Richard Weaver’s Language is Sermonic

Richard Weaver, who died in 1963, is an strange figure in rhetoric and composition. He was a Platonist – and I don’t mean a neo-Platonist, or a middle Platonist, but a Platonist, as he got his view of rhetoric straight from the three speeches in the Phaedrus and applied it directly to the teaching of his era. When he declared ‘language in sermonic’ he appears to mean that rhetoric is always promoting some sort of value system. The rhetor has possible worldviews – a piddling, dispassionate neutrality (Lysias’s speech) base deception (Socrates’s first speech) and persuasive appeals to the good and the true (Socrates’s second speech). Given these three choices, a teacher with his or her head screwed on correctly must choose option #3, and teach with an agenda – and this agenda should be not be pragmatic, objective, or relativist, but uphold the republican traditions of America. Weaver holds perhaps his highest disdain for positivists and scientific rhetoric, which pretends to be objective while being blatantly rhetorical in structure.

In other words, what we’ve got here is a conservative English teacher. And when I say conservative I don’t mean neo-conservative. Weaver is an old-school, meat and potatoes Edmund Burke ‘n Winston Churchill conservative, the kind that puts poetry and the classics on a pedestal and maintains obliviousness to race or any social issues.

Weaver is particularly interesting given the book by Jasper Neel I read not long ago. Neel retreats from the extremes of Plato and Derrida’s ilk to embrace a sophistical and pragmatic middle ground. Weaver would equate him with Lysias, of course, and argue that such instruction does not support democracy by arming all citizens, but subverts our more noble traditions by making all truth relative.

The collection of essays by Weaver that I have – “Language is Sermonic” is worth careful reading and re-reading – his defense of the Athenians that executed Socrates is pretty enthralling (and based on a nice description of dialectic as revolutionary yet unconnected to real life) – even though I think (right now, at least) that he is making the same mistake that Cicero made – his preoccupation with the old agrarian society of the South is telling. It’s true we need myths, religion, and various forms of patriotic fervor to maintain a minimum standard of civilized society – a standard that Weaver fears will fall. But I can’t agree that the purpose of education is to reinforce current or past systems. Education gives this generation a chance to teach the next generation how to avoid the mistakes of the past, to be rhetorically aware critics that can improve, not just sustain, society. We can see that the education system failed, for example, when Bush was re-elected, despite creating another Vietnam and destroying our nation’s diplomatic reputation. The lesson of that war wasn’t learned by over 50% of voting Americans.

Now I would agree with Weaver’s two-part test for being a teacher, which is in his essay “To Write The Truth,” which, unsurprisingly, argues that compositionists should teach vere loqui:

“By what act of arrogance do we imagine that we know what things really are? The answer to this is: By what act of arrogance do we set up ourselves as teachers? There are two postulates basic to our profession: the first is that one man can know more than another, and the second is that such knowledge can be imparted.”

Note that he does not add a third – knowing how to teach. That would be unrealistic.

So does agreeing with these two things make me a Platonist, if one that is not conservative? I’m certainly not so post-process that I would turn up my nose at the second of those propositions. I’m certainly more comfortable with the notion of Neel’s “strong discourse” than I am with the strange idea that I’ve been contributing to the downfall of Western society by teaching composition without telling my students what is what. The price of maintaining a standard of scholarly objectivity, of avoiding indoctrination, Weaver argues, is too high, as there is a battle between good and evil rhetoric going on out there. Simply handing out loaded guns without telling people who to shoot is being a mercenary, a kind of arms dealer – a true sophist.

I find Weaver’s line of argument intensely troubling. There is an assumption in composition, I think, that by teaching students to articulate their positions clearly and distinctly with supporting evidence, to form sound arguments, that they will naturally find themselves holding more open-minded positions that they would have otherwise. In the meantime, we need to artfully dodge the student that cites the Bible as infallible evidence, the student that declares abortion is killing babies, and the student that thinks the war in Iraq was justified – not to mention the student that enrolled to acquire ‘writing skill’ or 3 credits instead of a philosophy of communication, and will resist or resent anything else. If I understand him correctly, Weaver is saying that enlightenment doesn’t happen unless the teacher provides sound definitions and predications – which makes such a teacher a true ‘doctor of philosophy’ by holding off the vile forces of relativism.

I’ll say more on this later., but I will say this for now: I don’t have an ethical problem with espousing an expressly open-minded, even liberal, model of rhetoric, and I think I’m humanistic enough that no one will ever charge me with being too objective. My fear, I suppose, is in alienating my students, and confronting them directly over their beliefs. As Socrates discovered, dialectic pisses most people off. But I think it’s valuable to note that if I had to describe the kind of mind a student should have upon graduating with a liberal arts degree, then that mind would be one that would NOT get pissed off from dialectic/Socratic questioning – and would welcome the chance to define their position, even if that meant their position might fall apart. If that is the goal, then I must become more diligent about pursuing it in the classroom.

2 thoughts on “Richard Weaver’s Language is Sermonic

  1. You think Weaver is a conservative like Edmund Burke? Seriously? His book ‘the ethics of rhetoric’ is an extended argument in support of the thesis that Edmund Burke is the opposite of a conservative…..

    1. I may have painted with too broad a brush, but if I recall correctly, it wasn’t Burke’s positions that Weaver had a problem with; rather, it was his method of argument that he found to be ‘liberal’. See here.

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