“It appears, Socrates, that you are the sort of friend to help me if I am in any way qualified to make friends: but if not, you won’t make up a story to help me.”“How do you think I shall help you best, Critobulus, by false praise, or by urging you to try to be a good man?  If you don’t yet see clearly, take the following cases as illustrations. Suppose that I wanted to get a shipmaster to make you his friend, and as a recommendation told him that you are a good skipper, which is untrue; and suppose that he believed me and put you in charge of his ship in spite of your not knowing how to steer it: have you any reason to hope that you would not lose the ship and your life as well? Or suppose that I falsely represented to the Assembly that you are a born general, jurist and statesman in one, and so persuaded the state to commit her fortunes to you, what do you suppose would happen to the state and to yourself under your guidance? Or again, suppose that I falsely described you to certain citizens in private as a thrifty, careful person, and persuaded them to place their affairs in your hands, wouldn’t you do them harm and look ridiculous when you came to the test?  Nay, Critobulus, if you want to be thought good at anything, you must try to be so; that is the quickest, the surest, the best way. You will find on reflection that every kind of virtue named among men is increased by study and practice. Such is the view I take of our duty, Critobulus. If you have anything to say against it, tell me.”“Why, Socrates,” said Critobulus, “I should be ashamed to contradict you, for I should be saying what is neither honourable nor true.”Xenophon’s Memorabilia 2.6.37-39 trans. by E.C. Marchant
Rhetoric and Dialectic: The Difference and Why It Matters
Summary: Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, dialectic of verbal reasoning. Knowing the difference between the two will make you a better reader, listener, thinker, writer, and speaker.
Sometimes a tool becomes so important to us, it’s impossible to imagine not having it. I tend to think of shoes, my pocket knife, and my car that way. For others, it might be their phone or laptop. But all of us know of a tool that becomes quintessential to who we are because of how it increases our capacity to be human. I’ve taught research, writing, and public speaking for 10 years now, and the distinction between rhetoric and dialectic has become such a tool for me.
Rhetoric and dialectic are distinct forms and even methods of communication, and as such should be distinguished. Here is a summary definition of each:
- Dialectic is the art of utilizing logic and facts properly for the discovery, explanation, and demonstration of truth and probabilities. This is a dialogical (conversational) or
monologicalskill. It essentially a question and answer process. (Aristotle Rhetoric 1.1.1-14) You should note that I am collapsing Aristotle’s concept of analytics into dialectic here (analytics deals with the form of argument and the various demonstrations that can be made once facts are discovered).
- Rhetoric is the art of discovering what is persuasive, why it is persuasive, and for what it is persuading. It is also the use of persuasion. It deals with demonstration and probabilities, especially when persuading others to act. (Rhetoric 1.2.1)
For a further discussion of rhetoric and dialectic, see Aristotle’s Rhetoric at Stanford
Clearly, the two are related. For instance, logic, which is part of
Further, in dealing with certain persons, even if we possessed the most accurate scientific knowledge, we should not find it easy to persuade them by the employment of such knowledge. For scientific discourse is concerned with instruction, but in the case of such persons instruction is impossible; our proofs and arguments must rest on generally accepted principles, as we said in the Topics, when speaking of converse with the multitude.(Rhetoric 1.1.12)
In other words, s
In practice, the more vaguely positive something sounds, the more persuasive it can be to large crowds because people will fill such terms in with their own meanings. Rhetorical principles or premises typically just have to be emotionally engaging, easily memorized, and easily convertible with reference to their meanings. In American political rhetoric, some of the commonly used and emotionally engaging principles are things like:
- Terrorists are scary.
- Misogyny is bad.
- The wrong side of history is bad.
- Practice [A] is not who we are.
- The constitution is good.
On the other hand, the most persuasive argument about mathematics to a room of mathematicians would be an argument of pure logic, clearly defined principles, and detailed enumeration of the steps utilized to discover a conclusion.
A man skilled in rhetoric would know the difference between an audience of bored college students and a room of mathematical experts.
Dialectic and Rhetoric in Speech and Writing
Using dialectic is for doing research and constructing an argument based on the best evidence available. A sign you are reading dialectic might be an outline of the argument in the text so that people can follow the syllogisms carefully. Of course, a rhetorician knows how to use a syllogism is a way that seems like dialectic but is really just persuasion.
But, if a paper were to be presented to an audience that wasn’t a peer-review board, then one would determine which of types of evidence are likely to be the most convincing to that audience and present accordingly. Typically articles sent for peer-review are meant to advance knowledge and while they can use engaging language, typically should show evidence, state assumptions, explain biases, report counter-examples, show a careful argument outline, and provide clearly stated conclusions. Of course, results in the world of peer-review will vary. But nevertheless, the peer-review system provides the illusion of the genre of dialectic.
On the rhetorical level, if you wished to present your scientific findings about exercise to athletes, you wouldn’t necessarily present the evidence that made the conclusion seem most probable. Instead you would explain the results and give specific examples which would make the information seem the most useful for achieving results.
Questions to ask when writing a paper or speech:
- Are my premises true?
- Did I cite compelling evidence?
- Is my argument valid?
- Is the argument to complicated to briefly explain to a group?
- Am a stating the argument in a way that will be compelling to my audience?
- If I am leaving anything unstated or overstating a case for rhetorical verve, am I capable of qualifying and defending the truth in a more fact oriented context?
Dialectic and Rhetoric in Listening and Reading
When reading and listening, the distinction is still important. For instance, you’ll want to know what the author is trying to convince to do, believe, or support. Once you know that you can more easily discover which facts might be intentionally left out and whether or not those facts contradict the key points of the speech or paper and determine if the call to action is related to the facts presented.
Knowing whether somebody is using rhetoric to win a crowd or to create distance between the speaker and somebody else is also important. It can keep us from vilifying somebody who is simply “playing the game.” It can also help us to recognize when something is simply stated for rhetorical flourish rather than meant to be accepted as a fact.
In political rhetoric, the blur between persuasion and fact is taken advantage of, often to the detriment of voters.
Questions to ask when listening or reading:
- What is the author trying to say?
- What is the author/speaker trying to get me to do (buy something, do something, believe something, examine the claims and logic, etc)?
- Is the author likely to be accurate?
- Are the arguments valid?
- Are the facts true?
- Are the premises left out of the argument actually true?
The Distinction From Aristotle Himself
In the Philosopher’s own words:
Now, as it is the function of Dialectic as a whole, or of one of its parts, to consider every kind of syllogism in a similar manner, it is clear that he who is most capable of examining the matter and forms of a syllogism will be in the highest degree a master of rhetorical argument, if to this he adds a knowledge of the subjects with which enthymemes deal and the differences between them and logical syllogisms. For, in fact, the true and that which resembles it come under the purview of the same faculty, and at the same time men have a sufficient natural capacity for the truth and indeed in most cases attain to it; wherefore one who divines well in regard to the truth will also be able to divine well in regard to probabilities.
Nevertheless, Rhetoric is useful, because the true and the just are naturally superior to their opposites, so that, if decisions are improperly made, they must owe their defeat to their own advocates; which is reprehensible. Further, in dealing with certain persons, even if we possessed the most accurate scientific knowledge, we should not find it easy to persuade them by the employment of such knowledge. For scientific discourse is concerned with instruction, but in the case of such persons instruction is impossible; our proofs and arguments must rest on generally accepted principles, as we said in the Topics, when speaking of converse with the multitude. Further, the orator should be able to prove opposites, as in logical arguments; not that we should do both (for one ought not to persuade people to do what is wrong), but that the real state of the case may not escape us, and that we ourselves may be able to counteract false arguments, if another makes an unfair use of them. Rhetoric and Dialectic alone of all the arts prove opposites; for both are equally concerned with them. However, it is not the same with the subject matter, but, generally speaking, that which is true and better is naturally always easier to prove and more likely to persuade. Besides, it would be absurd if it were considered disgraceful not to be able to defend oneself with the help of the body, but not disgraceful as far as speech is concerned, whose use is more characteristic of man than that of the body. If it is argued that one who makes an unfair use of such faculty of speech may do a great deal of harm, this objection applies equally to all good things except virtue, and above all to those things which are most useful, such as strength, health, wealth, generalship; for as these, rightly used, may be of the greatest benefit, so, wrongly used, they may do an equal amount of harm .
 Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Translated by J. H. Freese., ed. J. H. Freese, vol. 22 (Medford, MA: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd., 1926), 1355a.
 Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Translated by J. H. Freese., ed. J. H. Freese, vol. 22 (Medford, MA: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd., 1926), 1355a–1355b.
Debiasing Desire an Interesting Paper
I found this paper, or rather, saw it linked on Twitter. It purports to criticize the behaviors of online dating platforms for their sexual racism, suggest that sexual selection is the result of more than individual choice, but rather of cultural factors as well, “In this view, individuals’ intimate affiliations are not the product of “pure” individual choice, but are instead shaped by accretions of state and social power.” The paper then suggests that one can resist such assortative mating, “resistance simply requires recognizing that desire is malleable,” particularly it can be shaped by online dating platform algorithms. But whose desires should be shaped, I wonder. I’ll simply drop this paragraph here indicating whose desires should not
While it may strike us as normatively acceptable to encourage intimate platform users to be open to more diverse potential partners, we might find some categories more palatable for such intervention than others. For example, it might seem inappropriate to suggest that a Jewish user seeking other Jewish people “expand her horizons” past those preferences, which might be based on a number of religious and cultural considerations. Similarly, a platform suggesting that a gay user “consider” dating someone of a different gender would likely strike us as problematic. Intimate platforms can be very useful for minorities looking to meet others who share their background and values. Instead of drawing a bright line on what should or should not be acceptable categories to consider, we suggest that designers should take the needs of marginalized or historically oppressed populations into account when considering how intimate platform features are used. Careful consideration of the outcomes of the exercise of intimate preferences may reveal that some of these groups are at greater risk for harm than others, and that platform features should be implemented accordingly.Debiasing Desire (14-15)
So, the paper is clear that cultural factors are a partial cause for romantic interest in similar looking individuals. But then it also says that certain groups’ cultural dating preferences (namely local minorities) should be respected and not influenced by dating app algorithms. This is already incoherent, as to influence majority users into dating outside of their preferred ethnic/religious/cultural boundaries necessarily encourages them to date minorities. I do wonder though, do the authors of this paper think that world minorities should get special treatment or only local ones (say, Irish individuals should be left alone to date as they wish, but Chinese users should be influenced to date non-Chinese people)? Also, what of countries like Somalia. Should members of the Italian minority in Somalia be influenced to date/marry members of the majority since Italty has a larger population than Somalia or should Somalian Darod Clan (something like 50% of the population) be influenced to date the Italians but not the reverse.
All of this is to say, what are they teaching people in these schools? Do they engage in deliberation or do they just write words about things and ask editors to take out grammatical errors? Also, what exactly are the intentions of such a paper if the practical results of its efforts were so poorly conceived?
What is a Spiritual Exercise?
By this term [spiritual exercises], I mean practices which could be physical, as in dietary regimes, or discursive, as in dialogue and meditation, or intuitive, as in contemplation, but which were all intended to effect a modification and a transformation in the subject who practiced them. The philosophy teacher’s discourse could also assume the form of a spiritual exercise, if the discourse were presented in such a way that the disciple, as auditor, reader, or interlocutor, could make spiritual progress and transform himself within.Pierre Hadot What is Ancient Philosophy?, 6
So when Epictetus offers a version of the argument for God from design, what he means to do is make someone aware, not only of the existence of a mind behind the cosmos, but he means to help them become grateful to God for the universe and their experiences therein.
The ubiquity of spiritual exercises in the ancient world helps make sense of Jesus’ paradox of public piety. In Matthew 5:14-17, Jesus says to do good deeds publicly. In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus says to hide your good deeds so thoroughly that they fade from conscious memory (Matthew 25:37-40). Which is it? If we take his first command in sequence to be a piority, Jesus means to say, “My kingdom should be a people of the sort that those who observe their public life wish to worship God.” But on the other hand, there’s a serious moral burden to bear when we are seen and praised for doing good deeds. And so Jesus commends as a spiritual exercise to conceal certain good deeds some or most of the time so that the God who sees what happens in secret will reward the believer rather than the watching public.
C.S. Lewis, while not relying on Hadot, saw this mode of thought in the writings of the ancients absorbed and reworded it in his book on how to read. In it, he distinguishes between the way the many and the few
The distinction can hardly be better expressed than by saying that the many use art and the few receive it. The many behave in this like a man who talks when he should listen or gives when he should take. I do not mean by this that the right spectator is passive. His also is an imaginativeC.S. Lewis An Experiment in Criticism III.19b-20a
activity;but an obedient one. He seems passive at first because he is making sure of his orders. If, when they have been fully grasped, he decides that they are not worth obeying—in other words, that this is a bad picture—he turns away altogether.
Literary art is a spiritual exercise proffered to the reader by the artist, and once truly understood, then it is used or not. Of course, this raises all sorts of questions about art that is meant merely to entertain or titillate without any definite end, but even such art is offering a vision of life to be accepted or rejected and which one subtly endorses more and more the more frequently he enjoys artworks of that sort.
Later authors, like Rene Descartes, employed even geometry as a spiritual exercise. Descartes thought that arts like Geometry and Philosophy existed for self-cultivation by which he meant,
…[D]eveloping the ability to allow the will to recognize and to accept freely the insights of reason, and not just following the passions or memorized patterns of actions. It meant essentially recognizing the limits of reason and willing not to make judgments about things beyond reason’s scope.Matthew Jones Descartes’ Geometry as a Spiritual Exercise, 53.
As far as I can tell, the utility of the concept of spiritual exercises for understanding education in general, ancient philosophy, and even the Biblical texts cannot be overestimated.
On the Importance of Philosophical Reasoning for Biblical Exegesis: Edward Feser and Romans 1:18-23
In my mind, the ability to engage in philosophical reasoning in order to tease out the implications of particular interpretations of the Bible and other truths is indispensable for reading the Bible and teaching it to others.
Edward Feser, in a post titled, “Repressed Knowledge of God?” comments that the common interpretation of Romans 1:18-23 is mistaken. Here is the passage in question from the ESV, I would translate it differently, but it reflects the most common interpretation:
Romans 1:18-23 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
The common interpretation is that the atheist is the person to whom these verses refer. This can be seen in the writings of many schools of Christian apologetics. The idea is that atheism is always a matter of intellectual dishonesty because the Bible teaches that knowledge of the God of the Bible is so obvious that it can only be suppressed by sheer force of will. Personaly, I think that some people are atheists because they accept bad arguments just like some people believe in God for silly reasons.
Without thinking about Christian theology, the psychology of all atheists, and broader philosophical conclusions, the text of Romans 1:18-23 itself militates against seeing atheists in this passage. The passage is not about people who believe in no gods, but rather those who have good reason to worship the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, but choose to worship idols.(See the footnote of this post about the passage in question for an alternative interpretation). The passage gives good insight into the results of idolatry, which is related to atheism, but it is not directly about atheism at all.
Feser, without attempting to exegete the Bible passage in question, refutes the view that God’s existence is so obvious as to only be denied on purpose rather handily. Here is the relevant portion of his argument:
Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God? Yes, but in something like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or for art. You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education and sustained practice. And without cultivating your interest in music or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability might even atrophy altogether.
Or consider moral virtue. It is natural to us, but only in the sense that we have a natural capacity for it. Actually to acquire the virtues still requires considerable effort. As Aquinas writes: “[V]irtue is natural to man inchoatively…both intellectual and moral virtues are in us by way of a natural aptitude, inchoatively, but not perfectly…(Summa Theologiae I-II.63.1, emphasis added), and “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training” (Summa Theologiae I-II.95.1).
Now, knowledge of God is like this. We are indeed naturally inclined to infer from the natural order of things to the existence of some cause beyond it. But the tendency is not a psychologically overwhelming one like our inclination to eat or to breathe is. It can be dulled. Furthermore, the inclination is not by itself sufficient to generate a very clear conception of God. As Aquinas writes:
To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude… This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching… (Summa Theologiae I.2.1, emphasis added)
In other words, from a philosophical point of view, to claim that God’s existence is only and ever obvious, is simply untrue. Now, that does not automatically mean that Paul doesn’t teach the falsified point of view. But for those with a conservative evangelical definition of the Bible, it means alternative interpretations should be sought.
How to pass any exam
I’ve told my students this exact advice so many times:
Here are some posts I’ve written about serious study strategies: