Non-Artistic Foolishness for the Greeks

I am preparing for a Rhetoric Symposium by reading about... anyone? Yep, you guessed it, rhetoric. In order to prepare, all of the “symposiasts” (I am having a tough time with that term. I think “sympositas” has a more revolutionary ring) are reading around 200 pages from the textbook, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward Corbett and Robert Connors This text has dutifully collected dust on my shelf for a number of years and the pride of ownership has never previously burdened me with the responsibility to actually read the text. Now, however, I must not only open the book and look for the pictures, diagrams, and sections that I have enjoyed before, but I must actually apply myself to read the text. In other words, I can no longer sit on the sidelines enjoying the book by its cover; I must now begin to engage the authors. I have to participate in this conversation.

Now, the point that strikes me is not whether or not I needed to be compelled to read a book that I had already wanted to read. I do not want to speak about what that need is within me to have some person or event compel me to commit to read this text that I wanted to read. That topic might not have a great rhetorical flair; it may not have have good technical persuasion. How do I know it will not be artistically rhetorical? I have proof. Guess where my proof comes from. You guessed it, the same book that I have read by its cover for years.

Warning: this book has spoilers in its title. If you do not want to find out what happens, do not read this book by its cover, it will be very disappointing. If, however, spoilers are a guilty pleasure for you then read this title. As you satisfy your inordinate attachment to spoilers, Aristotle may be a name that comes up in your associative thinking, and, if so, your spoiler would be almost complete. The only other thing needed to make your spoiler complete would be to remember all that Aristotle wrote on rhetoric and be able to apply those principles in a contemporary context.

Enough with spoilers. What struck me as I began to read is how Aristotle provides two overarching categories of rhetoric or means of persuasion: artistic (technoi) and non-artistic (atechnoi). The authors of this modern digest begin with the second category, non-artistic persuasion. Corbett and Connors say, “Non-artistic or non-technical means of persuasion….were really not part of the art of rhetoric; they came from outside the art. Orators did not have to invent these; they had merely to use them” (17-18). This type of persuasion was not able to be argued for or against; it is the way it is.

An example:

Mom says, “Take out the garbage.”

Son eloquently replies, “Lady-Mother, wherefore does the garbage take its origin, and does your term garbage reflect the same phantasm in my mind? Do we agree what garbage really is?”

To which, Mom, using the full force of the non-artistic persuasion says, “Knock it off and take out the garbage.”

The son may not be convinced, but he has no further argument. Conversely and with all due respect to mothers out there using a similarly appropriate response, Mom’s speech will not go down in the rhetoricians hall of fame. She really has used authority, not persuasion.

So, where is this going? The authors of the text-that-no-longer-has-dust-on-it say, “Aristotle named five kinds of non-artistic proofs: laws, witnesses, contracts, tortures, oaths” (pg. 18). It is interesting to note that these are the non-technical, non-skilled, non-artistic types of persuasion.

Now, I do not know much Greek, but what I know about Greek is that it is both very precise and very complicated. Greek has many different words that are to be used in a precise way. Unlike English, where we “love” pizza and our Mom. Greek has different words for “love” for a pizza (although no word for pizza) and “love” for a mother.

I know that one Greek word for “witness” is martyr. Yes, that is where we get the word that we have in English, and there is an entire meditation on what it means to be a “martyr” within this context of “witness”, but that is not what struck me in this reading.

What struck me was the fact that a witness is a non-artistic method of persuasion. It is non-technical. It is non-skilled. Anyone can do it. Anyone can be a witness. Anyone. Homeless people, children of a certain age, educated, uneducated, all can be witnesses. Princes, thieves, Popes, and teachers can all be witnesses. Disabled and devoted, sinful or saintly, there is not a skill to be learned, an art to be mastered, or a craft to practice to be a witness. A witness is one who has knowledge of what happened, and will swear that it happened. They know what happened, and choose to testify (we’ll save the etymology of that word for a night of drinks) that what happened did happen.

As Christians we are all called to be witnesses to the Resurrection, and anyone can be a witness. It is not a skill reserved for Catholic school teachers or non-Catholic school teachers; it is a non-technical means of persuasion. The Resurrection is just an historical fact. He rose from the dead, and you do not need to be a certified teacher or technician to witness to that fact. “Alleluia” is a word of witness, a word of non-artistic persuasion, what someone may have been referring to when he said “foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor 1:23).

If you want a film to watch that captivated me and, I think, captures the power and simplicity of the non-technical skill of witnessing to the Resurrection, watch Risen. Let us know what you think of it in the comments.

Bill Haley