The Q question

Does Teaching the Humanities Humanize?

One of the most interesting essays in Lanham’s Electronic Word is “The ‘Q’ Question.” The “Q” in question is Quintilian, and Lanham traces the rise of English departments and decline of Rhetoric as a central educational force back to Ramus— not an original conception of the problem. What is fairly original, however, is recasting the struggle back to the original Greek debate between Plato and the Sophists as to whether areté (the qualities of a good citizen) can be taught.

The question asked by Quintilian in book twelve of Instutitio Oratoria is a continuing reflection on the idea that the ideal orator is “a good man speaking well.” By teaching a student the techné of rhetoric, do they somehow become good? Quintilian, with eleven long books invested in the subject, of course answers “yes” but with no real defense for his answer. He merely “begs the question,” repeating his answer so many times that a reader must automatically agree.

One possible defense, which comes up a lot in politically trying times, is that there is “good rhetoric” and “bad rhetoric.” Lanham calls this the “weak defense” of rhetoric. This defense stems almost entirely from Ramus, who assaulted this definition of an orator point blank:

What then can be said against this definition of an orator? I assert indeed that this definition of an orator seems to me to be useless and stupid . . .

For although I admit rhetoric is a virtue, it is a virtue of the mind and intelligence, as in all the true liberal arts, whose followers can be men of the utmost moral depravity.

This is, in essence, Plato’s quarrel with the Sophists. To fix the problem, Ramus removed all “invention” or discovery ideas from the realm of rhetoric, moving invention to the province of logic and philosophy. This makes rhetoric “value neutral” and not a means of teaching virtue. The Sophistic emphasis was on teaching students to argue both sides of a question; only through examining both sides did an orator become “the wisest of men” because he was able to recognize that both arguments were indeed value laden. Sophistic rhetoric is a tool to explore both virtue and vice. Plato (or Ramus) just wouldn’t have any part of that.

It seems inevitable that if virtue was not to be found in virtuosity, it must be found somewhere else. Answering the “Q question” with a resolute NO! inevitably forced a shift into canonical texts, where “good books read well” could educate students to be virtuous. The problem is, just what is a good book and what is reading well?

It was Quintilian’s project to unify philosophy and rhetoric into two sides of the same coin, not to separate them as praxis after Ramus has. To answer the “Q question” with a resounding YES! requires a profound examination of just what being human is; it requires the acceptance of both virtue and vice as necessary parts of the decision making process. You cannot separate them. Inevitably, Lanham sees the “strong defense” of rhetoric in the dramatistic nature of decision making; the courtroom model of prosecution and defense performing in front of an audience (jury). Humanity is by its nature rhetorical, and acceptance of that fact is what makes rhetorical education in the humanities an integral part of the humanizing process.

What makes “great books” great is their intractable refusal to be models of strictly virtue or vice, and their engagement with the dramatistic conflict between the two.