, that is separated and insulated strictly from our human qualities and used like an unstable and explosive nuclear reactor.

  5. @A Finn - thanks for this mini-essay! I'm very pleased to publish these very interesting ideas as blog comments here, but it does seem rather a waste!

    You seem to have a deep knowledge of psychiatry. I am currently reading Kurt Schneider's Clinical Psychopathology from 1959, which is a profoundly intelligent and well observed work, and stands in the starkest possible contrast to the idiocies of the contemporary era.

    Psychiatry was, essentially, a German phenomenon (plus some French influence) - and since the US became dominant there has been a precipitous decline in quality - first with the wholesale embrace and over-application of psychoanalysis, then the simplistic dishonesty which has grown-up post DSM III.

    (I personally witnessed turing point: the end of the Freudian era and the beginning of the DSM-Big Pharma era, while an elective student at Harvard in the summer of 1980, just after DSM III was published.)

    @Bill - yes, that final paragraph does not make a great deal of sense as it stands!

    My point is that philosophy/ logic/ dialectic/ science has an intrinsic tendency to usurp understanding of reality - as if it were the only correct description and the one to which all others must conform. But I think rhetoric does not have that capability.

    Given that universities are intrinsically (in a steady state over some generations - but not nowadays!) about training the administrative and teaching elite, rhetoric is therefore a 'safer' subject.

    I agree that there is plenty of 'rhetoric' in the sense of dishonestly persuasive communication in the modern world - but this is quite different from the ancient conceptualization of rhetoric as an art: the appropriate speech and writing for the highest form and level of social interaction.

  6. Late in the game here, but I leave my commendations. Well written, eloquent blog post.

    I find it interesting that you make your point not jut through the ideas you convey but in the very fashion which you compose the paragraphs.

    The necessity for rhetoric over logic comes across not just in the themes of your writing but in the execution. Short, succinct paragraphs. Asterisks to separate ideas.

  7. @Gabriel - thanks. It is hard for us now to understand the ancient focus on rhetoric - that's what I was trying to do here.