Monday, April 25, 2011

A Terrifying Rhetorician?

Martin Amis has a column in yesterday's Guardian in which he puts contemporary intellectual, author, and famed debated Christopher Hitchens on par with Cicero and Demosthenes. Now first please try to understand how difficult it was for me to write that. It is nearly inconceivable for anyone who has in fact read Demosthenes and Cicero in Greek and Latin to compare anyone to them. Yet in this case I think they are merely invoked as totems of excellence rather than set up as examples for comparison. That this is not a scholarly article and there are, in fact, no meaningful comparisons, or comparisons of any kind, supports this statement. In fact were not for the amiable tone of the piece I would be tempted to borrow a phrase I used last week to describe Terry Eagleton's piece on Marx: embarrassing encomium. Yet this essay, from its prefatory picture of the two boozily unkempt friends to its apostrophe to Mr. Hitchens himself, resists such an evaluation. It does not, however, resist some scrutiny.

Actually I don't so much care to evaluate the accuracy of Amis' assertion than I want like to unpack the implications of his praise. Of course I balk at the comparison itself, more than I would at referring to Patrick Henry as the "Cicero of Virginia" but less than referring to President Obama's speeches as "worthy of marble." Perhaps one day we will examine some of Mr. Hitchen's writing against Demosthenes but right now I'm simply concerned with the analogy Amis uses to describe Hitchen's rhetorical ability, which is to the supercomputer Deep Blue, which defeated several chess grandmasters, both of whom described the encounter thus: It's like a wall coming at you.

In contrast I call to mind the timeless statement about Demosthenes, that he was δεινὸς λέγειν (deinos legein) a phrase which unfortunately requires a little explanation in itself. On the one hand it can simply mean a "clever speaker" and indeed it means this and such is how it is most often translated from Greek. The first word, though, δεινὸς, has more associations, namely with the seemingly contrasting pair of ideas, "terrible" (or fearful, dangerous) and "wondrous" (or marvelous.) Yes, to be called δεινὸς λέγειν might simply mean you were a clever speaker, a speaker clever with your tongue who, like Odysseus, could beguile and outwit an opponent. (It may be of interest to recall Dante in Canto XXVI of the Inferno has Odysseus in in the Eighth Circle (with Diomedes) for his trickery (agguato, arte.)) Too Socrates begins his famous defense by addressing the accusation that he is a clever speaker, asserting that he is not clever unless by clever you mean truthful. 

That distinction, I think, is essentially the one Amis is making. (Unless he is making the unexpectedly banal assertion (i.e. not an argument) that Hitchens is a good rhetor "because he makes good arguments quickly.") For while the descriptions of Demosthenes and Amis' of Hitchens share a common theme of power, the Greek is tinged with many subtler ideas. Amis means Mr. Hitchens is a great speaker not because he is artful or clever or because his prose is beautiful, his images vivid or because he uses figurative language and paints a persuasive picture, but because he is truthful. Hitchens' argumentation is a wall of truth coming at you. Thus Amis is essentially saying that truth is persuasive. This statement, put clearly by Aristotle as, "what aims at truth is better than what aims at appearances" (paraphrased, see Rh. I.vii, 1365a) and beautifully by Keats, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty–" poses a serious question: is what is true naturally more appealing or easier to prove? It might seem so today of certain facts, but in many cases "facts" to a great deal of time to be considered so. One could undoubtedly come up with simpler, wrong, explanations of physics than those of quantum mechanics.

To digress once more, it might make an interesting exercise, dear reader, to read a work of fiction, something presenting a complete world view like the works we discussed in reviewing Santayana's "Three Poets" or at least something a clear single concept that is explored. Then consider whether you find it beautiful: is that world a beautiful one. Then, consider whether you find it more or less beautiful and truthful than the world in which you live. Are they the same?

Is there truth in fiction? Is truth the source of beauty in fiction? Aristotle considered fiction (ποίησις, (poieisis) from ποιέω (poieo) to make) more philosophical because it deals in absolutes whereas history, which seemingly is more scientific and truth-seeking because it deals with facts and things which have actually happened, deals only with specific things which have happened and not universal truths about what must happen.

I would call attention to the fact that Amis goes on to praise Hitchens' "crystallizations," i.e. aphorisms. This is odd in contrast to his opening in which he essentially praises Hitchens' rationality as being persuasive, because of course aphorisms are not arguments. Maybe Amis just means that being persuasive can take many forms, both through rigorous argumentation and through indivisible aphorisms. Perhaps, but I'm not sure.

Let us revisit, though, his actual argument for Hitchens as rhetor. Can it really be called an argument?
. . . his judgments are far more instinctive and moral-visceral than they seem, and are animated by a child's eager apprehension of what feels just and true); he writes like a distinguished author; and he speaks like a genius. As a result, Christopher is one of the most terrifying rhetoricians that the world has yet seen.
What does that mean? How does that make him persuasive? The phrase "as a result" implies some kind of causality, some argument, that has not been introduced. Perhaps he is a great rhetor because he thinks in paragraphs and does not get bogged down in "a mess of expletives, subordinate clauses, and finely turned tautologies. . . " What? He is persuasive because he makes good arguments? This is simply, and ironically, not enough of an argument comment on. Perhaps we might say that persuading consists not simply in constructing a rational argument, but making use of all the means of persuasion, as Aristotle says. Such a definition would necessitate a significantly more elaborate argument from Amis. We could belabor the point that the word "rhetorician" implies much not addressed here, in part and separate from "an argument," small-scale and large-scale structure, diction, imagery, figurative language and rhetorical devices, different types of argumentation, moving the emotions, and using the right combination on the particular audience at the particular time you must speak. Yet such would be a mere list against such a lack of formal argument.

In fact this his lack of argument for Hitchens as rhetor, this insistence that he is one, and the thread of "persuasion" throughout the essay, suggest he feels that because he agrees with Hitchens, that Hitchens must be a good rhetor, which is not quite right. Someone has persuaded you if he has changed your mind to agree with his, hence the Greek fear of a clever speaker who could "put a thought in your head."

If I may offer a conjecture, Amis is not confused. He has simply been persuaded by Hitchens the man, in toto. He praises Hitchens as charismatic and highly thought of qua author by other authors. Clearly he has some sense of the Aristotelian definition of rhetoric as utilizing all means of persuasion and he has been persuaded, but Cicero and Demosthenes are the wrong analogues. He has seen and known Hitchens throughout many years and today he sees all of the books deeds amounting to something significant to him, "Christopher's most memorable rejoinders, I have found, linger, and reverberate, and eventually combine, as chess moves combine." Amis being persuaded by Hitchens is not so different from being persuaded by a great rhetor, the essential difference being the means of persuasion are spread out over many times, means, and places, the only common thread being the man himself. Yet all of these talents and occasions are not rolled up into one speech or performance which can be sensibly be compared to a speech by Cicero or Demosthenes in any meaningful way. Too the differences in occasion and debate structure between Demosthenes' and Hitchens' venues make the comparison even more off-the-mark. These things being so, Amis' comment is sincere but little-considered praise.

In all, Amis has not persuaded me Hitchens is a "terrifying orator" or that he is correct (or incorrect) about anything in particular. He has, though, persuaded me that he loves his exceptional friend. Unfortunately the hyperbolic title (probably not Amis' own) is misleading and will probably do more to increase the blind adulation of Hitchens the intellectual than it will to put the reader in the proper frame of mind to appreciate Amis' happy recollection of his life with his dear friend.

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