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  • Justice as a Nexus of Natural Law and Rhetoric
  • Jeffrey J. Maciejewski


Only recently have we begun to build a bridge connecting natural law philosophy and rhetoric.1 At the outset one might ask: "Why do they need to be connected in the first place?" The answer, I believe, lies in these observations: First, despite an unquestionably large body of literature, we have precious little understanding of the teleological purposes of rhetoric as an essential feature of human nature.2 Second, if we care to identify such a telos for rhetoric then we might examine natural law for a viable teleological framework. If, as some theorists hold, rhetoric is a necessary constituent of human social existence, then it would only seem appropriate that we look to a philosophy of human nature to discover exactly why it is necessary.

The matter of identifying a telos for rhetoric is at once old as it is new. As Steve Fuller has suggested, one might go so far as to draw into question Aristotle's teleological conception of rhetoric (2005, 79–80). But one need not revisit the ancients to notice a frequent disconnect between the use of implied directives and a clear teleological footing in which to assert such claims. Nearly 40 years ago, Robert Scott claimed that "inaction, failure to take on the burden of participating in the development of contingent truth, ought be considered ethical failure" (1967, 16). Almost 10 years later, Barry Brummett wrote that "the most ethical world view is one with rhetoric at its center" (1976, 32). Similarly, Christopher Lyle Johnstone wrote: "We might reasonably conclude, therefore, as the counterpart of dialectic, rhetoric serves as the instrument through which moral truths are apprehended. On this analysis, rhetoric is conceived to have a distinctly moral function" (1980, 5). More recently Fuller also had an encounter with the telos of rhetoric, only to dismiss it as a philosophical problem that is "illusory" (2005, 72). So although theorists such as Scott, Brummett, and Johnstone have found themselves giving directives concerning the employment of rhetoric (if not explicitly, then implicitly) they have, to borrow Fuller's turn of phrase, found the teleological underpinnings for making such claims "illusory." [End Page 72]

Interestingly, upon closer examination, these same views yield evidence of a telos for rhetoric, particularly once rhetoric is contextualized within natural law and is conceived as an essential element of human social behavior. To see this as a possibility, consider the view of Kenneth Burke that "rhetoric [is] an important tool of socialization" (quoted in Watson 1973, 75); consider also the position held by Scott that rhetoric is "the possibility of bringing reason together with passion so that in action humans may civilize themselves" (2000, 109). Finally there is the observation of James Kastely that "a reformed rhetoric is ultimately justified as central to the necessary human task of self-invention . . . that is at the heart of communal life" (1997, 13) and there is the view of Johnstone that "since 'the end of the state is the good life,' the proper end of public deliberation must be to frame laws and social policies that will make such a life possible for the members of the community. And the instrument of that deliberation is rhetoric" (1980, 15). These claims begin to take on new meaning when juxtaposed against one important feature of natural law expressed by Ralph McInerny: that "man's natural condition . . . is as a member of a community. The good for man must of necessity concern his fulfillment or perfection as a member of society. The moral dimension then is not some putative choice to live or not to live in society, but how to do this well" (2000, 4, emphasis added). Bringing these viewpoints together, we are left with this: If, according to McInerny, we are disposed to live with one another communally (this being but one human good, one that we are morally required to do well) and further, if according to Burke, Scott, Kastely, and Johnstone rhetoric is constitutive of human social life (ostensibly enabling us to live together well), then it would seem there is a telos to rhetoric that can be sourced to natural...


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