In this (very irregular!) series, I’ve been considering Stratford Caldecott’s view of the trivium as he presents it in his book Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education. I’ve covered Grammar (the first liberal art), which for Caldecott is primarily about how we understand our identity as persons made in the image of the Father. Language or Myth helps us become conscious of our Selves, so we can think and discern the truth, so that we can understand reality. I’ve also considered Logic (the second liberal art), which for Caldecott is about how we develop that discernment. Logic isn’t about being smarter than others; it’s about having a capacity for deep reflection that can penetrate the surface of things so that we really recognize the fuller truth.
With rhetoric (the third liberal art), we move from considerations of how we know the truth and how we discover the truth to how we express that truth to others. Here I’ll focus on Caldecott’s most powerful point: the truth can only be spoken in community and freedom.
Children Become Wise within the Warmth of Relationship
Rhetoric is about the communication of values, wisdom, and tradition, but you can’t teach them adequately in a dry lesson about character or through little posters about fairness and good manners. The transmission of these things “can only take place in the heart; that is, in the center of the human person. A voice from the lungs is not enough to carry another along with the meaning of the words. The voice has to carry with it the warmth and living fire of the heart around which the lungs are wrapped” (Beauty in the Word, 84).
Caldecott is presenting a personalist vision of Rhetoric through and through, and it’s very exciting! He is saying that real communication about values and wisdom is only possible in the context of relationship — a relationship based on mutual, self-giving love. If two people are not giving themselves and open to receiving the other, then the communication is thwarted in some way. Oftentimes discussions of rhetoric revolve around the skill of oratory: how we can best persuade others of our rightness. But this is speaking from within ourselves; we are not engaging the other person. In this view, rhetoric is basically a performance in a one-man show.
We will never pass on moral wisdom to our kids “through dry lists of what should and should not be done, but once again through the imagination — through stories, drama, and living examples capable of engaging the will and the emotions and thus inspiring us to be better people” (Beauty in the Word, 87). When you think about how kids really live, how they respond to stories, superheroes, and the natural world, Caldecott’s advice makes perfect sense. Children have to care, to make some kind of emotional connection to the things we think are important. They will speak about these things with rhetorical power only when they love them as their own.
“You cannot communicate a truth that has not changed you. You cannot build a community on a truth that has not been incorporated into you, making you the kind of person you are. The person is to some extent the message.” Beauty in the Word, 86
Rhetoric and Freedom
Our culture equates freedom with unlimited choices; it assumes that freedom has nothing to do with the truth. Caldecott says it is the quality of our choices and not the quantity that makes us free. If you have one hundred choices but they are all choices to sin, to suffer, to harm yourself or others, then that is not freedom. Far better to possess the power to choose one good thing that brings life and joy. We can find fulfillment only in certain ways; helping others find the freedom to choose those ways is one of the central tasks of rhetoric. Caldecott’s announces:
“On this basis we can at last understand the essence of Rhetoric — which is not a set of techniques to impress (oratory, eloquence), nor a means of manipulating the will and emotions of others (sophistry, advertising), but rather a way of liberating the freedom of others by showing them the truth in a form they can understand.” Beauty in the Word, 92.
As we teach our children the art of rhetoric, our goal is to liberate them, not to make them into an award-winning debater. There is nothing wrong with being a great orator, but if your motivation is to impress or to manipulate, you are an unworthy rhetorician. The worthy rhetorician speak in love, speaks to liberate his listener. We have to teach our children this difference.
Rhetoric Is Not a Third Stage of Learning
Caldecott reminds us that this road to wisdom occurs throughout the child’s entire education. It is not a third “stage” of learning like Dorothy Sayers suggests in the Lost Tools of Learning. In Sayer’s view, rhetorical training occurs in the teen years. I agree with Caldecott: When you are engaged with your child while reading books, exploring the world, or observing characters in a movie, a child is already learning the art of rhetoric. I can’t help notice that Charlotte Mason’s use of “narration” – the telling back of stories that a child has just heard – is an early form of rhetorical training when we understand it correctly. At every developmental stage, a child can learn the value of truth and how to communicate truth to others with both confidence and charity.