In the first few paragraphs of Aristotle’s Rhetoric (and in his other works of logic and rhetoric), he makes the point that the work of rhetoric is to persuade and that the work of dialectic is to find the real or apparent syllogism. Both are to be used in the service of truth, but one lends itself more specifically to sophistry. Rhetoric can be very dangerous because it can have the air of careful research and argument but actually be a way to make ugly, evil, and false things appealing. Similarly, rhetoric can be embarrassing. If you think you have the truth but you’ve only used rhetoric to defend it precisely because that is how you were convinced and then somebody comes along with the dialectic prepared (knowledge and valid syllogisms), then you can truly look like a fool. Similarly, if you are socially or rhetorically inept and you bring the dialectic (and even the truth) to a rhetoric fight, a crowd of people can easily be persuaded to ignore or be bored by careful argument. The point being that anybody needs both. Scientists need both just as much as engineers, salesmen, and evangelists. That being said, I want to use something Edward Feser said that made me think about this distinction. Namely that there are times when the rhetoric trumps the dialectic purely for social purposes. When I was younger and somebody made fun of me in the slightest way, I would try to explain as carefully as I could why that person was wrong. Needless to say, I had a very difficult time making friends until high school when I learned to banter. Similarly, Christians who care about evangelism ought to avail themselves of the rhetoric/dialectic distinction. There are times when somebody is just trying to make you look stupid and utilizing dialectic to explain their error will simply lead to being ignored. At those moments, use rhetoric in return..not vitriol, but winsome repartee. But other times when somebody with honest questions or dishonest attempts to stump you comes with rhetoric and you actually know their argument because you listen well then you can appropriately tear things down and rebuild with the dialectic (or if they’re a jerk and you really have the skill, bury them in the dialectic). I’m not advocating being malicious, I’m saying that speech seasoned with salt is always gracious even when it’s sharp.
Anyhow, Edward Feser here notes:
Another problem with too much contemporary apologetics is that it takes a “kitchen sink” approach that seems more interested in persuading the listener than in presenting the truth. Hence an apologist will sometimes dump out onto the page a bevy of arguments that have been or could be given for some claim, leaving it vague whether he actually accepts all of them himself. This is the apologist-as-salesman, happy as long as you walk out of the store with something, and not too particular about what it is. Welcome to 31 Theological Flavors! Come on in and sample our wide array of proofs for God’s existence. See one you like? Excellent choice, shall I box it up for you or will you be wearing it right away?
The trouble here is not that one or more of the arguments might not in fact be good, and sincerely believed by the apologist to be good. And of course, if an argument really is good, it remains so even if you throw a bunch of questionable arguments in with it. The point is rather that uncritically putting forward anything that might help “make the case” dilutes the intellectual seriousness of the enterprise, and reinforces the false perception of apologetics as mere rhetoric rather than true philosophy.
At this point I need to anticipate an obvious objection. Surely, the atheist or secularist critic will say, any apologetics must of its nature be merely rhetorical rather than truly philosophical or scientific in spirit. For the apologist (so the objection continues) is engaged in putting forward reasons for conclusions which he has already decided beforehand are true, conclusions he originally believed for reasons other than the ones he now puts forward in his role as an apologist (for example, on the basis of what parents and religious authorities told him when he was younger). And that sort of task is intellectually unserious, even intellectually dishonest.
I sympathize with his concerns here and I actually think his whole post is worth reading and meditating on. It is very good and thoughtful. That being said, I want to deal with a brief part of Feser’s claim here:
The point is rather than uncritically putting forward anything that might help “make the case” dilutes the intellectual seriousness of the enterprise, and reinforces the false perception of apologetics as mere rhetoric rather than true philosophy.
I agree with Feser, that the kitchen sink approach, as pure dialectic and as truth seeking is neither intellectually serious nor helpful. But I do wish to press the distinction between rhetoric and dialectic here that Feser himself acknowledges. The approach that focuses purely on logic, certain premises, and necessary conclusions is incredibly important but sometimes, in normal human interaction, emotional barriers and social barriers must first be breached.
Feser does this himself. When guys like Graham Priest claim that the cosmological argument is silly, Feser will refer to people whose own articulation of the argument is flawed but is still superior to Priest’s. The point being that throughout history this argument has been seen as having probative force and thus should be considered anew, particularly through the lens of a revitalized Aristotelian metaphysics. Similarly, one might be in a break room discussion wherein somebody says, “There isn’t even any evidence that God exists.” At that point one might say…actually there are 20 lines of evidence pointing to God’s existence and rattle off a kitchen sink list of arguments for God’s existence precisely for rhetorical reasons. This is so that the dialectic dialog can be opened up. Again, if somebody says that “God belief is simply a matter of faith instead of reason,” listing a myriad of arguments that other people have found to be convincing reasons to believe that God exists at least shows that God belief has a purported rational foundation. A third and final example of a positive use for kitchen sink approach might involve learning to show how an argument’s presuppositions lead to the conclusion that God or some lesser god still exists. The point of this is not to actually make the positive case yet, but to utilize rhetorical skill, without sophistry, to gain a hearing for the logical case for God’s existence.
Moral of the story:
- Debate is not simply a computer algorithm. It requires certain social skills. This is especially important if you really believe the gospel to be true and you wish to help others see its truth.
- Nevertheless, rank sophistry is not to be tolerated. Paul explicitly rejected empty rhetoric in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2.
- Making the distinction between which arguments and evidence for God’s existence or this or that Christian dogma are compelling is important for the sake of the truth. You want people to find the truth thus you should express the truth as carefully as you can and you also, in this way, reveal the truth about yourself.
- Never let the rhetoric or the dialectic overpower the message of the gospel nor the dictates of Jesus about truth seeking, kindness, love, and prayer. If the kingdom of God came with Jesus, losing an argument or two is not going to ruin things for him.