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The Glib, the Eloquent, and the Appropriate

Confucius Teaching

Confucius Teaching

There are many ways that I could approach The Analects of Confucius but given that we have been speaking of rhetorics cross-culturally and that I have read different analyses of this text as either supporting or condemning (at least some definitions of) rhetoric, I found myself paying particular attention to aspects of this text that deal with speaking, words, communication, and character. I recall reading a chapter called “The Use of Eloquence: The Confucian Perspective” by George Q. Xu (from the other collection edited by Lyons and Binkley, Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks) where Xu states that “Verbal eloquence was not valorized by classical Chinese thinkers, and on the contrary the views found in their texts reveal a general mistrust of it, a sentiment common to almost all major school of thought despite their fundamental philosophical differences, but it is most conspicuously and extensively reflected in Confucian texts” (Xu 115). At the time that I read the Xu chapter, I had not read Confucius for about twenty years, and thus could only articulate an uncertainty about this position based upon other things that were stated in the same chapter which I wrote about here. Thus, I couldn’t help but think of this while reading this text and to question how rhetoric fits into the overall position or process discussed by (or attributed to) Confucius.

What interested me is the value that is placed upon communication, and while Xu associated “glib speech” with eloquence or rhetorical prowess, I see many instances where appropriate speech is highly valued in the Confucian text. Just as I thought when reading Xu’s chapter, could this not be a different variation of effective speaking? Additionally, glib speech is differentiated from eloquence and also from what is appropriate speech in a given occasion and within a particular relationship. Additionally, speaking well (as in appropriately) is linked strongly to ethos or the character of the person speaking. Glib connotes shallow and insincere speech so it is no wonder that Confucius says, “It is a rare thing for glib speech and an insinuating appearance to accompany authoritative conduct” and that he “hate[s] those with a glib tongue” (1.3, 11.25) Glib people are described as those “who are ingratiating, who feign compliance,” which again implies dishonesty and insincerity (16.4). This reminds me of Wayne Booth’s idea of “rhetrickery,” which he defines as the “whole range of shoddy dishonest communicative arts[1]” where rhetoric takes on unethical aspects where the goal of the rhetor is to “win” (11). This same sort of glibness is likewise maligned by other Western rhetoricians as well, and while there is not a one-to-one correlation between ideas, I find the ideas of speaking appropriately in alignment with, or certainly not in opposition to, Quintilian’s idea of a “good man speaking well.”

In the Confucian ideal, it does not seem to me that speaking well is automatically open to suspicion, but rather that ethos is more important than eloquence – pleasing words do not substitute for right action. Thus, exemplary people “first accomplish what they are going to say, and only then say it” and he is “not sure that anyone who does not make good on their word is viable as a person” (2.13, 2.22). The importance of character or ethos, of being an exemplary or authoritative person, is of such high importance to Confucius and no words by themselves will cover over action that is not in accordance with this. Still, that does not mean that there is not a type of right speech appropriate to the authoritative person or at least possible to engage in. For instance, Confucius says that “an authoritative person is slow to speak,” and it is said of Confucius himself that “he spoke articulately, though with deliberation” (12.3, 10.1). Though one cannot necessarily discern the quality of a person through his speech alone, “the person of excellence is certain to have something to say…[and]….the authoritative person is certain to be bold,” implying that these types of speech are within the range of possibility for the authoritative person when they are appropriate (14.4).  Additionally, when hearing an exemplary person speak, “they appear stern,” which shows another possibility in the range of appropriate speech dependent upon the situation (19.9). All of these pieces of advice, given to specific hearers at specific times, show that there is a range of efficacious speech that can be enacted by the authoritative person, depending upon what is appropriate for the situation. Again, I can’t help but read this rhetorically and say that while glibness is not valued (and other than a few thinkers in the West such as Machiavelli or Ramus, most rhetoricians would not argue with this) other types of speech are, but that these are deeply rooted in an ethical character that precedes and proceeds from speech.

I was also struck by the importance of communication and learning throughout this 7779-confuciustext, where speaking serves a purpose that is not a simplistic mode of persuasion (as it is sometimes reduced to in Western thinking) but rather to instruct and to hold together the bonds of society and family. He says, “To fail to speak with someone who can be engaged is to let that person go to waste; to speak with someone who cannot be engaged s to waste your words. The wise do not let people go to waste, but they do not waste their words either” (15.8). Again, there is an appropriate time to speak – an appropriate audience/listener and situation. Discerning these situations is the product of and produces wisdom, but without speech, people would “go to waste” without learning and communicating. Confucius may not overly value eloquence, or words that are artfully crafted, but instead speaks to the point and in the moment where “in expressing oneself, it is simply a matter of getting the point across” (15.41). How this looks will be different situationally – it is the communication itself that is important.

I found it interesting that, given the importance of relationships and harmony in this text, that the very last entry refers to the importance of words and communication where “a person who does not understand words has no way of knowing others” (229). This thought, as a final note to the collection, left me thinking of the importance of communication to what it means to be human, and to then be reminded of other specifically rhetorical thinkers who have likewise discussed this in some vein or another (e.g. Cicero, Booth, Richards, etc.). It is not that I feel that I need to compare or overlap Confucius as being “like” anyone else, but rather I find it productive to put different ways of approaching something into conversation in my mind, into a constellation of meaning, where various people across time and cultures have grappled with the uses of words and communication and how that relates to ethics, communication, and social formations. I am always drawn to texts, explicitly “rhetorical” or not, that have ethics, character, and care for/relationship to others at their core. Without ethical considerations, rhetoric can easily devolve into coercion or trickery. To me, this is the type of “eloquence” or “glib speech” that Confucius speaks against, whereas other uses of correct speech are in alignment with what it means to be an exemplary or authoritative person. Here, then, the role of rhetoric, broadly defined, may be seen as having the potential to humanize and connect, to instruct and improve, to promote peace and harmony, when utilized appropriately, ethically, and within a framework that is efficacious within a particular society and time. Thus, I have a difficult time (still) as reading this text as being “against eloquence,” but rather as one that places character above words, and actions above verbal art. It is a warning to not be drawn in by carefully crafted discourse without substance and surely to not engage in such behavior oneself. At the same time, effective speech, ethically and appropriately engaged, has the potential to create peaceful and harmonious conditions for individuals and societies. I see this as a major rhetorical contribution from Confucius, one that can be applied and remains relevant.

[1] From Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication, 2004.


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