Historical Rhetorics/Should We Read Quintilian?/Fall 2011: Richard Lanham's "The Q Question"

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Lanham, Richard A. "The 'Q' Question." The Electronic Word / Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 1993.[edit]

"There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations" (Whitehead, qtd in Lanham 172)

Lanham's essay opens with a simple question, taken from book 12 of Quintilian's Institution oratoria: "is the perfect orator [...] a good man as well as a good orator?" (155). Lanham argues that this question--ultimately not only a curricular and pedagogical question, but also a metaphysical and moral one--underlies the entire history of Western thought. Put otherwise, Western thought can be traced back to different responses to this question, and we might categorize these responses as "philosophy" and "rhetoric."

Lanham notes that there are two basic responses to the "Q" Question, which he labels as the strong and weak defense. Our contemporary institutions, dating back to at least Ramus and, really, all the way back to Plato are haunted by the weak defense. The strong defense, if it ever existed, Lanham locates in the Greek and Roman conceptions of rhetorical paideia, and advocates as the best response to the contemporary attacks on the Humanities.

It is hard, I think, to digest all of Lanham's argument on a first reading, given its scope, complexity, and nuance. But it goes something like this: the weak defense argues that Truth exists outside of the play of language. Language is ornament and adornment for Truth. Thus, a proponent of the weak defense would argue that rhetoric is good when in service of the Truth, and bad when used by those without it. Thist is, of course, Plato 101 (the "Gorgias" dialogue) and Plato 102 (the "Phaedrus"): "Plato allows as 'good rhetoric' only the kind that enhances an argument we already know from a priori grounds, to be true" (160). Lanham locates the institutional dedication to the weak defense in Ramus; we will explore why Ramus endorses such a split. The short version has to do with a core element of "strong" rhetoric: its insistence upon (not) teaching moral character. Lanham notes that it is Ramus who turned "humanism" into the "humanities"--which turned a messy/organic dedication to "liberal education that is moral in its essence" to the humanities, a series of disciplines each dedicated to providing "a series of techniques that anyone could use to get ahead in any field" (164). Centuries later, the schism between disciplines is exponentially amplified by the Modern University. Lanham, Latour, and Cicero all oppose the carving up of thought into disciplines; Latour considers this the crime of modernity and strives for "Enlightenment without Modernity." We might ask ourselves if Lanham is searching for the same thing. Also note that Lanham argues that Ramus cuts up the curriculum to make it easier to teach; we might add, in the aftermath of NCLB, that it makes it easier to test, too.

The strong defense, on the other hand, doesn't endorse an a priori sense of the Truth. Rather: "The Strong Defense assumes that truth is determined by social dramas, some more formal than others but all man-made. Rhetoric in such a world is not ornamental but determinative, essentially creative. Truth once created this way becomes referential, as in legal precedent" (156). He finds one of the strongest endorsements of the Strong defense in the work of Richard McKeon, highlighting McKeon's concept of "architectonic" rhetoric (166-167). This architectonic rhetoric would orient itself around "the needs of the present" (167). I will conclude by stressing how radical such an orientation might be. McKeon:

In a technological age all men should have an art of creativity, of judgement, of disposition, and of organization. This should be adapted to their individual development and to their contribution to forming a common field in which the subject of inquiry is not how to devise means to achieve accepted ends arranged in hierarchies [the modern curriculum] but the calculations of uses and applications that might be made of the vastly increased available means in order to devise new ends and to eliminate oppositions and segregations based on past competitions for scarce means. (168)

Weak Defense:

  • plays within the non-world of the University (thought/action is located in disciplines)
  • language can be thought of as free of value (157) (169)
  • reduces rhetorical instruction to skills
  • Truth exists outside of language and human action
  • carves up knowledge into discreet disciplines (159)
  • emphasizes objectivity (169)
  • relies on an already existing Universal Human Subject (see the discussion of Bloom, 176)
  • Lanham quoting McCloskey: "Rhetoric is merely a tool, no bad thing in itself. Or rather, it is the box of tools for persuasion taken together, available for persuaders good and bad" (169)
  • Just the facts
  • Plato, Ramus, Bloom & Hirsch

Strong Defense:

  • takes the play of the University to the world (thought/action is located in public dramas) (see 161,
  • language is always, already embedded in (and reinforcing) systems of value
  • Truth is produced, sustained, and revised via human dramas
  • "In the rhetoric paideia, facts and opinions are always used for something, enlisted in argument of one kind or another. They are, as Dewey argued, always enmeshed in the rough-and-tumble argumentative purposes of life" (172).
  • seeks to construct a rhetorically active subject
  • equal parts agonism, exigence, and play
  • Quintilian, Dewey, McKeon, Burke

There are three paragraphs later in the text that clarify Lanham's goals for Humanism (as opposed to the Humanities) and explicate the Strong defense. Here goes:

What rescues the humanities from this poisonous enclosure, when they are rescued, is some external circumstance, some problem, that puts this formal pleasure to work. [...]
Could this mixture of motives (formal pleasure, practical purpose, competition) have been what animated and supported Quintilian's optimism? Might the good man, for him, have been the man whose motives were deeply mixed, and who knew how and why? I would argue that this mixture of play, game, and purpose was the characteristic product (if not always the avowed purpose) of the rhetorical, as against the philosophical, paideia. It did not try to purify our motives but to radically mix them. It created not a self-enclosed humanism but one connected at every juncture to what Whitehead called "the insistent present." It aimed, that is, to address what McKeon thought the characteristic problem that became a problem when Ramus "purified" thought of rhetoric, and thus of action as well.
Humanism, construed in this rhetorical way, is above all an education in politics and management. Can it also be construed as an education in civic virtue? To answer this question, we must revert to what I have called the Strong Defense of rhetoric. The Strong Defense argues that, since truth comes to humankind in so many diverse and disagreeing forms, we cannot base a polity upon it. We must, instead, devise some system by which we can agree on a series of contingent operating premises. [...]
We stage a public drama, empanel an audience whom we call a jury, and offer contending versions of reality. [...]The magic moment of transmutation, what drives the system, is the need to reach a decision. [...] That decision is made by people, not handed down by God [or, I would add, logos], but the system does all it can to strengthen the decision by arriving at it in a certain way. [...] And these two motives, play and game, are driven and controlled by purpose, by the need to reach a decision" "Somewhat we must do." (187-188; 189- rhetoric as "a dedication to making things happen in the world" (189))

Thus, rhetorical Humanism, the paideia, is where practical purpose meets competition and formal play. It is thoroughly democratic:

Perhaps now we can comprehend how Quintilian might have felt that a rhetorical education as he had traced it conduced to civic virtue. It trained people in the Strong Defense, in the skills needed to create and sustain a public, as against a private, reality. It did not simply train, it created, the public person. It is the perfect training for the pattern of government Plato hated the most, a genuine, open-ended democracy. (189)

Lanham is very clear that rhetoric, when the center of education, aims at exploring questions of morality. Philosophy plays with knowledge (thought), rhetoric, I am tempted to say, plays with ethics (action). The modern University is built around knowledge--Kant's plan for the University explicitly left action out of the hands of faculty and students and in the hands of the "higher" administration. Thus, the University stands as Bloom's playground, sequestered from the real world. Lanham doesn't want to lose the possibility of play; but we could say that his main goal is to articulate an understanding of rhetoric that cripples this idea of a University predicated upon the divorce of thought and action, knowledge and politics. Of course, given our contemporary political climate, it is quite dangerous for University professors (and all teachers) to argue that their primary job is teaching values. Such a statement would seem reprehensible... children go to school to learn knowledge, not to learn morals. That's what television church and family are for. Secular humanism is for Lanham a metaphysical orientation to the world--he sees any kind of transcendental fundamentalism, whether religious, philosophical (Plato), or cultural (Bloom) as dangerous to sustaining democracy (see 176). Lanham finds this argument deployed by what I would label as "Kantian" faculty; Lanham paraphrases Taylor's response to Blunt's communist treachery: "In other words, humanist inquiry, indeed the whole life of the mind, has nothing to do with the moral life. Even to ask the question is infamous" (180). ).

One thing that Lanham stresses is that the Humanities should not fall back into the traditional arguments that assume a weak "Yes" to the Q Question. As the example of Sir Anthony Blunt points out, there is no assurance that a humanities education will produce a "good" person. This is because "good" and "bad" are not essentials, but are valences of the social drama. It is enough to say that the Humanities teach students how to, when to, and where to invest themselves in our common, human struggles. So, yes, part of Humanities education concerns "providing tools," but that is not the entirety of such education. "At the heart of the 'Q' Question stands the need to demonstrate a connection between specific reading and writing practices and the moral life" (173). Lanham asserts that literary study has never managed to make this connection.

We have talked much this semester about the closing of the Gorgias dialogue and Socrates's martyrdom at the close of the Apology. Put simply, Socrates doesn't do politics. Lanham:

Socrates is the secular messiah; we [those of Bloom's ilk, the old Great Books guard of the Humanities] are apostles studying the book that chronicles his deeds, sayings, and martyrdom; and we do so in a monastery that shuts out a fundamentally corrupt and irredeemable world. (178)

We cannot afford this playful indulgence any longer--for that "irredeemable world," that "sludge," now flows into our home. We cannot cleanse ourselves of it, however much we might desire a pure knowledge/home. Once again, rhetoric stands as embracing, without necessarily celebrating, the whirl. But the whirl isn't a "formalist pleasure," rather a rhetorical Humanism would direct its energy to those points in which the whirl inspires and necessitates the construction of homes. Read Lanham's favorable review of Hooks' life:

The truth he served was contingent rather than absolute, secular rather than religious [in the Platonic/Bloomian sense], and texts were admitted to his canon only after screening by a tough street-kid's experienced crap-detector. He devoted his life to political and social activism, and in his conception the university served society as much as society served it. Both Bloom and Hook were horrified at the campus disruptions of the sixties, but Bloom's response is the jeremiad in his book; Hook, characteristically, founded a national organization and pursued the issues it raised until the day he died. (185)

It should be recognized that Lanham's "strong" defense is not a ringing endorsement for the contemporary Humanities, even if it is a powerful call to renew secular Humanism. It is very hard to justify much of the teaching of contemporary literature from Lanham's perspective (not, I do not say all). Lanham is not offering us solace--rather, this is a call to arms: the public and agonistic orientation of his version of Humanities education would have to begin by blowing up the very structure of the contemporary University (departments, disciplines, majors). Instead, learning might be organized around particular (temporal) problems. In place of fragmented Humanities, each teaching how to play with a particular piece of the human condition, we might return to a program of Humanism, which explores the question of how to live a good life.

Some random observations:

Lanham's note on Graff: "he [Graff] suggests that, since we cannot resolve this debate [between the Arnoldian "humanists" and the Derridean "theorists"; but, moreover, the Q Question itself], we dramatize it instead—make the students privy to our private debates through team-teaching and other pedagogical techniques.

a LOL moment: "to consult one's own teaching experience, in which student enthusiasm for the categorical imperative may in fact know bounds" (176).

Note that Hook's discussion of American universities leads him to reconsider the role of moral courage. Latour's re-reading of Plato's Gorgias centers around how Callicles advocates for a form of courage antithetical to Plato's "good" (Phaedrus) rhetoric. To have courage, we might say, is to have a willingness to consult the multitude.

Return the fear of the test (rote memorization and regurgitation for its Ramus-like simplicity) (see 186)