CCR 634: Legalism, Quintilian, and Structure

Reading Han Feizi, Quintilian, and Arabelle Lyon’s treatment of Daoism, Legalism, and Confucianism, I kept coming back to the role of the individual rhetor and the larger context, as well as the role of different genres and different types of “persuasion.” But I will likely just focus on the first of these.

With Han Feizi, I often noticed the limits of rhetoric, particularly when he discusses how good words–or a good orator–can still end up in trouble. As he writes, after a litany of violent examples, “Why could these worthies and sages not escape death penalties and evade disgrace? It was because of the difficulty in persuading fools. Hence every gentleman 37 has to remain diffident of speaking. Even the best speech displeases the ear and upsets the heart, and can be appreciated only by worthy and sage rulers” (Book 1, Ch. III).

Here, I couldn’t help but think of Socrates–and to a lesser extent Cicero–as well as the book of Ecclesiastes railing against the efficacy of knowledge. What good is knowledge or eloquence when your audience doesn’t care? I feel like this is a question that doesn’t show up as much in other texts that we’ve read.

Countering this, I think feminist rhetoric tends to point to problems with the “available means of persuasion” when unwilling audiences and cultures are critical. Introducing their anthology Available Means (2001), Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald, for example, describe “women’s rhetoric” as “a tradition that has existed only in the shadows for centuries because women’s writing and speaking have not been gathered together as ‘rhetoric’” (xvi). And while many of the speakers they include were trained rhetoricians or employed deliberate rhetorical tactics, their anthology also includes “women’s writing that may not meet and that may even defy traditional rhetorical criteria and categories— especially concerning ethos, or the appeal of the speaker’s ‘character,’” as this reflects the often marginalized position where women spoke (xviii). They also include many alternative texts, like letters, and topoi that differ from Aristotle’s traditional conception of rhetoric and how people have taken that up. Without tradition audiences, many women rhetors had to use different “available means.”

And I think that’s where “shih” comes in, as Han Feizi, describes, which I gather is a sort of authority from institutional structure. Through shih, people are forced, or forcibly attuned, to listen. Order gets maintained regardless of “who” is governing.

This trust in order felt really interesting, because although Han Feizi also values “tact,” which reminds me a bit like Confucian ren as an ability to read people and navigate governing in a shrewd way, the roles of shih and fa (laws) are extrinsic to the rhetorician at some level.  As Han Feizi argues, the rhetorician does not need to be “worthy” to have this authority, as most people are “average men,” not particularly bad or good. Rather, one should construct a strong structure that can give rulers their authority and not allow them to disrupt things too much if they are not good.

This contrasts a bit with Quintilian who describes rhetoric as the “good man speaking well” and continually emphasizes the moral character of the rhetor, even noting in the later chapters that this is something that they must practice continually. Furthermore, individual training and a close relationship with individual teachers are important, almost forming a familial relationship.

And without being too reductive, I find this to be a more common thread in Western v. Eastern rhetorical traditions as we’ve encountered them. Again, this is not meant to be a totalizing generalization, but many of the traditions we have read–Legalism, Doaism, and Confucianism–seem to value how one relates to elements beyond the individual, while the Greeks and Romans tend to value how the individual navigates certain points as an individual.

On the one hand, the Daodejing values how one aligns with the Way; Dong Zhongshu emphasizes the relationship between emperor, Heaven, and the people; Confucius emphasizes the role of ritual and alignment with tradition and public harmony; and Han Feizi emphasizes the role of law.

Meanwhile, Isocrates values the individual abilities of the student, and Aristotle emphasizes the rhetor’s individual ability to read and intervene with the situation or wield their ethos in a productive way. Cicero and Quintilian also have a similar focus. With Cicero, trying to evoke the emotions of the audience becomes central, and Quintilian recognizes the potential individuality of the speaker as well.

Obviously, complications exist, though. For Confucius, it seems that the individual must spend a lifetime cultivating inner virtue, much like Quintilian’s ideal rhetor. And many on the Greek side, from the Dissoi Logoi onward, recognize the contextual nature of rhetoric, particularly how rules change. More generally, then, I think these readings emphasize the perennial tug-of-war between the individual and kairotic or contextual elements of rhetoric. As Thomas Nagel argues about philosophy, there is no “view from nowhere;” for rhetoric, even as we craft forms and heuristics, this seems equally true–if not more so.



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