Thinking About Shining Diamonds and the High Technology of Rhetoric

Some years ago I remember remarking to a professor that academics and scholars suffering from some kind of existentialist crises ought to take Jared Diamond’s publicity model and apply it to their own work. The thought stemmed from the otherwise old ideas in Diamond’s work of historical fatalism that were brought to a broad public through those even older ideas explored in Aristotle’s rhetoric.

For example (one must always provide concrete examples), in his Rhetoric and Poetics, Aristotle said that because there are malicious individuals who use rhetoric to advance their positions means it is just as important for logicians and ethically-minded folks to use rhetoric to battle those Darth Vader-types. In Book 1, Chapter 1 (at least in my Edward P.J. Corbett translation), Aristotle says there are 4 reasons why rhetoric is useful:

  • 1) …because things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites, so that if the decisions of judges are not what they ought to be, the defeat must be due to the speakers themselves, and they must be blamed accordingly.
  • 2) …we must use, as our modes of persuasion and argument, notions possessed by everybody, as we observed in the Topics when dealing with the way to handle a popular audience.
  • 3) …we must be able to employ persuasion, just as strict reasoning can be employed, on opposite sides of a question, not in order that we may in practice employ it in both ways (for we must not make people believe what is wrong), but in order that we may see clearly what the facts are, and that, if another man argues unfairly, we on our part may be able to confute him. No other of the arts draws opposite conclusions: dialectic and rhetoric alone do this… things that are true and things that are better are, by their nature, practically always easier to prove and easier to believe in.
  • 4) …it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.

Might may crush the annoying opposition, but that might is not automatically right, and might is also a slippery slope: pretty soon the strongest woman or man on the planet will be the only one left if they take to fighting rather than using discourse — the technology of language — to reason, argue, prove and concede one point after another. In the first half of the twentieth-century, the Might is Right crowd often had funny mustaches, raging egos and long s*&t lists. They were megalomaniacs with large industrial armies. They sucked, to put it mildly.

In any case, where was I? Oh, yes, back to the shining Diamond and his ability to use rhetoric to advance broad ecological ideas concerning global history. Whenever I think of Diamond, I immediately think of Orin G. Libby and the scholarship he completed at University of Wisconsin-Madison back in the day (June 1894). Entitled The Geographical Distribution of the Vote of the Thirteen States on the Federal Constitution, 1787-8, Libby said he put this study together based off one of his seminars (or seminary, as Frederick Jackson Turner, Libby’s adviser, called them) in American history, and it took account of the political and economic climates that played out relative to individual colonies/states, and how that figured in to the eventual vote on the broader national constitution.

The geographic distribution in Libby's work.

In the words of Turner’s introduction to Libby’s work, he said, “Physiographic conditions have facilitated the rapid evolution of some areas and have retarded others, so that the complexity of this grouping has been increased.” Turner also used the phrase “ultra-democratical ideas” a couple paragraphs later, which for some reason is awesomely geeky. All of this broadly is a non-sexy way of saying Guns, Germs and Steel, or technology and industrial advances and biology, have caused societies to materialize and then decay, or fall away, from that materialization.

This idea works until we look more closely at, for example, Italia, or Mexico. One may say “Where did all the Romans go?!?” when in Italy just as one might say “Where did all the Incas and Aztecs go?!?” when in Mexico City. The answer is that they did not go anywhere, and you just have to look around you because Italians and Mexicans today are localized, contemporary, cross-cultural hybrids of global historical forces. They always have been the byproducts of historical globalization just like anyone reading this blog is the byproduct of historical globalization, regardless of what 19th-century nation we pay homage (or disdain) to.

Looks like Aristotle was correct, at least on the points of rhetoric. If you hear the dismissive phrase, “Ah, that’s just rhetoric!” it is okay to ask the individual who said this to expand. Maybe it is time to put Aristotle’s work more firmly on the required reading lists of public schooling? Perhaps. That will have to be argued at those individual, localized levels, and this often takes economics and physiography into account — at least that in addition to human ingenuity. These are processes that occur not through individual genius alone, but through a variety of societal causes and effects, none of which I will go into now. Yes, this is primarily rhetoric. But rhetoric in itself is a piece of high technology.

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