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On the Value of Rhetoric

An excerpt from Edward P.J. Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student on the value of rhetoric as needed in the modern age, accompanied by a brief commentary.

Selection from the Text:

Grammar, logic, and rhetoric are the three arts of language. Skill in the language arts is more important today than it used to be. Technological improvements in communication and transportation have brought us into more frequent and crucial converse with the inhabitants of our own country and with the peoples of other nations. It is important to our welfare that we learn how to ingratiate ourselves with others, how to express our thoughts and desires, how to allay their fears, and how to conciliate our differences. Rhetoric can help here… It behooves us now to withhold [violent means] of settling the tensions that exist in the world and exploit the possibilities of settling those tensions by the use of the powerful weapons of words. Rhetoric is the art that shows us how to hone that weapon and to wield it most effectively…

The road to eloquence is a hard road and a lonely road, and the journey is not for the faint-hearted. But if, as we are told, the ability to use words to communicate thoughts and feelings is man’s most distinctively human accomplishment, there can be few satisfactions in life that can match the pride a man feels when he has attained mastery over words. As Quintilian said, “Therefore let us seek wholeheartedly that true mastery of expression, the fairest gift of God to man, without which all things are struck dumb and robbed both of present glory and the immortal acclaim of posterity; and let us press on to whatever is best, because, if we do this, we shall either reach the summit or at least see many others far beneath us.”

Corbett 1965: Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 31 and 33.


While Corbett handles rhetoric much better than most who have written on it since these words were first published, I nevertheless have a bone or three to pick here. The first, and least consequential, is his use of the term “language arts”, particularly in close conjunction with the word “skill”. My objection, simply stated, is that these words seem to muddy the waters. Is logic a “skill”? Grammar? Rhetoric, perhaps, at least entails practices that we could call skillful: diction, timing, theatricality—but these seem rather incidental to what rhetoric is in itself. Certainly, the three parts of the Trivium are arts—and perhaps it is the cheapened experience of my own public school education—but the phrase “language arts” seems somehow inadequate; especially if the command of those arts is equated to skill.

My second objection concerns his claim that the road to eloquence is lonely. It may be counter-cultural, today. But it is not, and never should be, a lonely endeavor. Eloquence—the virtue of rhetoric—is relational. I cannot be eloquent except to someone else. Moreover, I could never judge my own eloquence without an audience that reacts to my words.

My third objection concerns the manner in which he characterizes the importance of rhetoric. It is true that rhetoric helps us ingratiate ourselves with others, express our thoughts, allay others’ fears, and conciliate our differences. It is also true that it may dissuade violence and war. But all this is rather utilitarian. It says what we may gain from rhetoric as a tool. It says nothing of what we may gain from rhetoric as a habit.

Thus, while we use Corbett’s book in our own Rhetoric course, for he gives an accessible insight to the ideas of classic authors, I believe he misses the spirit of antiquity. Rhetoric, that is, should be seen as part of the integral habituation of a whole human life. Gaining mastery over persuasion changes how I relate to others, to be sure. But more fundamentally, it is—or ought to be—a perfection of my own faculties. Good character antecedes being a good rhetorician, as Quintilian argues extensively. But being a good rhetorician ought also to reinforce one’s character.

John Deely on Semiotics and Logocentrism

Within current philosophy, David Clarke has made a belated attempted to define semiotic itself in the restrictive terms already established as proper to semiology: an “attempt to extend analogically features initially arrived at by examining language use to more primitive signs, with logical features of language becoming the archetype on which analysis of these latter signs is developed”. It is simply a misnomer to title a book based on such a thesis Principles of Semiotic. To try to reduce semiotic to the status of a subalternate discipline within the dimensions of current linguistic philosophy already evinces adherence to the modern perspectives of idealism which semiotics points beyond.

Among modern philosophers, the one who struggled most against the coils of idealism and in the direction of a semiotic, was Martin Heidegger. His failure to free himself from the modern logocentrism is, to be sure, a testimony to its pervasiveness in modern culture, and to the scale of the task semiotic in its fullest possibilities has to face. Yet in the debate between realism and idealism, he is the one who perhaps most clearly brough tot he fore the fact that, whatever its drawbacks and “no matter how contrary and untenable it may be in its results”, idealism “has an advantage in principle” over realism. That advantage lies in the simple fact that whenever we observe anything that observation already presupposes and rests within a semiosis whereby the object observed came to exist as object—that is to say, as perceived, experienced, or known—in the first place.

No one, including Heidegger, realizes this fact better than the semiotician. Indeed, at the heart of semiotics is the realization that the whole of human experience, without exception, is an interpretive structure mediated and sustained by signs. So it is perhaps not surprising that much of the original semiotic development in our time has taken place along the tracks and lines of a classical idealism in the modern sense, an environment and climate of thought within which the structuralist analysis of texts and narratives is particularly comfortable.

Yet we are entitled to wonder if such a perspective is enough to allow for the full development of the possibilities inherent in the notion of a doctrine of signs—to wonder if the “way of signs” does not lead outside of and well beyond the classical “way of ideas” of which Locke also spoke. We are entitled to wonder if what we need is not rather, as the recent collaborative monograph by Anderson et al. calls for, “a semiotics which provides the human sciences with a context for reconceptualizing foundations and for moving along a path which, demonstrably, avoids crashing headlong into the philosophical roadblock thrown up by forced choices between realism and idealism, as though this exclusive dichotomy were also exhaustive of the possibilities of interpreting human experience”.

Such a development seems to be what is taking place in the tradition of semiotic. This tradition, in fact, given its name by Locke, had reached the level of explicit thematic consciousness and systematically unified expression only very late—as far as we currently know, not before the Tractatus de Signis essay in 1632 by the Iberian philosophy of Portuguese birth, John Poinsot.

John Deely 1990: Basics of Semiotics [8th edition], 5-6.

For much more on John Deely, see the Wikipedia entry, a lengthy bibliography [1965-1998] [1999-2010], an obituary written by Christopher Morrissey, and the many presentations at the International Open Seminar on Semiotics: A Tribute to John Deely on the Fifth Anniversary of His Passing.

Marshall McLuhan on the History of the Trivium

…the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among them for ascendancy.  Ancient grammar was at odds with the dialectics of Plato and, especially, of Aristotle, as the art of interpreting phenomena.  As the method of patristic theology, grammar enjoyed uninterrupted ascendancy until the revival of dialectics by Gerbert, Roscellinus, and Abelard in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  With the decadence of dialectical or scholastic theology in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries both grammarians and rhetoricians surge forward again, finally triumphing in the work and influence of Erasmus, the restorer of patristic theology and of the grammatical humanistic discipline on which it rests.  On the other hand, the war between the dialecticians and rhetoricians began as soon as the Sophists attempted to make dialectics subordinate to the art of persuasion.  Plato and Aristotle were the greatest enemies of the rhetoricians, not so much in rejecting rhetoric, as in asserting that as an art it had no power to control dialectics.  The Stoics, however, are the main defenders of dialectics against rhetoric after Aristotle.

Marshall McLuhan, 1943: The Classical Trivium, 42.

A point which will be focused on in the present unnamed Lyceum trivium project (being constituted by a series of lectures and discussion sessions which will result either in a video, text, or other public-facing production: see more on our approach to the Trivium here), the conflict of “ascendancy” among the arts of the trivium is a subtle point to which few have drawn attention as well as McLuhan. One difficulty I see emergent from the history of their rivalry is a certain blindness to their unity. What makes something one? An indication hinted at here—whether intentionally or not—is the point of “decadence” in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries among the scholastics. This decadence itself is a point in need of exploration and exposition, for, certainly, while those under the influence of Ockham and other nominalistic theories were undoubtedly decadent in their dialectical practice, given that they had abandoned the essential principle of unity between thought and things, it is also true that other scholastics were not so decadent, though they may have been quite elaborate in their use of dialectic nonetheless. (See, for instance, the great work being done on the thought of the Conimbricenses.)

The opposition of grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric, that is, has never rendered robust intellectual fruit when one attempts entirely the suppression of the others. Each must be understood as an integral part of a whole. What remains a question—which we will explore explicitly in the second of our lectures and discussions—is how these parts are united and oriented as a whole. This question requires also, antecedently, a consideration of what the trivium aims at; for every unity is governed, in some way or another, by the end for the sake of which it exists. This question was the focus of our first session, wherein it was discussed that the arts of the trivium, as tools of reflection upon thought, are tools whereby we manifest in language what is true. This truth is not merely factual (i.e., of the literal and measurable), but revelatory of being.

And so the question becomes: through which of the arts do we best orient ourselves towards what is true, without leaving behind the others?

Henry Osborn Taylor on the “Middle Ages”

Preface to the First Edition, 1911: The Medieval Mind (2 volumes), Vol.I, xi–xiv:

The Middle Ages! They seem so far away; intellectually so preposterous, spiritually so strange. Bits of them may touch our sympathy, please our taste; their window-glass, their sculpture, certain of their stories, their romances—as if those straitened ages really were the time of romance, which they were not, God knows, in the sense commonly taken. Yet perhaps they were such intellectually, or at least spiritually. Their terra—not for them incognita, though full of mystery rand pall and vaguer glory—was not the earth. It was the land of metaphysical construction and the land of spiritual passion. There law their romance, thither pointed their veriest thinking, thither drew their utter yearning.

Is it possible that the Middle Ages should speak to us, as through a common humanity? Their mask is by no means dumb: in full voice speaks the noble beauty of Chartres Cathedral. Such mediaeval product, we hope, is of the universal human, and therefore of us as well as of the bygone craftsmen. Why it moves us, we are not certain, being ignorant, perhaps, of the building’s formative and earnestly intended meaning. Do we care to get at that? There is no way save by entering the mediaeval depths, penetrating to the rationale of the Middle Ages, learning the doctrinale, or emotionale, of the modes in which they still present themselves so persuasively.

But if the pageant of those centuries charm our eyes with forms that seem so full of meaning, why should we stand indifferent to the harnessed processes of mediaeval thinking and the passion surging through the thought? Thought marshalled the great mediaeval procession, which moved to measures of pulsating and glorifying emotion. Shall we not press on, through knowledge, and search out its efficient causes, so that we too may feel the reality of the mediaeval argumentation, with the possible validity of mediaeval conclusions, and tread those channels of mediaeval passion which were cleared and deepened by the thought? This would be to reach human comradeship with mediaeval motives, no longer found too remote for our sympathy, or too fantastic or shallow for our understanding.

Not only shalt thou do what seems well to thee; but thou shalt do right, with wisdom. History has laid some thousands of years of emphasis on this. Thou shalt not only be sincere, but thou shalt be righteous, and not iniquitous; beneficent, and not malignant; loving and lovable, and not hating and hateful. Thou shalt be a promoter of light, and not of darkness; an illuminator, and not an obscurer. Not only shalt thou seek to choose aright, but at thy peril thou shalt so choose. “Unto him that hath shall be given”—nothing is said about sincerity. The fool, the maniac, is sincere; the mainsprings of the good which we may commend lie deeper.

So, and at his peril likewise, must the historian judge. He cannot state the facts and sit aloof, impartial between good and ill, between success and failure, progress and retrogression, the soul’s health and loveliness, and spiritual foulness and disease. He must love and hate, and at his peril love aright and hate what is truly hateful. And although his sympathies quiver to understand and feel as the man and woman before him, his sympathies must be controlled by wisdom.

Whatever may be one’s beliefs, a realization of the power and import of the Christian Faith is needed for an understanding of the thoughts and feelings moving the men and women of the Middle Ages, and for a just appreciation of their aspirations and ideals. Perhaps the fittest standard to apply to them is one’s own broadest conception of the Christian scheme, the Christian scheme whole and entire with the full life of Christ’s Gospel. Every age has offered an interpretation of that Gospel and an attempt at fulfilment. Neither the interpretation of the Church Fathers, nor that of the Middle Ages satisfies us now. And by our further understanding of life and the Gospel of life, we criticize the judgment of mediaeval men. We have to sympathize with their best, and understand their lives out of their lives and the conditions in which they were passed. But we must judge according to our own best wisdom, and out of ourselves offer our comment and contribution.