Friday, September 25, 2015

The Ethics of Rhetoric in Rhetorica Ad Herennium

Yesterday I joined a group of seniors in a jaunt through a portion of the Rhetorica Ad Herennium, an anonymous treatise on rhetoric originally attributed to Cicero. As we strode leisurely through Book III, the part where Anon. tells Herennius the strategies for deliberative speaking, I paused to ask the students a question. Here is the section:

We shall use Proof and Refutation when we establish in our favour the topics explained above, and refute contrary topics. The rules for developing an argument artistically will be found in Book II. But if it happens in a deliberation the counsel of one side is based on the consideration of security and that of the other on honour, as in the case of those who, surrounded by Carthaginians, deliberate on a course of action, then the speaker who advocates security will use the following topics: Nothing is more useful than safety; no one can make use of his virtues if he has not based his plans upon safety; not even the gods help those who thoughtlessly commit themselves to danger; nothing ought to be deemed honourable which does no produce safety. One who prefers the considerations of honour to security will use the following topics: Virtue ought never to be renounced; either pain, if that is feared, or death, if that is dreaded, is more tolerable than disgrace and infamy; one must consider the shame which will ensue--indeed neither immortality nor a life everlasting is achieved, nor is it proved that, once this peril is avoided, another will not be encountered; virtue finds it noble to go even beyond death; fortune too, habitually shows favours the brave; not he who is safe in the present, but he who lives honourably, lives safely--whereas he who lives shamefully cannot be secure for ever.

My question, which took me awhile to formulate well, asked whether or not the general strategy of opposing security to honor (and vice versa) had ethical import, or if it was just skillful strategy. In other words, does it matter whether one ought to argue for security over honor, or honor over security, or is it simply the appropriate strategy to oppose them?

The students struggled to understand the question until I took them back to Socrates. Would Socrates ever argue that seeking one's own security should be preferred to seeking what is honorable? Did he choose to protect his own life or did he maintain his honor, though he suspected it would lead to his death?

Once they had considered Socrates, the ethical nature of choosing a strategy seemed apparent to the students. One certainly could argue that preserving one's life is better than maintaining one's honor, and doing so would provide opposing arguments, many of which might be persuasive. However, Socrates would argue that the security of the body is far less important than the honor of the soul, therefore the only question would be whether or not the decision is truly honorable, not whether one should prefer security over honor.

The question provided the perfect opportunity to revisit the ethics of rhetoric, a topic I introduce to students in their sophomore year when they read and discuss the Dissoi Logoi, the Encomium of Helen, and Plato's Gorgias and Phaedrus. It is often argued that rhetoric is a tool that can be used for good or for ill, but is itself neutral. Aristotle defines rhetoric as a tool and Augustine makes a similar claim in book four of the De Doctrina Christiana. While it may be true in general that rhetoric is a neutral tool, there are times when the strategies recommended in treatises on the art of rhetoric touch upon choices in ways that are presented innocuously, but are charged with ethical import.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Writing Exercise: Description

I try to give good examples for my rhetoric students to imitate. When I cannot find something the right length, or if my impoverished reading has simply left me dry, I will write something of my own for them to imitate. For my tenth graders, I wrote a very short description of one of my sons as a model for them to imitate; as they were asked to write a description of one of their family members. While it isn't a complete Progymnasmata exercise, it follows some of its basic principles. Below is the assignment, and my example.

In the space below, describe the physical appearance of a family member. Start at the head and move down. Use an economy of words, preferring the concrete image to the abstract adjective. You want brevity (saying much with few words), clarity (using words that “show” what you are talking about), and plausibility (what you say is “imaginable”). I’ve given you an example on the back.

Example: A Description of Ezra

Golden wisps shooting forth, dance upon his crown until they fall upon his snowy brow. Two seas sparkle on either side of his tiny foothill of a nose, begging to be climbed by fingertips and puckered lips. Plump cheeks, like ripe grapes are fit to burst as his smile pushes them aside to reveal his ivory treasures. His squat and slender neck plants itself between two pendulums in perpetual motion around a belly that rivals a corpulent Buddha. Unsteady pillars carry his ambling carriage through tumbles unnumbered, yet ever rising (or squatting); propelled on by some new adventure. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What Makes the Resurrection Unique?

Last year one of the eighth graders in my theology class wanted to quibble with me about the Resurrection. Like many eighth grade boys, he was eager to demonstrate that he could handle himself  in an argument and show the teacher and everyone else how smart he was.

What got him rolling was when I said the Resurrection of Jesus was unique and unparalleled, and nothing like it would be witnessed again until the general resurrection when Jesus returns to deliver His Kingdom to the Father, having raised up His people from the dead, conquering it as the final enemy.

My eighth grade friend asserted that Jesus was not the first, or the only, person to have been raised from the dead. He mentioned one of the well-known stories, perhaps it was Lazarus, I don't recall. I told him that while there are a number of examples of people being raised from the dead in both Testaments (my favorite is the man who is revived after being buried with the bones of Elisha!), those are not the same thing as the Resurrection.

I suspect that my eighth grader, if you took away his lack of experience and immaturity, and set just his claims next to mine, would be more likely to gain the assent of a wide swath of Evangelical Christians than would I. In other words, it would not surprise me if many Evangelical Christians (and perhaps other groups too, though I cannot speak as well for them) believed that Jesus' Resurrection from the dead fits into the same category as other people who were raised from the dead. Perhaps I am overly cynical. I'd be happy to be wrong. Quite relieved, actually.

But even if I were wrong, I do wonder what most Christians would say is unique about the Resurrection. I'm sure many would point to Jesus's body and what he was able to do in it--able to walk through walls as he did in the locked upper room to see his disciples for instance. However, the ability to pass through a wall (an example I have myself used before) seems less conclusive a difference when you consider other inhuman feats that figures in Scripture are able to accomplish without a resurrected body--Samson's great acts of strength, Elijah's outrunning of Ahab's chariot, Phillip's sudden disappearance from the Ethiopian Eunuch, and other such feats defy normal human capacity. Jesus's passing through a wall does not seem to depend upon his body having been resurrected, at least, it is not a necessary condition (though it might be sufficient!).

Others might point to the fact that Jesus will never die again, indeed, he could not die again in his resurrection body, since it is raised "incorruptible." This makes for a better argument, since other persons raised from the dead, it is safe to assume, died later.

I haven't given enough thought or investigation to the matter to distinguish all of the relevant Scriptures, arguments, and theological commentary to unpack anything significant here. It is only come to mind because of reconsidering the fact that Jesus passing through a wall is not particularly unique, and so an argument I once thought had some merit in explaining the difference between Jesus's Resurrection Body and our bodies was discovered to be rather weak.

Perhaps a reader out there who happens upon this post will point to some theologian or church father, or some passage of Scripture that I have not considered carefully enough. Until then, not having a knock down argument for the uniqueness of the Resurrection hardly makes its claim to uniqueness doubtful in comparison to other examples of persons being raised from the dead. After all, Scripture affirms that Jesus's Resurrection is the first-fruits, and so there aren't any of those same fruits before he begins it!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Lady Rhetoric, a description

As part of a class assignment to have my students practice brevity, clarity, and plausibility in narration, I wrote up a description of Lady Rhetoric, which would be classed (I think) as a "legendary" narration of a person (though her really just focusing upon a description of appearance). It is probably too fanciful, but was also a lot of fun to write.

Her hair dyed by Helios’ dew-drop rays, Lady Rhetoric’s locks descend from her crown, down slender shoulders, dancing upon the small of her back. Just so, her golden bands frame the mantle of her ivory brow, below which, resting upon lofty cheeks, opaline pools transfix all gazers who linger there. An aquiline peak leads one down toward her chamber hall, sounds from which resound in intoxicating rhythms, enfolded by rose-petal pillows, soft as goose down; honey sweet swells upon her powdery snowdrifts, pricked with crimson.

Beyond slender chin a tender flask houses her nightingale throat and rests upon a torso fitted for orations: bosom small, but full of virtues the naked eye cannot spy, though blind eye may weep at what hearing ears cannot but bide; bidden or forbidden one can but obey her hidden power, revealed. Her lithesome limbs enfold and unfurl to whirl her words along the wind, sending forth sweet music and musings; festooned by her fingertips.

Her cresting figure is firm set upon two pedestals of adamant, standing there and spread to withstand and, yea weather, any storm. Her lower form lends power to that promontory no warrior has yet conquered, nor wise man wizened, nor heretic unhouseled. Her house is built of such as these and set upon two feet of stone no craftman has clean cut, nor mason modeled in his image; though any child may climb upon and be moved along by her Hermein wings.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Washing Feet

And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, “Lord, are You washing my feet?”Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this." Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!”Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, “You are not all clean."  
And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!"
...having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace 
And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.
After the Lord's Supper, before his betrayal, Christ demonstrates to His disciples the way in which they will follow him. He washes their feet. Interpreters have long recognized in Jesus' actions the call to servanthood. Indeed, the least shall be the greatest, and the one who is most the servant shall be made most of in God's Kingdom.

Still, more intriguing are the words of Christ to Peter about cleansing. When Peter refuses to receive this act of Christ's humiliation, Christ tells Peter than no one can have a portion with Him unless he receives this act of Christ's humiliation. In response to Peter's request to receive what one might call the "fullest washing," Christ tells Peter that he is already clean, and needs only for his feet to be washed. Judas, by contrast, has not been cleansed.

The reference to cleansing may refer to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the regenerative washing that unites one to Christ and cleanses him from all iniquity. It seems a plausible reading given the contrast with Judas.

If that reading is correct, what then is the washing of the feet? Or rather, is there more to it than simply a model of humble service and hospitality?

I think it may be. In the Bible, there are a few places where feet are said to bring the gospel. There are even more references to keeping one's feet upon the path of righteousness, or the upright way, or the way of wisdom, and so on. Those who have been cleansed are free from the sin of Adam, the stain of guilt that condemns. Yet they are not free from the corruption of the world. Indeed, they are commanded to go into that corruption and bring tidings of good news, until such a time that this gospel will be spread so as to have put the Accuser, Satan, under its feet.

Given this image, Jesus' washing of the disciples feet may model more than service and hospitality. It may also be a modeling of bearing with the sins of others and of drawing their feet back onto the path of righteousness, washing them clean from the corruption of the world:
 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.
For many Christians, it is no great burden to share the gospel in word and acts of mercy to those suffering in the world. But what is hard for most, if not all, is bearing with the habitual sins of fellow believers in our families and in our churches. When a believer sins, it is easier to excuse it, refusing to admit the filth that needs to be washed away. When a believer sins, it is easier to condemn it, refusing to accept Christ's command to wash one another's feet, cleansing them from the corruption that comes from walking about in the world:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. 
The world is the household of the filthy, broken, corrupt. The Church is the household of the cleansed, resurrected, and incorruptible. Until the House of God covers the ends of the earth, our churches will be tracking in the filthiness, brokenness, and corruption that is in the world. Indeed, the very house of our bodies retains that corruption until the Bridegroom returns to place us in our new houses. Until then, our call is to wash the feet of our brethren, that the gospel of peace our feet carry into the world will not be obscured by the filth that so easily clings to them.