Josiah's Reviews > A Rhetoric of Love

A Rhetoric of Love by Douglas M. Jones III
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bookshelves: education, rhetoric, best-of-2019

I had the privilege of having Douglas Jones (the author of this book) as a teacher for both fiction writing and senior-year Omnibus (Veritas Press' literature-history-philosophy hybrid class) in high school. He was one of the best high school teachers I had for a rather simple reason: he had a tendency toward being nonconformist and a bit unorthodox (in my opinion) and I disagreed with him on a lot of things he said in class. Since I'd tended to largely agree with most of my teachers up until that point, having a class where I had to deal with sophisticated arguments for counter-positions was a really good experience for me. So while I spent a lot of class trying to debate my teacher (sorry, Mr. Jones!), I really appreciated the class and learned a lot from Jones.

Fast-forward to this year. I was intrigued by the fact that Veritas Press had someone as nonconformist as Jones write their premier rhetoric curriculum (course, I suppose they did hire Wilson to write their core humanities curriculum, so...) and the pitch for the book ("this is a classical curriculum that is intentionally /not/ a rewrite of Aristotle's work) grabbed me. So I decided to pick up the work to see what changes it might inspire in my teaching next year (I teach high school Literature & Rhetoric).

And man, do I have a lot of thoughts after reading it.

This is going to be a long, fairly comprehensive review, so buckle up if you want to wade through a long discussion regarding the nature of classical education and the proper practice of rhetoric.

The Vision for Rhetoric

In some ways, this book alternatively fits the title of being the "most classical non-classical rhetorical textbook I've read" or "the most non-classical classical rhetorical textbook I've read." The book has regular snippets and quotes from different classic authors (mostly Aristotle, Cicero, and pseudo-Cicero), but the content of the book is regularly critiquing classical rhetoric and providing an alternate proposal.

Jones' main thesis is that classical rhetoric too often becomes a "rhetoric of domination" (trying to beat your opponent) instead of a "rhetoric of love" (trying to love your opponent and understand truth), and... I was pretty persuaded by his argument. He brought up a number of reasonable counters to Aristotle's core philosophies articulated in Ars Rhetorica and made a compelling case for why Christians need to do rhetoric differently. This has challenged the way I've taught rhetoric this past year and will not only likely change the way I teach rhetoric next year, but has also made me contemplative about my use of rhetoric in my personal life. Jones was persuasive in his thesis and I give him high marks for that.

Much of the book is based off of a triperspectival approach partially-drawn from John Frame and Vern Pothress' work on this subject where he considers rhetoric from normative, situational, and personal perspectives. I was a bit on-the-fence about this approach for a variety of reasons (see below), but I did find that this approach gave a unique spin to the topic and I at times appreciated these insights.

Where we get into the specifics is where I begin to disagree with Jones.

The Rhetorical Canons

Jones doesn't really focus on memory or delivery in this work, so I'll organize my thoughts via the first three of the five canons (invention, arrangement, and style).

Invention: One of Jones' central approaches is to condense the techniques used by classical rhetoric. He thinks that classical rhetoric too often relies on long lists of tactics that students often forget and that rhetoric is better taught with a few simple rules with numerous applications than giving long lists to memorize (he particularly hones in on the syllogism & on rebuttal).

I half-agree/half-disagree with Jones on this front. I do agree that with, say, the Commonplace arguments (which I teach in 9th grade), expecting students to memorize all 20 or so of them is not a helpful way to teach argumentation. That being said, at least in my (limited) experience (I'm a 2-year teacher currently), students often need to learn to practice a breadth of argumentative tactics to get out of ruts and have found that Commonplace arguments give them new ideas for ways they can approach the case. Jones' approach wins points for its simplicity and I may eventually be won over to his position, but right now I wrestle over whether the complexity of Commonplace arguments is more worthwhile to broaden students' abilities.

Arrangement: In this book, Jones takes a unique approach to arrangement where he largely throws out the traditional method (exordium, narratio, partitio, etc.) for an alternate method built on storytelling principles for suspense. He argues that a rhetor needs to keep his audience engaged, and the best way is to structure a speech like a story with a progression from a problem to false solutions to the real solution. Practically as I make it out, his ideal structure looks like this in classical terms: exordium, narratio, refutatio, confirmatio, partitio, peroratio.

It's a fascinating approach and he makes a number of good points about how writers can better use suspense in their writing to engage listeners. However, Jones' approach often seems to prioritize suspense over sequential reasoning. For all that Jones (rightly!) critiques manipulation and rhetorics of dominance, masking sequential reasoning for your position by using suspense tactics that hold off on your actual thesis until close-to-the-end of a work seems to fall into that trap. One of the high points of the classical model of argumentation is that a reader knows exactly what's being argued; Jones' approach tends to obscure this. He often held up TED talks in this section as ideal speeches, and at times I thought he leaned too much toward that specific type of presentation. Finally, given how much high school students (in my experience) really struggle (and often fail) to form cogent sequential reasoning for their positions, obscuring that with the "back-and-forth" structure he proposes seems like a high-end rhetorical tactic that my average student would not be prepared for.

Jones' approach to arrangement is fascinating, but while there are some lessons I gleaned from him here, I wasn't sold by his approach.

Style: Jones has a pretty great section on style where he argues that the Greeks/Romans didn't value style enough because they adopted Stoic worldviews that downplayed the value of human personality. While I wasn't completely sold on his historic analysis of why the Greeks downplayed cultivation of personal style in writing, I really loved his section talking about why teachers need to focus on helping students develop personal styles because of the Imago Dei. It was convicting and well-argued, and I plan on implementing his advice as I continue to teach next year.

The Three Appeals

Having moved through the canons, let's discuss the appeals and how Jones teaches the art of persuasion. Jones throws out the three appeals early on due to the fact that (a) he believes they promote a rhetoric of dominance and (b) he argues that these appeals are always connected to teach other and are never isolated. Nonetheless, I didn't find his argument for claim A persuasive and I didn't think the truth of claim B negates the value of teaching students these approaches as it gives simplification to how we persuade others. (In some ways, Jones' alternate proposal is actually more complicated in this point!) So I disagreed with him there.

My larger concern, however, came with his alternate recommendations for persuasion. To put it simply, Jones puts a lot of weight on the scientific method and science-based rules for truth-finding as the core tactics Christians ought to use to persuade others. I have a number of concerns with this approach. Traditional classical thought has understood that different disciplines require different methods. The scientific method is incredibly powerful and effective in scientific fields--however, applying it to other disciplines achieves mixed results and oversteps proper boundaries. By focusing on scientific practices so heavily, Jones--in my opinion--falls into the modern trap of privileging science over the rest of the liberal arts and neglects the value of reasoning utilized by other disciplines.

While I disagreed with Jones' alternative to logos, though, I did find his section dealing with pathos issues to be fine (if rather short--I prefer Aristotle's treatment of the subject), and his section dealing with ethos to be quite rich and valuable. Jones keeps a pretty constant focus on the importance of being virtuous, loving Christians throughout the work, and this was one of the most valuable aspects of the book for me.

Miscellaneous Rhetorical Issues

I really liked Jones' focus on why it's important to craft unique theses and arguments. He encourages students regularly to think creatively and outside-the-box and certainly models that himself in this book. Since students struggle with this a lot in my experience, this was well-put.

Jones also persuaded me that Aristotle's definition of rhetoric is a bit impractical and that Plato's definition of rhetoric was actually better (even though I normally prefer Aristotle to Plato in rhetorical matters).

I thought Jones had some good points about Aristotle's three branches of rhetoric (judicial, deliberative, and epideictic). While I've loved teaching students these in 11th grade utilizing Aristotle's Ars Rhetorica, Jones had some fair counterpoints that not all speeches fit into these genres and that students need to be taught how to adapt to other genres as well.

As alluded to earlier, Jones puts high value on simplicity in teaching rhetoric and in crafting arguments, and his focus in both places (while I sometimes disagree with him) is well-put.

Concluding Assessment

If I were to evaluate this as a potential textbook to use in teaching rhetoric, I unfortunately am not likely to use this personally as a textbook for a rhetoric class (though I may use certain sections of it). While I deeply appreciate the fact that Jones isn't just putting Christian wallpaper over Aristotle and that he instead attempts to create a new hybrid between classical and Christian rhetoric, I thought he had a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater and disagreed with enough of his practical suggestions (as noted above) that I'd be hard-pressed to use this personally and will probably stick with the textbooks I use currently. (That being said, I'm hard-pressed to use /any/ textbook just by itself because I'm rather picky/stubborn, so take that with a grain of salt.)

However, if I were to evaluate this as a teaching aid/reference book, this is pretty fantastic. Jones persuaded me through this book that I need to (a) build off of what Aristotle/Cicero said instead of just repeating it in my teaching, (b) explicitly focus rhetoric around the idea of love instead of domination, (c) value the personal style of the student more, (d) consider the importance of simplicity in formulating rhetorical advice, and (e) spend more time teaching ethos in the character of the rhetor.

Put simply: a book where I get that many fundamental insights as a teacher is pretty significant to me.

And just as a note on the engagement level of this book... despite being a 450-some page book, I read this book over the course of six days and couldn't put it down at times. Jones is a skilled writer, and I really enjoyed the process of reading this book. It's about the furthest thing from a "boring textbook" out there.

In the end, I'm still that student who wants to debate with Mr. Jones at the end of each class period. But I'm also the student who's learned a lot through the teaching and deeply appreciates the privilege of going through it.

Highly recommended as a resource (with some caveats) to fellow classical Christian rhetoric teachers--and very interested in seeing what Volume Two (not released yet) holds in store.

Rating: 4.5 Stars (Excellent).
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Reading Progress

May 8, 2019 – Started Reading
May 8, 2019 – Shelved
May 8, 2019 –
page 76
16.59% "Holy cow, this is really good."
May 13, 2019 – Finished Reading
May 19, 2019 – Shelved as: education
May 19, 2019 – Shelved as: rhetoric
January 11, 2020 – Shelved as: best-of-2019

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