Language is Sermonic: Richard Weaver on the Nature of Rhetoric

Weaver, Richard M. Language is Sermonic.  Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1975.

If, as Augustine said, “peace is the tranquility of order,” then for Richard Weaver “meaning is the stability of language.”  Weaver, the noted commenter on the Vanderbilt Agrarians, seeks in this collection of essays to unite logos and ethos, dialectic and rhetoric.  There is some overlap with his Ethics of Rhetoric, but there are new essays that are worth reading.

Language is sermonic in the sense that it raises man beyond the dialectic.  Reason does not tell you what to do (nor does it give you the power).  That belongs to rhetoric.  The negative converse is also true: decays in language often reflect decays in society (though it is not always clear which comes first).  Therefore, as Weaver urges us to see, “speech is the vehicle of order” (Weaver 34). Speech is anchored to ontological referents: truth, being, goodness. When these referents are lost, we get pragmatism.  

There is, then, a hierarchy of terms that move us to action (84). This is a proper ordering of goods (side note: the Augustinian parallels are obvious.  Therefore, if we will be responsible rhetors, we must use the strongest method.  These are the “topics” that Aristotle gave to us: genus, fundamental principles, similitude, cause and effect, circumstance.  Arguing by way of genus is the strongest method of argument.  It defines terms according to the essence of things. Fundamental principles and similitude are necessary and inevitable, but they are not that strong.  Cause and effect is good, but it never transcends the realm of phenomena.  

At this point the review could go in a number of directions.  Sometimes with Weaver the best thing to do is to give a list of quotes.  I might still do that.  In the meantime, we will see Weaver’s “strong essentialism” in rhetoric.  Weaver, like Adam in the garden, believed that things have essences and names tell us those essences, or in any case, they get very close.

The natural bridge from dialectic to rhetoric is the use of “strong terms” or “god terms.”  These control the discourse.  As Weaver notes, “A term is a policy of motion,” and “motion is part of the soul’s essence” (73). When we educate a soul, we begin a process of “rightly affecting its motion.”  This is still at the moment of dialectic (or logic).  Rhetoric now “moves the soul with a movement which cannot be finally justified logically. It can only be valued analogically with reference to some supreme image” (80).

The use of god-terms and essences is what Weaver calls “an aristocracy of notions.” The man whose god-terms revolve around “God, being, truth,” etc., is much more noble than the one whose terms revolve around pleasure, media, and democracy.

Dialectic tells one what the facts and truth are.  Rhetoric orders those facts.  It is axiological (141). It merges what is the case with what ought to be the case.

Democracy of the Lowest Common Denominator

If Weaver’s vision does not obtain for modern society, then we are doomed to what he elsewhere called “a democracy of matter.”  This brings up an uncomfortable point in rhetoric: about what exactly do we want men to be articulate?  If we lose “ontological referents” (being, truth), then we are left with advertising, and no one wants that. Weaver’s solution, although one to which he only points, is to be like Adam: connect names and essences (192ff).

 “It is very hard after a century of progressivism to get people to admit the possibility of objective Truth, but here again we are face to face with our dilemma: if truth does not exist, there is nothing to teach; if it does exist, how can we conceive of teaching anything else” (195).


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