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Rhetoric -- The Art of Persuasion

   Date: Fri, 15 Dec 2000 14:36:07 EST
   From: Merv Silberberg <RockIV@aol.com>


Here is a quote on a subject that I found to be interesting to me, 
rhetoric.  This is from Hugh Nibley, professor emeritus of ancient 
studies at BYU.  You may want to check it out, especially the last 
sentence of this first paragraph:

"The disease our world is suffering from is not something peculiar 
to a uniquely scientific age, but the same virus that has finished 
off all the other great societies of which we have record.  The 
ancients call it rhetoric.  What it amounts to is the acceptance, 
for the sake of power and profits, of certain acknowledged standards 
of lying.

Every profession has these, and all that prevents total collapse of 
a civilization is an immovable column that stands at the center of
everything, a zone of impartial justice guaranteeing the integrity 
of the entire structure.  When those who referee the game become the 
leading practitioners of deception, the civilization is finished. 
Nothing stops the corrosive progress of rhetoric once it begins to 
work, for the highest achievement of the art, the ancients tell us, 
is that skill which convinces patron, customer, or victim that no 
rhetoric at all is being used.  Its victory is complete when it 
declares itself abolished.  The only counteragent which has had any 
effect in dealing with this deadly thing is the gospel, which will 
continue to be effective as long as there are people who read the 
scriptures for themselves.

Rhetoric, as we shall see, creates an unreal world.  That is its 
great power, like the power of those idols of wood or stone whose 
appeal was precisely that they could not see or hear but ever 
remained perfectly compliant to the wishes and purposes of their 
owners.  As with a jet engine, the efficiency of rhetoric steadily 
increases as its surrounding element approximates more and more to 
a perfect vacuum.  As it destroys the real world around it, the 
power of rhetoric becomes ever more invincible, moving inexorably 
towards total supremacy in a total vacuum.

We have almost reached that condition today, for some of our 
greatest fortunes and mightiest corporations are built not on 
secret formulas for cold drinks or hamburger patties, but on 
the conversion of those trifles into symbols of youth, beauty, 
health, super-fun, family togetherness, the soft caress of a 
child, the flag unfurled, that is what the rascals are selling, 
and it is the ultimate triumph of the pure rhetoric in the modern 

from: Unpublished Introduction to "Victoriosa Loquacitas", Of All
Things!  Classic Quotations from Hugh Nibley, compiled by Gary P. 
Gillum, 2nd ed., pp. 191_192

And here is a little more, also from Hugh Nibley:

"...Topnotch rhetors amassed immense fortunes by fabulous gifts 
and fees; their sons and daughters married into the imperial 
family; they ruled their communities like little tyrants, while 
great cities eagerly bade for their services, and the whole world 
zealously followed every detail of their private lives.  Never had 
an educational project succeeded so well as theirs once the resistance 
of philosophy had been broken by their imitation philosophy.

Their schools became the state schools, and all private instruction 
was officially prohibited.

Every town in the empire kept its own staff of high salaried 
grammarians and Sophists, and boasted of being a little Athens 
in its own right.

And it was all just show: the deliberate cultivation of appearances 
as the surest road to money and success.

"It is astounding," writes Professor Schanz, "with what silly stuff 
the public was fed."  But the public asked for no better, and the 
rule of rhetoric was: Give people what they want, and you have them 
where you want them.

What is rhetoric?

Aristotle defines it as the "art of persuasion," the technical skill 
by which one convinces people -- convinces, that is, everybody of 
anything for a fee, according to Clement of Alexandria.

It is the training and skill by which one can make unimportant things
seem important, according to Plato, or, to quote Clement again, "make
false opinions seem true by means of words."

But that sort of thing paid: Boethus of Tarsus, who advertised that 
he could speak extemporaneously for any length of time on any subject 
in the world, became the most powerful man in his city and one of the
richest in the Empire.

Rhetoric, "the queen of the world," was simply super-salesmanship; 
and the rhetorician sought in the end to sell not goods but himself, 
in the words of Seneca, who repeatedly advises the youth of the land 
to study nothing but rhetoric since it alone holds the key to success.

If you can impress people, rhetoric taught, the world is your's.

Clement of Alexandria, following Aristotle, says that rhetoric
"abstracts in a specious manner the whole business of wisdom, and
professes a wisdom which it has not studied".

... and Augustine says rhetoric is, "the more praiseworthy the more
fraudulent it is."

Merv Silberberg 
3700 Sacramento Street 
San Francisco, CA 94118 

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