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Rhetoric as a "friend of truth"

“Many persons seem to think that no speech can properly be called eloquent which is not fitted to excite the passions, that is, to move and persuade…” —From Lectures Read to the Seniors in Harvard College, by Edward Tyrrel Channing (1856)

Edward Tyrrel Channing served as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard from 1819 to 1850. Soon after his death in 1856, his lectures were published under the matter-of-fact title,

Lectures Read to the Seniors in Harvard College, that understates the wealth of advice they contain.

Channing is full of good ideas achieving clarity in speech, about avoiding wasting time when drafting (see: “A Writer’s Habits”), about the true determinants of lasting literary glory, and many other topics.

There are a number of passages that must have been drawn from Channing’s years of scanning student compositions, such as this gentle observation regarding over-embellishment in speech:

Mere startling oddity or cloudy mysticism may be popular and attractive, [and] may be said to arouse and keep up attention, though they fix it wholly upon themselves. He who hides good matter under a heap of flowers may be a greater favorite for his decorations, than he might have been if his good matter had been distinctly seen standing alone.

We find flashes of wry humor in Channing’s lectures, such as when he notes how “[w]e must get up splendid military processions and secure the attendance of the chief men of the state, before we can prevail upon any considerable number of citizens to assemble and hear a discourse, once in a year, upon the Declaration of our Independence, and the weighty consequences of that measure.”

The lectures also caution against the abuse of rhetoric. Channing warns his students that they must not admire too deeply the rhetoric that was common to the riotous political assemblies of ancient Greece and Rome. Channing was apparently no fan of the Mark Antony School of Incendiary Rhetoric, as immortalized by Shakespeare.

Channing notes that classical rhetoric was often a way to “flatter [an audience’s] weakness, consult their prejudices, or minister to their taste or passions,” so that a charismatic speaker could sway people to his cause. If necessary, to “produce [the] great effect on popular feeling” that was his goal, the speaker might “even take advantage of [his listeners’] frailties” with his words.

To Channing, the young American Republic needed another, more constructive kind of rhetoric. He prefers the kind of rhetoric that “appeals to a man's imagination and taste, to his sense of beauty and grandeur and moral excellence, to his sense of wit and humor and irony and satire.”  (Perhaps Channing agrees with Abraham Lincoln’s idea that “right makes might” in public debate.)

Channing wants his students to have nothing to do with the kind of rhetoric that is “heated and reckless, and bent upon setting people above or beyond reason, so that they may be ruled by impulse.” Rhetoric, he insists, must be a “friend of truth.”

Instead of trying to “to set the people wild by reminding them of the great deeds of their fathers” with fire-breathing rhetoric, Channing hopes his students aspire to lead “considerate men to responsible action” with thoughtful speech that had “an obvious and practical use” as its goal.

(We could interpret these sentiments as an American Declaration of Rhetorical Independence from the Old World, an echo of 1776. Given when Channing lived, the comparison isn’t so far-fetched. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, tried to do the same thing for American literature; and the man behind Webster’s Dictionary aspired to something similar for American English generally.)

There is much more of interest in Channing’s book; those who want to peruse it can view an out-of-copyright, fully scanned version available via archive.org.

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