Rhetorical Cheating

HOW to Win an Argument Without Even Trying

(Or, When You Can't Beat 'Em....Pretend You Have Anyway!)

By T.G. Enloe

Now for some people it is better worthwhile to seem to be wise, than to be wise without seeming to be (for the art of the sophist is the semblance of wisdom without the reality...); for them, then, it is clearly essential also to seem to accomplish the task of a wise man rather than to accomplish it without seeming to do so. -- Aristotle On Sophistical Refutations 1.1

Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself --Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 1:2

It is an unfortunate truth of our age that rational discourse has fallen on hard times. In secular circles, it is generally speaking no longer allowable for one to have principled objections to certain ideas. "Tolerance" is in; 'intolerance" is out. "Open-mindedness" is in; "dogmatism" is out. "Niceness" is in; "meanness" is out. 'Humility" is in; "pride" is out. "What works" is in; "what's True" is out.

As a Protestant who has been engaged in the discipline of apologists for eight years, I am not surprised to find this sort of doublespeak in secular circles. It is quite surprising, however, to find it regularly practiced among professing Christians, who of all people should be the most concerned about presenting Truth rather than opinion, substance rather than fluff, reasoned arguments rather than emotional venting. But this is exactly what I have found in many of my dealings with Roman Catholic apologists.

The Internet is literally choked with syrupy posts about the alleged superiority of Roman Catholic Eucharistic devotions to Protestant ones, idiotic and hateful diatribes about the secret heart motivations of major Protestant apologists, naïve expressions of utter incredulity that Protestants who read the Church Fathers do not convert to Rome, ill-informed and blatantly prejudiced polemics against Reformed doctrines such as absolute predestination, foolish demands that their arguments be answered on their terms or else not at all (coupled with scathing denunciations about how the Protestant who does not do what the Roman apologist asks is being a "sophist"), and so on.

I began writing this essay several months ago in response to a ridiculous and quite vehement outburst on Steve Ray's Catholic Message Board by a deeply pious Roman Catholic woman whom I had met there when she began to attack me for supposedly being "unkind" to Roman Catholic "apologetic newbies". Although the post in question (reproduced in full below) was not directed at me, but at someone else, I replied to it chiefly because this woman shares my interest in classical studies and frequently spices up her posts to me with allusions to ancient history, rhetoric, Latin, and the like.

It was this interest in classical studies which caused this work to grow from a mere brief chiding of the woman's abuse of rhetoric into a much longer essay that deals with the methodology behind such outbursts. I beg the reader's indulgence as I discuss in the first few sections below the topics of rhetoric, sophistry, and dead white Greek males. Trust me, these subjects do have great relevance to the issue of modern Roman Catholic apologetics.

Rhetoric or Rhetoric?

Ancient expositors of the art of proper speaking and writing developed numerous rules to aid in formulating arguments and seeing fallacies, as well as for governing style and presenting ideas in persuasive ways. This discipline was called rhetoric, and from the fifth century B.C. onward, it has been a time-honored discipline, pursued by such great (pagan) minds as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Demosthenes, and Quintilian. Christians, too, once learned and profitably used the art of rhetoric. Indeed, the great Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, devoted Book 4 of his excellent work On Christian Doctrine to a discussion of rhetoric in the presentation of Christian truth.

In modern times, however, the term "rhetoric" has taken on a pejorative dimension, referring mainly to forms of argument that are hollow, self-serving, and aimed at appearing to convey wisdom when in fact they do not. In other words, it has again taken on the meaning that ancient expositors such as Socrates sometimes charged it with: that of sophistry. It is important to recognize the difference, however between rhetoric (the art of speaking well) and rhetoric (sophistry), since the two are often confused. In Plato's dialogue Gorgias, Socrates invests much energy in promoting a germinal form of the first and mercilessly shredding the second. Indeed, he himself draws the distinction I just made: "I am contented with the admission that rhetoric is of two sorts: one, which is mere flattery and disgraceful declamation; the other, which is noble and aims at the training and improvement of the souls of the citizens, and strives to say what is best, whether welcome or unwelcome, to the audience."True rhetoric is immensely valuable and is an art which needs to be recovered in our day. For as St. Augustine put it:

Now the art of rhetoric being available for the enforcing either of truth or falsehood, who will dare to say that truth in the person of its defenders is to take its stand unarmed against falsehood? For example, that those who are trying to persuade men of what is false are to know how to introduce their subject, so as to put the hearer into a friendly, or attentive, or teachable frame of mind, while the defenders of the truth shall be ignorant of that art'? That the former are to tell their falsehoods briefly, clearly, and plausibly, while the latter shall tell the truth in such a way that it is tedious to listen to, hard to understand, and, in fine, not easy to it? That the former are to oppose the truth and defend falsehood with sophistical arguments, while the latter shall be unable either to defend what is true, or to refute what is false? That the former, while imbuing the minds of their hearers with erroneous opinions, arc by their power of speech to awe, to melt, to enliven, and to rouse them; while the latter shall in defense of the truth be sluggish, frigid, and somnolent? Who is such a fool as to think this wisdom? Since, then, the faculty of eloquence is available for both sides, and is of very great service in the enforcing either of wrong or right, why do not good men study to engage it on the side of truth, when bad men use it to obtain the triumph of wicked and worthless causes, and to further injustice and error? (On Christian Doctrine, 4.2)

Sophists Old...

In discussing ancient rhetoricians the subject of their opponents. the sophists, must he addressed. Sophists were traveling lecturers who charged exorbitant fees to train their students to project an apparent mastery of all subjects simply by the judicious and clever use of words. Indeed, in Plato's Gorgias, one of the most famous sophists (Gorgias) had the following conversation with Socrates (in the context of this dialogue, the terms “rhetoric” and “rhetorician” refer solely to sophistry, not to what would later become the respected art of rhetoric proper.):

Socrates: You were saying, in fact, that the rhetorician will have greater powers of persuasion than the physician even in a matter of health?

Gorgias. Yes, with the multitude—that is.

Socrates: You mean to say, with the ignorant; for with those who know he cannot be supposed to have greater powers of persuasions.

Gorgias: Very true.

Socrates: But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gorgias: Certainly.

Socrates: Although he is not a physician:--is he?

Gorgias: No

Socrates: And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gorgias: Clearly.

Socrates: Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge—is that not the inference?

Gorgias: in the case supposed:--Yes.

Socrates: And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things, he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Gorgias: Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?--not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them? (Emphasis mine)

Obviously, no determined seeker of truth can comfort himself with pursuing the art of deceiving others by clever use of words, and so it is that a bit later in the same dialogue, Socrates tells Gorgias (again, the term "rhetoric' here refers to sophistry only) what he thinks of his brand of wordsmithing:

In my opinion, then, Gorgias, the whole of which rhetoric is a part is not an art at all, but the habit of a bold and ready wit, which knows how to manage mankind: this habit I sum up under the word "flattery'; and it appears to me to have many other parts, me of which is cookery, which may seem to be an art, but, as I maintain it, is only an experience or routine and not an art..

Rhetoric, according to my view, is the ghost or counterfeit of a part of politics.

Sophists, then, use words to create impressions (intellectual, moral, and emotional) that have more to do with persuasion for its own sake than persuasion of truth. As Gorgias said to Socrates, the only thing that is really important is being able to convince the person you are talking to that you actually do know what you are talking about and do have something vitally important to say on the subject at hand.

...and New

Today's sophists are oftentimes not as crassly materialistic as their ancient counterparts (excepting, of course. many politicians and lawyers). Unlike the latter, however, the former are much more numerous and visible. Today, thanks to the high degree of general literacy, the much greater availability of reading materials, and the amazing ability of the Internet to turn anyone into a published author overnight, anyone can be a sophist with little pain and much gain. The Internet would have put Gorgias out of business while simultaneously multiplying his disciples a thousandfold overnight. 0 mala tempore! Quam longe cecidimus! (O bad tune! How far we have fallen!)

Let us examine one small aspect of the wretched pit of cognitive despair, the landfill of intellectual deconstruction, the tsunami of emotional effusion into which many discussions between Protestants and Roman Catholics fall, to the great harm of everyone involved.

"But that's just your interpretation!"

This protest is never far from the lips of people who seemingly wish to have an easy way of delegitimizing their opponent's position without having to produce a real answer. No matter how well reasoned the biblical argument is, no matter how thoroughly the biblical or historical texts have been treated, this is the iron-clad, die-hard answer-to-end-all-answers for the lazy-minded theologian/apologist.

Unreflective Protestants often use it as a code-phrase for "You are biased by 'traditions of men' but I am not--I 'just read my Bible'. Here--let me show you how the Bible literally supports my position." Interestingly, Roman Catholics often use it, too, but from the opposite perspective. Because they generally do not believe that Scripture is plain in all its essential parts, and because they conversely believe that the infallible teaching authority of the Church is required if we are to correctly understand the Bible, the protest for them becomes a slap in the face to the Protestant--a direct accusation that whatever the Protestant has said is merely his own personal, individualist prejudice divorced from all objective criteria of meaning.

A perfect example of this phenomenon was found recently on Steve Ray's Catholic Message Board. In response to someone who posted a lengthy piece of correspondence by the late Dr. John R. Rice under the title "What's Wrong with the RC Church" (not Dr. Rice's title of the piece), a zealous defender of that particular institutional body replied in a post she entitled "What hubristic, arrogant rot! What utter, unmitigated poppycock! (And that's just the first live lines.)....". I have reproduced the entire reply so the reader may get the whole effect.1

As Mary McCarthy once so eloquently said of Lillian Hellman, "Every word she ever wrote was a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

That s the impression I got reading the first few paragraphs of this utter bunk. (I couldn't make it past these first few paragraphs. I mean, this wasn't exactly gripping material. I kept waiting for the butler to discover the body on the library floor, but somehow Dr. Rice disappointed me.)

Even the salutation was a crock. "Dear Catholic friend" -- give me a break. Ah, the pained condescension, the patronizing solicitude. Pardon me while I make judicious use of the nearest air-sickness hag.

And then the painstaking, point-by-point exposition of the "true Gospel" -- as if Dr. Rice were Irving to explain quantum mechanics to an idiot child. Spare me!

And speaking of "true Gospel" -- here's the nub of the issue, of course. Why the heck should I accept Pastor Rice's goof-ball interpretation as "the true Gospel"? Who died and made him Pope? By what authority does he claim to have a lock on the proper interpretation of Sacred Scripture? \Where does he get the unmitigated gall to suppose his very recent, zeitgeist-ridden exegesis is Gospel Truth? And where does he get off summarily trying to impose his cockeyed interpretation on the rest of us'? When did the Holy Spirit confer the charism of Perpetual Infallibility on Pastor Rice? What arrogance! What hubris! The mind boggles, forsooth.

It's always the way: These who refuse to acknowledge papal and magisterial infallibility invariably end up claiming infallibility for themselves. Not only that, they claim a sort of super-infallibility, far beyond anything we Catholics would ever dare claim for the Pope. After all, in Catholic teaching, the Pope is protected by the God-given charism of infallibility *only* when he speaks formally ex cathedra on faith and morals. But 'Pope Rice and his ilk apparently labor under the delusion that they speak infallibly every time they open their mouths and utter "boo."

"But we're just giving you the Word, the Gospel, the Bible itself," they protest Bunk, Dr. Rice. Y'all are giving us your *interpretation* of the Bible. And as such, it is as open to critical scrutiny as the next person's interpretation. And frankly, when subjected to such scrutiny, your interpretation is found sorely wanting. It is a pastiche of proof-texts and airy assertions, wholly lacking in factual basis, unconnected with history, and permeated by 19th/20th-century revivalist assumptions.

If you cannot see that your interpretation is indeed an interpretation -- not the unvarnished Word itself -- then that's your problem, not ours As Dave Armstrong points out, the most dangerous assumptions are the unexamined ones

Not that it will do any good -- only prayer and fasting can dislodge this anti-Catholic spirit, I fear -- but nonetheless, I'll try to spell it out for you, Dr. Rice: You literally cannot read the Bible without interpreting it. It is flat impossible. That is just the way the human mind works. We do not absorb the Bible whole and entire by osmosis. Rather, we process it as we read. And that means we interpret it. I interpret, you interpret, all God's children interpret.

Now, Dr. Rice, given that we *all" interpret -- and given that your supposed "Biblical" arguments arc nothing more than *your" interpretations -- please answer one simple question fa met

Why the heck should I accept ''your" interpretation? Why should I take ''your" interpretation as the Truth, over against the constant and consistent voice of the Catholic Church through 20 unbroken centuries?

You arc but one man, Dr. Rice. You espouse one line of interpretation. All around you, evangelicals and fundamentalists of every description take vehement issue with your interpretation and instead advance their own -- a veritable cacophony of competing interpretations.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, which knows Sacred Scripture far more profoundly than you ever could, offers the same interpretations she has been presiding for century upon century, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And you expect me to buy *your* bogus interpretation over against the Church's Christ-founded, Spirit-guided, time-tested wisdom?

You've gotta to be kidding, Pope Rice!!!

Thank you, but I'll take the genuine, authentic Pope and Magisterium -- not Pope Luther, Pope Calvin, Pope Rice, or any of the other millions of individual mini-popes Protestantism has spawned.

Admit it--it's easy to be impressed with and get caught up in the verbiage of this post. This post is no mere sophomoric sound bite, no vulgar vagary. It is passionately phrased and pleasingly purposeful. This Roman Catholic has apparently been taking lessons from Aristotle and Quintilian on the use of rhetoric to dress up arguments. Or has she?

Quintilian, arguably the greatest of the classical Roman orators, once wrote:

But there are sane who, even although the eases which they have undertaken give but small scope for eloquence, none the less trick it out with matter drawn from without and, if all else fails, till up the gaps in their case with abuse of their opponents, true if possible, but false if necessary, the sole consideration that weighs with them being that it affords exercise for their talents and is likely to win applause during its delivery. (On the Institutes of Oratory, 12.9.8)

Likewise, St. Augustine wrote: But we must beware of the man who abounds in eloquent nonsense, and so much the more if the hearer is pleased with what is not worth listening to, and thinks that because the speaker is eloquent, what he says must be true." (On Christian Doctrine, 4.5)

Now the point is not whether Dr. Rice's letter actually did contain valid information about what is wrong with Roman Catholicism or what is right about Protestantism. Perhaps it did, perhaps it did not (I did not read it myself due to its length and my time limitations). The point is that the response above is little more than a rhetorical slam that asserts the author's own deep faith in the Roman Catholic point of view...and nothing else. it is, as Augustine said, "eloquent nonsense", and true to Quintilian's words, did achieve much applause from other Roman Catholics on the Message Board. (My response, entitled "Nihil dixit"--"she said nothing'--was either ignored or else "responded" to by means of personal attacks based on past conversations on different subjects.)

From the standpoint of good rhetoric, to write off Dr. Rice's point of view by glibly labeling it "just [his] interpretation" and then adding that for him to offer his view is equivalent to asserting that he possesses "super infallibility" is manifestly NOT a refutation of Dr. Rice's views. like the sophists of old, authors who write these types of diatribes substitute rhetorical fluff for genuine substance, name calling for reasoned analysis, emotional rhapsody for intellectual integrity. For all its considerable flair, the above missive is nothing more than rhetorical cheating.

But of course, Roman Catholic apologists are quite fond of this sort of cheating--they do it all the time. A related example is the issue of using 'private judgment" to decide between competing religious systems. According to them, the logic goes like this:

You Protestants are in a massive quandary centered on how to decide which of the 25,000 competing denominations is the True Church that you should follow. How in the world can any of you have "certainty of faith" and "know for sure" that you are in the correct Church? Isn't your decision a result of your having applied your own fallible mind to the various data involved? Isn't it all "just *your** interpretation"?

Yet, when pressed with exactly the same question applied to their own personal faith in the truth of Roman Catholicism, namely:

You Roman Catholics are in a massive quandary centered on how to decide which of the 25,000 competing religious systems in the world is the True Church that you should follow,. How in the world can any of you have "certainty of faith" and "know for sure" that you are in the correct Church? Isn't your decision a result of your having applied your own fallible mind to the various data involved? Isn't it all "just *your* interpretation"?

they inevitably give all sorts of convoluted reasons why their own use of private judgment to decide among competing options is exempt from their own critique of Protestantism! Responses I have seen range from the mocking accusation that to even ask such a question of a Roman Catholic who has asked it of a Protestant is to "change the subject and avoid the force of the question against the Protestant position" and thus to "engage in sophistry"2, "I am allowed to exercise private judgment so long as my private judgment doesn't contradict Rome's official teachings”3, "my private judgment is different from yours because I don't judge history but rather let it judge me".4, or simply uncritical disbelief that anyone could have any kind of well-reasoned objections to Roman Catholicism.5

The point of all this is not to delve in detail into the hypocrisy of the common Roman Catholic polemic against private judgment6 but merely to note that the hypocrisy exists, and that it is a blatant form of what I am here calling rhetorical cheating. It is utterly unacceptable to answer an opponent's presentation by saying "But that's just your interpretation (private judgment), so why should I believe it?" Absolutely everything ever written or said (including this very sentence!) must he "interpreted" in the sense of the receiver's mind making sense of it. so what exactly is the point of calling someone's words "just your interpretation"? Of course it is his interpretation; he thought it and expressed it! So what? May I consider myself wise if I reply to this sort of thing by saying, "Yes, but it's only your interpretation that what I said is only my interpretation." Obviously, this sort of nonsense could be extended indefinitely, and no one would ever learn anything from it. But such is the quandary that sophistical reasoning gets one into.

It's intriguing to note that this form of Roman apologetic was born in the midst of our postmodernized culture, whose one inviolable rule is the hypocritical maxim "Truth is in the eye of the beholder." The hypocrisy of the postmodernist lies in the implication that all truth claims save for the postmodernist's own are "biased"--it amounts to saying "There is no absolute truth except for the absolute truth that there are no absolute truths."

Now, while Roman Catholics (just like Protestants) formally anathematize this relativism in its fullest sense, the present crop of Roman apologists do not seem to realize how deeply they rely on it themselves. For in making their argument about the personal interpretations of Protestants, they are implicitly saying that Protestants are biased but Roman Catholics are not. What seems to be objectively true to Protestants is really "just their own interpretation", narrow-minded and in desperate need of "enlightenment" by their epistemological betters, whose minds operate in state of "objectivity". Yet the author of the above piece had the audacity to speak of the danger of "unexamined assumptions", as if she had none of her own!

Just like the most vicious postmodernist, the garden-variety Roman apologist thus delegitimizes all opposition to Roman truth claims, and then triumphantly crows about how the poor befuddled Protestant is "unable to answer" the brilliant defense of Rome! This sort of triteness would be bad enough coming from those poorly skilled in wordsmithing, but when it comes in the type of eloquent guise noted above, it is even more reprehensible. Rhetoric is meant to serve Truth, not to take it captive and twist it into hollow logical pretzels that conceal the real source of the disagreement: emotional distress at the thought of what the world would be like if the opponent's ideas were actually true.

Any time an opposing viewpoint is "answered" by the statement that it is "just your interpretation", the mind has been raped and we are entitled to take off the kid gloves and demand intellectual accountability from the apologist using this tactic. For if this sort of twisted "logic" is allowed to govern discussion, it will ultimately sweep away all human claims to knowledge in a flood of absolute skepticism.

But then again, maybe that very statement, yea, my entire essay is "just my interpretation".


1. I have not provided a link to this post on the actual Message Board (dated 9/19/00), because archives are only kept there for six months, after which time, someone reading this essay of mine would be unable to retrieve the original post.

2. Discussion between myself and another Reformed person named "Nathan" with a Roman Catholic calling himself "TrueHeart" on the above mentioned Message Board, dated 10/20/00. "TrueHeart" consistently demonstrated that all he was capable of doing was demanding that we answer his question while simultaneously refusing to see that the question, if valid, undermined his own position. Yet he had the audacity to assert that we were being "sophists" and "ducking questions"!

3. Contestant in Eric Svendsen's "$100,000 Challenge" to Roman Catholics. The Challenge can be found at Svendsen's website New Testament Restoration Ministries, under the directory "RC Corner".[Dead Link]

4. Private e-mail correspondence with Dave Armstrong dated 7/8/00. The phrase I have rendered above is not a direct quote of Armstrong, but a summary of his denial that he uses the same kind of private judgment that I do. For an in-depth analysis and refutation of Armstrong's incoherent polemics on this subject, see my Private Judgment: A Summary Response to Dave Armstrong's Claims. [Dead Link]

5. This is the general attitude that comes from many newcomers to the discipline of apologetics, and while taking them to task for it, we must be careful not to mock them. As in so many other areas of life, the first heady rush of ignorance when one enters the apologetic arena is bliss. I myself once experienced such giddy naivety concerning agnostic atheist objections to the Christian faith as a whole, and although it is still difficult to grasp the inanities of much of unbelieving thought, I do at least recognize that agnostics usually think of their objections as honest and straightforward. It is usually best for rational discourse for all parties to assume the same of their opponents' reasons and motivations, and allow the rules of sound thinking to decide the contest.

6. An outstanding example of such hypocrisy is the log of an online chatroom discussion which took place on January 10, 2000: Do Roman Catholics Have to Interpret the Words of the Magisterium?[Dead Link] My friend Chris Jenkins spent over three hours attempting to reason with a Roman Catholic apologist on the subject of his hypocrisy on private judgment, but to no avail. Still, the conversation is most illuminating.

Copyright 2001 by T.G. Enloe


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