In earlier posts I talked about my views of the difficulty of maintaining super-majority consent to majority rule (people have to get along with each other), the misguided attention to standardized testing instead of personal acknowledgement of intelligence, and the admirable qualities of medieval scholars who took seriously the idea of history and their responsibility to understand it and to continue it.
Classical rhetoric is an idea that ties these together. In particular the modern discounting of the value of training and practice of Rhetoric.
In our so-called hyper-partisan government, we are facing a deadlock by two sides who can not communicate with each other. The hyper-partisan tag implies that they refuse to cooperate. Perhaps the real problem is that the lack of people who know how to communicate.
It is easy to see why people refuse to work together when both sides mischaracterize the views of the other and then ruthlessly mocks that characterization. Lacking the fundamental need for people to acknowledge each other’s intelligence and good intentions, majority rule is not possible. Mutual respect of intelligence and good will is essential for super-majority consent to maintain a stable government.
I find a lot to admire in my pre-modern ancestors. I’m not blind to there distasteful practices that we have since abandoned or replaced with more humane approaches. It seems to me that these ancestors were more skilled at acknowledging the intelligence of their fellow humans across all kinds of divisions of wealth, race, language, religion, education, etc. While it is true that they had biases or bigotries, it seemed they at least approached each person as being worthy of persuasion.
I think about the age of discovery when Europeans sailed out to reach new lands and often encountering new peoples and yet readily started some level of communication to perform some trade and share in some culture. They may have thought of the natives as savages, but they must have recognized a common humanity of intelligence and eagerness for a good will. Whatever skill they had to make that happen is lost to me.
I also think of the relatively recent phenomena of assigning mental illness. Yes, the characteristics we describe as mental illness existed throughout history. But, earlier they approached the problem very differently starting with an assumption that the individual had full mental capacities, a co-equal intelligence. In many cases where the maladjusted behaviors were tolerable, society adapted to find a way to integrate them into the community. The downside was that society was often cruel in dealing with intolerable behaviors. Perhaps their world view was dictated by the religious notion of a soul and the equality of all such souls needing intervention in order to be saved. But it had the consequence of people readily granting respect of intellect to each other.
If at the extreme of mental illness, society assumed intelligence and good will, then they must have done so freely with everyone else. It was in their culture.
Rhetoric is the study and practice of persuading other people. Today if we study it at all, we pretty much stop at the goal of persuasion. However, classical rhetoric included the imperative to get the argument right. Careful use and evaluation of sound grammatical and logical arguments with the absence of known fallacies helped assure the persuasive argument would provide a good result.
Certainly, the pre-modern era had its share of poorly trained, charlatan, or unethical rhetoricians. Their culture recognized this and assumed it was unavoidable. This is another reason why they insisted on rigorous standards for arguments to find the best arguments.
I doubt they would find gridlock that our current hyper-partisan environment. This is exactly the arena they prepared for. There may be the same level of sound and fury, but that with a stronger shared commitment to a purpose.
What is lacking today is the sense of purpose. Rhetoric is not argument for the sake of argument or an alternative form of personal assault. Rhetoric has a purpose of building the better argument that can be decided upon and that will most likely deliver desired outcomes. This purpose is not wishful thinking (such as we have today) but built into the fabric of rhetorical training. We argue because we must come to the better decision that we can live with. A decision must be made, and the decision must be the better argument.
It is the lack of this purpose in argument that is causing today’s gridlock. We are content to deliberately ignore the opponent’s arguments and replace those with arguments that are readily mocked. We congratulate ourselves for a successful mocking and award ourselves when the opinion polls move in our direction. If there is a purpose, it is only to move the polls.
The earlier practice of rhetoric was built on a prior respect for the importance of history and the importance of getting history right by making the right kinds of decisions. Rhetoric presented tools to use to build good arguments and to recognize poor ones. They used those tools because they were convinced of the importance of getting it right.
We can disagree with the pre-modern thinkers in terms of what they thought was right. If we could transport them to the modern era, they may readily change their minds to be more like ours. But, they would be better equipped to fight our battles. In their blood flows the concept that history is important, and the highest calling is to make the best history for the future.