51 In Defense of Rhetoric: On the Vanity of Words

I expect Montaigne to challenge me day by day, but I don’t expect him to attack me. As a professional speechwriter, how else am I supposed to feel after this essay’s full frontal assault on “rhetoricians”? Witness this Montaigne paragraph (and dare I call it more than a little hyperbolic?)

In former times there was a rhetorician who said his job was to make trivial things seem big and to be accepted as such. He is a cobbler who can make big shoes fit little feet. In Sparta they would have had him flogged for practising the art of lying and deception.

Flogging? Really, Montaigne? And I thought having my speeches reviewed by lawyers was torture enough. We deserve any punishment we get, according to Montaigne, because our goal is to cloud reason:

Rhetoricians pride themselves on deceiving not our eyes but our judgement, bastardizing and corrupting things in their very essence.

Pride themselves? That’s funny, because I usually pride myself in being able to take dense material and turn it into something understandable for lay readers and listeners. I’ve always found the PR managers to be the ones advocating lies and deception. But Montaigne is not alone in his attack on rhetoricians and he brings up historical examples next:

Ariston wisely defined rhetoric as the art of persuading the people; Socrates and Plato, as the art of deceiving and flattering; and those who reject this generic description show it to be true by what they teach….It is a means invented for manipulating and stirring up the mob and a community fallen into lawlessness; it is a means which, like medicine, is used only when states are sick.

Now that he’s raised the specter of Socrates and Plato, I have to say that I always found their attack on the Sophists hysterical. Plato in particular is using the Sophists to launch a veiled attack on democracy, and Montaigne in his reference to sick states apparently agrees. Actually, Montaigne takes it the extra mile:

Rhodes and Rome where the populace, or the ignorant, or all men, held all power and where everything was in perpetual turmoil, the orators flooded in….Few great men in those countries managed to thrust themselves into positions of trust without the help of eloquent speech: Pompey, Caesar, Crassus, Lucullus, Lentulus and Metellus all made it their mainstay for scrambling up towards that grandiose authority which they finally achieved, helped more by rhetoric than by arms, contrary to what was thought right in better times.

That’s a stunning statement to modern ears and eyes –leadership should be proven and attained on the battlefield, not by force of reason. By taking this position, Montaigne has clearly indulged in rhetorical excess. How else can a Man of Letters like himself judge the Man of Iron as more virtuous? In fairness to Montaigne, the Man of Letters had not yet reached a position of cultural importance in his day.

It took Shakespeare and Cervantes – both influenced by Montaigne – to begin the transition. America’s first President was a man of war, but Adams, Jefferson and Madison were men of ideas and words (and President Washington’s farewell address was a crafty combination of reason and rhetoric.) Barack Obama rose to prominence purely on the power of a beautifully written autobiography and an expertly delivered keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention.

Reading Obama’s books, you can’t help but feel Montaigne’s hand guiding him, whether Obama had actually read his essays or not. Montaigne helped open up an entirely new way of thinking and communicating … and we choose our leaders today based on their ability to excel at Montaigne’s art.

But you’d never guess that from this essay. Rhetoric received a bum rap from Plato and the macho posturing against it continues even to this day. Reason requires more than making another person think, you also need to make that person understand … and you cannot reach a state of understanding with feeling. Montaigne’s heart knew this truth better than did Montaigne’s head.

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