The Ethics of Rhetoric (Weaver)

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Weaver, Richard. The Ethics of Rhetoric.

Rhetoric in society reflects the order or disorder of that society’s soul (speaking loosely).  For example, the 17 century represented heroic mental energy (seen in Milton’s prose), the 18th century saw counterpoise and balance (seen in the magnificent Dr Johnson).  The 20th and 21st centuries, given postmodern and nihilistic chaos, have almost lost the ability to communicate with grace and style.

Phaedrus and the nature of rhetoric

Plato gives us embodiments of three types of discourse: the non-lover, the evil lover, and the good lover (Weaver 6).  The non lover uses a purified speech (think mathematics).

Term of policy: a term of motion.  Motion is part of the soul’s essence (17). When we educate a soul we begin a process of rightly affecting its motion.  “True rhetoric is concerned with the potency of things” and “potentiality is a mode of existence” (20).

Back to the problem:  if truth alone is incapable of moving someone, then what else is needed?  Plato reminds us that the soul is more than just cognition, but impulse (23).  Proper rhetoric, then, reanimates the soul “by holding up to its sight the order of presumptive goods.  This order is necessarily a hierarchy leading up to the ultimate good. All of the terms in a rhetorical vocabulary are like links in a chain stretching up to some master link which transmits its influence down through the linkages” (23).

Edmund Burke and the Argument from Circumstance

Edmund Burke rightly feared and hated the French Revolution, as all godly patriots must.  His command of English prose was rivaled only by Johnson and Gibbon. Unfortunately, Gibbon hamstrung his efforts by what Weaver called “the argument from circumstance.” Men as disparate from Plato to Lincoln argued from genus, which is an argument made from the nature of the thing (56).  This is why even today Lincoln’s greatest rhetorical moment was only 80 seconds long, but delivered with a rhetorical force that few can match. Burke, unfortunately, argued from “the facts surrounding the case” (57).  These facts determined the strongest premise of his argument.

His defense of the English Revolution of 1688 illustrates the problem.  By precedent England had a generational defense and practice of property and rights that are upheld by the monarchy.  All well and good. In fact, paradoxically, England took up arms to prove they didn’t have the right to overthrow the government.  Here is Burke’s problem: “What line do the precedents mark out for us? How may we know that this particular act is in conformity with the body of precedents unless we can abstract the essence of the precedent?  And if one extracts the essence of the precedent, does not one have a speculative idea” (74)?

Abraham Lincoln, by contrast, had a much more powerful form of rhetoric: the argument from genus.

How to Write Well: Aspects of Grammatical Structure

This is the money of the book.  Weaver demonstrates why some writers succeed where others fail.

The basic sentence: the mind is taking two or more classes and uniting them to the extent they share a formal unity (117).  “The single subject-predicate frame has the broad sense of listing or itemizing” (119). Its brevity makes it a useful sentence to begin or end with.

The complex sentence: distinguishes classes according to hierarchy or cause and effect.   Gibbon: “Rome fell because valor declined.” As Weaver notes, “It brings in the notion of dependence to supplement that of simple togetherness” (121).

The compound sentence: its structure conforms to a settled view of the world. It sees the world as an equilibrium of forces. This was the essence of the 18th century. We see the impulse for counterpoise.  “One finds these compounds recurring: an abstract statement is balanced (in a second independent clause) by a more concrete expression of the same thing; a fact is balanced by its causal explanation” (125).

The noun: nouns connote substances (127).  The noun/substance thus has a relationship in the sentence in which other words are “about” it.

The adjective: Weaver notes: “One of the common mistakes of the inexperienced writer, in prose as well as poetry, is to suppose that the adjective can set the key of discourse….nearly always the adjective has to have the way prepared for it. Otherwise, the adjective introduced before the noun collapses for want of support” (130). Of course, there are exceptions.  There is nothing wrong with saying “The hot day.”

Take Henley’s poem:

Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole.

In this case the noun (night) has preceded the adjective (black). Had Henley said something like Black is the night or something like that, he would have lost his rhetorical force.  “The adjective would have been presumptuous” (131).

In other words, the danger is that we are tempted to make the adjective bear more weight than the substantive.

Conjunctives: be careful here.  Therefore doesn’t mean the same as thus.  Therefore means “in consequence of” whereas thus means “in this manner,” and so indicates  that some manner has already been described” (138).

“Also” simply denotes some mechanical sort of addition.  “While” means at the same time. Whereas suggests some precise relationship.

Phrase: “the strength normally found in the preposition can be greatly diminished  by connection with an abstract noun” (139).

Participial phrase: the participial phrase allows for sharp, succinct language and “the opportunities of subordination” (140).  The “man who is carrying a spear” becomes “the spear-carrying man.” These auxiliary structures in the sentence allows for the central though to emerge more readily.  Weaver notes that because English intonation places emphasis on the last word in the sentence, participial phrases should not be at the end of the sentence (140).


The rhetorical syllogism is the enthymeme.  The audience supplies the missing proposition.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Rhetoric (Weaver)

  1. Pingback: Edmund Burke: Lectures French Revolution | The Correctness of our Sentiments

  2. Pingback: CS Lewis and the Art of Writing | Factory of the Soul

  3. Pingback: Visions of Order (Richard Weaver) | American Tory

  4. Pingback: The Office of Assertion | Churchly Piety

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