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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 567-583
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Oratory and Social Responsibility
Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God
Chinwe Christiana Okechukwu
Rhetoric has always embraced the social responsibility of guiding audiences towards making right decisions. After all, the art of rhetoric became essential only after there were societies and people to persuade. Still, much as it brings about social cohesion, rhetoric also has the power to cause disintegration and can have serious consequences when its components are dismembered—with dialectics seeking to persuade alone and verbal dexterity performing the suasory function independent of social responsibility.
Theoreticians of rhetoric have, from the start, linked morality to adeptness in speaking. Aristotle—who defined rhetoric as "the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever"(Art of Rhetoric I. Ii.2 [J.H. Freese, trans. Loeb. Ed.]. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991)—argued that successful rhetoric employs logos, ethos, and pathos to persuade. The rhetor, or eloquent orator, uses a combination of dialectically analyzed logos of the subject of persuasion (arrived at through induction or deduction) and appeals to both the ethical and the pathetical dimensions of the suasory situation in order to make the audience believe in the thesis presented to it. Indeed, Aristotle saw rhetoric as a counterpart of dialectics but recognized that neither rhetoric nor dialectics can perform effectively in a suasory endeavor without the other (Rhetoric II.I). Cicero, while recognizing the effect of a "well-ordered and embellished speech" as very potent in persuasion, stressed the need for rhetoric to go hand in hand with dialectics (De Oratore, Bk 1: 50). In the same vein, Quintilian defined an orator as "a good man skilled in speaking"(Institutio Oratorium, XII, intro. 3-1. I [H.E. Butler, trans. Loeb Ed.]. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991). Richard M. Weaver, taking his cue from Aristotle, has asserted that dialectics and rhetoric are distinguishable stages of argumentation, with dialectics defining the subject and rhetoric actualizing the possibilities raised by dialectical reasoning (The Ethics of Rhetoric [Davis, CA: Hermogoras P., 1985] 27). According to him, rhetoric is "truth plus its artful presentation" (Ethics of Rhetoric, 15). In "The Cultural Role of Rhetoric," Weaver demonstrates the fate of a rhetorician who has dialectical skill but does not have power to persuade (Visions of Order: The Cultural Crises of Our Time [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964] 65). 1 In Weaver's "Language is Sermonic" and Ideas Have Consequences—as well as in the works of such other eminent commentators on language as Michel Foucault (The Order of Discourse), Kenneth Burke (A Grammar of Motives), Ivor A. Richards (Philosophy of Rhetoric), and Mikhail Bakhtin ("The Problem [End Page 567] of Speech Genres")—language is never neutral; it can always be manipulated to change the auditor's opinion. The good rhetor, in Weaver's view, must embrace the responsibilities of discerning matters in their proper relationships and of properly conveying the matters thus discerned in order to guide the audience in making right choices (Ethics of Rhetoric, 17-18). Public speakers, all thoughtful people agree, possess social powers and should therefore be judiciously appraised.
For his part, Chinua Achebe—whose mission, consistently articulated, has been to educate his society through the novel—demonstrates in Arrow of God the calamity that overtakes a society that does not have a responsible rhetorician to guide it in its time of political need. Such a time is exemplified in the novel as the moment when a society is in imminent danger of cultural genocide unleashed by the agents of Western imperialism who have just settled in the indigenous society.
The key people in the drama of Arrow of God are Ezeulu, the chief priest of Umuaro; Nwaka, Ezeulu's arch enemy; Captain Winterbottom, the British Administrator in charge of affairs in the colonized society of Umuaro and its environs; Mr. Goodcountry, the representative of the Christian faith in Umuaro; and Moses Unachukwu, an Umuaro convert who constantly challenges Mr. Goodcountry's authority in matters concerning Umuaro customs.
The plot is not intricate. Umuaro is...