Today, a lot of Christians are suspicious of rhetoric, what they see as empty language that might be clever but serves only to obscure rather than illuminate the truth. Nathan and Douglas Wilson are Christians who look somewhat askance at such a limited view. Socrates was likewise suspicious of those pagan philosophers in his day who believed rhetoric was useless for presenting truth.
That doesn't mean the Wilsons are on Socrates' side. What they encourage us to remember is that Socrates was no less a pagan than the philosophers he criticized, and that his suspicion of those suspicious of rhetoric should be suspicious to Christians even though we share Socrates' suspicions of the rhetorically suspicious. Or something like that.
How Does This Work?
Rhetoric is the capstone to the Classical trivium (following grammar and logic) and should not be studied too early. Only when students are familiar with the construction of language and the construction of arguments are they ready to combine both skills in the construction of powerful rhetorical statements (that actually mean something, though they may be clever as well).
St. Augustine is the first Christian writer to directly address the study of rhetoric in his extant writing. On Christian Doctrine contains an important section in which the Bishop of Hippo stresses the need to make sermons compelling as well as theologically sound. Christians ever since have tried to heed his exhortation (often with disastrous results, especially more recently), and even Bible classes offer courses in homiletics.
Wilsons Sr. and Jr. actually take the time (unlike many authors of rhetoric programs) to illuminate the history and philosophy of rhetoric, as well as the appropriate Christian response towards its study and use. But they don't stop there: they actually use the Classical model to teach rhetoric from a Christian perspective.
What are the five canons of rhetoric? How can you identify logical fallacies at a glance....and avoid them in your own writing? What is ethos? and pathos? Why is it important to unerstand the rhythm of words? All these questions (and, yes, many more) are answered in The Rhetoric Companion with the typical Wilsonian flair for insight and humor.
The Companion contains 31 lessons good for one year of study. There is text to read in the book itself, as well as suggested reading, exercises, and review questions. An appendix urges students to improve their knowledge of English to become better students (the Wilsons, masters of coming up with different terms for the same thing, call such mastery "copiousness"). There are no answers to exercises or review questions.
The "suggested reading" is a little more than justsuggested. Following the suggestions in each lesson, students will complete not only The Rhetoric Companion in one year, but also the complete texts of Aristotle's Rhetoric, Rhetorica Ad Herennium, and Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria (basically the three classic rhetoric texts).
This can be a student-directed course, though it works much better if led by an intructor. Students are expected to complete plenty of written work which must be graded, and it's best if the grader is familiar with the content and can grade it based on the standards set by the course itself. Also, the review questionswork better asdiscussionquestions thanas written work.
Our Honest Opinion:
This is the best introduction to rhetoric we've seen. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward Corbett is much more thorough, but should only be used by students already familiar with the subject and with advanced composition. The Rhetoric Companion is an excellent place to start, as it introduces students to the importance of clear communication, provides a brief history of one of Western culture's oldest academic pursuits in biblical perspective, and guides high school students through rhetoric's often abstruse terminology and principles. Highly recommended for Classical and non-Classical education enthusiasts alike.
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