Richard Weaver – “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric”

  • Weaver was a Platonic conservative who truly believed in essences.  He belived in definitional arguments as some of the most reliable argumentative forms because they called forth essence rather than similarity.  He developed “god terms” and “devil terms” to describe particular words that must be used and studied with care as these are the sorts of words that could most easily be deployed for nefarious/propagandistic ends.  In Language is Sermonic he claimed that the function of rhetoric was to allow a listener/reader to understand a particular set of values . . . this means that language is always at the behest of rhetoric and nothing operates outside of sway/influence.  Weaver notes, “Dialectic, though being rational and intellectual, simply does not heed the imperatives of living, which help give direction to the thought of the man of wisdom” (83).
  • Weaver dismisses scientistic, transmittal articulations of language early on in this piece by bemoaning the turn to technical, non-emotive discourse.  According to Weaver, rhetoric must be in play if “states and societies” are to be secure.  He provides some useful definitions:  1) rhetoric – the relation of the terms of propositions to the existential world in which facts are regarded with sympathy and are treated with that kind of historical understanding and appreciation which lie outside of the dialectical process;  2) dialectic – abstract reasoning upon the basis of propositions (76).  This is very, very similar to Aristotle’s definition of the syllogism (dialectic) and the rhetorical syllogism (enthymeme).  In other words, dialectic is “indifferent to truth” because it is merely logic.
  • Weaver’s thesis:  “dialectic alone in the social realm is subversive” because an overly heavily reliance on dialectic divorces the real world from human concerns (76).
  • Weaver traces out Socrates’ prosecution in this piece to demonstrate that the hard logic of dialectic isn’t sufficient for the affairs of human beings, or the condition humana.  Instead, feeling and emotion must be necessary to the function of a state/community; hence, the need of rhetoric.  As Weaver notes, “Rhetoric begins with the assumption that man is born into history.”  As such, the contingent nature of his existence must be taken into account when arguing a point/position.  Later, he reinforces this position by highlighting how dialectic alone ends in what he calles “social agnosticism” or the coming-to-knowledge without the knowledge of how to act with said knowledge (83).
  • Weaver claims that Christianity eventually triumphed over Hellenic philosophy because it provided the supplement that Greek dialectology lacked: emotion and contingency (or rhetoric) (84).  As Weaver notes, “It is generally admitted that there is a strong element of Platonism in Christianity.  But if Plato provided the reasoning, Paul and Augustine supplied the persuasion” (84).
  • Weaver takes semantics to task at the end of this piece by highlighting that the goal of semanticists is to remove the emotional from language, revealing it’s symbolic nature thereby making the use and study of language a “scientific” enterprise.  This, as we saw in Richards, might have been the result of the Humanities needing to justify themselves in the face of a technologically expanding university system (85-6).
  • While a Platonist, Weaver is also intensely aware of the communally sanctioned/created/deployed nature of language, language use, and meaning.  As he notes, “Language is a closed system, into which there is only one mode of entrance, and that is through meaning.  And what a word means is going to be determined by the whole context of the vocabulary, with all the intermodification that this involves.  A word does not get in through its fidelity to an object, but through its capacity to render what that object means to us” (86).
  • Weaver notes the contingent nature of history by highlighting that it is not just the information recorded by an aware mind but is actually the recording of experience by man filtered through the “spirit.”  This leads us to language use as sermonic – always at play on our emotions and feelings, always preaching.

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