Another brief recap: after Wednesday night’s characterization of Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Rhetoric as focusing more on the content of the rhetoric and the motives (which, Booth repeatedly asserts, must be pure) of the rhetor than on the style of the rhetoric and the character of the rhetor, I spent Friday’s post exploring connections in Booth’s book to the Roman rhetor Quintilian, who characterized the ideal orator as “a good man speaking well,” and wondering why — though both Booth and Quintilian are deeply concerned with ethics in rhetoric — Booth focuses on action’s doing, while Quintilian focuses on character’s being. I see Booth’s focus on ethical motives and rhetorical content particularly clearly in his “commandment” that
It is ethically wrong to pursue or rely on or deliberately produce misunderstanding, while it is right to pursue understanding. To pursue deception creates non-communities in which winner-takes-all. To pursue mutual understanding creates communities in which everyone needs and deserves attention. (40)
But I think implicit in that quotation is an idea that one’s rhetorical style should ideally be absolutely pellucid, although I’m not entirely sure: I mean, it sounds like he’s saying, “Be as clear as possible,” which implies a sort of super-style that presents the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — no?
Well, part of the difficulty is that I’m trying to separate style from content in the context of understanding. As anybody who’s ever hemmed and hawed when telling a lie knows, that’s difficult (if not impossible) to do. We need only consider recent presidential rhetoric (not just the Bush administration examples Booth relies upon, but Clinton’s “is”) for examples of this difficulty, but it’s one that exists throughout the history of rhetoric: Cicero, speaking of the Pro Cluentio, boasts that he threw dust in the jury’s eyes, and examination of the text demonstrates a stylistic reliance upon vagueness and insinuation coupled to a clearly deliberate bending of the facts. Neither one would be useful without the other.
One reason I bring up Cicero here is to begin making a point about rhetoric’s multiple audiences. Cicero began his career under the dictator Sulla and ended his career during the fall of the Republic and the beginnings of the principate, and his mature rhetorical theory is deeply concerned with how rhetoric ought to function and flourish for public purposes in a free state. The fascinatingly convoluted ethos he brings to bear in the Pro Ligario, given before the dictator Caesar (who, in a sense, was both plaintiff and judge) in the fallout following the the battle of Pharsalus, alerts us to the fact that the political conditions under which rhetoric is delivered do much to affect its style and content. Booth is certainly aware of this, in the examples he offers us of “Osip Mandelstam, in a Soviet prison, commanded to write a poem honoring Stalin” (54) and of George Mangakis (49), but his arguments seem to me to often constitute rhetoric as a two-party system: rhetor and (monolithic) audience. (Again, there are plenty of exceptions, as in his consideration of how the rhetoric surrounding Iraq played out with various national audiences.) But I’m thinking about how in Plato’s Philebus, the character Protarchus asserts, “I have often heard Gorgias constantly maintain that the art of persuasion surpasses all others for this, he said, makes all things subject to itself, not by force, but by their free will, and is by far the best of all arts.” Yes, it does that — but the free will, and the understanding Booth desires, go beyond its recipient. This is part of the reason, I think, that Booth is so worried about “rhetrickery” — but there seems to be a part of the equation missing. What if I convince an audience that a thing is dangerous, but my audience has a different reaction to danger than I do? What if my audience is willing to use force to make that thing subject to herself?