Repost – Jumping Off the Shoulder of Giants

Mr. Burns shows Homer a thousand monkeys worki...

Kenneth Grahame, the famous British writer was noted for saying “Monkeys very sensibly refrain from speech, lest they should be set to earn their livings.” Before we take a wild ride like Mr. Toad let the wind of that drift through the willows of thought. Can you imagine an infinite number of monkeys sitting around tables throwing papers around, writing up speeches for an important chattering in front of a captive audience? Then leaving a mess for unfortunate souls to clean up afterward – wait that happens all the time… just look what happens at press conferences. The problem with the simian’s point of view is that whenever the works of Shakespeare turn up through their infinite random arrangement of words, letters, and arguments it is quickly left behind for another grand roll of the dice. ‘Jacta alea est identidem’ (the di is cast again and again). There is no history, no stories of old for the infinite number of monkeys to compare their infinite writings to. They have no ‘tale’ to stand upon. What separates man from ape besides hygiene habits for some – is the benefit of having history to boost our thoughts towards the heavens. The horizontal vision to the future is only possible through the vertical lifting from those who came before. However there is always the danger of joining the simians on the ground by jumping off the shoulder of giants.

Today as we ascend those who came before let us discuss the historical battle over the purpose of rhetoric by the philosophers and sophists. Then rotate our perspective to see some where we are today with implications that will crown the edifice of thought by explaining how to enjoy the view.

Francis Schaffer was right when agreed with the old maxim ‘as a man believes so he is’ by saying “an individual is not just the product of the forces around him but has an internal world – the mind. Then having thought a person can bring shaping actions into the world.” The rhetorical world has been shaped by two competing forces one side the end the other the means. Each part is based on the internal beliefs of individuals influencing the culture around them.

Ancient Greece, the first democratic state, was the birthplace of western rhetoric. Pubic oratory was a necessary part of life. From courtrooms evaluating law to legislative assemblies the Athenians found that their fortunes, stability, and lives depended on their ability to speak.  This is evident in their Olympic games where speaking was an event, the winner receiving an olive wreath and being paraded through his hometown as a hero. In this environment the need for professional speakers arose, the wisdom bearers or sophists become the vanguard of words.  There were distinct genres of sophistry practiced in Athens. George Kennedy of Princeton categorized three areas: The writers for cases in the courts, the professional speaker, and teachers of persuasive speaking. Each of these can be seen today from, the lawyers, the talk show host, and the teachers that have educated us into who we are today and by that I mean television. However like is seen throughout the course of history, the inner thoughts influence the outer actions. The viewpoint of these rhetoricians was stated by Protagorious that man was the measure of all things, the belief that all that mattered was appearance. This perspective of speaking lead to the practice of verbal manipulation, personal attacks and even to the grievous crime of torturing slaves to witness falsely in courts for the benefit of winning a case or argument. The end mattered more than anything.  Richard Katula the chair of modern languages in Northeastern University wrote that “With the help of the sophists the art of composing highly probable arguments was often sublimated into the art of hoodwinking the audience in any manner possible”. Essentially he said ‘We’ve got trouble right here in our city state… trouble starts with T rhymes with P stands for Pool.

This of course shook the lofty philosophers from their ivory towers.  This other side of the rhetorical spectrum primarily dealt with the metaphysics of the universe, from speculation that everything was made of water, air, fire, and of course an unnamed pervasive substance called apearon – who would say the earth is made out of earth anyway. The sheer definition of philosophy was being challenged for to be a philosopher is to set yourself against ‘the opinion lovers’ (or philodoxoi, as the Greeks called them) and to view faddish truths as merely the commonly agreed upon lies of the time. Thus the battle lines were drawn and the warriors took the field.  It started with a hunchbacked bald little man who asked simple questions like what is justice and what is virtue. This man Socrates, the father of Western thought, drew the line in the sand by using formalized logic and dialectic – mostly by annoying those in the marketplace.  His conclusion in the aptly named Protagorious is that Rhetoric is a neutral art, its use is determined by the person who uses it and, as such, it may be used or ill or for good. Just like you friendly neighborhood philosopher who hints that with great rhetorical power comes great responsibility. This statement took the measuring tool of virtuous rhetoric from man and lifted it to the concept of universal morality much like an anti-Prometheus.  The sophists were charged with neglecting this pursuit of virtue and concentrated in the everyday challenges brought on by democratic life. They did not have time to search for the ‘ultimate truths’ in the world; they had decisions to make – about war, about guilt or innocence.”  Of course one of the major decisions the sophiests made was to give a drink to Socrates, you could he was hemmed and locked into it.

The next great step in this towering edifice of thought are the Romans. Cicero stated in The Orator that philosophy is an essential component in the education of the ideal orator. On the other hand, rhetoric is needed to embellish the materials gleaned from philosophy. This was the basic premise from the Greek philosophers.  However as in all things the tide quickly changes, the period known as the second sophistic was dawning. It can be also called silver age of sophism because it quickly tarnished. James Murphey described that “This was a period of oratorical excess in which subject matter became less important.” This movement put the emphasis on written law and created a class that were lawyers first and orators only secondary. Schools were set up according to the Quintilian model where imaginary court cases were made up and debated. Like the ever popular: The RE (Roman Empire) would substantially increase slave labor. Seneca the Elder complained about the school system during the second sophistic where exercises were collections of impossibly complex arguments. The imaginary contests of the schoolroom became ends in themselves where there was no real-life arena for the well-trained orators produced in the schools.”  Of course there were many other battles in the course of history but each referring back to the line in the sand drawn by Socrates and the sophists. On one side of the line rhetoric was a tool or a means, on the other it was an end.

Today we are in the same battle as the ancients. However new approaches and parallels have illustrated the modern side of argumentation which unfortunately leads to a lack of a historic foundation. These could lead to nuclear annihilation – it could happen…stranger things have happened. Remember that speech was held in high regard in ancient Greece. Today another medium that is used as a forum of thought is the phenomenon of internet discourse on the pertinently named forums. This new approach can be labeled the fan boy verses the troll. The fan boy believes that everything he or she agrees with is by nature correct – what is considered right relies on the premise ‘I like this therefore it is right’. This person takes the views of others like companies, and groups and accepts them without testing them. The perspective of the fan boy can be summed up in the statement ‘let them eat cake-even if the cake is a lie’. They defend the wrong thinking it is right. On the other side of this internet phenomenon is the troll. The Troll attacks all points of views for the sheer pleasure of the attack. This person believes everything is wrong except for themselves and they are out to prove this by posting personal attacks and insults against anyone who stands in their way – the premise is ‘I hate this therefore it is wrong’. The perspective of the troll can be summed up in the statement ‘I think out loud therefore I am allowed to think’. They attack the right leaving nothing left.

These two viewpoints are actually the same when one thinks about where the perceived truth comes from. In both cases the perceived right is from the internal, they themselves have become the measure of all things. The world revolves around them – food does not have a flavor until they taste it, nothing ever happens in a room until they enter it, and they believe that they cause trees to fall just by hearing them. This is parallel to most arguments, disagreements, and debates where the participants have disregarded the historic factual beauty of the past, and the justice laden solemnity of value for the expediency of policy.  By removing the ability to test our own views we lose out on true progress. The great social critic of the 20th century G. K. Chesterton saw this coming. He states “Now in our time, philosophy or religion, our theory, about ultimate things, has been driven out. General ideals used to dominate politics. They have been driven out by the cry of ‘efficiency,’ which may roughly be translated ‘politics for politics sake’. Is politics better, for having discarded the moralist and the philosopher?” Of course the answer is an emphatic no – is a cake better without flour? If the Aristotelian soul is of discourse is missing and by that I mean the purpose then the towering confection of rhetoric has become a “pan”-cake – only fit for tricksters.

The second implication is that the ramifications of this observation are felt today. By removing the historical, philosophical, and other valid inquiries of thought we are left with the view that what ever is new is correct. This was seen by C.S. Lewis who devoted a whole essay to this problem of chronological snobbery. He states “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” Is this sense the philosophers and the sophist have switched arguments – the pursuit of the philosophers gets put into the realm of passing fads and the pragmatic utilitarianism of the sophist becomes the only way to argue. If we could harness the power of Plato spinning in his grave right now we might reach the ideal of perpetual motion. In this sense we have been taking a Swiftian modest proposal by metaphorically burning books to solve our energy problem. Instead we can repeat the old 1990’s maxim that “the truth is out there”. However the truth is not related to extraterrestrial life but in tradition and ancient thought. All people who believe in democracy object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Of course listening to dead people is hard … they are horrible talkers, but they do make great writers. So instead of reading articles, books, and essays to further increase the amount of syllables that you can say before gasping twice immerse yourself in the classics just for the pleasure of having differing views unbiased by the power of the recent.

Today the choice has been given. As we simians stare at the giant black monolith of the past, we must choose if we shall ascend it to reach the heavens or throw a bone into the air and remain with the primates. Understand how personal philosophies can change the way the world works and delve into the past to make ourselves better people – otherwise we are all just monkeying around with words.


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