learning rhetoric the old-fashioned way

My daily reading period starts at about 4 p.m. and runs to dinnertime at 7 p.m. (gosh, I just checked the spelling of dinnertime as a closed-up word and found that it dates back to the 14th century), with a break of about 45 minutes halfway through. Each day I start with fiction or “imaginative” writing, and right now I’m most of the way through the Britannica Great Books translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Next I read 4 or 5 pages of the Great Books edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Then I take a break to come down to my office and check e-mail and such. Then it’s back upstairs for a glass of wine and the remainder of my reading.

For the past weeks this has been taken up mainly with Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P. J. Corbett. My old gray hardcover from the Oxford University Press is the original 1965 edition (first owned by a certain John Malcolm, who inscribed his name in blue ink on the flyleaf), a rugged, well-made textbook in great shape. I got the book in September 2009 and have been working through it, off and on, ever since.

My aim is to advance my knowledge of rhetoric, the third of the three liberal arts that made up the so-called trivium or higher triad within the full set of seven liberal arts, the first two of which are logic and grammar. When I was growing up I had only ever heard the word rhetoric used in a pejorative sense, meaning, roughly, “an argument made up of emotional, specious, and misleading statements in order to persuade a credulous audience”. The first time I encountered the word used in a different sense was in (I think) 1978, when I read Robert Pirsig’s bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he, as the narrator, describes himself as a teacher of rhetoric. It seemed to be the term he used to name the subject I knew as English composition.

I became aware that the word has more than one meaning. Since I have started to pursue my own liberal education, I have come to appreciate the original idea of rhetoric as the art of persuasion. With the growing size and success of the advertising industry after World War II, I think persuasion came to mean, for many, inducing people to buy consumer products they didn’t really need or want and to vote for politicians who didn’t really deserve to be elected. Rhetoric was a way of getting people who are dumber and more naive than you to do what you want.

Sister Miriam Joseph, author of The Trivium, gives an excellent overview of what the three arts actually are: Logic is the art of thinking accurately about reality; grammar is the art of expressing one’s thoughts accurately in symbolic form, such as in writing; and rhetoric is the art of persuading others of the validity of one’s thoughts. These are in no way “ancient” or outmoded arts; they are the vital skills of any citizen who wants to be a full, equal, functioning member of his society. They are called liberal arts, I believe, not only because they were once the sole concern of free, that is enfranchised and fully participating, citizens, but because they are the skills most essential to freedom. They are themselves how to be politically free.

So I’ve been studying all three. I’ve studied logic by reading the Organon of Aristotle—his six books on the art of reasoning and deduction—and I’m studying rhetoric with Corbett’s book. I thought that my lifelong pursuit of writing and reading had probably given me an adequate background in “grammar,” but now I’m finding, to my embarrassment, that that is not so. I’ve run into an exercise in the text that requires me to analyze sentences into their component parts, and I’ve discovered that I’m not really able to do this. Writer or no writer, when the rubber hits the road I struggle to distinguish a prepositional adverb phrase from a participial adjective phrase and an adverb clause from a noun clause.

So I whipped out my copy of the Prentice-Hall Handbook for Writers, 7th edition, which I got in September 1979 as a textbook for English at UBC and started studying up. It’s all there in compact form in the very first section, “Sentence Sense”. There are exercises there, too, and I’ve struggled through those.

All in all, its been a chastening experience, but, I have no doubt, a valuable one. I was going to talk about what my current rhetorical exercises are, but that will have to wait.

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