Showing posts with label Cicero. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cicero. Show all posts

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Accio Style!

Following up our analyses of Cicero and Melville, it's time to look at a less successful, though not wholly failed, selection of literature. From J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

As the pain from Harry's scar forced his eyes shut, his wand acted of its own accord. He felt it drag his hand around like some great magnet, saw a spurt of golden fire through his half-closed eyelids, heard a crack and a scream of fury. The remaining Death Eater yelled; Voldemort screamed, "No!": Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button. He punched it with his wand-free hand and the bike shot more flames into the air, hurtling straight toward the ground.
I would first like to note that there's a lot to like in the Harry Potter series, but the style and clarity of this passage are lacking. Second, I'm not suggesting the whole series or even book are as uneven as this passage.

Right out of the gate, describing the scar so literally is a missed opportunity: because the scar is synonymous with Voldemort it should seem to act as Voldemort. The pain shouldn't be doing the action of the verb, with scar shunted away to a prepositional phrase.

Why as here? It's not the simultaneity of Harry closing his eyes and the wand acting that is important, but the contrast of his impotence and the wand's power. For that reason, it was a good opportunity to personify the wand instead of literally saying that it acted of its own accord, which tells us very little.

He felt it drag is unnecessary: we'll imagine what Harry felt because we empathize with him and his intense situation. Simply it dragged will do. Also, the scene seems to be unfolding quickly, so is dragged the proper word? Let's take a peek.
  1. to draw with force, effort, or difficulty; pull heavily or slowly along; haul; trail
  2. to search with a drag, grapnel, or the like: 
  3. to level and smooth (land) with a drag or harrow.
  4. to introduce; inject; insert
  5. to protract (something) or pass (time) tediously or painfully (often followed by out or on )
  6. to pull (a graphical image) from one place to another on a computer display screen, especially by using a mouse.
Does any of that seem like it fits? Maybe the wand had difficulty dragging his hand? If so, why? And what of the sloppy simile, like some great magnet. Is his hand metallic? Couldn't we find something more original? And his eyes are half-closed now? Why? Also, who cares about his eyes? It's a jejune thought that because Harry is doesn't know what's going on his eyes must be closed, or that because the author needs Harry incapacitated, the easiest way to do that is to close his eyes.

The structure of the sentence continues the same problem of telling instead of drawing.

He felt it drag his hand around like some great magnet, saw a spurt of golden fire through his half-closed eyelids, heard a crack and a scream of fury.
It's structured around the verbs, but there's this layer of narration between us and the action. Just tell us what's happening without telling us how Harry's experiencing it. Again: we'll empathize. This was a good opportunity for short, declarative sentences, which we get next, but. . . let's see what happens.

The remaining Death Eater yelled; Voldemort screamed, "No!": Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button.
What is this? What's going on? Which Death Eater are we talking about? Yelled? What did he yell? Why? Is he yelling because he was hit or what he saw? Yell is also much too vague.

The punctuation here is also problematic. The first two clauses are not unreasonably edited together with a semicolon, appropriate on account of their similarity and because a comma might have been to little a pause while a period too much. It's a debatable, but not outrageous, punctuation. The problem is the climax and use of that colon. The colon should herald the big reveal of the sentence and instead it confuses: are the bad guys screaming because of what Harry did, or what he was about to do?

Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button.
Somehow implies improbability. What was improbable, though: Harry finding himself in that spot or him actually being in that spot? Also, why are either of those circumstances improbable? The event is also a bit of a cheat, because on the one hand the author has painted Harry as incapacitated, and on the other hand he's the only one on the bike so he has to do something. The wand can't do everything.

The next statement isn't awful but it doesn't work because it's too long and sounds preposterous until fully unraveled.

He found his nose (what?)
He found his nose an inch (what?)
He found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button (ohhhh!)

And what's all of these iambs? u- | u- | u- | u-

he felt it drag his hand around [like some great magnet]
found his nose an inch from the [dragon-fire button]
he punched it with his wand-free hand [and the bike shot]
We're in narration here: why this rhythm? It's a curious move even as a pacing device, because the following phrase neither continues nor contrasts the pattern, and thus there is no climax to the thought. The use of dragon seems to work, but dragon is dependent on the next two words thus its effect is diminished.

He punched it with his wand-free hand and the bike shot more flames into the air, hurtling straight toward the ground.

His wand-free hand? How about free hand? I haven't forgotten that Harry has two hands and is holding a wand in one of them, especially because she made such a big deal about the wand "acting of its own accord" three sentences ago. Why more flames? More than when? And into the air? OK, but where else were the flames going to go? If the author had said into the night or darkness or black, then we'd at least get an image out of the observation. Who cares about the air? Did we forget that he's flying?

None of this is horrific, but it's vague and sloppy, turning a thrilling moment into an mushy, unsatisfying read. With all humility: an alternative.

A hiss in the darkness: Harry's scar seared his eyes in flash of pain. Something of that sinister spite awoke the phoenix core of Harry's wand which, eyeing its twin across the sky, streamed gold and fire through the night. A deathly crack. Silence. Now the other Death Eaters howled, but one beastly bellow swallowed all their cries. The wand released Harry's hand and he lunged across the seat, jabbing around for the fire button. At last he punched it and the bike hurtled straight down toward the ground. 

What do you think? I can't claim to know Rowling's story better than she, so I'm not sure this is better or more appropriate, but I tried to make it vivid, clear, and specific. What I had in mind:
  1. Open with a clear image with a clear rhythmic profile: hiss in the darkness (zippity-do-da)
  2. Evoke Voldemort's presence with sibilance: hiss and -ness
  3. The colon is the deep breath before the plunge of the sentence paragraph, and also emphasizes the powerful, causal, dangerous nature of the brief opening statement which preceded it. I chose the colon over the dash because we know what follows the colon will be caused by what preceded it, not just interrupting it.
  4. Connect the idea of the hiss and the pain by personifying the scar. Use more sibilance to continue the idea. 
  5. End with a clear, contrasting image: flash of pain (contrasts and fulfills hiss in darkness)
  6. Sibilance continues Voldemort's presence: something...sinister spite
  7. Indefinite pronoun something implies that Voldemort's hatred is wider than the way in which we are discussing it and links the previous idea of pain to the subject of this sentence, spite.
  8. Making the spite the subject of awoke continues Voldemort's agency.
  9. Phoenix core 1) finally conjures a new, positive, colorful image, 2) plays into the idea of its verb, awake, since the Phoenix rises, 3) allows me not to use the word wand yet and save it for the end of the clause, where it emphasizes the relative pronoun.
  10. eyeing its twin harkens to the relationship of the wands, and their owners, without having to describe it, and explains what's happening without being boring and literal. 
  11. Making the wand the subject emphasizes Harry's passivity by not mentioning him. 
  12. sibilance with sky and streamed links the words over the comma.
  13. hendiadys with "gold and fire" instead of "golden fire" emphasizes both color and shape, instead of just color
  14. the iambic (u-) concluding clause to the sentence 1) puts emphasis on the important words (gold, fire, through, night) by placing them on the long beats, and 2) disappears into the darkness like the stream from the wand.
  15. That long sentence A) contrasts the ones which come before and after it and B) emphasizes Harry's daze by mimicking the slow-motion, hyper-acuity which people experience when shocked and afraid
  16. Two more short images: deathly crack and silence, contrasting the opening images, hiss and darkness. Tit for tat.
  17. Contrast of deathly and Death Eaters emphasizes that one of the self-styled death-dealers has himself been killed
  18. howled emphasizes the animalistic nature of the Death Dealers, and is a cliche of nighttime spookiness
  19. light assonance of l with howled, beastly, bellow, and swallowed, subtly unifies the bad guys.
  20. alliteration with beastly and bellowed unites the ideas and suggests Voldemort is, as their leader, the most beastly. 
  21. rhyming of bellow and swallow 
  22. contrast of bellow and swallow: bellowing goes out and swallowing goes in, also reinforces Voldemort's dominance and power-at-a-distance.
  23. cries contrasts bellows both in pitch and insofar as cries, like howls, conveys lamentation whereas bellows conveys anger. Even the Death Eaters feel for their companion whereas Voldemort is enraged only by the effrontery of the act.
  24. trochaic (-u) conclusion to the sentence contrasts the previous long sentence which, describing the deed of Harry's wand, was its opposite, and concludes with a pattern-breaking long to emphasize the conclusion.
  25. Finally the wand returns control to Harry, who finally reappears in the story.
  26. With Harry awake, the action speeds up again: lunging, jabbing, punching, hurtling
  27. Never mention Voldemort by name, adding to his allure and fear of his agency at a distance.
  28. Five distinct parts of the story: A) the cause of the action, B) the reaction of the wand, C) the bad guys' reaction, D) Harry's reaction, and E) Where the action's going next.
  29. Those five parts come in five sentences, split up between B and C into two parts, by the lacuna of the heavily elided "A deathly crack. Silence."
  30. Simple conclusion tells you where you are and where you're going.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On Intimacy

and the thrill of harmony.

I'm eating a piece of cake, and it's delicious. Savoring each bite I revel in the flavors, first the rush of sweetness and the velvety cream. Then tonguing away the cream I reach the strawberry which pops between my teeth like a balloon, radiating its tartness around my mouth. At last the soft banana base rounds out the experience.

Why should food taste so good? Why is a fine confection so satisfying? Aristotle said that man takes delight in his senses because he delights to know, and coming to know the world he comes to know himself. I would propose to elaborate on this, that sensory delight is akin to a sense of harmony.

Harmony, that elusive, seemingly chimerical balance of elements has been sought after by creators of every stripe, be they philosophers or artists. What sense of rightness we find in harmony. Whenever we find it we experience it as a universal, as if we've stepped out of our corporal confines into a perfect, infinite home. In an instant we are lost in the ecstasy of consummate belonging, for it seems harmony knows no limits since the more details we uncover, the more intimate our encounter and the more thrilling the reverberations.

Of personal affairs, is it not thrilling to get to know someone? I find it terribly exciting to learn someone's tastes, what thoughts turn in their minds, and what makes them laugh. What delight is there in giving someone an intellectual tickle. At the highest level of friendship, though, rests a mutual and magnifying satisfaction in being, a reflexive love of oneself as other. This is naturally an affection which exists in activity, but though the activity can be cut off by distance, the friendship and love persist in the existence of in the friend's virtue and verisimilitude. With people we experience harmony as sympathy, but Cicero of course elevated the concept of friendship not only to consensio but consensio omnium divinarum humanarumque rerum cum benevolentia et caritate. 

This cosmic, transcendent dimension of harmony is available to us, besides in the ineffable, through art.   I am never more transported than in this one mere minute, one tiny fugato of Bach's cantata 102, but what world in this grain of sand.

It's an entrancing passage, the accented rising quavers and descending semiquavers cutting through the increasingly dense texture, here above, there below, each a fleeting revelation above the ceaseless walking of the bass line.

The pleasure of harmony is essentially sympathy with the beautiful, whether in character or appearance.  Such is why, as Aristotle and Cicero observed in friendship, that one must cultivate it in oneself to experience it in perfect sympathy with someone outside oneself. In art, one must be orientated toward the beautiful. In neither case can one simply "be oneself" for the bad and ugly will find no sympathy with their opposites.

Our own experiences of harmony, fleeting in art and firm in friendship, are far more than aesthetic or moral experiences, but glimpses of what Benedict XVI called the "mystery of infinite beauty," that ineffable reconciliation of the self and the transcendent.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Whose Bones?

While teaching short poems, notably Catullus 85, I'm fond of saying that if you to put forth a mere two lines of poetry, they ought to be good. Well today in my Twitter feed I saw the image to the right. Putting aside policy, what does it mean?

First I thought he meant that we individually define ourselves as a nation of immigrants, but that can't be so because I don't define myself as a nation. So then I realized that the president must mean that we collectively define ourselves as a nation, and a nation of immigrants at that. Fine. We're too far into this administration's tenure for such a statement to up my libertarian dander.

How does that sentiment, though, gel with the second sentence? Bones are pretty individual things, to start, so the image of us collectively having bones is awkward. Does the image of "national bones" resonate with anyone? Or are we the bones? Either way we still have our own, actual bones, so when he says "bones," which set of bones is he talking about? Either way, are we a nation of immigrants in our bones, or are we people who define ourselves as a nation of immigrants in the bones? Since the latter seems more likely, I am, according to the president, myself defining the nation as one of immigrants, in the, or I guess one of, the national bones?

I ask again, then, what are the bones made of? Do we constitute the bones, or do we defining ourselves as a nation of immigrants, constitute the bones, or do we actually being, which has not been established, a nation of immigrants, constitute the bones? Does something else entirely constitute the bones? Presuming, though, we're talking about metaphorical bones, he of course means essence, but the image of a bone is not that of a substance which admits a multiplicity of essences, if such a multiplicity is possible politically, philosophically, or metaphorically.

So when he says, "We define ourselves" does he mean define absolutely or partially? He must mean partially since the nation can't be singularly "a nation of immigrants" with no other dimension, but then how can we be so in our bones? As I asked, can we be multiple things in our bones?

What about the reflexive, though, ourselves? This has to be meant with reference to individuals. Do we have collective selves and individual selves? Are we anything else? I guess he meant "We define ourselves constituting a nation of immigrants, but he wrote as. None of these thirty one definitions of as fits the sentence. Maybe he's being rhetorical, using a simile? But isn't his point, which he makes three words later, not that we're like a nation, but that we are a nation? Besides, a simile is between unlike things, of what else can a nation consist than people?

So what's going on here? What's he talking about? This is Ciceronian? It's like Jabberwocky run through an Enigma encoder.

Dear Whomever Wrote Those Words,

There are only two sentences. Why couldn't you get this right? Why?

Thank You.

The Joy of Being Grumpy

Peevish, irritable, surly, ill-tempered. This is how we usually define grumpy, but to me it seems a more specific condition: a loss, usually temporary, of humor and sympathy. Such senses bind us to the world and its people, humor to the light foibles which ask charity, and sympathy to the serious seeking compassion. They also bid us be generous and forgiving to others while aware of our own imperfections.

Meanwhile, the grumpy are not aware of their own flaws, only the foolishness of others. All of the grumpy man's own flaws fade away under a bombardment of irritants. In fact, when you're grumpy you don't recognize the good in anything save the perfect. The world is never more black and white than when you're grumpy. The annoying girl is now a shrew, the slow cashier an imbecile, and the chatty neighbor a pest. Formal becomes stuffy, casual vulgar. People with questionable taste become full-fledged philistines, the frugal folks outright cheapskates.

In fact, apart from the dulling passage of time, only the most incorruptible excellence may snap you out of the grumpy funk. But why spoil a grumpy groove? Rather than trying to pacify oneself with some therapeutic excellence, it's far more satisfying to let the grumpiness boil over into a full-blown rant. A good rant is invigorating and cathartic. What liberation from gentlemanly confines, what control one seems to exercise over the life's ills when one rants and raves.

Unfortunately, it's hard to get a good rant going by yourself and an unfulfilled or half-started rant is quite an unsatisfying experience. What you need is a good friend to stoke the fires of disgust, someone who knows and shares just what ticks you off and who sympathizes with your frustration.

It's curious, though, that sympathy should be both the beginning and end of grumpiness. Perhaps it's because we grow grumpy by disconnecting from the intolerable vices of others, and thus the sympathy of friends returns us to a group to which we can happily belong. Ah, friendship.

Quid dulcius quam habere quicum omnia audeas sic loqui ut tecum? - Cicero, Laelius de Amicitia

Saturday, March 9, 2013

On Five Lines of Cicero

In discharge of my pedagogical duties I've been this week teaching a selection of Cicero's Catilinarian Orations. Given our Presidential Rhetoric series, as well as recent praise of Rand Paul's filibustering and the usual boilerplate about President Obama's rhetorical prowess, it seemed prudent to share some thoughts on a choice passage of Cicero. Not that we need any pretense to talk Cicero, of course.

Without further delay, Cicero against Catiline. Fasten your seat belts.

Though we are looking only at a section of the speech, it is clearly of the deliberative type. Cicero stands before the senators to:
  1. Urge a course of action: the exile of Catiline. 
  2. Demonstrate a concern over Rome's future.
  3. Establish the expediency of punishing Catiline.
Given Catiline's crimes, though, this speech undoubtedly shares in the elements of a forensic speech with its invective and catalogues of Catiline's deeds.

Let's now look at a section, which I reproduce courtesy The Latin Library.
V. Quae cum ita sint, Catilina, perge, quo coepisti, egredere aliquando ex urbe; patent portae; proficiscere. Nimium diu te imperatorem tua illa Manliana castra desiderant. Educ tecum etiam omnes tuos, si minus, quam plurimos; purga urbem. Magno me metu liberabis, dum modo inter me atque te murus intersit. Nobiscum versari iam diutius non potes; non feram, non patiar, non sinam
The opening cum clause swiftly combines the previous thoughts and emphasizes one thing: that they happened. Cicero continues in apostrophe, addressing Catiline directly with a series of imperatives: perge, egredere, proficiscere, educ, purga. The effects are many. First, as a list, Cicero provides a catalogue of what Catiline intended to do. Second, Cicero is being ironic, suggesting that Catiline leave not to come back and challenge Rome, but as an exile. Third, the imperatives taunt Catiline, challenging him to do what he wanted to do. Fourth, Cicero mocks Catiline, emphasizing both Catiline's desire to do those things as well as his weakness and exposure. Lastly, the imperatives, as commands, emphasize Cicero's consular authority.

Note also the personification with castra desiderant: "The camp has been missing you, its general." Here Cicero at once 1) mocks Catiline, calling him "general," imperatorem, 2) reminds the audience of Catiline's martial intentions, 3) reminds the audience about the army which was at that very moment waiting to attack Rome, and 4) distances Catiline from the senators, as if Cicero said, "Go back to your camp, with your people, where you belong." This is masterful economy.

Cicero continues to taunt Catiline, telling him to leave and take his friends with him. Again, a few brilliant touches here.

First, si minus, quam plurimos, "if [you take] less than all [your allies], [take] as many as possible" suggests, correctly or not, that there are so many conspirators that Catiline might not be able to take everyone with him. Also, there is a pleasing parallelism and contrast of if less, then many. The omission of the verb, such as to lead, and the substantive tuos give this statement a curt, off-the-cuff ring, as if Cicero is so fed up he blurts out, "Go, fine if you can't take them all, but just go!" Second, purga carries the sense of empty as well as meaning of clean here, suggesting in departing Catiline will be cleansing the city, an image Cicero will pick up again later.

Cicero finishes this thought with a simple conditional, stating that if Catiline goes, he'll "free" (liberabis) Cicero from a great fear, as long as a wall, that is the wall around Rome, separates them. It's easy to overlook the effects of this simple statement.

First, Cicero is being ironic in using liberabis, as if the criminal Catiline could do anything such as free someone. Second, Cicero emphasizes his dominance by painting a scene in which Catiline has obeyed him. Third, he describes that Catiline was a danger with magno metu, but indirectly, connecting by metonymy Cicero's fear with Catiline's plans which caused the fear. Lastly, the invokation of Rome's walls reminds the audience of Rome's power and, again, the fact that Catiline belongs outside them.

Cicero concludes the section with a series of short, staccato phrases. Of devices we have alliteration and  anaphora with non, as wells as asyndeton with the final three verbs. versari, meaning to stay but also be situated among again drives home the point that Catiline does not belong. Also, the word order here and person of the verbs here are effective:

With us to stay longer you are not able; 
I will not bear it; I will not endure it; I will not allow it. 

Cicero places Catiline's inability, potes, right next to Cicero's own authority, non feram.

Too the shift from the previous imperatives, taunting Catiline, to the second person, "you will free" and "you are not able," mocking and diminish him, to Cicero's conclusions with "I, I, I" are pleasing contrast, climax, and a reminder of who is in charge.

Not bad for five sentences.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Top Ten: Things Which Annoy Classicists

Classicists are a curious bunch. We come in all shapes and sizes and with all manner of creeds, but generally it's a smart and elitist crowd. We're also rather. . . picky.

Most of us find the following vexing. Utter these at the risk of being denounced on an epic scale. I tried to keep the list focused on the discipline and not academia.

10. "I know Italian/Modern Greek. . .

. . . can't I just pronounce/read it like that?" It's not the ignorance of the cradle of Western Civilization here that galls so much as the unwillingness to invest in learning about it.

9. Fouling up quotations

Quote foreign languages at your own risk. "Arma virumque cana" is an epic fail.

8. Duckworth, Balchazy-Carducci, and Cambridge

Aside from the varying quality of the commentaries, the first two fall apart about an hour into reading and there is no force in the universe which can keep a new Cambridge propped open.

7. Random Translations

It's admirable that you added the $4.99 bargain edition of The Odyssey at checkout, but the Derpy McDerperson translation is not helping anyone or anything. Ask for assistance.

6. Lack of an Apparatus Criticus

You mean we don't have perfect original manuscripts? What?!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Presidential Rhetoric: Grading the Graders

I don't care to read about politics before breakfast, let alone before my tea and shower, but today I stepped out onto the ice and fired up Twitter early in the morn. Naturally, right up in my face popped this Reason blurb of an article in which "experts" graded President Obama's recent inaugural address. I couldn't resist, not only because both alleged experts and laymen habitually overestimate this president's rhetoric, but because any easy praise irks me. It is no small matter to put an idea into someone's head, thus it is no small slight to the craft and its masters to heap undeserved praise on. . . let us say, the inexpert. I'm also in the middle of reading a book on Cicero's Against Verres and thus at this moment not particularly forgiving. So what did I do first?

First, I tried to find out a little about our experts and turned to their bio pages at their respective universities or personal sites, if possible.
  1. William Brown, chair of the department of strategic communication and journalism at Regent University
  2. Stephen J. Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington
  3. Kathleen E. Kendall, research professor of communication at the University of Maryland at College Park
  4. Mitchell S. McKinney, professor of communication and director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia
  5. Martin J. Medhurst, professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University
  6. Theodore F. Sheckels, professor of English and communication studies at Randolph-Macon College [No Faculty Bio Available]
  7. Gerald R. Shuster, professor of communication at University of Pittsburgh
  8. Mary E. Stuckey, professor of communications and political science at Georgia State University
  9. Ronald C. White Jr.
Alas, none of this research turned up any clear experts on rhetoric and oratory. There's plenty of writing about politics and "communication" and history, but scarcely any on, well, rhetoric. Forget about brass tacks talk of Greek, Latin, Demosthenes, Cicero, Aristotle, Quintilian. . .

Based on what we can see, these professors do not seem the experts to whom we should turn for a full, systematic, rhetorical analysis. Their views are surely relevant, but hardly definitive.

Only two professors, Martin Medhurst and Gerald R. Schuster, mention on their pages anything which remotely sounds like scholarly discussion of rhetoric. Of these two only Mr. Medhurst has his course descriptions online (It's 2013: Get with the program, universities!) and his course on Presidential Rhetoric seems credible though not necessarily rooted in the fundamentals.

Professor Medhurst seems to bear the most relevant expertise in having edited, "Presidential Speechwriting: From the New Deal to the Reagan Revolution and Beyond," and "Critical Reflections on the Cold War: Linking Rhetoric and History," volumes of mixed quality and relevance to our discussion here. These volumes both focus more on intersection of speech-writing, politics, and policy than fundamental rhetorical analyses. The contributing authors talk the talk of rhetorical analysis, throwing around deliberative and partitio, but there is precious little extended, systematic analysis. The criteria are thrown out and then not followed up. Some articles even betray a clear blindness to the Classics. How can one cite a modern author's view of, "rhetoric as epistemic" without at least a nod to Plato and Gorgias?

Maybe, though, these scholars possess the appropriate expertise by their training even if their scholarly careers are not perfectly attuned to the needs of our present discussion. Alas, their faculty bios do not list their courses and grades.

We have only left to judge them, then, by their contributions to this Inside Higher Ed article.

Second, the professors' own writing is abysmal. Their remarks seem improvised, as if the professors were interviewed, but should we give experts on communication a pass for that? Take a gander at some of these gag-inducing clunkers:
  • where citizens are bound to each other as a way of protecting (Farnsworth)
  • President Obama’s second inaugural had moments of greatness, on this date of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as when he tied his speech closely to King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, both in parallel language and in his theme of equality. (Kendall)
  • seemed more confident with a sense of urgency (McKinney)
  • signaled that he intends to pursue (Medhurst)
  • what Obama hopes will be a sizable majority to pursue (Scheckels)
  • balanced persuasion with direction, and hope. (Shuster)
  • with and without adherence to focusing (Shuster)
  • the overall speech was gracefully done (Stuckey) (N.B. Beware non-adverbial uses of overall. The adjectival use will sink your noun like a stone and the noun makes the reader think of overalls.)
  • What makes us exceptional, he told us -- from Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall, will be an inclusive nation where everyone enjoys (White)
Editor on aisle five! It's a shame one could spill so much red in grading the graders.

Speaking of red, a note to the one at Inside Higher Ed: what Professor Brown gave you was not a rubric.

Lastly, these paragraphs are useless without analysis and examples. I expect, and hope, there exist detailed analyses behind them, but in the absence of such, what good are cliches and summaries? What are we supposed to make of statements like, "the energy seemed lower," or that the speech, "was better," "had references," and was "interesting" and "optimistic." These meaningless phrases are as useless as those other remarks which are mere summaries. 

I did not intend to analyze the president's second inaugural the way I did his first, but let's take a little look for fun. [Full Transcript]
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, members of the United States Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens, each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
What stands out most is the definition of his own inauguration not only as the fulfillment of the promise of democracy, but also as the source of national unity. He is the first idea in his speech.

A few grammatical observations:
  • bear witness is a meaningless archaism to lend dignity to the speech. 
  • that what is a relative clause fumble. 
  • articulated in a declaration made more than is a giant brick
  • made more than two centuries ago would be better supplanted by one vivid adjective
A few logical observations:
  • A promise is something is a declaration that something will be done. What is the, "promise of our democracy?" It cannot be that all men are created equal because that is a premise, an assertion, not an activity. This statement is just a pleasantry thrown out there. 
  • How does the election of the president recall that all men are created equal? This is not official "question begging" (petitio principii) but some attempt at logic would be, well, persuasive. 
As with his first inaugural, the rhythmic gesture is ponderous and the effect is a leaden opening. There is no manipulation of periodic length to create an ebb and flow of tension. The vocabulary is dull and the verbs are limp and not consistently utilized to energize the speech. 

I would just like to add a few observations about the subsequent paragraphs:
  • The beginning of the second paragraph is a most peculiar place to slip into the third person.
  • This is not the place for a history lesson.
  • How on earth could anyone have chosen the word noted in the following:
Through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword, we noted that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half slave, and half free.
Through repeated bloody violence, we noted

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Classics Problem

Two articles I stumbled upon this morning spurred some post-breakfast thinking on academia, specifically of the Classical variety. The first via Rogue Classicism discussed the demise of a prominent classics blog and the second was a list about dissertations in The Guardian. After chewing on the articles a while I came away with a little indigestion and now that it has passed I have a few thoughts on what we might call The Classics Problem.

The Classics Problem is that Classicists think there's a problem with Classics, namely that Western Civilization isn't groveling at the feet of people who count conjunctions and propose emendations to medieval gardening treatises. This fundamental problem turns out to be a handily protean one to the Classist who readily transforms it into the perennial calamities of slackening education standards, cultural decline, social indifference, inadequate funding, social injustice, and forest fires.  Classics is the answer, of course.

Hieronymus Jackdaw,
a prominent Classicist
I would propose that in good measure Classists are the problem, having delved too greedily and too deep into their precious texts. They want to hoard as one discipline what should be gleefully diffused amongst the humanities. Instead of standing prominently alone, Classicists need to be willing, to some degree, to disappear into the foundations of other disciplines.

Classists ought to consider, perhaps, that little more may be dug up and researched about the ancient world with great profit. They ought to consider that their esoteric articles, dissertations, and academic paraphernalia may do less good for the world than would sharing the fundamentals they take for granted. Classicists might need to realize there is a much smaller space for research than is commonly thought and that that sequestering professors in offices and articles in private databases is not the best way to spread ideas.

The world needs more of its Greek and Roman heritage flowing in its veins, yes, but it needs it in plays, operas, and novels, not commentaries. We need statesmen weaned on Thucydides and Cicero, generals studied of Alexander and Julius Caesar, and philosophers who actually read Greek. We don't need, "Classics," or "culture," our "a culture of classics," rather we need our own authentic, living, culture grounded in Classics. We need creativity. That means we need more students of English, music, and history with a solid classical education, and that means we need teachers.

Of kind, we need teachers of Classical languages, yes, and history, but we also need history, music, art, and even science teachers with firm Classical foundations. Similarly Classicists need to broaden their intellectual horizons. It will simply not do to sit down to translate Plato or Thucydides and concede discussions of content to the philosophers and historians. As an aside, teachers of Latin and Greek need to read the great works in their native language and develop on their own literary expression. Studying Latin and Greek is a gift, but it can wreak havoc on your style if you don't synthesize the elements into a sensible whole. Academese is already an aesthetic catastrophe, Classical Academese is a blight on humanity.

Of quality, we need good ones, naturally, but full-time ones. We can't have our greatest minds teaching 15 hours a week and chasing sabbaticals so they can finish that paper on Cicero's underpants. A tenured university position doing mostly research cannot be the ideal.  We can't be dismayed at the idea of grading tests and papers, but we need to be excited at the thought of what Classics can do for a brilliant mind. We should not always think on getting back to "our work," but we need to imagine a Mozartian score to a Sophoclean libretto or a Bachian fugue on a line of Heraclitus and infuse the excitement over such possibilities into education.

In short: more creation, more cultivation, less curation. We need to stop standing around the spear, lecturing everyone about its beauty and importance, and we need to pick it up and give it a good throw.  That'll get everyone's attention.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Sinister Side of Elitism

or, On Democratic Elitism

Bunthorne, from
Gilbert & Sullivan's
It's not easy being an elitist. Properly filled the pursuit requires a broad education as the basis for a penetrating perspicacity. Now this doesn't sound so bad, the former being a calculated investment and the latter a tutored talent, and indeed if these only were the requirements we all would lay upon the daisies of  cultivated taste. What is required also, and much to the dismay of the elitist, is the consumption and voluntary regurgitation of pop culture poison.  This gastronomic, intellectual, and aesthetic sacrifice goes unknown to the philistines, consumerists, hooligans, fashonistas, who graze on whatever vittles their whims, credit cards, privates, and current wardrobes urge. To foist Lady Gaga upon someone whose daily bread is Mozart is inhumane at best.

If you are not yet sympathetic to the cause of the elitist think of his sad case this way: he has no allegiance to the contemporary, to the fresh and new, but to an idea. He is bound to some sense of proportion, meaning, or symmetry. . . to beauty if you will. So when he waxes nostalgic about the good ol' days of 1780s Vienna or sheds a tear for Cicero, shed a tear for him, for part of his soul rest there, and only there.

Yet the elitist infuriates his critics. How can you criticize someone who thinks what he likes is the best, or for liking the best? You don't criticize someone for liking the US Marines or the Yankees, do you? Then why for liking Mozart or the Berlin Philharmonic? Do these tormentors perhaps bear some shame that their favorite music is written by a semi-literate, or played by a band named after an insect, or rocks? How do you fault someone for rejecting the vulgar, or standing up for the minority, acts which are elsewhere always laudable and just? How to fault one who chooses, who elects, as elite in essence means, especially in the democratic West? Of course the internal contradictions and tensions ensuing from hating this man and praising his virtues whenever they occur in some other individual. . . well one pities the hamster.

Yet like most beliefs elitism can take a pernicious turn, a turn away from its inherently conservative roots. You see elitism in principle simply wishes to preserve the good, not to hold it capture. It does not want Cicero and Mozart to be held in an ivory tower only for elitists but rather wants to make sure he is not lost. It wishes the best to be known as the best far and wide. In some sense it does want an "aristocracy" that is, it does want the best to rule, but an idea can only rule when it is in the hearts and minds of many. True elitism then cannot be a passive hoarding but an active cultivation.

Fred Siegel's recent Commentary article is a good summary of elitism gone awry, of elitism which hopes to put a basket over high culture's sacred flame and to keep the masses in the dark, of elitism which hopes not to spread the best to the many but to keep the many without culture, since no culture is to be preferred to bad culture. Mr. Siegel has done the dirty work of cataloguing the anti-democratic, even dictatorial impulses of these would-be cultural guardians so I will spare myself the same agony. 

I would, however, like to amplify and explicate the criticism, especially as it stems from the issue of education. You see if one really believe what one likes is the best then it's hard to concede that it would turn out the loser in any aesthetic, that is to say, academic or intellectual, argument. So when you say that people don't like what is best you are really suggesting they lack the education to come to understand what is best. So teach. Write. Perform. Promote. Fund. Praise the good and criticize bad. Don't sit atop Parnassus wagging your finger. Don't mandate intellectual and cultural squalor, that is, spiritual impoverishment, whilst advocating for the material improvements of the very same people. 

Earlier we said that elitism in principle simply wishes to preserve the good, not to hold it capture. This today is easier than ever when with digital technology we can reproduce and share material without any loss of the original. How can this but help spread the good? It  can only fail to do so if you maintain that in a contest for the human soul Mozart would lose out to Lady Gaga. To the untutored and in the short run, he might. ( I would ask, though: how do you know Mozart is losing? Surely not by sales or profits when you can purchase the complete works of Mozart for less than the cost of one ticket to a modern pop concert.) Then again the untutored driver goes awry, the untutored architect errs, and so forth for all jobs. Man is born with previous few skills. Why not educate your brother? Are we to regard man as the noble savage as regards politics but otherwise simply a savage, and an irredeemable one at that?

It is not necessary to hold such a view to maintain one's aesthetic bona fides. In fact, refusing to spread what one professes to be the best or suggesting that there are people inherently unable to love the same is the surest way to discredit both.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Presidential Rhetoric II: John Adams

In Part I of our series on presidential rhetoric we look at President Obama's Inaugural Address. Today we will look at John Adams', delivered in the city of Philadelphia on Saturday, March 4, 1797.

As with the first speech, we will not be addressing the truthfulness of the assertions but rather we will consider primarily two questions: what is it trying to persuade us of and how does it do so. We will also, as before, look at some rhetorical criteria as set forth by Aristotle. Due to the complexity of some of the sentences I have chosen to annotate the sections.

When it was first perceived, in early times, that no middle course for America remained between unlimited submission to a foreign legislature and a total independence of its claims, men of reflection were less apprehensive [of danger from the formidable power of fleets and armies they must determine to resist] [than from those contests and dissensions which would certainly arise concerning the forms of government to be instituted] over the whole and over the parts of this extensive country. Relying, however, on the purity of their intentions, the justice of their cause, and the integrity and intelligence of the people, under an overruling Providence which had so signally protected this country from the first, the representatives of this nation, then consisting of little more than half its present number, not only broke to pieces the chains which were forging and the rod of iron that was lifted up, but frankly cut asunder the ties which had bound them, and launched into an ocean of uncertainty. 

We first notice that the first sentence is rather long. Syntactically it is not quite so complex, though, simply indicating that on the one hand in early times when X was the case, men were still more worried about Y than Z. That is, even when men were fighting armies, they were more worried about the debates to come than the immediate threats to their lives. This statement has several effects, 1) praising the founders for their bravery, 2) praising them for their wisdom in fearing the present political challenge, and 3) suggesting the gravity of the current challenge (i.e. "if those men, who were both brave and reflective, feared this debate, and we face more than they did, then we ought to take this seriously.") Compressed as that is, more details paint an even more vivid picture. Adams uses the passive voice, "when it was perceived" not to stoke the flames of faction and point fingers at those who were reluctant to declare independency. Too, a less precise description of the men he was speaking of ("men of reflection") portrays the men of that era as equal and united. Immediately then, before he uses any obvious terms like "peace" or "accord" or "unity," the structure of Adams' first sentence reflects the theme of unity, that he seeks to bridge the factions he saw forming. Adams also impersonally expresses that "no middle course remained" to suggest inevitability of the split with England; he does not say that the risk was to great, or that no alternative was perceived, or some people or reason would not permit it. He simply says, "no course remained" and follows it up with a clause of interlocking phrases with parallel thoughts to complete the idea. No course remained between

unlimited submission to a foreign legislature and total independence of its claims.

The alternatives could not be any clearer. We have a clear, compact, opening sentence which paints a scene and situation for the audience to get drawn into. Adams continues by listing why the men were successful: they were, guided by pure motives, they had a just cause, they were wise people, they were under under God's watch. Yet he doesn't blandly list these traits, but rather breaks the parallelism of the third trait of the trio by using two words with a conjunction and alliteration (the i's.) Adams then adds yet another trait, here avoiding monotony with of a visual, "under an overruling." Also, notice the ascending significance of the traits that allowed these men to succeed: first their own qualities, then the qualities of the people who elected then, then God's watchfulness. Adams continues, using the word "representatives" to emphasize the republican nature of the country, the slightly anachronistic word "nation" since technically there was no nation until after the declaration, and "growing population" to suggest subsequent prosperity. The second sentence has built from the descriptive literal opening and concludes in metaphor.

not only broke to pieces the chains which were forging and the rod of iron that was lifted up, but frankly cut asunder the ties which had bound them, and launched into an ocean of uncertainty. 

Again, Adams' balanced clauses make the situation clear: the men broke A and B, cut C, and then launched into D. Notice also the tenses, the chains "were forging" and the iron "was [already] lifted up," suggesting that the men were only responding to actions that were already in progress against them. Note the use of "frankly" instead of the expected "also," an example of Adams using a stronger word wherever possible. Adams concludes with the classic and classical metaphor of risk and of statesmanship.

The zeal and ardor of the people during the Revolutionary war, supplying the place of government, commanded a degree of order sufficient at least for the temporary preservation of society. The Confederation which was early felt to be necessary was prepared from the models of the Batavian and Helvetic confederacies, the only examples which remain with any detail and precision in history, and certainly the only ones which the people at large had ever considered. But reflecting on the striking difference in so many particulars between this country and those where a courier may go from the seat of government to the frontier in a single day, it was then certainly foreseen by some who assisted in Congress at the formation of it that it could not be durable.

Adams moves on to a more direct paragraph in which he simply, as a historian, recalls the first confederation which in three ways he characterizes as temporary, first insofar as it provided but the bare minimum of order that the people demanded, second insofar as it was written based on certain models simply because those models were the only complete ones, and lastly insofar as those countries for whom those models were written were quite different from America. For those reasons, it was inevitably temporary. Adams is careful, though, not to offend the authors of those articles either, stating, "it was then certainly foreseen by some who assisted in Congress at the formation of it. . .," i.e. that they must have known it was temporary.

Negligence of its regulations, inattention to its recommendations, if not disobedience to its authority, not only in individuals but in States, soon appeared with their melancholy consequences-- universal languor, jealousies and rivalries of States, decline of navigation and commerce, discouragement of necessary manufactures, universal fall in the value of lands and their produce, contempt of public and private faith, loss of consideration and credit with foreign nations, and at length in discontents, animosities, combinations, partial conventions, and insurrection, threatening some great national calamity.

In this dangerous crisis the people of America were not abandoned by their usual good sense, presence of mind, resolution, or integrity. Measures were pursued to concert a plan to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. The public disquisitions, discussions, and deliberations issued in the present happy Constitution of Government.

Adams continues with a list of the problems that occurred and while he is specific in describing the natures of the problems he refrains from listing any specifics. We will see that Adams tends to do this throughout the speech and at the end of our discussion will consider why and what he gains and loses in terms of impression and persuasion.

He  is careful to lay the problems at the feet of the imperfect confederation, not the people themselves, let alone anyone in particular. In contrast, he praises the people for their "usual good sense" for deciding to form another constitution. Adams quotes the preamble to the constitution verbatim and thus the thought of his speech flows seamlessly from the imperfect articles of confederation, through the strife which succeeded it, to the "more perfect union" of the day, ending with, "the present happy Constitution of Government." To set the stage, then, Adams traces the history of the nation from the revolution to the day of this speech in 1797. The thread most visible again and again that Americans of integrity and sound mind were who permitted success.

Employed in the service of my country abroad during the whole course of these transactions, I first saw the Constitution of the United States in a foreign country. Irritated by no literary altercation, animated by no public debate, heated by no party animosity, I read it with great satisfaction, as the result of good heads prompted by good hearts, as an experiment better adapted to the genius, character, situation, and relations of this nation and country than any which had ever been proposed or suggested. In its general principles and great outlines it was conformable to such a system of government as I had ever most esteemed, and in some States, my own native State in particular, had contributed to establish. Claiming a right of suffrage, in common with my fellow-citizens, in the adoption or rejection of a constitution which was to rule me and my posterity, as well as them and theirs, I did not hesitate to express my approbation of it on all occasions, in public and in private. It was not then, nor has been since, any objection to it in my mind that the Executive and Senate were not more permanent. Nor have I ever entertained a thought of promoting any alteration in it but such as the people themselves, in the course of their experience, should see and feel to be necessary or expedient, and by their representatives in Congress and the State legislatures, according to the Constitution itself, adopt and ordain.

Adams finally makes his own entrance in the narrative, deferring his entry further even into the middle of the sentence. He describes himself not merely as "working" or "living abroad" but as "employed" abroad, suggesting service. Adams uses in the next sentence another tripartite construction of parallel phrases with the verbs at the beginning of each, then breaking the parallelism by beginning the next sentence with "I": Irritated [by nothing], animated [by nothing], heated [by nothing], I read. . . Adams most cleverly does not stop this sentence but rolls right into his evaluation. Had he stopped he would have had introduce his evaluation separately and draw attention to the fact that he was judging everyone, a feature he acutely would seem monarchical. Instead he introduces his thoughts (which are an evaluation nonetheless) with a simile, "I read it as the result of good heads. . ." which bypasses his act of judging but not his judgment. Having softened its entry, Adams then offers more of his judgments, though still deferring himself to the middle of the sentence. 1) It was as comfortable as he had ever seen in the general and specific, 2) it was even as good as the state constitutions (an indirect, multi-pronged compliment), 3) he approved of it as a free man, and 4) he approved of it as a father. He approved of it in private and public. In contrast, he refrained from three things: hesitation to approve, object, or entertain the thought of changes. Only according to the will of the people themselves and the rules of the constitution itself could it be changed. Adams here echoes the Declaration of Independence's "in the Course of human events" with his "in the course of their experience." He is also careful of just who is doing what; it is ever the people who both "adopt" and "ordain" by means of their representatives.

At this point we ought to make a note about style. The prose of the second president, a classically trained man and a lawyer, reveals his training and occupation. We see large-scale structures (Adams not only read Cicero and Demosthenes but often spoke of them) andspecific ideas (the lawyer must always make specific claims.) As a result we have organization with dense content.

Returning to the bosom of my country after a painful separation from it for ten years, I had the honor to be elected to a station under the new order of things, and I have repeatedly laid myself under the most serious obligations to support the Constitution. The operation of it has equaled the most sanguine expectations of its friends, and from an habitual attention to it, satisfaction in its administration, and delight in its effects upon the peace, order, prosperity, and happiness of the nation I have acquired an habitual attachment to it and veneration for it. What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?

Adams continues with another relatively lengthy sentence in three parts with the verb coming at the beginning of each clause and with careful attention to the aspect of the action: while he was returning, he had the honor to be elected, and has since been obligated to support. Adams once again starts describing something in the past, describes its transition, ends in the present time, and then in the subsequent sentence describes the situation of the moment. Adams in the next sentence makes a subtle argument: on the one hand the government is operating well based on the theories of those who liked it
and on the other he himself is persuaded by its goodness by the following reasons, from his 1) attention to it, 2) administration of it, and 3) the effects of it. For those reasons he "has acquired an attachment and veneration." That is, the government is sound in theory and sound in practice. "What more can you want?" Adams essentially concludes in a short sentence whose brevity (contrasting the previous sentences) drives home the argument. Nonetheless, Adams elaborates on this point more overtly in the following.

There may be little solidity in an ancient idea that congregations of men into cities and nations are the most pleasing objects in the sight of superior intelligences, but this is very certain, that to a benevolent human mind there can be no spectacle presented by any nation more pleasing, more noble, majestic, or august, than an assembly like that which has so often been seen in this and the other Chamber of Congress, of a Government in which the Executive authority, as well as that of all the branches of the Legislature, are exercised by citizens selected at regular periods by their neighbors to make and execute laws for the general good. Can anything essential, anything more than mere ornament and decoration, be added to this by robes and diamonds? Can authority be more amiable and respectable when it descends from accidents or institutions established in remote antiquity than when it springs fresh from the hearts and judgments of an honest and enlightened people? For it is the people only that are represented. It is their power and majesty that is reflected, and only for their good, in every legitimate government, under whatever form it may appear. The existence of such a government as ours for any length of time is a full proof of a general dissemination of knowledge and virtue throughout the whole body of the people. And what object or consideration more pleasing than this can be presented to the human mind? If national pride is ever justifiable or excusable it is when it springs, not from power or riches, grandeur or glory, but from conviction of national innocence, information, and benevolence. 

Theory may be unpersuasive, he says, but the conduct of this government is surely testament to its righteousness. Adams is again most deliberate in his use of tense and voice: like that which has so often been seen. What has been seen is not simply something Adams saw and, if you don't like him, which you'd be inclined to disagree with. Rather, Adams suggests, "it has been seen" by many people. Adams is very subtly suggesting if not consensus a general observation. And what has been seen? Adams continues to summarize the essence of the government: representatives elected by the people at regular intervals to legislate for the general good. Adams again apostrophizes, essentially saying, "What can you add to this?" Whatever you might think it lacks, he says, those things are details. Surely you wouldn't prefer a king, who has his authority by accident, or a government so old it does not fit you? In a very clever turn of argument Adams says, "For it is the people only that are represented." which essentially challenges the listener by saying, in effect, "This is your government. You control it, so what could be the problem with that? If you don't like something you can change it." Adams chooses not to entertain any specific complaints about the constitution and government. We will discuss later the benefits and losses of this tactic. He continues to praise the people that they must in fact be very wise for such a government to have endured at all. That itself should be cause for praise and that is a legitimate cause for national pride. A very interesting paragraph of persuasion and argumentation by means almost exclusively of questioning. Adams concludes with a now familiar argument: neither A nor B is the case, but rather C, D, and E.

In the midst of these pleasing ideas we should be unfaithful to ourselves if we should ever lose sight of the danger to our liberties if anything partial or extraneous should infect the purity of our free, fair, virtuous, and independent elections. If an election is to be determined by a majority of a single vote, and [if] that can be procured by a party through artifice or corruption, [then] the Government may be the choice of a party for its own ends, not of the nation for the national good. If that solitary suffrage can be obtained by foreign nations by flattery or menaces, by fraud or violence, by terror, intrigue, or venality, [then] the Government may not be the choice of the American people, but of foreign nations. It may be foreign nations who govern us, and not we, the people, who govern ourselves; and candid men will acknowledge that in such cases choice would have little advantage to boast of over lot or chance.

Adams now, at last, depicts the dangers of his time as he sees them. He has argued that as of that day they had a great government and will now say, in effect, that if we lose it, it is our fault. What are the dangers? Adams describes two with very straightforward if/then clauses. First, notice what he does not do: Adams does not summarize his arguments or introduce his arguments with single words, what we today might call "buzz words." He simply makes an argument for or against a course of action. He does not use the words "Federalist" or "Republican" or "faction." He does not invoke an idea with one simple word but insists you follow the argument. The if/then statements are annotated above and it is not necessary to summarize them. Adams' conclusion of that paragraph makes a subtle point, though: if we allow this to happen, if we allow foreign nations to govern us, then our deliberately chosen and crafted nation is no better for us than something else we might have by accident (an alternative he decried above.)

[Such is the amiable and interesting system of government (and such are some of the abuses to which it may be exposed) which the people of America have exhibited to the admiration and anxiety of the wise and virtuous of all nations for eight years] under the administration of a [A] citizen who, [B] [by a long course of great actions, [C] regulated by prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, [D] conducting a people inspired with the same virtues and animated with the same ardent patriotism and love of liberty to independence and peace, to [E] increasing wealth and unexampled prosperity,] has merited the gratitude of his fellow-citizens, commanded the highest praises of foreign nations, and secured immortal glory with posterity.

This is probably not the best section of the speech, being rather long and wordy and without any particular unifying device. Here Adams' penchant for pairs of ideas starts to weigh the speech and the lack of larger-scale structure hampers the flow of ideas which is thus: government-people-nations-Washington-people-nations-posterity. It works, but not quite smoothly or readily. It is, in fact, a large, simple sentence and as such it feels weighted. The paragraph is clearly all about Washington but it ends with posterity and the argument and line of thought from government to posterity is not as clear as one would like, though the sense of Washington being the preserver of government for posterity remains.

If you remove the asides and extraneous details, the awkwardness is apparent: a citizen. . . by a long course of actions. . . regulated by xyz, conducting a people. . . to increasing xyz. . . has merited, commanded, and secured. . .The distance between conducting and increasing makes one want to take them as parallel and independent when in fact increasing depends on conducting. The pairing is also awkward, "conducting to increasing." Lastly, do we take C to modify B or A? I think we ought to take B, C, and D as parallel and modifying A, though if so the conjunction "and" before D would have been most clarifying. Overall, the passage is comprehensible but slightly overburdened.

In practice, though, with all eyes on Washington, with pauses for applause, and perhaps with gestures from Adams to both Washington and the people, this list of praises could have been more effective than it seems in print.

In that retirement which is his voluntary choice may he long live to enjoy the delicious recollection of his services, the gratitude of mankind, (the happy fruits of them to himself and the world, which are daily increasing), and that splendid prospect of the future fortunes of this country which is opening from year to year. His name may be still a rampart, and the knowledge that he lives a bulwark, against all open or secret enemies of his country's peace. This example has been recommended to the imitation of his successors by both Houses of Congress and by the voice of the legislatures and the people throughout the nation.

Though he concluded with "posterity" he was talking about Washington, who he returns to. Again, though, the previous sentence-paragraph is so big that the transition back to Washington feels like a jump. Adams emphasizes the voluntary nature of Washington's retirement before giving us another one of his lists. The fact that "fruits of them" is parallel to "recollection" and "gratitude" but refers to them and depends on them for sense, and that the list continues on to "prospect" which is parallel to them also, is slightly jarring. The next sentence is a rather bold (and complementary) assertion: so great is Washington that his mere name is a rampart and the fact that he lives is a bulwark against the nation's enemies. The phrase "recommended to the imitation of his successors" sounds perhaps awkward or in too grand of a style to the ears of non-Classicists. Today one would probably write, "recommended as a model to. . ." This is less an issue of style than grammar. The idea is nonetheless clear: everyone wants the subsequent presidents to be like Washington.

On this subject it might become me better to be silent or to speak with diffidence; but as something may be expected, the occasion, I hope, will be admitted as an apology if I venture to say that if a preference, upon principle, of a free republican government, formed upon long and serious reflection, after a diligent and impartial inquiry after truth; if an attachment to the Constitution of the United States, and a conscientious determination to support it until it shall be altered by the judgments and wishes of the people, expressed in the mode prescribed in it; if a respectful attention to the constitutions of the individual States and a constant caution and delicacy toward the State governments; if an equal and impartial regard to the rights, interest, honor, and happiness of all the States in the Union, without preference or regard to a northern or southern, an eastern or western, position, their various political opinions on unessential points or their personal attachments; if a love of virtuous men of all parties and denominations; if a love of science and letters and a wish to patronize every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges, universities, academies, and every institution for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, the profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence, which is the angel of destruction to elective governments; if a love of equal laws, of justice, and humanity in the interior administration; if an inclination to improve agriculture, commerce, and manufacturers for necessity, convenience, and defense; if a spirit of equity and humanity toward the aboriginal nations of America, and a disposition to meliorate their condition by inclining them to be more friendly to us, and our citizens to be more friendly to them; if an inflexible determination to maintain peace and inviolable faith with all nations, and that system of neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe which has been adopted by this Government and so solemnly sanctioned by both Houses of Congress and applauded by the legislatures of the States and the public opinion, until it shall be otherwise ordained by Congress; if a personal esteem for the French nation, formed in a residence of seven years chiefly among them, and a sincere desire to preserve the friendship which has been so much for the honor and interest of both nations; if, while the conscious honor and integrity of the people of America and the internal sentiment of their own power and energies must be preserved, an earnest endeavor to investigate every just cause and remove every colorable pretense of complaint; if an intention to pursue by amicable negotiation a reparation for the injuries that have been committed on the commerce of our fellow-citizens by whatever nation, and if success can not be obtained, to lay the facts before the Legislature, that they may consider what further measures the honor and interest of the Government and its constituents demand; if a resolution to do justice as far as may depend upon me, at all times and to all nations, and maintain peace, friendship, and benevolence with all the world; if an unshaken confidence in the honor, spirit, and resources of the American people, on which I have so often hazarded my all and never been deceived; if elevated ideas of the high destinies of this country and of my own duties toward it, founded on a knowledge of the moral principles and intellectual improvements of the people deeply engraven on my mind in early life, and not obscured but exalted by experience and age; and, with humble reverence, I feel it to be my duty to add, if a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service, can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effect.

Now this is quite a bit of prose, flowing nicely as it does from the previous thought. To paraphrase the thoughts, "Speaking as to what the President ought to be like, well, I should probably not say anything. But the occasion calls for something so I'll say this. . ." Adams continues with a massive anaphora through the repetitions of if. This is where Adams outlines himself and his principles for the people. The whole list, though is structured as an argument, and a simple one at that: "If all of these things will help me do the job, which is to serve you, then I'll take it." This list is, again, specific in idea but not in execution.

With this great example before me, with the sense and spirit, the faith and honor, the duty and interest, of the same American people pledged to support the Constitution of the United States, I entertain no doubt of its continuance in all its energy, and my mind is prepared without hesitation to lay myself under the most solemn obligations to support it to the utmost of my power.

This is essentially an oath which sums up the speech (about the virtues of the government, the people, and his predecessor), announces his hope for the future, and commits himself to the task.

And may that Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty, continue His blessing upon this nation and its Government and give it all possible success and duration consistent with the ends of His providence.

Adams concludes with a prayerful invocation for God's blessing, asking for order, justice, and continued protection.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall we may say this speech is characterized by a great density of ideas. No one could accuse Adams of being vague. (Such specificity, as we said, is a lawyerly tendency.) Adams is ever precise and not afraid to use a parenthetical reference to avoid a misreading of his statement. There is a preponderance of pairs and trios of ideas and Adams clearly enjoys such pairings.

Adams too took great pains to include all Americans in his praises and exclude no one from the events he depicted. He was careful not to name people or groups as responsible for the nation's problems. Certainly he was trying to bridge the growing divide he saw between the Republicans and Federalists, using Washington as the model and rallying point. He depicted the situation he came to as positive and put the burden of continued success on himself, the current congress, and the American people. He balances a commitment to the government and constitution itself and the more general principles of republicanism and democracy. He repeatedly emphasizes that the government and constitution is true to these principles. Adams is consistently humble, praising only the wisdom of the people, congress, and Washington.

The speech is dense with ideas and especially dense with verbs, emphasizing action and energy, and modest with use of figurative language, which Adams employs sparingly but effectively. Its argumentation is careful and rather subtle, relying most often on his ability to paint a situation. Adams' lengthy opening, depicting the republic up to the moment of his speech, is quite effective. It draws everyone into the narrative and, by not excluding anyone, makes everyone feel as if they were part of it. As such, it puts everyone on a level playing field and invites all people to take part in the government and not retreat into parties or private life. Though the opening is in a rather learned style and the construction is complex, as a whole the speech is quite approachable.

To consider again Aristotle's categories, we may say that the inaugural speech has two functions: for a president to outline his particular ideas and policy, and to celebrate America. Adams speech is a success as a ceremonial speech, praising the American people and government thoroughly and specifically. Aristotle also noted (Rhetoric I.ii) that three modes of persuasion exist: 1) of the personal character of the speaker, 2) putting the audience in a particular frame of mind, 3) proof or apparent proof of the words themselves. Which does this speech use?

Adams utilizes Mode 1 two times, first suggesting that since he was abroad he was impartial and able wisely to reflect on the constitution and then at the end of the speech that his ideals qualify him for the post. Adams begins with Mode 2, putting the audience in the frame of mind to approve of the government by painting its history and intertwining it with their own wisdom and the ideals of the revolution. The fundamental argument of the speech is that, "If the revolution was just, and you are wise, then the government is good," the argument which Adams makes most subtly in the paragraph of questions. Too, in his final paragraph, he outlines his goals (to maintain peace, to respect state's rights, et cetera.) Adams, then, avails himself of all three modes of persuasion. Adams recommends a course of action (faith participation in the current system) and praises the nation.

Adams does not, though, make any specific recommendations in terms of implementation. The concluding large paragraph is not so much a statement of implementation as of principles. What does "a spirit of equity and humanity toward the aboriginal nations of America" mean in terms of action? What about, "an inclination to improve agriculture?" What does, "an attachment to the Constitution," mean in practice? Too, throughout the rest of the speech Adams talks more of ideas than specific events. He speaks of the "zeal and ardor" of the people but not of specific battles, he mentions that people are represented but not how (i.e., whether sufficiently), and he recalls the "universal languor, and jealousies and rivalries of States" without reference to specific events. These glosses and omissions miss opportunity for potency and vividness, though no doubt Adams made the concessions from a concern not to appear partisan. Unfortunately, when you do not address the alternatives to your policy you inevitably lose some of your ability to praise yours by making the alternatives appear unworkable, immoral, et cetera.

Yet while we are not inclined to see controversial material in the speech we ought to recall that the government was still young and Adams inauguration was the first peaceful transition of power. It was not yet clear that the government would remain and many had doubts about its ability to. Thus Adams' course of action, avoiding potential controversy and emphasizing praise, is quite understandable and one could certainly argue appropriate or even necessary. The narrative is clear: set up, complemented, and most importantly, maintained by the structure. The structure of sentences and the attention to tense and voice are polished and effective. The speech is well-paced and the transitions from idea to idea are elegant. Adams is very effective at suggesting causality, e.g. "because these things are so, such must necessarily follow," and "if we avoid these things, then we will also avoid these." He makes the situation at the time of his speech seem the natural and positive outcome of past events. The whole speech is augmented by varied and vivid diction and careful attention to word order, though Adams' penchant for pairs and trios of words adds some length. There is always a mode of persuasion in use, that is, the speech is always rhetorical. Perhaps most of all, it is always engaging. Overall, a fine speech.

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.