restricted access 7. Conclusion: Attention and Cartesian Rhetoric
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7 Conclusion Attention and Cartesian Rhetoric Two controversies in the 1690s helped solidify a narrow view that still persists of Cartesian rhetoric. In 1687 Charles Perrault brought the smoldering quarrel of the ancients and moderns into the open with his poem Le Silcle de Louis ie Grand, which celebrates the artistic superiority of the Sun King's reign. The third dialogue (1690) of his ParalWe des anciens et des modernes is devoted to the demonstration of his contemporaries' excellence in eloquence. He establishes proper method leading to clarity as the essential quality of fine eloquence, whether the goal is to instruct, to please, or to persuade. l The true method, imperfectly known to the Romans and Greeks, but exemplified in the theory and practice of Descartes, assures the moderns' triumph.2 Perrault 's heirs were to include Fontenelle and the poet Antoine Houdar de La Motte. According to Fontenelle, The geometric spirit is not so linked to geometry that it cannot be extracted and transported to other fields ofknowledge . A work of ethics, politics, criticism, and perhaps even eloquence, will be more beautiful, all things being equal, if it is drawn with the hand of a geometer. L'esprit geometrique n'est pas si attache ala geometrie, qu'il n'en puisse etre tire, et transporte it d'autres connaissances. Un ouvrage de morale, de politique, de critique, peut-etre meme d'eloquence, en sera plus beau, toutes choses d'ailleurs egales, s'il est fait de main de geometre.3 La Motte, in turn, sought to extend geometry to poetry and theater because he saw method as a universal requirement in all genres: "I believe ... that method is necessary in all kinds of 168 Attention and Rhetoric 169 works" (".Ie crois ... gu'il faul de la methode dans toutes sortes d'ouvrages,,).,j The second quarrel turned entirely on rhetoric. In his preface to a translation of Augustine's sermons in 1694, Goibaud Dubois invoked the authority of the author ofDe doctTina chTistiana for his recommendation that preachers limit their use ofthe imagination and senses.!i His subsequent arguments based on psychological principles have a Malebranchian ring.H He denounces the imagination for paralyzing the intelligence, thus making attention to pure ideas impossible.7 The essential religious truths that bring lasting conversion to sinners are perceived only by the pure intelligence; if appeals to the senses, whether affective or imaginative , are to be allowed at ali, they are permissible only after the intelligence has been won over: "The entire man must be stirred; and one may do it without danger provided that one begins with the intellect ... after having filled the intellect and convinced it of the truths one preaches, they can be communicated to the imagination." ("II faut remuer l'homme tout entier; et on peut Ie faire sans danger POUl'VU gu'on commence par I'intelligence ... apres l'avoir remplie et convaincue des verites que l'on pI'€:che , on peut ... les imprimer al'imagination.")s Thus he l'eCOl11mends a geometric order in order to communicate truth more fully to the intelligence and advises a sparing use of stylistic ornament.ll Accounts like those of Perrault or Dubois of an eloquence that is centered around method fixed the received notion of Cartesian rhetoric: a requirement that all rational proofs conform to the clarity of self-evidence, provision for the emotions only if they follow intellectual conviction, the use of impersonal geometry as a model for disposition, and the reduction of style to neutral mathematical notation. However, a more positive reading of the rhetorical theory generated from Descartes' notion of persuasion and the psychology that underpins it is possible. In spite of Descartes' professed disinterest in the rules of eloquence, not only does he exploit its stratagems, but a space that might be labeled rhetorical emerges within his system. Despite claims to the contrary in the DiscouTs, his replies to the Sixii11nes Objections point to·the f~lCt that dear and distinct ideas are not always sufficient to persuade, at least when opposed by the relentless prejudices accumulated in childhood. 170 Attention and Rhetoric At the least, a rhetoric of philosophical discourse is authorized. Furthermore, he acknowledges that in the most urgent affairs of life, suspending judgment until self-evidence can be reached is impractical. Descartes left to his successors the task of resolving the triple problematic I alluded to in the introduction: circumscribing and identifying this rhetorical space, describing the psychological processes by which persuasion...


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