Saturday, March 21, 2009

Richard Weaver and Hugh Nibley on Rhetoric

Richard Weaver was a Southern conservative writer during the middle of the 20th Century (and one of the original Southern Agrarians from Vanderbilt University). Most of what he wrote was motivated by a regard for and an appeal to tradition. He is mostly recognized for Ideas Have Consequences, published in 1948. Liberty Fund has also recently (2000) published many of his shorter writings (In Defense of Tradition) and his essays on the South (The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, 1987).

Weaver taught English at the University of Chicago for many years before his untimely death in 1963. He also taught rhetoric and wrote an important introductory text on the subject (The Ethics of Rhetoric, published in 1953). He is generally recognized as one of the five or six leading rhetorical theorists of the 20th Century (see T. Smith’s introduction to Weaver’s rhetorical essays,in In Defense of Tradition).

Rhetoric was not really a subject that Weaver saw differently from his other research interests. He was deeply concerned about the fracturing of traditional values and saw the demise of rhetoric, from a highly respected role in the humanities to a moribund remnant of prior prestige, as just another example of our current troubles. He followed Cicero in esteeming rhetoric as a significant force in a just society.

Hugh Nibley, by contrast, was a scholar of ancient history and religion at Brigham Young University where he taught throughout the last half of the 20th Century. He was a pathfinder in many areas of Mormon studies and ancient scripture. His influence as a Mormon apologist has been immense. Today a small army of scholars continue the work he began on many subjects. His primary study of rhetoric is the essay, Victoria Loquacitas: The Rise of Rhetoric and the Decline of Everything Else (originally published in Western Speech in 1956) although rhetoric shows up in many of his other writings.

Given Nibley’s understanding of history and the number of comparisons he made between a wayward modernity and the ancient world, one might expect that he would largely agree with a defender of tradition like Weaver. No doubt there would have been many things that they agreed on. Weaver’s address at BYU in May, 1961 (entitled, Reflections of Modernity) certainly met with campus approval and was published later that year in Speeches of the Year. His argument about finding the nature of man in history instead of in science reflected many themes common in Nibley’s work.

But on the subject of rhetoric the two men had very different ideas. They never seemed to have crossed swords on the subject (Weaver may not have even been aware of Nibley’s work) but one certainly comes away from their writings aware of important differences.

Both men, following Quintilian, understood rhetoric to be the art of persuasion. But whereas Weaver saw it as a tool in defense of truth, Nibley saw it’s long historical abuse as one of truth’s greatest enemies. Weaver was certainly aware of the abuses and chose to make distinctions to clarify the difference. His recognition of propaganda as a corrupted rhetoric is an example of this.

Weaver’s interest in rhetoric is an awareness that much has been lost since it’s decline; or rather its transformation, in American life. His examples of rhetorical excellence include “Parson” Weems, Daniel Webster, Tom Paine. These were clearly persuasive and opinionated men, but for the most part, they also stood for virtuous principles.

Weaver sees Weems as part of a “fortunate class of persons whose way of looking at the world makes it impossible for them to be dull.” And, in fact, Weems’ exuberance (verging on hero worship for his subjects such as Washington, Franklin, and others) is sometimes hard to resist. But this flowery expression and hyperbole make him hard for an objective modern reader to believe - and so Weems has been banished from our classrooms. In fact almost nobody has even heard of him anymore.

An example of Weems’ rhetorical style is this comment about religious persecutions: “they were common in those dark and dismal days, when the clergy thought more of creeds than of Christ, and of learning Latin than of learning love.”

There is no doubt that this is writing with a clear motive. But it isn’t writing that pretends to be objective - at least not objective in the sense that one approaches opposing positions equally. Weems’ loyalties are baldly apparent from the start. He accepts that truth exists and uses his craft to defend it. He understands very well that human beings have passions and that they respond to emotional appeals. And Weems is writing for human beings.

But modern readers would be myopic if they ignored the potential for abuse in this sort of writing. A gifted rhetorician, it seems, could easily use his skill to promote many causes that are not worthy - causes that are false. In fact, these abuses have been apparent from the very beginning.

Nibley gives the example of Gorgias, a contemporary of Plato and participant in his dialogues. Gorgias began his career seeking truth and became convinced that it could never be found - at least not in its purity. So he decided on a path of rhetoric which was much more practical. It was also more profitable.

It isn’t difficult to find, even from this early period, individuals who sell their persuasive talents to the highest bidder or otherwise use them for causes other than truth. If Weaver and his sympathizers hold fast to a virtuous rhetorical high-ground, they certainly can’t deny that the history of rhetoric has as many, if not more, bad examples as good ones.

In order to avoid this, Cicero, like Weaver, insisted that rhetoricians be men of honesty and the best examples of virtue. It was their lot to make important, if not subtle, distinctions between apparently contradictory positions. Murder itself could at times be justified, but only by someone with enough understanding to make truthful distinctions.

Much depended on the rhetorician himself. But in the end, more depended on his audience. If the audience were uneducated or lacked understanding, the rhetorician could get by with being lazy. But there was worse, as Nibley quite persuasively shows. It was more common for the rhetorician to use his practiced skill for whatever profitable or desirable argument came his way. If his audience was not well informed, so much the better.

Today’s situation is obviously similar to this degraded form of the art. We seem to be at our rhetorical best when selling something - whether that be items for profit; or ourselves, for promotion. Manifest as blatant advertising we might see how tendentious it all is. But in our school books, newspapers, and much of popular culture, we usually fail to notice.

Another important argument against rhetoric is that it lacks the precision of a scientific algorithm. And in our technologically advanced society, precision is expected. Scientific manuscripts are regularly rejected for publication if an author extrapolates too far from the data. Accuracy is expected and is the measure of excellence. This is, of course, as it should be in the sciences. Many of us owe our lives to this attention to detail. Where we err is on assuming that because such tools serve science so well, they can do the same for our souls. Clearly this is a mistake that we are paying the price for now.

Weaver is convinced that there is an important relationship between the decline of culture and the decline of rhetoric. “Eloquence in disfavor,” he writes, “signifies a crisis of the human spirit.” Nibley, on the other hand, thinks that rhetoric itself is a critical cause of cultural decline. Although he basically ignores the high points of the art - the examples that Weaver wishes to recover. (Yet in fairness, Nibley was certainly not ignorant of or unaffected by classical literature - much of which is rife with rhetoric.)

It’s hard not to appreciate the position of both scholars and I have no intention of taking sides of one against the other. It’s true enough that when words lose their meaning that people lose their liberty. And rhetoric, for sure, has a long history of corrupting the meaning of words. But too much empiricism isn’t good for us either. There is a certain sterility of the spirit that comes from too much science. I, for one, am certainly in favor of a bit more eloquence on this, our overly objective orb. I personally think that Weaver and Nibley were both right - and in that order.


  1. Isn't rhetoric (of the past) much like the "media" of today? Or maybe it's more accurate to say that rhetoric and it's benefits and especially it's dangers is alive and well in the media today. I just shared this piece with s student who was extolling her enjoyment of Bill Maher.

  2. I certainly think it is. I also wish we could consider its values and dangers much more seriously than we do. If we can't force another required course into our already inflated curricula we would be better served reducing a course or two on criticism for a healthy course on rhetoric. But then again I'm old fashioned.