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The Rhetoric of Virtue

Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is the art of persuasion. Mobilizing the weapons of word, emotion, and credibility—what the philosopher would have called logos, pathos, and ethos, respectively—the rhetorician aspires to convince the hearer that what he or she argues is not merely an opinion, but truth, perhaps the truth. In the academic discipline of the humanities, we study not only the art of persuasion, but also those ideas which are worthy of our adulation. In a classical, Christian setting, those praise-worthy ideas are rather particular because classical, Christian anthropology is also rather particular: human beings are made in the image of God, and it is only by living a life befitting that image that one can attain true happiness and fulfillment. To be classically educated, then, is not merely to learn things, but to understand their significance in relation to human identity.

In his 1943 essay “Men Without Chests,” C.S. Lewis warns that the reductionist tendency in modern pedagogy, interested only in filling the mind with facts, will, without due diligence given to the education of the heart, produce crude pantomimes of human beings rather than men and women capable of withstanding the assault of a cruel and capricious world: “In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of bombardment.” While our students may not, God forbid, ever experience an attack as sanguinary as that blitzkrieg which Lewis witnessed during the second World War, they will undoubtedly face the great moral offensive waged against their virtue, their value, and their faith.

In the study of the humanities, we learn not only that which is worth knowing, but that which is worth saving. By reading the classics of western literature, we affirm that old things are good because they have lasted, have survived, the forces of decay and trends of novelty. By studying those things which have lasted, we hope that we too might become men and women who last, whose virtue will shine forth long after intellect or fame or wealth have abandoned us. The classical student of humanities, guided according to the precepts of humanity’s Creator, becomes the kind of person who, armed with logos, pathos, and ethos, might persuade and lead an incredulous world to that highest of human callings and deepest of human desires: union with the immortal God.


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