On Booth 1

What’s interested me most in reading The Rhetoric of Rhetoric (if you haven’t been following the discussion, it’s Wayne Booth’s popular-audience “manifesto” on the applications of rhetoric in contemporary mostly-American culture) has been in following which aspects of rhetoric Booth’s analysis seems to favor and which aspects of rhetoric his analysis seems to pass over. Of the five canons of rhetoric, Booth seems most interested in discussing invention (which he calls “discovery”) and — to a lesser extent — delivery, to the point where style and arrangement (not to mention memory) seem sorely neglected. Furthermore, Booth’s own typology — win-rhetoric, bargain-rhetoric, and listening-rhetoric — is all about motives, about the intent of someone who might use rhetoric for, as his sub-title suggests, “Effective Communication.” Rhetoric seems to be about what the rhetor wants, what the audience wants, and how the content (again: not the style) of what is communicated negotiates between the two, with one consideration to be placed above all others (Booth calls it a “commandment”):

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).

The why — the motive — and the what — the content — are all-important here, to the apparent exclusion of the how and the who.

First, the how: the question of style. Is it not odd that in a book that so clearly owes a profound debt to classical rhetors, the attention to style is so scant? Cicero devoted two volumes, the Brutus and the Orator, to the canon, and Quintilian — well, let’s just say that Quintilian certainly doesn’t neglect the topic. But for Booth, style seems not worth discussing, and in fact, the above “commandment” seems to imply that the possibility of perfect communication might exist, or at least the possibility (necessity?) of a style entirely pellucid. In this, Booth seems to me to pass over a possible alternative view, the view expressed in the axiom that ars est celare artem (“true art is to conceal art”).

Second, the who: the question of character. While Booth is deeply concerned with the ethics of rhetoric — in fact, the book’s heart seems to me to be Chapter 3, “Judging Rhetoric,” which is all about moral evaluations — he’s much more concerned with rhetoric in action, and not so much with the character of rhetors as actors. This may strike some as hair-splitting, but I think both concerns — the how and the who — are deeply connected to the ways in which Booth sees rhetoric as functioning in the world. My scant experience of Booth — I read his seminal The Rhetoric of Fiction when I was just starting work on my MFA in fiction — tells me he’s a through-and-through rather Aristotelian (see comments), and that may be coloring my opinions some, since the emphasis on character in Book 2 of Aristotle’s Rhetoric is not on how the speaker is, but on how the speaker seems: for Aristotle, rhetoric is neutral, to be used for good or evil, and character is only as represented. In the Nicomachean Ethics, “the virtues are modes of choice or involve choice” (II.6), and exist in action rather than in being.

So here I want to argue: for Booth, the ethics of rhetoric exist in what you do, not in what you are. And this is important, because Booth makes some very strong value judgments about the various types of rhetoric he sees. But I also want to suggest, as Collin has, that some of Booth’s judgments are deeply connected to various contexts, and that there may be additional contexts beyond Booth’s perspective. I’d be a straight-out fool, however, to propose that Quintilian is beyond Booth’s perspective — yes, there are five cites in the back — which is why Booth’s apparent neglect of any concern over the rhetor’s character struck me as strange, especially when Chapter 3 (again, which I see as the heart of the book) begins with something close to the aphorism that Quintilian borrowed from Cato the Censor: namely, that the ideal orator is a vir bonus dicendi peritus, a “good man speaking well.”

I’ve got a way to go with this train of thought, so I’ll leave off here, for tonight, with a question: who is (and who isn’t) Booth’s ideal rhetor — and in what situation?

On Booth 1
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8 thoughts on “On Booth 1

  • February 24, 2005 at 1:36 am


    I’d planned on taking a look at Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, which I’ve both read as a student and taught in a couple of courses, for the same reason. I was a little surprised to hear him identify himself as Platonic–like you, I guess I’ve always thought of him as more Aristotelian. He’s always been fond of McKeon and Burke, both of whom get serious play in his “rescuers” chapter, and I’ve always thought of the Chicago crew as largely neo-Aristotelian.

    I’ve got more to think about and say, too, but I’ll save it for a longer entry. Thanks for the thoughts here…


  • February 24, 2005 at 8:00 am

    Thanks for posting this stuff. One of the things I like about blogging is that I can keep up with theory without having to go to grad school–which isn’t always feasible.

  • February 24, 2005 at 3:06 pm

    Collin, I think it’s interesting to look at the context: on page 13, Booth contends that he is “strongly on the ‘Platonic’ side” regarding “whether some value judgments deserve to be added to this category of hard, unchangeable fact” (13). And given that, I think I’d definitely temper my language; in some ways, he does seem to be more on the Platonist side. (Interestingly, he characterizes McKeon as neither Aristotelian nor Platonist.) So now I’m tempted to go back and take a look at The Rhetoric of Fiction again — but that’s gonna have to wait until after the dissertation.

    And, hey, Joanna — I’m happy to share the luxury. Docere, delectare, et flectere, to paraphrase the man himself.

  • February 24, 2005 at 10:21 pm

    “A good man speaking well.” I well recall being taught as much at Groton. I took the lesson to heart and live by it, post by post. I wish everyone did.

  • February 24, 2005 at 10:58 pm

    Unfortunately, Dick, it seems as if Quintilian might have been something of a spineless and sycophantic toady to despots: his fawning praise of the vicious Domitian may tell us more about rhetoric’s relation to power than his borrowings from Cato. What would Candidia say?

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  • October 11, 2005 at 4:25 pm

    McKeon claimed to be more in the sophistic tradition than either the Aristotelian or Platonic (the olde folks around UofC insisted that he had been far more of a Platonist in the old days and that is certainly believable). He would characterize Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a progress toward the concrete rhetorical production, from the contexts of rhetoric through the functions of the rhetorician to the eventual product. I continue to value his insistance in the ‘universality’ of rhetoric in Aristotle…that it is not tied to or limited to a specific subject matter. He always claimed that the Renaissance rhetorician ditched that in favor of a specific subject matter for rhetoric (of course they disagreed on what that might be).

  • October 11, 2005 at 5:11 pm

    Well, yeah, and the Renaissance rhetoricians eventually threw subject matter out of the picture entirely, following Ramus. There’s a whole sort of interesting intellectual swirl around U of C, with really curious interlinks among the various hermeneutic approaches — thanks for the note on McKeon.

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