Pretending and Lying: The Nature of Humankind and Rhetorical Theory Choices
Working Paper October 2016
When Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrects-Tyteca begin their New Rhetoric, they assume that people do not argue about the obvious. Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca make the case that the scientific and intellectual revolutions of the Enlightenment have brought about a situation in which facts reign, and the reign of facts has spread out to most of the sciences and most of the departments in the universities, and therefore, why argue? One needs to only assert facts. “What is important to the partisans of the experimental and inductive sciences is not so much the necessity of propositions as their truth, their conformity with facts” (2, italics in original). Now I take Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca to mean the realm of science more than the realm of ideology but they do mean both. Basically, they are saying that since Descartes, non-mathematical/formal logic reasoning and argumentation have been pushed further and further away from the public discussions. You could almost say that what someone who is not in an obviously scientific/mathematical discipline (a hard science) is encouraged to do to win rhetorically is to scentificize/mathematemetize, get categorized as a fact discipline and thereby never have to argue anything. One in such a position only needs to assert facts. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca take issue with this overwhelming reign of “facts” and see a place for non-mathematical/formal logic reasoning and argumentation, because our thought processes do not make the distinction between passion and formal logic, or imagination and evidence, that the post-Cartesian world-view suggests they do.
Now I would not disagree with Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca’s description of our current situation and the reasons for it. For they say, “It is the idea of self-evidence as characteristic of reason, which we must assail, if we are to make place for theory of argumentation that will acknowledge the use of reason in directing our own actions and influencing those of others. Self-evidence is conceived both as a force to which every normal mind must yield and as a sign of the truth of that which imposes itself because it is self-evident” (3, italics in original). I only would like to emphasize that Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca assume normal minds yield to self-evident truths. This might be true, for the most part, in science, and I lay the hard sciences aside and devote myself exclusively to the realm of ideology. And it may be true that even in ideological realms normal minds yield to self-evident truths. However, do they confess them? There may be a great gulf between what is thought in the mind and what is spoken as self-evident truth. Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca go on, “the object of the theory of argumentation is the study of the discursive techniques allowing us to induce or to increase the mind’s adherence to the theses presented for its assent” (4, italics in original).
In other words, I accept that Descartes is acceptable to take in terms of his discussion of self-evidence. I only argue that Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca are leaving something out—the element of deceit. If people do adhere to self-evident truths, but they do not like to admit them to themselves, then argumentation and rhetoric are not about trying to increase any adherence to a thesis. Argumentation and rhetoric assume that in the realm of ideology, the major theses are already adhered to on some level in each person. However, people do not articulate them. They speak other ideologies other than the ones that they know to be true. People hold these “solid beliefs” that are “admitted without proof [and] very often not even made explicit” (8), but they do not admit them. To believe is not the same as to teach.
Poets and novelists have a reputation as truth-tellers precisely because they assert truths that are self-evident but that people do not necessarily like to confess. Indeed, the more self-evident and deeply held the truth, the less likely people are to want to confess it, in many cases, especially ideologically charged cases. People like to hide.
One truth-teller, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a whole book on the topic, we might say. For in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it is said of one of the main characters, Gabriel John Utterson, in the second line of the novel that “something eminently human beaconed from his eye” (1). So the lawyer Utterson is characterized as human. But very shortly after this, when we find out about the evil act that Mr. Hyde committed, Mr. Enfield says “I saw that Sawbones turned sick and white with the desire to kill [Hyde]. I knew what was in his mind, just as he knew what was in mine; and killing being out of the question, we did the next best” (3). You begin to be suspicious of yourself when you read this, that you are human, you are Hyde. But we all don’t like to talk about this, as Mr. Enfield says, we also say, “I feel very strongly about putting questions; it partakes too much of the style of the day of judgment. You start a question, and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back garden, and the family have to change their name. no, sir, I make it a rule of mine: the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask” (4).
We all may have a “volume of some dry divinity” on our reading desks (6), but we, like Utterson, are human. And therefore when Hyde is described as that “human Juggernaut” that hurt a child (8), we are all also possibly that kind of human, not necessarily the Utterson kind, if there is such a kind. For of Utterson we find that it can be to him as it was for Hyde that “lo! there would stand by his side a figure to whom power was given, and even at that dead hour, he must rise and do its bidding” (8). We, like Utterson, care about and are in touch with our “fellow creatures” (28), in good times and bad because we are both Jekyll and Hyde.
Throughout the book the characters struggle with whether or not they should call Mr Hyde human. For example it says “God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say?” (10). Hyde is described as trampling “with ape-like fury” (15). He cries out “like a rat” (30). He jumps “like a monkey” (32). He is said to have “ape-like spite” (54). Hyde is called “it” but then they say they heard “it weeping” and “weeping like a woman or a lost soul” (32).
So the fact remains, Mr. Hyde is Mr. Jekyll. And Mr. Hyde is likely to be human, and so is Mr. Utterson, and therefore we are likely also to be Mr. Hyde, if we are human, whether we wish to think of ourselves as Gabriel John Utterson or Dr. Jekyll. Utterson describes Dr. Jekyll in sympathetic terms because it is familiar to himself, and to all of us, “[Jekyll] was wild when he was young; a long while ago…Ah, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace; punishment coming pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault” (11). Now the book seems to imply that “the majority of men” are a little higher than Hyde, (42), that the “vast majority of my fellows” would choose to do the right thing, not the wrong thing, in most cases (49). But by whatever percentage, Hyde is there.
The book, we can say, is in places religious in its allusions. For example, it says, “if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face” (10). Jekyll also in one place quotes Apostle Paul, saying “I am the chief of sinners” (23; 1 Timothy 1:15). But the book tries to understand man in a way that is beyond religion, in a sort of natural law way. The book talks about “man’s dual nature” in almost a Freudian sense, saying they “contended in the field of my consciousness” (43). But in this context there is again the allusion to Paul’s “war among my members” (42, Romans 7). And in another case there is the reference to Daniel; Jekyll says, “This inexplicable incident, this reversal of my previous experience, seemed, like the Babylonian finger on the wall, to be spelling out the letters of my judgement” (48). I would call the book ideological in its truth-telling.
So, why are poets truth-tellers? Because they will tell truths that others, we regular people, who like to hide, do not wish to tell. This obviously has implications for rhetoric and the teaching of rhetoric. To go back to Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca,
It is to be observed that where rational self-evidence comes into play, the adherence of the mind seems to be suspended to a compelling truth, and no role is played by the processes of argumentation. The individual, with his freedom of deliberation and of choice, defers to the constraining force of reason, which takes from him all possibility of doubt. Thus, maximally efficacious rhetoric, in the case of a universal audience, is rhetoric employing nothing but logical proofs (32).
But what if the individual is not doubting, what if he is submitting to the logical proofs, or the assertions of what is self-evident, but he will not admit them? This makes the role of rhetoric not to persuade but to gain a confession. It strikes me in this 500 year anniversary of the Reformation to notice that Martin Luther had this kind of view of rhetoric’s role. And Luther is “the man about whom more has been written than any other western figure of the Common Era except Jesus Christ” (Leroux 1-2). And Luther, in The Bondage of the Will, repeatedly claims that Erasmus, his opponent, actually agrees with him, Luther, but will not admit it. Luther says right in the second paragraph, “I thought it outrageous [for you, Erasmus] to convey material of so low a quality in the trappings of such rare eloquence; it is like using gold or silver dishes to carry garden rubbish or dung. You seem to have had more than an inkling of this yourself, for you were reluctant to undertake the task of writing; because, I suppose, your conscience warned you that, whatever literary resources you might bring with you into the fray, you would not be able to impose on me, but I should see through all your meretricious verbiage to the vile stuff beneath” (Luther 63). And again, “But, as I said, let the words go; for the moment, I acquit your heart; but you must write no more in this strain. Fear the Spirit of God, who searches the reins and heart, and is not deceived by stupid speeches. I say this in order that from now on you may stop accusing our side of obstinacy and stubbornness. By so doing, you merely let us see that in your heart…” (Luther 70). In other words, Luther asserts that Erasmus thinks one thing but says another. Erasmus pretends. Indeed, Luther uses this very word: “This bombshell knocks ‘free-will’ flat, and utterly shatters it; so that those who want to assert it must either deny my bombshell, or pretend not to notice it…” (Luther 80). And it isn’t just Erasmus, but all the people who disagree with Luther, who are pretending. “But those who wished to seem wise argued themselves out of it till their hearts grew dark and they became fools, as Rom 1 says (vv 21-22), and denied, or pretended not to know, things which the poets, and the common people, and even their own consciences held as being most familiar, most certain, and most true” (Luther 83).
As the above quote from Luther marks, there are truths that people know but argue against. And if you agree with me that this is the case, then you must also agree with me that there is a problem in teaching rhetoric as “persuasion” or telling students to write a paper that “grabs the reader’s attention” in order to convince them of a truth that they do not know. To do rhetoric is, as poets know, to tell truths to people in ways that remind them and stick with them and haunt them.
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca say, “The very nature of deliberation and argumentation is opposed to necessity and self-evidence, since no one deliberates where the solution is necessary or argues against what is self-evident” (1). I don’t think so. I think more like Locke,
It is evident how much men love to deceive and be deceived, since rhetoric, that powerful instrument of error and deceit, has its established professors, is publicly taught, and has always been had in great reputation: and I doubt not but it will be thought great boldness, if not brutality, in me to have said thus much against it. Eloquence, like the fair sex, has too prevailing beauties in it to suffer itself ever to be spoken against. And it is in vain to find fault with those arts of deceiving, wherein men find pleasure to be deceived” (Locke 827).
If the discipline of rhetoric is in tatters because people who use rhetoric on audiences so often do so deceitfully, then why don’t we not only question the rhetorician but the audience? If the rhetoricians are liars, why are the audiences always characterized as so pure? Why aren’t they liars too?
Aristotle said in his Rhetoric, “that which is true and better is naturally always easier to prove and more likely to persuade” (13. Book 1.12). Indeed. Aristotle also said in “On Sophistical Refutations” that,
Furthermore, you should seek for paradoxes in men’s wishes and professed opinions. For they do not wish the same things as they declare that they wish, but they give utterance to the most becoming sentiments, whereas they desire what they think is to their interest. They declare, for example, that a noble death ought to be preferred to a pleasurable life and honorable poverty to discreditable wealth; but their wishes are the opposite of their words ([172b] Loeb 71).
Indeed. And one only need to go to our criminal justice systems and notice that almost all incarcerated criminals claim that they are not guilty. Or at least, that they are Dr. Jekyll and that Mr. Hyde did it. But the vast majority of them are truly guilty. And so the persuasion is not to get them to learn the truth, but to get a confession of it.
Aristotle. “On Sophistical Refutations [4th century BC],” in On Sophistical Refutations, On Coming-to-be and Passing Away, On the Cosmos. E. S. Forster (transl 1955) Loeb 1955. Pp 11-155.
Aristotle. Rhetoric [4th century BC]. John H Freese (transl 1939). Loeb 2006.
Leroux, Neil. “Luther’s Am Neujahrstage: Style as Argument,” Rhetorica. 12:1, Winter 1994. Pp 1-42.
Locke, John. “From An Essay Concerning Human Understanding ,” in The Rhetorical Tradition. 2nd ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg (eds). Bedford/St Martin’s 2001. Pp 817-827.
Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will . J. I Packer & O. R. Johnston (transls). Baker 2009.
Perelman, Chaim, and L. Olbreects-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation . University of Notre Dame Press 1971.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde . Dover 1991.
- Alexandra Glynn lives in Minnesota. She has a Master's in Old Testament Theology and a Master's in English Literature.