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.

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