Rhetoric and the Law

This semester I have the privilege of teaching rhetorical theory. It’s so exciting to awaken students to the ways in which rhetoric shapes our reality. I sometimes forget how much I take for granted with trying to explain the relationship between truth, knowledge, and rhetoric. In addition to teaching that class, I am doing two independent studies on jurisprudential rhetoric. In discussions about rhetoric and the law, the gap between rhetoric and truth becomes evident.

For example, with one student I am reexamining Tudor Royal Proclamations (TRPs). I haven’t spent a lot of time with these documents since I wrote my dissertation. As a side note, it’s been fun to remember that they are very interesting and fun to study. Regardless, I’ve been reading them with an eye tcicero quoteoward instruction and working through them with fresh eyes. One thing we’ve started discussing is the need for repetition in the proclamations. Meaning, the monarch issues a proclamation about revaluing coinage and has to issue another proclamation within the same year about the same topic. Why? Because the people aren’t following the law.

If the goal of a proclamation or law is to make people comply, how is this accomplished? The TRPs are quite sophisticated in their rhetorical strategies. Each proclamation begins with an appeal to authority beyond the monarch such as God, the English people, custom, or council. In many cases, Tudor monarchs predicated their authority in divine right. The monarchs of England regularly argued that because they were selected and anointed by God, their authority was beyond reproach. For instance, Mary I (1553) reestablishes the Catholic faith in England by claiming she is divinely ordered to do so: “her majesty, being presently by the only goodness of God settled in her just possession of the imperial crown of this realm and other dominions thereunto belonging, cannot not hide that religion.” On thee other hand, her protestant sister Elizabeth also uses divine authority in her proclamations. For instance, in Elizabeth I (1579) argues the success of her reign was proof of God’s authority: “her majesty hath had so good proof of God’s singular goodness in the continual preservation of her from his first setting her in the crown as his chosen servant to reign as she hath done from the beginning” (2:445). Despite the vacillation in faiths over the century, each monarch claimed divinely inspired authority. The monarch placed an additional burden on those who disobeyed because they defied their sovereign and their God.

In other words, the royal prerogative still needs validation. The US system of laws is supposed to be beyond this. In some ways, our laws still seem grounded in an equally amorphous sense of justice. So, how do we convince people to follow the law here? Do we rely on precedent? While laws assume compliance, they do not produce it. To me, this seems like an essential difference and an important question for rhetoric.

What’s the Point?

As we near mid-terms and the piles of essays begin to litter my desk, I sometimes wonder about the purpose of teaching writing. What do students learn in a first-year composition class?  Do the skills they practice serve them for the rest of their college careers and lives? Does knowing the difference between a fragment, a run-on, and a complete sentence really matter?

Then again, are writing skills all that matter? Rhetorician James A. Berlin argues that rhetoric is inherently social. To teach students rhetoric and writing is to teach them how s8onwt1to be better citizens. By understanding how persuasion works, students may think more critically about the messages they receive from politicians and other social leaders. Understanding how rhetoric works may help students discern the difference between balanced reporting and the media spin machine. As one of my favorite professors in college said, “My job is not to provide answers, but to show you how to ask good questions.”

Now, when so much of civic engagement includes digital environments, the need to think critically about written messages is very important. Something as simple as deciding what deserves our attention can be a complex rhetorical act. Learning to find the major claim and then understanding the assumptions behind that claim are essential for true civitas. Voting is meaningless without knowledge. Serving on a jury is pointless without a sense of justice.

So, what’s the point?  To teach students how to write good questions, to interrogate everything, to distrust the authorities – especially their professors.