By CHRISTOPHER MAIOCCA
Given our infatuation with competition, titles, and trophies, it is strange that no contest or sanctioning body has arisen that can officially coronate “The Greatest Orator in the World.” We know, for example, who the world’s strongest man is. As of this writing, it is Martin Licis, a real-life hulk who can successfully deadlift 1000 pounds. We also know who can ingest the greatest number of hot dogs. Currently that honor belongs to Joey Chestnut who can down seventy-one wieners in just under ten minutes. Yet we search in vain for a recognized authority to place a crown atop the world’s most formidable orator. In the absence of any such commissionary, I will take the honor upon myself to name Jordan Peterson as 2020’s “most powerful rhetorician on planet earth.”
A GENERATIONAL GENIUS
Until recently, no one knew of the Harvard and University of Toronto professor. He was launched into international stardom when someone posted a video of him being accosted by fifty rabid college students who were protesting his open criticism of a bill which required Canadian citizens to reference individuals by their “preferred pronouns.”
When the world saw the deftness with which he dismantled the arguments of his enraged interlocutors, invitations to speak at both conservative and liberal venues multiplied quickly. The former had found their champion, the latter had found a villain capable of drawing crowds, and both had discovered a popular genius, the prowess of which we have not seen for a very long time.
Recently, I was indulging in one of Peterson’s more infamous YouTube videos—the one where he is interviewed (interrogated, really) by the well-known British feminist, Helen Lewis. At one point in the discussion, the professor made a statement which caused me to pause. Responding to a question, Peterson observed, “There are two different realms of knowledge. There is a realm of values and a realm of facts. In the realm of facts, science reigns supreme, but it doesn’t in the realm of values—for that you have to look elsewhere. This is what the humanities were for, until they got hijacked by lunatics.”
Leaving the lunacy of the hijackers aside for the time being, Peterson’s identification of two separate spheres of intellectual exploration is terribly significant for those of us walking our children down the well-worn paths of classical education. Perhaps the easiest way to explain what I mean is to take you inside my classroom.
As an instructor of classical rhetoric, one of my responsibilities is discovering examples of speeches for students to analyze. These can be TED Talks, political addresses, or even notable graduation commencements.
RHETORIC: AN ANALYSIS OF ETHICS
To be sure, one of the primary goals is determining the extent to which each speaker conforms to what Quintilian calls, the “perfect orator.” Tone of voice, power of glance, presence of fire, gestures, gait, the means of persuasion—all these are thoroughly scrutinized, allowing us to evaluate the individual as a speaker. Yet, what I have discovered over the years is that these exercises quickly become an analysis, not so much of the speaker’s delivery, but rather of their ethics.
For example, last week I had my class watch an address by Philip Wollen—the foremost “animal rights” activist in the world. Students reeled at both the force and the audacity of his assertions. He begins the speech, “King Leer asked the blind man from Gloucester, ‘How do you see the world?’ The blind man responds, ‘I see it feelingly.’ ”
That brief exordium concluded, Wollen launches into a ten-minute, unabated rant. “Would to God that we all saw the world feelingly. Tonight, as we sit in this comfortable room, animals are screaming in terror in slaughterhouses—trapped in crates and cages—vile, ignoble gulags of despair!”
He goes on (and on, and on) to attribute nearly every human malady to our insatiable desire for meat. The death of oceans, the crippling of health care systems, water shortages, global hunger, carbon footprints—all because of our blood-lust for chicken nuggets. As you can probably imagine, our classroom discussion speedily moved from an analysis of his delivery, to a deconstruction of his moral universe.
SOUND ARGUMENTS, BAD ETHICS
Now let me confess freely that Wollen’s arguments are rhetorically powerful and are gaining significant traction in our culture. Burger King’s national campaign to get its plant-based Impossible Burger—with genetically modified yeast that looks like animal blood—into every American’s hand should be proof of this. Even some of my students began to consider more deeply, not so much the morality of eating meat, but the processes by which that meat reaches their plates.
As far as Wollen goes, the problem is not with his arguments, but rather his ethics. He presupposes that animals are the moral equivalent of humans and proceeds from there to reason (with scientific precision) why slaughter-houses are no different than the death camps of Nuremberg. The effect of all this on his audience is stunning. In fact, I watched in disbelief as he brought a seventy-five-year-old beef farmer to tears who later swore that his cow pastures would be turned into vegetable paddocks the moment he returned to the ranch.
Now pause for just a moment and consider the great goal of a classical education. Coined by Cato, made famous by Quintilian, adopted by Christendom, and subsequently engraved into the cornerstones and mission statements of our most celebrated classical schools—our aim, simply put, is to produce “good men, speaking well.”
Here we must be careful not to fall into the trap of the sophists who lopped off the first half of this carefully phrased maxim. In other words, the summum bonum of our rhetoric schools is not merely to produce good speakers, but rather to produce good men; and it is impossible to be a good orator—in any classical sense of the word—unless one first be, in fact, a good man. Thus, we see that rhetoric—whether a course of study or a stage in the trivium—is really just a thread woven into the much larger tapestry of virtue and ethics.
HOW DO WE BECOME “GOOD PEOPLE”?
What is a “good man?” According to Aristotle, a good man is the one who acts according to right reason, and to him, reason is informed not merely by scientific knowledge (episteme), but also by intuition (nous), wisdom (sophia), and (the Christian would add) by revelation (apokalypsis) as well. These things together inform what Peterson would call our “values.”
Thus, in terms of classical rhetoric, our friend Philip Wollen cannot be reckoned as a “good man, speaking well” because his reason is misinformed, resulting in a misshapen ethical system. He bases his entire position solely on “scientific arguments,” saying things like “greenhouse emissions from livestock are fifty percent greater than all our automobiles combined,” and “Harvard and Cornell studies have both demonstrated that we can all live without meat,” and “carbon dioxide from the beef industry is killing our oceans with acidic, hypoxic dead zones.”
As Peterson reminds us, scientific data is but one realm of knowledge and can probably tell us precious little about the morality of eating meat. For this, Peterson will say that we must look elsewhere, to the realm of values, that is, the realm of ethics—which is the heart and soul of all true rhetoric and transcends scientific deductions to the degree that heaven transcends earth.
So when our children head off to college and meet their first “vehement vegan,” our hope is that the training they have received will have taught them that it is not scientific data which will persuade their new friend. No, their powers of persuasion will come from a system of ethics which has been shaped, over the years, by a precise logic, by the wisdom of the ages, by the revelation of God, and ultimately, by the goodness of their character.
This is what we mean by a rightly ordered rhetoric.
The Philip Wollen video:
The Jordan Peterson videos:
CHRISTOPHER MAIOCCA currently teaches Classical Rhetoric at The Ambrose School outside of Boise. He is the series editor of the soon-to-be-released, eight-volume, Humanitas: A History of Western Civilization, from Classical Academic Press.