Rhetorical History I-Clark
November 20, 2006
Good and Evil in Rhetorical Historiography
Good vs. Evil is a clichéd phrase, many times overused or under-defined. But it, or beliefs about the juxtaposition of the two, is many times at the root of action and rhetoric. It is central to religion, national policy (domestic and international), business, science, and even the stuff of superheroes. It is a catalyst for “just war” theory and for Spiderman stopping a runaway train. It is of course the stuff of ethics books and manuals the world over. It is wrong to not disclose a broken pipe to the person buying your home; it is good to notify authorities if you think your neighbor is being abused; it is bad to plagiarize; it is good to do pro bono work; it is evil to force communism on your citizens; it is good to go to war with an evil regime; it is bad to pinch your secretary as s/he walks by…and on and on.
In this postmodern age, where positivistic thinking has been supplanted by more relativistic notions of what constitutes good and evil, it is easy to view the history of rhetoric through a lens of ethical openmindedness. What we must not forget is that the history of our field is marked by many vivid discussions about what it is to be good in the world versus what it is to be bad. And, I don’t mean this in the sense that all history is rhetorical thus every mention of good vs. evil is part of our field’s historiography. And I don’t mean it in the simplistic, Christian sense, of God versus Satan. What I hope to highlight here is the fact that the discussion of good vs. evil encompasses much of our field’s history.
Naturally, I will focus on rhetoric in this discussion and, more specifically, some rhetorics that have become central in our field. My examples will span from Ancient Egypt (circa 2200 BC) to rhetoric in the New World (circa 16th century AD). Obviously a paper of this length cannot provide even a drop of the vast oceans of discourse available to us during that stretch of history, but my aim is to display the importance of “good vs. evil” in a number of regions over a rather lengthy period of time. While I am limited to the texts we have discussed in class, I believe this “trace” is important and could work as a springboard for future research and discussions in our field.
Good vs. Evil
“Good” and “Evil” take many forms within the context of rhetorical historiography, and while I am no expert (even amateur) in the rhetorics I will present, I trust that the scholars/translators have provided me/us with intelligent and researched representations of these distant rhetorics. It would be worthwhile work to look into the ways in which different cultures understand the concept of “good vs. evil” but that will not be the work done here. As a very general definition, I will present “good vs. evil” as that which should be done for the betterment of self/society (that which is right) vs. that which should not be done by the self, to the self, or to society, or by those in society (that which is wrong).
Righteousness in Ancient Rhetoric
Looking back at ancient Mesopotamia (circa 2300 BC), we have the cuneiform writings of the high priestess Enheduanna. The “good” for Enheduanna was to pay homage to a higher being—the goddess Inanna. Predating the Christian Old Testament, a source considered by many to be the origins of ethical rhetoric, the writings of Enheduanna, emphasize the importance of godly worship and emphasize the presence of the good god Inanna in the material world. Thus, from Enheduanna’s perspective, there is an important good in validating and praising the gods. In this case, the goddess Inanna.
But, Inanna is not a simple deity. She is both “a goddess of war and destruction [and], she is equally a goddess of love” (Meadoe). She is allowing for a contradictory existence of sorts. As Martin Luther King states in his sermon “Unfulfilled Dreams”:
We end up having to agree with Plato that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. Or sometimes we even have to end up crying out with Saint Augustine as he said in his Confessions, “Lord, make me pure, but not yet.” We end up crying out with the Apostle Paul, “The good that I would I do not: And the evil that I would not, that I do.” Or we end up having to say with Goethe that “there’s enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.”
Enhuduanna, through her praise of Inanna, is highlighting the fact that human, and godly, nature has within it “good” and “evil.” We must not ignore the fact that there is a clear distinction between good and evil here. There doesn’t seem to be a gray area of “this is good in particular situations and possible bad in others.” So, Ehuduanna seems to believe that while human and godly nature hasboth good and evil as part of there nature, there is still a strong division between what constitutes good and what constitutes evil.
While this example might not be an explicit instance stating what is right vs. what is wrong, we see the writer’s concern with placing one’s life under the will of a higher being. A higher being embedded in the “abysmal contradictions of human nature” (Jung qtd. in Meadoe). At the heart of Enheduanna’s poetry is a keen awareness of issues of morality, a morality being created and judged by higher powers. This is nothing new to the great religions of the world but seemingly contrasted to the relativistic thinking of post modernism. Let us now move to ancient Egypt and the concept of Maat. The era looked at here extends approximately from 2000 B.C.-500 A.D.
According to Carol S. Lipson, ancient Egyptian rhetoric was built upon the concept of Maat, “defined as truth, justice, or order” (81). It can more generally be refereed to as what is right or ethical. Lipson argues that the rhetoric of ancient Egypt (he looked mainly at letters) centered around this concept and was linked to one’s judgement in the afterlife. But, Maat was not only aimed at securing a desired afterlife, it was also concerned with living correctly and righteously in the material world. But, as Lipson points out, acting “good” was many times done for self-interest. “The argument for beneficence is not made on the grounds that the poor deserve food, or that good should be done for its own sake” (83). The author refers to the ancient Egyptian text The Instructions of Ptahhotep:
Be generous as long as you live
What leaves the storehouse does not return;
It is the food to be shared which is coveted,
One whose belly is empty is an accuser;
One deprived become as opponent,
Don’t have him for a neighbor (83)
Here we see a short example of an expression of Maat and the pointing to selfish motives, and the continuance of the status quo which seems a central aim of Maat.
As Lipson argues, Maat, working as the “superaddressee” (Bakhtin), attempts to make it clear that there is a strong distinction between righteousness and crookedness, between what is proper and improper. In what is reminiscent of Jewish and Christian scripture, Lipson underlines some specific aspects emphasized by Maat, found in his epistolary studies: “kindness, mercy, generosity, open-handedness, friendship, sweetness to the have-nots, care for the hungry…honesty, rectitude, righteousness, exactitude, fairness, firmness, patience, and cool-headedness” (84).
Let us now turn to Biblical rhetoric which is both similar and dissimilar to the concept of Maat of ancient Egypt. Let me emphasize that the term “Biblical rhetoric” is a simplified/canonizing term that is pointing to a discourse/text/rhetoric that is complex and multilayered. The term Bible itself comes from the Greek ta biblia (the books), pointing to the Bible as a grouping of texts/rhetoric. But, it is clear that Biblical rhetoric(s) are concerned with doing and believing what is proper (orthodoxy and orthopraxy) versus what is improper. A central term in Biblical rhetoric isδικαιος (Dikaiosune), which is translated as righteousness. Clearly, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament are centered around the concept of righteousness, in some cases giving explicit ethical laws and mandates, and in other cases teaching righteousness through storytelling.
What makes Biblical rhetoric seemingly different from the ancient Egyptian concept of Maat, though I am by no means a Biblical scholar, is that it, in many instances, seems concerned with doing good for goodness’ sake (that is, a “goodness” put forth by God) without the self-centered leanings of Maat. Whereas Maat makes the doer of good, and his interests and status, central, Biblical rhetoric, more so in the Gospels, emphasizes doing good because it is what is Right. Here are two short examples:
So when you give money to poor people, do not send men in front of you to blow trumpets or horns. Some people do this in the meeting houses and on the streets so that people will praise them. They are not true to themselves. I tell you the truth. (Matt. 6:2)
We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else. (1 Thessalonians 2:6)
While volumes could be written comparing Biblical righteousness to ancient Egyptian concepts of righteousness, let me move on to Chinese/Confucian rhetoric.
The ethical ideology of Confucian rhetoric (551 B.C. ff.) is aimed at emphasizing moral action over written, verbal, and political action. Glibness is looked down upon as respectful deeds are placed above rhetorical showmanship. Harmony in society is a central aim and, in the words of Arabella Lyon, “rites are greater than…rights” (136). As with Maat, disrupting the status quo is presented not only as undesirable but ethically wrong. If one is to do “good” in life, one should know one’s place and try to do “good” deeds that are in line with the norms of society.
What follows are passages from the Analects of Confucius:
To go unacknowledged by others without harboring frustration—is this not the mark of an exemplary person?
It is a rare thing for glib speech and an insinuating appearance to accompany authoritative conduct.
Rulers should employ their ministers by observing ritual propriety, and ministers should serve their lord by doing their utmost.
Poor but enjoying the way; rich but loving ritual propriety.
The Confucian model of rhetoric and ethics set up a clear distinction of what was good and what was wrong in terms of action and discourse. Like Platonic rhetoric, it was weary of glib speech (epideictic), and, like Maat, was concerned with maintaining societal harmony through “knowing ones place.”
A final example of “good vs. evil” in rhetorical historiography is in the early “New World.” Directly linked to Biblical rhetoric, the rhetoric written about, and from, the New World was many times aimed at what would be the “right” course of action to take with the Natives. Augustine, highly influenced by the rhetoric of Cicero, was highly influential in those whose job it was to convert the Natives to Christianity. For Augustine, “rhetoric serve[d] to impel the converted to act consistently with their beliefs.” He also held that “good” speaking was inferior to “holy speaking” (Cicero qtd. in Abbott). Thus, it seems for Augustine, there is a level of speech that is rhetorically sound and one, above it, which is ethically “good” and pure.
Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagun collected vast amounts of Native/Mexica rhetoric which the Mexica themselves viewed as huehuehtlahtolli, or “speeches of the ancients.” But despite having a complex language, society, and rhetorical history, as illustrated in the works of Sahagun, the Natives were viewed as the evil “other” by many of those sent to convert them. Because of their lifestyle, religious beliefs, and even lack of an alphabet, the Natives, in the eyes of the conquistadores of Europe, needed to be civilized. And above that, it was the “correct” and “good” thing to do. Harking back to the Greeks, who believed rhetoric could be used for both good and evil, the colonizers of the New World felt that (besides doing it physically in many instances) the Natives could be civilized through rhetoric, a very Ciceronian concept (an excellent man brought about civilization in the world). So, for the colonizers, their actions and rhetoric were bound up with ethics and doing what was good in their eyes and, seemingly, in the eyes of God.
As we can see, ethical considerations, ideas of good vs. evil, are embedded in rhetorical historiography. Through a post-Ancient lens, we many times impose postmodern notions of relativistic ethics on ancient cultures. We also tend to approach these ancient rhetorics in a comparative manner thus allowing us to put “good” in quotation marks, symbolically showing our postmodern understanding of “good” as a situated “good.” While I understand and agree with much of that viewpoint, we must also not forget that good/evil/right/wrong/appropriate/inappropriate/moral/immoral are all very strong and formational aspects of these ancient rhetorics. Mixing notions of good and evil, God, afterlife, and religious righteousness, with rhetoric, all have a long history in our field. We cannot ignore that.
Abbott, Don Paul. Rhetoric in the New World: Rhetorical Theory and Practice in
Colonial Spanish America. Columbia: U. of South Carolina P., 1996.
Confucius. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. Trans. Roger
T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr. (packet, chapters 4, 5, 6, and 14).
Lipson, Carol S. “Ancient Egyptian Rhetoric: It All Comes Down to Maat.”
Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Eds. Carol Lipson and Roberta
Binkley. Albany: State U. of N.Y. Press, 2004.
Lyon, Arabella. “Confucian Silence and Remonstration: A Basis for Deliberation?”
Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Eds. Carol Lipson and Roberta
Binkley. Albany: State U. of N.Y. Press, 2004.
Maedoe, Betty DeShong. Ianna, Lady of the Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian
High Priestess Enheduanna. U. of Texas P., 2000 (packet, chapter 1-5, 10).
New International Version Bible. BibleGateway.com 21 Nov. 2006.