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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.