CCR 634: Legalism, Quintilian, and Structure

Reading Han Feizi, Quintilian, and Arabelle Lyon’s treatment of Daoism, Legalism, and Confucianism, I kept coming back to the role of the individual rhetor and the larger context, as well as the role of different genres and different types of “persuasion.” But I will likely just focus on the first of these.

With Han Feizi, I often noticed the limits of rhetoric, particularly when he discusses how good words–or a good orator–can still end up in trouble. As he writes, after a litany of violent examples, “Why could these worthies and sages not escape death penalties and evade disgrace? It was because of the difficulty in persuading fools. Hence every gentleman 37 has to remain diffident of speaking. Even the best speech displeases the ear and upsets the heart, and can be appreciated only by worthy and sage rulers” (Book 1, Ch. III).

Here, I couldn’t help but think of Socrates–and to a lesser extent Cicero–as well as the book of Ecclesiastes railing against the efficacy of knowledge. What good is knowledge or eloquence when your audience doesn’t care? I feel like this is a question that doesn’t show up as much in other texts that we’ve read.

Countering this, I think feminist rhetoric tends to point to problems with the “available means of persuasion” when unwilling audiences and cultures are critical. Introducing their anthology Available Means (2001), Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald, for example, describe “women’s rhetoric” as “a tradition that has existed only in the shadows for centuries because women’s writing and speaking have not been gathered together as ‘rhetoric’” (xvi). And while many of the speakers they include were trained rhetoricians or employed deliberate rhetorical tactics, their anthology also includes “women’s writing that may not meet and that may even defy traditional rhetorical criteria and categories— especially concerning ethos, or the appeal of the speaker’s ‘character,’” as this reflects the often marginalized position where women spoke (xviii). They also include many alternative texts, like letters, and topoi that differ from Aristotle’s traditional conception of rhetoric and how people have taken that up. Without tradition audiences, many women rhetors had to use different “available means.”

And I think that’s where “shih” comes in, as Han Feizi, describes, which I gather is a sort of authority from institutional structure. Through shih, people are forced, or forcibly attuned, to listen. Order gets maintained regardless of “who” is governing.

This trust in order felt really interesting, because although Han Feizi also values “tact,” which reminds me a bit like Confucian ren as an ability to read people and navigate governing in a shrewd way, the roles of shih and fa (laws) are extrinsic to the rhetorician at some level.  As Han Feizi argues, the rhetorician does not need to be “worthy” to have this authority, as most people are “average men,” not particularly bad or good. Rather, one should construct a strong structure that can give rulers their authority and not allow them to disrupt things too much if they are not good.

This contrasts a bit with Quintilian who describes rhetoric as the “good man speaking well” and continually emphasizes the moral character of the rhetor, even noting in the later chapters that this is something that they must practice continually. Furthermore, individual training and a close relationship with individual teachers are important, almost forming a familial relationship.

And without being too reductive, I find this to be a more common thread in Western v. Eastern rhetorical traditions as we’ve encountered them. Again, this is not meant to be a totalizing generalization, but many of the traditions we have read–Legalism, Doaism, and Confucianism–seem to value how one relates to elements beyond the individual, while the Greeks and Romans tend to value how the individual navigates certain points as an individual.

On the one hand, the Daodejing values how one aligns with the Way; Dong Zhongshu emphasizes the relationship between emperor, Heaven, and the people; Confucius emphasizes the role of ritual and alignment with tradition and public harmony; and Han Feizi emphasizes the role of law.

Meanwhile, Isocrates values the individual abilities of the student, and Aristotle emphasizes the rhetor’s individual ability to read and intervene with the situation or wield their ethos in a productive way. Cicero and Quintilian also have a similar focus. With Cicero, trying to evoke the emotions of the audience becomes central, and Quintilian recognizes the potential individuality of the speaker as well.

Obviously, complications exist, though. For Confucius, it seems that the individual must spend a lifetime cultivating inner virtue, much like Quintilian’s ideal rhetor. And many on the Greek side, from the Dissoi Logoi onward, recognize the contextual nature of rhetoric, particularly how rules change. More generally, then, I think these readings emphasize the perennial tug-of-war between the individual and kairotic or contextual elements of rhetoric. As Thomas Nagel argues about philosophy, there is no “view from nowhere;” for rhetoric, even as we craft forms and heuristics, this seems equally true–if not more so.

 

Would Kant do the Ice Bucket Challenge?

Most of you are probably familiar with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Celebrities have taken part, including Bill Gates, and it’s been filling social media.

But for those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s pretty simple: when challenged, you either dump ice water on your head or donate $100 or ALS research and treatment. Many donate the money regardless, but if you do dump the ice water, you can challenge three more people, giving them 24 hours to comply. In effect, it goes like this:

The goal, besides raising money, is to spread awareness. The viral quality of the campaign has proven particularly effective, raising over $100 million dollars, according to this article from Aug. 15, and bringing ALS to the forefront of the public sphere. It is a brilliant viral campaign, seeming to make a positive difference.

But for some the project feels too public, too self-broadcasting. It reeks of shallow millennial-led narcissism and low-effort activism, where over-rich Americans throw cold water on themselves, film it, send it to the world, and think it constitutes “help.”

Well, despite some reservations, I think it does.

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Alan Watts on a Sunday

I need to get some serious work done on a few things today, so I don’t have time to type up my usual post–I swear I’m getting better at this, haha–but rather than leave you with nothing, I wanted to post a video with a spattering of Alan Watts lectures.

Alan Watts was a notable (though some would say notorious) Zen practitioner who dabbled in a variety of other fields, from philosophy to physics. Born in 1915 and dying in 1975, he spent much of his life lecturing and writing, becoming a central figure in the counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s. His thoughts are often iconoclastic and his metaphors can be pointed, so few read Watts indifferent or unchanged.

A wealth of Alan Watts lectures exist on YouTube. Some users pair them with music and inspiring images or splice together clips of crowded city streets and airy mountaintops. This particular one is a short collection of meaningful excerpts animated by the creators of South Park. Some of the excerpts are quite insightful. Others are a little more out there, depending on your taste. But on the whole, they do give a brief view of Watts’ style and insights.

I hope you enjoy this, question it, and enter the week with some new ideas. Cheers.

Update

Hey all,

I’ve been on the road for most of this weekend, so I haven’t had a chance to update the blog. I apologize. In the meantime, here’s a video. It’s a two-part video on Kierkegaard from a BBC documentary called Sea of Faith that covers a number of modern philosophers, including Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, and how they approached faith in the modern era.

Enjoy:

Augustine and Evil

My dad closed the door and flicked off the lights, pitching the room into a clean black. Whistler-Nocturne_in_black_and_gold“Goodnight,” he said as he walked way. He footsteps receded as he walked downstairs to rejoin my mom. My brother sat up beside the bed.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded.

We piled my stuffed animals and realigned my pillows, burying the human-like decoy in a thick comforter. From the doorway, it looked like a body curled up in deep sleep. Perfect.

My brother and I snuck downstairs, our soft footfalls swallowed by explosions and gunshots from an action movie. We opened the basement door and slipped downstairs to my brother’s room, where we watched kung-fu and R-rated movies, eating chips and dip, until dawn.

I could have asked my parents to sleep downstairs. They would have probably said yes—it was a Friday and I was almost nine. But the thrill of subterfuge tinged my flight. Breaking rules was liberating, saying “no” was exciting. Doing the “wrong” thing was a thrill.

In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo tells a similar story. One night, he and his friends sneak into a garden and steal pears. They don’t eat the fruit but still enjoy the theft for its sinful pleasure. As he writes, “The malice of the act was base and I loved it—that is to say, I loved my own undoing, I loved the evil in me” (Augustine and F.J. Sheed, trans., 44).

One of the many picture's of St. Augustine (by Antonio Rodríguez)
One of the many pictures of St. Augustine (by Antonio Rodríguez)

In my forbidden flight and Augustine’s theft, we broke rules. Using Augustine’s theological language, we “sinned,” turning away from God toward ourselves. In Augustine’s case, he picked a forbidden fruit. In my case, I disobeyed my parents. This “turning away” forms an essential crux in Augustine’s argument defending God against the charge of evil. But to understand his argument one must first understand his notion of being and non-being–gleaned from the Greek tradition.

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Making the Switch

Dave glances at my plate of spinach, beans, and brown rice as I eye the meatballs Not me... yetnestled in his spaghetti.

“You eat like a rabbit,” he says.

“Rabbits don’t generally eat garbanzo beans or cooked rice,” I reply.

“But still…”

As the conversation changes, he forgets my rabbit food, and I forget his meat. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we have.

According to a 2008 study by Harris Interactive Service, about 7.3 million people are vegetarian in the United States—that’s about 3.2 percent of the population. Most are young, from middleclass backgrounds, and live in the Western or Southern regions of the United States. I’m one of them, a skinny, grain-eating, tofu-crunching middle-class American.

Nothing radical there.

We vegetarians eat about three meals per day—just like our omnivorous counterparts. We don’t all use organic paper and beet-juice ink or attend regular services at hippy churches on weekends.  Most aren’t PETA extremists who throw red paint at fur coats and survive on seaweed and unpronounceable grains. Perhaps our farts smell a little bad sometimes, or we’re be a pain to take out to dinner, but most of us are pretty normal. At least I think so.

Still, some people berate me with things like, “why the hell would you do that?” or “we deserve to eat animals,” or my personal favorite, “you’re going to die because you’re not getting enough protein.”

Others aren’t so malicious. They just don’t understand, or grow up thinking that all vegetarians fit the same model. But we are all very different and have very different reasons for becoming vegetarian.

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Kant and Camus: The is and the ought

Last year I was reading the giving The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein to my nephew,

German Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
German Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

around five at the time. In the book, a tree sacrifices everything for a particular boy who gradually grows into into an old man. First simple things, like leaves, but by the conclusion, the tree is a stump with nothing left to give.

I closed the book, just like my dad did when I was a kid. “Believe it or not,” I said. Henry snuggled next to me with Eddy the Elephant and closed his eyes. The house was quiet, his brothers asleep in bed, his parents downstairs. Then, in the most innocent voice—as if he were asking for a cookie—he asked, “Why do people die?”

“I don’t know,” I said. It hurt to say it, but I couldn’t lie.

And I don’t think I’ll ever know. I may be able to craft a very elegant “I don’t know,” but in the end, that’s all it will be.

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Aurelius quote

Some advice from my favorite Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, that I ran across today:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

 

“Reason as our guide”

“We may take Fancy for a companion, but must follow Reason as our guide,” said

Samuel Johnson, pic courtesy of Wikipedia

Samuel Johnson. I read this at the front of an introductory logic book I bought over my last Christmas break. I Googled the quote and found the rest of it on a website of Samuel Johnson sound bites. According to the site, Johnson wrote it in a letter to his stalker-biographer James Boswell.

I base my moral code on reason. That’s how my mind operates. I want to act in a way I can justify with a little more resolve than the tepid assertion an action “felt right.” To put it bluntly, I think the “right” thing to do is the logical thing to do. A deeper moral code underlies this, firmly based in compassion: reduce the suffering of others. Moreover,  I adhere to the “spirit” of the law, rather than the law itself.

An example illustrates this. I choose not to kill. Most  people consider this reasonable: killing creates suffering, eliminates chances for agents to act according their will, and determines their entire future without clear consent. It also prevents future joys for them. But should one never kill?  Zen master John Daido Roshi has an example to test the spirit of this precept. If a deer is suffering on the side of the road and I have the power to “put it out of its misery,” I will. I want to reduce its suffering, and if I flee the scene, most likely I’m just being squeamish, not trying to preserve its life.  Although I’m killing the deer, I’m fulfilling the original point of the precept: reduce suffering. The same is true of lying. I’d never tell the complete truth if I knew it could endanger many lives. My intention remains the same: despite fear or desires, I want to maximize compassion.

Many would term this “compassion ethics,” a generic form of Buddhist ethics. Agents under this system long to reduce suffering in the world. I use logic to apply this general sentiment to my actions. Thus, since anger is rarely logical, I avoid anger. Same for excessive sadness or passion. All these lead to suffering,so I reduce them. Reason is my guide.

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