- Thomas Aquinas on Persuasion: Action, Ends, and Natural Rhetoric by Jeffrey Maciejewski
Aristotle defined man as a rational and political animal. In this creative appropriation of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, Jeffrey Maciejewski argues that man is also a rhetorical animal. There is in each one of us a natural inclination to use persuasive modes of thought and speech, and this moves us [End Page 154] to reason about ends and to act in pursuit of them. More pointedly (and radically), Maciejewski argues that all discursive reasoning is, by its very nature, rhetorical.
To understand how radical this thesis is, it is important to understand that ancient thinkers limited rhetoric to the social dimension of human discourse. On this view, "if our nature, as social animals, is defined by a coming together to form cities, to establish laws, and to discover arts, it is a coming together made possible by a rhetorically motivated faculty of discourse, a seemingly innate power of persuading each other, a power that is necessary to bring about social cohesion" (1-2). Maciejewski has no objection to this view as far as it goes. But this standard perspective is problematic: it does not go far enough. For on Maciejewski's view, the very essence of discursive thought is teleological, directed towards action. This by itself is enough to make all discursive thought (practical and speculative: see chap. 2) rhetorical, since as Maciejewski puts it, "the proximate end of rhetoric is to precipitate action" (16).
From ancient times, thinkers such as the Greek Isocrates and the Roman Cicero have noted the necessity of rhetoric for the maintenance and flourishing of human society. As Cicero put it, "many cities have been established, many wars extinguished, many most enduring alliances and most holy friendships have been cemented by deliberate wisdom much assisted and facilitated by eloquence" (2, quoting De inventione). Nature, it seems, has outfitted us with the ability to engage in persuasive discourse.
If asked how nature has done this, Maciejewski claims that none of the ancients has an answer. It is in attempting to answer this question himself , through creative appropriation of Aquinas's views, that he arrives at the conclusion that "the discourse Aquinas refers to [in his discussion of the discursive movement of the intellect] … is persuasive; that is, it is rhetorical insofar as it is a form of discourse that precipitates movement" (8). Underlining its essential rootedness in human nature, Maciejewski gives this "discursive action of the intellect" the name "natural rhetoric" (ibid.).
At the risk of oversimplification, Maciejewski seems to be saying that the social use of rhetoric is an end (the end) that determines the nature of human discourse at every level. All of our thinking is social in this respect because all of it is directed toward persuading ourselves or others to act: "So it is that the good for man—as it is constituted individually and as it is apprehended socially—what enables us to live with one other [sic] well, is dependent on a form of naturally occurring rhetorical abilities, a form of persuasion that is characteristically human, that is natural in the richest sense, that is natural rhetoric" (106-7).
Maciejewski's argument spans four chapters. In the first, he develops the notion of a natural rhetoric, making use of Aristotelian essentialism and Thomistic action theory to conclude that we have, by nature, the ability to develop "the basic goods of prudence, justice, and sociability" thanks to "a [End Page 155] mechanism [i.e., natural rhetoric] by which action is constituted" and directed to these goods as to their natural ends (28). In the remaining chapters, Maciejewski elaborates the notion of natural rhetoric by applying it to the study of the act of understanding, defective action, and the formation of the moral virtues, all with a view to explaining "why it is we have been given [the] uniquely human capacity" of persuasion (104).
In attempting to assess the success of Maciejewski's...