Book Review

Publication year2021
CitationVol. 46 No. 4 Pg. 44
Vol. 46 No. 4 Pg. 44
Vermont Bar Journal
Winter, 2021

Rhetorical Elegance and the Machinery of Reasoning: A Review of Rhetoric, Persuasion, and Modern Legal Writing”

By Brian Porto Reviewed by Daniel Richarson, Esq.

In the depths of our recent civil unrest many have held onto a kernel of hope in the belief that there is a common practice, which if widely adopted, would sprout into vines that might re-connect what others have sought to sever. This longing for greater connection stems in part from the severe disconnect that we have all experienced during COVID, but it also goes to a growing lack of common ground in American civil society. Concepts, such as bipartisanship or the common good, which used to be potent forces urging us away from the more extreme angels of our nature toward the center, have lost currency. Tracking discussions on social media between disparate groups has become a distorted window into the various manias of American life. The meme, it seems, has supplanted rational argument and dialogue. A picture of Biden looking clueless or Trump looking spastic have replaced our prior efforts to assure or persuade our friends and adversaries with facts, reasoning, and persuasion.

For generations of academics, the hope of common connection has traditionally resided in the “Great Books,” which have long come to define the enshrined basis of the methods and systems, if not the substance, of our culture. For decades, liberal arts programs have produced graduates weened on the idea of a single canon of books as the connective tissue not only uniting our society but linking us back to the roots of democracy in early Greek civilization.

Critical scholarship of the past 30 years has done much to knock down the idea of a single “Western Canon” and has challenged the designation given to these “Great Books.” Freshman, who once were fed a steady diet of Virgil, Dante, and Milton are more likely today to be given contemporary and diverse writings that emphasizes multiculturalism and post-colonial critiques peppered with contemporary language and situations. This is, for the most part, a good and solid advancement on pedagogy. Newly minted undergraduates expected to decant the references and ideas of Homer was never a realistic expectation, and its implementation was just as likely to turn students away as to create the high-minded liberal artists that these curricula sought.

The shift in education, however, has not been without its critics and these changes are not without consequence. What has been lost in this shift and deconstruction of the Canon is exposure to the powerful and compelling structures of reasoning that these texts embodied. No matter the text, these pieces called back to the powerful techniques of reasoning and persuasion that the ancient Greeks pioneered beginning around 550 BC in the golden era of Athenian democracy. The art of rhetoric, like its more scientific twin, logic, has long been the thread through which successive generations hope to persuade or compel.

Social media—the electronic agora of ideas—is the place where this degradation is playing out most publicly, but it is an open question whether it is the driver of these changes or simply its most virulent symptom. Taking a McLuhanian view of the situation would put causation squarely at the feet of the medium. But close observation reveals a larger trend that both precedes and overtakes the language of social media. As Jonathan Swift wrote in the midst of a similar period of upheaval driven by competing cultural and religious forces:

But when a man’s fancy gets astride his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding as well as common sense, is kicked...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT