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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.

Commentary

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.

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