Monday, January 23, 2017

The Foundations Needed for an Education in Rhetoric

Aristotle argued that strong rhetoric requires you to demonstrate logos, ethos, and pathos.

What this implies, and what I haven't really seen anyone discuss in regards to Aristotle's rhetoric (it may be out there, but I haven't seen it discussed) is that if you are going to teach rhetoric, you have to teach students to not only be logical/rational, but also to be ethical and to have empathy.

This means that a liberal education, rooted in teaching grammar, logic, and rhetoric, requires an education in ethics and empathy.

Now ethics and empathy are hardly the same thing, as I discuss here in relation to both of their relationship to beauty and the sublime. And we know now that literature increases empathy in adults and in children in part by improving theory of mind. Indeed, as Aristotle pointed out, fiction/myth is more philosophical/ethical than nonfiction/history precisely because the latter only tell us how things are, while the former tell us how things could and ought to be. And as I suggest here when nonfiction storytellers try to moralize, it actually backfires--or, more accurately, it emphasizes the negative aspects of empathy.

And yes, empathy does have a few negative aspects. For one, it can reduce utilitarian judgment. For another, strong empathy for your in-group means increased hatred for the out-group. Empathy feeds tribalism, while ethics and justice undermine it. Thus, an education in ethics undermines the negative aspects of empathy, and an education in literature increases the positive aspects of empathy, extending it to the Other (thus making us more moral). One can argue that empathy is a part of the moral order, but it's a mixed bag portion that has to be balanced out by other moral considerations. But both empathy and morality are important to develop in no small part because they help us live with others, and they help to moderate other social orders.

Of course, pathos is more than just empathy. It also involves emotions. Meaning, a liberal education needs to educate people in their emotions as well. This is where an education in music and poetry comes in. Indeed, music is one of the liberal arts, though found in the Quadrivium rather than the Trivium. But here we can see where the overlap and reinforce each other. And poetry contributes further by bridging music and the literary arts.

We can see then how deeply interconnected these aspects of a liberal education is. A moral education, gained through moral teachings and the arts, is a necessary aspect of getting a liberal education simply for the fact that it's necessary to most properly learn rhetoric. The same is equally true of gaining an emotional education through music and poetry and the other arts, to be able to develop the pathos needed to better learn rhetoric.

And all of this is just to master rhetoric!
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