Rhetoric’s Role: Gregory, Augustine, Boethius

Rhetoric’s Role: Gregory, Augustine, Boethius March 16, 2018

Spin, the art of making a bad case seem better, is bad for our republic.

Rhetoric, making a good case beautiful,  is not bad and a good dose of rhetorical training will make us immune to spin and make those tempted to spin think again.

This term I taught Gregory Nanzianzus, Augustine of Hippo, and Boethius in a three week period. Other than Christianity they had this in common: they were all skilled in the Roman art of rhetoric. Augustine was even qualified to teach it!

Rhetoric has gotten a bad reputation and the greatest of philosophers, Plato, is partly responsible. Plato faced down the academic establishment of his day, men who built their careers on exploitation and theft. They had learned how to use fancy words to make a bad case sound good. Thrasymachus persuaded many young men that injustice was better than justice and the end result would be the fall of the Athenian city-state. Plato saw all this coming and he hated it. He called such men lovers of words, rhetoricians, as opposed to those who loved wisdom, philosophers.

He may not have meant to do so, but the Master set us up for ugliness for millenia. From his day forward, ugly arguments, bad presentations, could be excused, even praised, as not “rhetoric”. Meanwhile those who took the time to make goodness beautiful were condemned as mere rhetoricians. Make no mistake:

Making a bad argument sound good is bad. 

Plato is right when he says spin is bad, but the art of rhetoric is so not spin. Putting truth in an ugly way is indecent or associating it with lies is wicked. That’s spin. So many Christian movies do this very thing: we take the pearl of great price and put it in a setting made of plastic covered in cheap gold paint. This is vile and we should stop. We owe the truth the best we have, not what we can do in our spare time, if we can, and if it pencils out in Accounting.

An attack on the rhetorician (who is good) is often the attack of the accounting department on beauty. My own field, philosophy, has refused to move towards the lack of rigor in some other humanities (looking at you English), but has also prized inscrutability over clarity. Rigor does not necessitate ugly prose as GEM Anscombe proved daily.

Christians should love words, because we are saved by the Word. We honor Jesus when we make what we say as true and as beautiful as we can. I know I cannot write like CS Lewis or argue like GEM Anscombe or tell a story like Dorothy Sayers, but I do my best. I honor God with my best, even when it is lame.

Better to quit a job than to do crap in Jesus’ name.

We dishonors the truth when we do not care about beauty.

Instead, rhetoric, story-telling, comes together with truth and the love of wisdom in a great writer like Plato (note irony here) or Saint John and we are persuaded. There is no virtue in a sound argument said badly or an unsound argument said beautifully, but that is not our choice. Instead, we can speak the truth, as true as we know, in as beautiful a manner as we can.

The setting matches the gem.

Gregory, Augustine, Boethius gave us such gifts. Let’s raise up a generation that does the same. To do so . . .we will have to do our best!




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