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PHC | Rhetoric | Richard M. Weaver and John Henry Newman

Weaver and John Henry Newman

A Shared Vision of the "Image of Man"

Hans-Georg Gadamer writes, "The ubiquity of rhetoric is indeed limitless." Rhetoric is a many splendored thing, and, like most splendiforous ideas, rhetoric is exceedingly complex. Consequently, characterizing visions of rhetoric--especially views held by imperial intellects--is no mean undertaking. That task is further complicated by Newman's subtlety in these matters: but Richard Weaver is as direct as Newman is subtle. When it comes to a vision of rhetoric, I have encountered none more regal than Richard M. Weaver's. According to my mentor, Charles K. Follette, "Weaver's every effort was directed toward the defense of rhetoric." Weaver was a rhetorician, Newman was a churchman; Weaver was captivated with rhetoric, Newman never discusses it directly; Weaver was an apologist/critic of Western culture, Newman pondered the fate of the Church in a rationalistic age. However, as soon as one penetrates the surface, all dissimilarities dissolve; their "deep" views are identical. That is so because, at bottom, Newman and Weaver hold identical views regarding the human condition (what Weaver calls an "image of man") and how best to educate "a being like man on a stage like the world." Both of them envision a rhetoric that presupposes a common sense account of free agency, with its concomitant prescriptions regarding "education of the whole man." In short, they are both Christian humanists; only their programs and disciplines differ.

All of the above suffices as a preliminary examination of the similarities between the men and their programs. Let us now narrow the focus in order to isolate Weaver's vision of rhetoric, contrasting it with Newman’s vision at appropriate points along the line of inquiry. Weaver's view features three elements: The manner in which rhetoric illuminates, defines and helps manage relationships between man, the cosmos and other "selves" (the cultural role of rhetoric); the sense in which suasory discourse is inescapably value laden (language is sermonic); and, most importantly, that the "springs" of the ethics of a language community are accessible to the astute "doctor of culture." This final feature is elucidated in Follette’s dissertation by means of a surface/deep rhetoric dichotomy; to that notion we will return in a moment. First, I will use Follette’s happy bit of analysis to treat each of these three dimensions of Weaver's vision of rhetoric, and close with a suggestion on the importance of Weaverian rhetorical theory to the practice of rhetorical criticism.

One element of the "image of man" mentioned above (held in common by Newman and Weaver) is that humankind is formed in the image of God and, that our design entails certain prescriptive psycho-social functions. Follette argues that the primary feature in Weavers view of the design of man is his "meaning-motivational" faculty, and that, by use of it "man discovers the 'place' whereby he can understand himself as meaningful and which provides him the perspective or ‘distance’ whereby he can synthesize the various factors of his universe into a coherent whole"(435).

So, once an individual gains this perspective, one is in a position to pursue right relationships with those other selves with whom he or she would build community. It is in this sense that "This view generalizes simultaneously to rhetoric and culture since Weaver understood rhetoric as the non-coercive means of regulating cultural intercourse" (435). Thus, for Weaver, a culture existed when a "group of personalities were pluralistically oriented to a single 'tyrannizing image'" (435). The tyrannizing image serves as the ground or "enthymematic base" of rhetorical discourse. Follette calls this the "deep rhetoric." Deep rhetoric, "though it is necessarily" out of discourse, "provides the power of 'surface rhetoric'." In other words: "Weaver's primary contention was that talk is necessarily tendentious in that it carries with it primary commitments to certain metaphysical propositions which provide the warrant for our believing the talk to be 'true' or even sensible" (241). In other words, language is sermonic.

Weaver claimed that all human discourse employs a rhetoric, which is to say that in the course of appealing to man, one necessarily makes assumptions about man; and in urging a particular course as “good,” he necessarily makes assumptions about what constitutes the "good" in general . . . It is communicated to us via surface rhetoric, and since it is so, it moves to a level of being and its statements about rhetoric become themselves situated in rhetoric (241-2).

By means of a sort of profound circularity Follette reveals Weaver's view on the relationship between surface rhetoric and deep rhetoric. Newman might comment on Weaver's point in this way: the "ultimate goods" of society are held in permanence by their status as antecedent probabilities. Surface rhetoric gains its impulse in this way. On the other hand, cultural change, or true Social Development, comes about as surface rhetoric acts on those probabilities that are held antecedently. So then, rhetoric works both ways--it simultaneously sanctions permanence and facilitates change--and this is why Weaver argues that language is inherently sermonic.

Follette's "Weaverian Interpretation of Weaver" entails an application of Weaver's own conception to Weaver's own scholarship. This method is appropriate because, "even as Weaver was explaining how rhetoric necessarily functioned in the abstract, he was tacitly urging a particular view of man and the cosmos (242). Operating on the assumption that language is inherently value-laden, one can access the underlying assumptions of surface discourse, in order to critique the world view and deep rhetoric of a given individual. Follette follows the observation (regarding Weaver's tacit urgings) with a point that should hold particular interest for this seminar: He contends that Weaver is often misinterpreted because his surface pronouncements were "never supported by anything like elegant dialectical ‘proofs’ but that they were ‘proven’ rhetorically” (242). Follette would no doubt argue that Newman and Weaver employed similar rhetorical strategies. (But I digress!)

Follette concludes this move by emphasizing the usefulness of Weaverian doctrine to cultural criticism:

It is particularly important to realize that, on Weaver's view, the primary causes for the modern "descent to Avernus" was the lack of understanding of rhetoric in its totality and the allegiance to an insupportable deep rhetoric or enthymematic base. Given that his acknowledged goal was to bring his community around to right reason, it follows that an important part of his undertaking was the development of a different view of the nature and functioning of rhetoric itself--a view consistent with a dialectically sound world view. . . . This revised view is profoundly prescriptive. Its acceptance pre-supposes and leads to the acceptance of a particular world view and [Weaver] argued that, in a world so constructed--a moral universe in which man is a free agent--this is the way a virtuous rhetoric will proceed (242-3).

Weaver and Newman both challenged the deep rhetoric of their respective cultures; Newman attacking rationalism’s subversion of true belief, Weaver attacking the manner in which science and progress combine to erode (or disintegrate) community. In other words, Weaver's grounds for his prescriptive view of rhetoric were his image of man and his image of man in culture; or, as Newman put it, "a being like man on a stage like the world." Understanding both the image of man and the aspirations for building community go a long way toward explaining why Weaver's vision of rhetoric is so regal; given the aims of both Newman and Weaver, its importance is very nearly limitless.

The application of Weaver's vision to the practice of rhetorical criticism

Weaver's approach suggests a method of conducting what could be called “deep rhetorical criticism.” Deep rhetorical criticism is useful in treating both individual rhetoric and the rhetoric of a given culture; at least insofar as a culture is analogous to the "soul writ large.” Folletteís conclusion suggests the methodology of such criticism:

Weaver understood "rhetoric" as having both formal and substantive aspects. As observable discourse, “rhetoric” is the means whereby the rhetor modifies his audience according to his own desires even as the sophists from ancient to modern times have instructed. This level, "surface rhetoric,” was of minimal concern to Weaver. He was concerned instead with "deep rhetoric”: the ideas of the good and the true whereby situations are rendered exigent and in the name of which remediation is urged. These two levels of rhetoric are articulated via the four stylistic elements of argumentational bases, ultimate terms, pertinences, and resonances (435-6).

The four stylistic elements can be systematized into a critical tool by which one accesses the deep rhetoric of a given text. Follette elaborates the methodology:

On Weaver's account, there are four ways that style establishes its premises. In the first place, it does so via the “bases” of the arguments it advances. Secondly, it does so via the “ultimate terms” it uses to anchor its appeals. In the third place, it establishes its premises by a process of selection--what advances as “pertinent;” and finally, it does so via what Weaver called “resonances” of the discourse (211).

Follette argues that the Weaverian message should have a substantially different effect on the speech field than has generally been the case in the past. Rhetorical criticism, for example, "would examine discourse with a view to exposing the coherence of the overt and covert messages being sent” (439). Such criticism aims to demonstrates how, through style, deep rhetoric impresses itself on surface discourse. The following is a brief explication of each element of style.

In the Ethics of Rhetoric Weaver stated that "a man’s method of argument is a truer index in his beliefs than his explicit profession of principles” (Ethics, 58). One’s basis of argument amounts to one's habit of argument: from cause, definition, circumstances, etc. Which topoi does the individual habitual employ?

Ultimate terms = god terms and devil terms. This is a Burkean notion. Speaking of the meaning/motivational process, Weaver wrote, “We have seen that rhetorical force must be conceived as a power transmitted through the links of a chain that extends upward toward some ultimate source. The higher links of that chain must always be of unique interest to the student of rhetoric, pointing as they do, to some prime mover of human impulse” (Ethics, 211).

Pertinences = Index to one’s “value hierarchy” Thus, a person who consistently insists that she wants “just the facts, please” presupposes that what is “really real” is empir-ically verifiable. Following one’s discourse up the axiological chain eventually will unveil one’s ultimate good or ultimate reality.

Resonances = The force of stylistic similitude. Resonances "gain their power by being suggestive of an authoritative source” (Follette, 228). Does this individual make biblical allusions as a rule, or is she in the habit of using scientific metaphors, does she borrow the language of the Declaration of Independence, etc? What impact does this have, good or ill, on her audience?