- Our Best Rhetorologist
Eugene Garver’s new book is not only an original and challenging account of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It is one of the fullest and most responsible encounters ever with philosophical, political, and ethical issues raised by the theory and practice of rhetoric. I’ll go even further. Because Garver grapples so well with how Aristotle’s problems differ from ours, and how his solutions do not quite fit what we most need, I hereby confer upon him, without irony, the title of supreme “rhetorologist” (a term he needs but does not use).
A rhetorologist is not just “rhetorician” or “rhetorical theorist” or “philosopher of rhetoric.” Garver’s work dramatizes our need for a term for the “comparativist of rhetorics,” the thinker who probes how disparate rhetorical practices and theories compete and are finally, inescapably related. In earlier times when all philosophers were trained to think about rhetoric the term “genuine philosopher” might have served the trick. But it won’t work today.
Garver has spent decades on this masterwork of rhetorology, and he thus joins those rare masters-of-interrelated-rhetorics—Kenneth Burke, Richard McKeon, who else?—those who do justice both to the importance and the complexities of a subject that Aristotle has led us into but himself could never have dreamed of, since he had available no fully developed alternative “rhetorics” to do a “-logy” on. [End Page 116]
The book is too ambitious and complex to allow full justice here. It is a book not just to read but to study; it is a book to teach from. All attentive readers will find themselves drawn into issues previously dodged, or engaged in quarrels about theses they’ve never met before. Those like me whose interests overlap strongly with Garver’s will of course dispute about some points. What will prove important, as the book gets discussed, will be our recognition of just why the project itself has led Garver, and leads us, into some inescapable juggling with several different and potentially contradictory theses, each of them so important that it must at moments have invited Garver to consider it as primary. Indeed, when an original thinker bites off more than anyone can chew, let alone fully digest, we should not be surprised if we have a hard time deciding just what the main point is. Several times in my first reading I thought, “Garver has mistitled this book: it should be called . . .”—and then I’d try out a title that fit the argument at that point but would not fit precisely what came next.
The result is that different sympathetic readers will find different books here, with at least the following ambiguously related purposes—all of them to my mind either firmly achieved or at least pursued so effectively that refutation will prove difficult. Some of them are the overt theses of particular chapters, but all are found echoed or implied in every chapter. And all are finally and impressively interrelated.
First, Garver works, as he must, to show the faults of past readings of the Rhetoric. The chief of these has been the reduction to a handbook for rhetors; it is not a technical handbook, though it can be used as that, but an effort to “construct a civic relation between argument and ethos, so between techn̄e and phron̄esis [prudence]” (p. 77). “Aristotle’s political project is to maximize the active—energeia—side of rhetoric and so civilize the activity of influencing beliefs and judgments and convert into a minor irritant the role played by disreputable tactics such as playing on irrelevant emotions in the hearers” (p. 40). “I have . . . assumed that instead of doing that job [the ‘handbook’ job] badly, Aristotle is in fact trying to accomplish something else. I see him exhibiting the internal values and standards of rhetorical argument to legislators and citizens” (p. 235), [and thus making possible] “a new conception of the ethical, and of the relation of logos and ethos” (p. 16). “Aristotle’s Rhetoric is about a civic art...