Liberal Art #3—Rhetoric

Rhetoric is the final art of the trivium—the intersection of three roads to excellence in language. In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain treat us to a brief historical view of rhetoric with references to Plato, Quintilian, Aristotle, Augustine, Cicero and Boethius. If you haven’t  read these authors, I’m afraid it might just feel like a list of names, but it really isn’t—it’s a reminder that this tradition is partly an ongoing conversation, part of “The Great Conversation.”

In short, the role of rhetoric in the classical tradition is not static—it has been approached in different ways at different times in history. However, at its heart we find this:

Despite its varied implementations through the ages, rhetoric is not to be understood as an abstract concept. Students studied rhetoric to learn how to be persuasive in their use of language….

Their conclusion to this need to make rhetoric concrete is this:

We believe this discussion has two major implications for schools in the Christian classical renewal. First of all, the three liberal arts of the Trivium must retain their integrity if we are to find the true integration afforded by the classical model.

I confess to being a bit confused by their using the word “integrity” to mean separate things. Grammar is grammar. Dialectic is reasoning. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. But the integration—the intersection—is why these are called the “trivium.” I confess to feeling that it is more in keeping with the classical tradition and more needful in light of our cultural tendency to fragment knowledge, to place the emphasis on the integration of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, rather than their separate arts.

Which is why I wrote, in Consider This:

Fully understood, the trivium becomes a three-fold approach to wisdom via words and language. Because language is the matter to be dealt with, reading books, thinking about them, and talking or writing on what has been been read is the practice of the grammar, logic, and rhetoric in a nutshell, and all these arts may be practiced until they are mastered.

Which begs the question “what language?” because Clark and Jain take this moment to segue into a plea for Greek and Latin.

The second implication for schools in the Christian classical renewal is that the study of the classical languages plays a central role in the acquisition of the liberal arts of the Trivium.

And I can’t bring myself to concede that point. A noun is a noun in any language, remember? Grammar, dialectic, and persuasive rhetoric may be practiced in any language. Every language. In fact, when we remember that these are arts that involve doing something, we must see that the language in which they will be perfected is the language in which we are proficient. If you became proficient (not to say fluent) in Latin or Greek, you could potentially practice those arts in that language, although only other proficients would be able to understand you.

And that brings us to the pivot upon which classical education was brought to its knees in the not-too-distant past (mixing my metaphors—sorry). If a liberal arts or classical education can only be achieved through Greek and Latin, it can only ever be an education for the elite, for the few, and not for the general population. You might make a case for that, but in 21st century America, I come down on the side of a “liberal education for all,” and while that should include ancient languages, it cannot be dependent upon them. And maybe that’s all that Clark and Jain mean, too. We do not want to conflate a liberal education with classical scholarship, though they may overlap.

I don’t want to be misunderstood as suggesting that Latin (and even Greek!) are not important. I do adhere to Charlotte Mason’s principle that “education is the science of relations,” and I think children ought to have the opportunity to form a relationship with the past through the ancient languages. That’s where I think the emphasis should be in the elementary years—on forming a relationship with Latin so that the opportunity to develop a taste for it and a desire to pursue it more fully can be created. But the majority of students are going to need to practice grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric in their native tongue, and there is nothing unclassical about that.

The Greeks believed that a training in the use and power of words was the chief part of education, recognising that if the thought fathers the word, so does the word in turn father the thought. They concerned themselves with no language, ancient or modern, save their own, but of that they acquired a consummate appreciation. With the words came the great thoughts, expressed in whatever way the emergencies of the State called for—in wise laws, victorious battles, glorious temples, sculpture, drama. For great thoughts anticipate great works; and these come only to a people conversant with the great thoughts that have been written and said. (Philosophy of Education, p. 316)

I really want to carry this discussion a little further, but I fear this will get too long, and I don’t want to be distracted too far from the main topic, which is still rhetoric.

One of my favorite discussions of rhetoric is Augustine’s. He says that both grammar and rhetoric may well be learned at the feet of those who use them well rather than by studying rules, and that, I think helps to keep grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric arts without reducing them to subjects.

We know numbers who, without acquaintance with rhetorical rules, are more eloquent than many who have learnt these; but we know no one who is eloquent without having read and listened to the speeches of eloquent men. For even the art of grammar, which teaches correctness of speech, need not be learnt by boys, if they have the advantage of growing up and living among men who speak correctly. (From On Christian Doctrine)

If you remember that grammar is literature (the ability to read and comprehend), dialectic asks good questions, and rhetoric is the expression of what you want someone else to understand and accept, it becomes easier to see how the trivium is an integrated use of language arts that will sharpen the mind that engages in their practice.

For years, Aristotle’s Rhetoric was the classic text used to teach it—at the university level, which might well be brought into our high schools. But, like the ancient Greeks, I think the most effective rhetoric we can give is a consummate appreciation of the English language that we speak and love and need to wield effectively.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Links to all the Liberal Arts Tradition posts.