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Language, Witness, and Control: Some Thoughts on Rhetoric and Grace

Language, Witness, and Control: Some Thoughts on Rhetoric and Grace

Studying Hannah Arendt’s marvelous ebook on The Human Situation, I got here throughout a very thought-provoking paragraph on the traditional perfect of speech. Arendt attracts a pointy distinction between the Greek family—which was dominated by necessity, the necessity to present meals and shelter and to boost youngsters—and the political life. The 2 have been distinct as a result of as soon as the burdens of necessity have been glad within the family, males (Greek political life was not notably inclusive) turned free to pursue political life. Necessity was what people shared with animals; solely within the sphere of freedom, of public life, might people do the good deeds and converse the good phrases which have been solely, and subsequently correctly, human. Her ideas on speech within the Greek bios politikos are illuminating:

Of all of the actions crucial and current in human communities, solely two have been deemed to be political and to represent what Aristotle referred to as the bios politikos, specifically motion (praxis) and speech (lexis), out of which rises the realm of human affairs…from which every little thing merely vital or helpful is strictly excluded.

… The Homeric Achilles might be understood provided that one sees him as ‘the doer of nice deeds and the speaker of nice phrases’ [The Iliad]. In distinction from trendy understanding, such phrases weren’t thought-about to be nice as a result of they expressed nice ideas; quite the opposite, as we all know from the final strains of Antigone, it might be the capability for ‘nice phrases’ (megaloi logoi) with which to answer to putting blows that may ultimately train thought in previous age. Thought was secondary to speech, however speech and motion have been thought-about to be coeval and coeval, of the identical rank and the identical sort; and this initially meant that the majority political motion, in as far as it stays outdoors the sphere of violence, is certainly transacted in phrases, however extra basically that discovering the correct phrases on the proper second, fairly aside from the knowledge or communication they could convey, is motion. Solely sheer violence is mute, and because of this violence alone can by no means be nice. Even when, comparatively late in antiquity, the humanities of struggle and speech (rhetoric) emerged as the 2 principal political topics of schooling, the event was nonetheless impressed by this older pre-polis expertise and custom and remained topic to it.

On this expertise of the polis, which not with out justification has been referred to as probably the most talkative of all our bodies politic, and much more within the political philosophy which sprang from it, motion and speech separated and have become increasingly more unbiased actions. The emphasis shifted from motion to speech, and to speech as a way of persuasion quite than the particularly human approach of answering, of speaking again and measuring as much as no matter occurred or was finished.

I feel we will see within the improvement of rhetoric—for all that a few of us may romanticize it—a shift from speech as witness to speech as energy. Within the earlier notion of speech, it was about measuring phrases to the second, talking what’s true and a kind of sub-cognitive degree, such that nice phrases might precede the understanding of them which solely is available in previous age. Rhetoric was to take phrases—among the many strongest and most malleable of human capacities—and switch them into weapons, or a minimum of instruments.

The excellence is fascinating for our time, when social media and running a blog (cough) have normalized persuasive speech (or, at the very least, speech that goals to influence) as a dominant function of on a regular basis social life. Speech in Greek occasions was a shared, private dialog within the meeting on the center of city; in our nation of 300 million, the political dialog for some time might solely occur by proxy, each on the flooring of Congress (representing celebration and geographical pursuits) and within the interaction of factions (The League of Ladies Voters, the AFL-CIO). However the Web includes a kind of new agora, an area for the airing of opinions and concepts which, in contrast to the assembly-fields of Greece, is infinitely giant and accommodating.

The upshot is that persuasive speech is in all places. The opinion-piece, as soon as a small and punctiliously curated part of newspapers, typically specializing in native points, has turn out to be arguably probably the most prestigious and probably the most traffic-driving article in lots of papers and lots of extra web sites. Information, in different phrases, is now subordinate to commentary. Regardless of the deserves of this new profusion of persuasive writing, one alarming disadvantage is that we’ve a few of the artwork of claiming what’s. We now have considerably misplaced “the particularly human method of answering, of speaking again and measuring as much as no matter occurred or was executed,” in Arendt’s phrases. That misplaced artwork is on full show, as an example, within the Chicago Tribune’s next-day narration of the Cubs’ profitable the 1908 World Collection:

General was the ultimate choice for the sport that was to finish the collection, and General was extraordinarily proper. That was proven within the first inning, when he struck out 4 males, thereby establishing a brand new strikeout report for the majors. Earlier than he was by way of whiffing for the day, Huge Jeff had the scalps of ten batsmen dangling at his belt and 7 of those strikeouts have been put over when there have been males on bases. Three hits have been all of the Tigers might get off General, but two of those coming collectively in a single spherical made the result of the sport uncertain for the precise area of 5 minutes. In that point the tall Californian disposed of the 2 batsmen who stood between him and victory.

In fact this isn’t precisely the identical as Achilles’s talking nice phrases, nevertheless it exhibits a felicity of reporting what’s—that’s, the information—which is uncommon in at this time’s occasions. Sports activities journalism as we speak focuses on the socially related story—Tim Tebow, Deflategate, and so forth.—related as a result of it supplies fodder for our relentless have to take ethical or, extra mildly, strongly evaluative stances on every part that comes out within the information. We’d like our points, and persuasive writing is designed to provide us that, however we now have misplaced our style for the sort of apt narration of what’s, the rising of reporting to the extraordinary event, achieved by the Tribune in 1908.

Maybe our want for points, for proper sides and improper sides, for items condemning X or lionizing Y, stems from our ever-present compulsion to turn into actors on the ethical stage. The thought of persuasive speech as energy signifies the distinction between utilizing phrases to pay tribute to what’s and utilizing phrases to propagate our personal visions of what must be. Our drive to self-justification underlies it; the persuasive phrase describes what should be, and in doing so it places us firmly within the driver’s seat of the truth the phrases categorical.

That is nothing new; confronted with the sometimes uncomfortable fact of what’s, we deflect, make actuality itself a type of set-piece in our personal ethical dramas, which we direct. That isn’t the results of mass media however solely of an ingrained piece of our nature which has extra scope for its operation in mass media than it used to. On this vein, you’ll be able to see Jesus’s famously circuitous dialogues as a kind of fencing match, the place he nullifies the self-serving phrases of others and leads them to talk fact: “the particularly human method of answering, of speaking again and measuring as much as no matter occurred or was carried out.”

These of Jesus’s hearers most open to grace are those who are likely to get it in the long run. The lady on the nicely casts Jesus in her ethical narrative and makes use of phrases to create Points, to ensnare him into declaring whether or not he’s on the Proper Aspect of the difficulty or the Improper aspect.

‘Sir, I see that you’re a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, however you* say that the place the place individuals should worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus stated to her, ‘Lady, consider me, the hour is coming when you’ll worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you have no idea; we worship what we all know, for salvation is from the Jews. However the hour is coming, and is now right here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and fact, for the Father seeks resembling these to worship him. God is spirit, and people who worship him should worship in spirit and fact.’ The lady stated to him, ‘I do know that Messiah is coming’ (who known as Christ). ‘When he comes, he’ll proclaim all issues to us.’ Jesus stated to her, ‘I’m he, the one who’s chatting with you.’

Simply then his disciples got here. They have been astonished that he was talking with a lady, however nobody stated, ‘What would you like?’ or, ‘Why are you talking together with her?’ Then the lady left her water-jar and went again to the town. She stated to the individuals, ‘Come and see a person who informed me every thing I’ve ever finished! He can’t be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the town and have been on their method to him.

By the top of the dialogue, her phrases have shifted from phrases of persuasion, rhetoric, and finally coercion (putting Jesus right into a field, as a supporting character or an antagonist within the Samaritans-versus-Jews drama) to phrases of witness. Maybe much more considerably, they’ve taken on a subjective dimension, a query, ‘He can’t be the Messiah, can he?,’ which has now forged her within the position of a seeker, somebody admitting their want and needing one thing extra—the Messiah, salvation. Her line is directly worship and confession—admitting her true subjective want and apprehending its true goal achievement (or the potential of its achievement).

The position of the author as artist appears to be to bear witness to actuality by way of her phrases. Jesus doesn’t strong-arm, merely negating her narrative (e.g., ‘the Jews and Samaritans each have it fallacious, and this battle, whereas legitimate in some methods, is misguided in others…’), which is principally what we do anytime we expect another person has it flawed. As an alternative, Jesus merely bears witness to a better fact, inviting her to worship, as he worships, to enter the world the place all speech turns into reward and rhetoric is transcended by, or passes over into, doxology. Jesus eschewed the think-piece (although that additionally has its place—see the Pauline letters) and as an alternative acted. He was the person of motion, for whom speech typically got here earlier than thought and, more often than not, was tailor-made to a selected individual quite than the kinds of expressions of summary concepts to which we’re often drawn.

Thus Jesus invitations her, and by extension us, to not the precise set of proper concepts however to an individual, to a relationship (God with us, God to us), and never primarily to theology however to worship. To the extent Christianity has any bearing on journalism or social media posting or running a blog or denouncing your uncle’s dated politics over Thanksgiving dinner, it is perhaps to provide us a slight nudge away from idea-pushing and towards “the particularly human means of answering, of speaking again and measuring as much as no matter occurred or was finished,” which appears nearly as good a definition of worship as any. Although to even converse of such a “nudge” definitely manifests the human drive in the direction of affect and management, crossing from the descriptive and doxological into the prescriptive realm, and manifests a sure diploma of sin.

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