OUR SOPHISTIC HERITAGE: IMPLICATIONS FOR MODERN FORENSICS
James C. McCroskey*
Many criticisms of modern speech activities are to be found in our literature.
Some are quite justified; other are, at best, irrational. The purpose of
this paper is to look at some of the activities used for the training of
speakers in the past in order to suggest what pitfalls need to be avoided
in today's speech activities programs. More specifically, my concern will
be the weaknesses of sophistic declamation and logical disputation.
To explain what sophistic declamation was, it is necessary to look at
the attitude held by its practitioners. C. S. Baldwin (Medieval Rhetoric
and Poetic to 1400) in his indictment of the sophists stresses that
a major weakness of the sophistic was its concern with giving effectiveness
to the speaker and not to the message. This is contrasted with Aristotle's
stress on rhetoric's giving effectiveness to the truth. It is true that
the sophistical declamation was designed to give effectiveness to the speaker,
but the importance of truth was not ignored. Philostratus in the opening
of Book I of his Lives of the Sophists makes this point abundantly
clear. He states:
We must regard the ancient sophistic art as philosophic rhetoric. For
it discusses the themes that philosophers treat of, but whereas they, by
their method of questioning, set snares for knowledge, and advance step
by step as they confirm the minor points of their investigations, but assert
that they have still no sure knowledge, the sophist of the old school assumes
a knowledge of that whereof he speaks.
The sophist, then, operated on the basic assumption that he knew truth. Thus, to give effectiveness to the speaker was to give effectiveness to the truth. With this basic assumption the rhetoric of style that resulted is understandable. The use of common themes for declamation is most practical, for this provides a means of comparison between speakers in their handling of the same theme. It is also understandable why the themes were mainly drawn from history, for the knowledge of "truth" assumption would seem more valid in this context.
The major flaw in the training of the speaker by use of sophistic declamation, then, was that the training was only partial. It concerned only the stylistic portion of rhetoric. That the themes for discussion were divorced from reality and urgency of subject matter merely compounded the problem.
Another facet of sophistic declamation that we need to consider is the
acceptance of this training activity as an art unto itself to be admired
on a level equal or superior to other speaking. The training activity became
the entertainment of the popular audience. No longer was declamation an
exercise for learning how to speak effectively in another context. It was
an exercise in declamation to learn declamation.
From the late middle ages well into the settling of the thirteen colonies, the logical disputation was a major form of speech training. These disputations adhered to a very rigid and often prescribed logical pattern. While the sophists believed that they knew truth, the disputants were primarily concerned with demonstrating truth through logic. At least three weaknesses of this activity are worthy of consideration. First, like the sophistic declamation, the disputation was concerned with only a part of the total rhetorical process, namely invention and disposition, and even these in a distorted framework. This was a truly message-centered activity. Secondly, until 1750 these disputations were universally conducted in Latin. This meant that what little was learned by the participant about style and delivery would be difficult to translate into vernacular speech. Finally, like the sophistic declamations, the logical disputation became an object of public admiration as well as a school exercise. In early American colleges all students were required to participate in this activity, not just in the classroom but also before the public. This public consisted of faculty, students, alumni, and anyone else who wished to attend.
We have seen that the two main training activities for speakers that
compose the heritage of modern speech activities had serious flaws. Most
significant of these were that both were concerned with what can be called
"partial rhetoric," both divorced themselves from reality and
urgency of subject matter, and both became arts of public display for the
entertainment of admiring audiences. With these flaws in mind, let us turn
our attention to contemporary speech activities to see if these flaws are
present or are in danger of becoming present and what we can do to avoid
the errors of the past.
While there are over thirty different types of speech contests presently
being conducted across the United States, my concern will be with only
the four most common ones--debate, oratory, extemp, and student congress.
Let us look at these one by one.
Modern academic debating is the direct descendant of the logical disputation.
After 1750 when the vernacular was first used and when topics of popular
concern began to be considered the form of academic argumentation was significantly
similar to our modern debating. Therefore, it is not surprising that some
of the flaws of the logical disputation are to be found in our modern debate
programs. The first of these is that academic debating is still training
in only a partial rhetoric. This is evidenced by the statement of the Directors
of Forensics of the Western Conference Universities (Big 10). They state
. . . the skills developed in tournament debating do not comprise the whole of the rhetorical skills needed by a student for effective participation in the public address of American society . . . The fact that students have achieved proficiency in competitive advocacy of tournament debating does not, in itself, qualify these students for appearance in public debates before general audiences . . . The skills developed in tournament debate are partial skills.
(Quarterly Journal of Speech, XL, Dec. 1954, 435-439.)
The subjects discussed in modern academic debate are not remote or thematic; they are involved with vital issues of our time. Thus, one of the major flaws in declamation and disputation is not present. However, this concern for the popular issues is more apparent than real. The student is more concerned with developing and displaying his argumentative skills than he is with the issue. Similarly, the "audience" will be judging him within this framework.
Like the ancient declamation, modern academic debate has tended to become
an art unto itself. With increased emphasis on winning, the school debater
has come to be admired for his proficiency at his "art." Fortunately,
however, the debating game has not caught on with the public. It has remained
for the most part quietly in the classrooms with very few observers. There
are some who yearn for the "good old days" when audiences numbering
in the hundreds came to the debate exhibitions. However, with the notable
exception of several million prime-time television viewers who watched
the 1962 debacle between Oxford and North Texas State on NBC, the American
public has refrained from attending the academic debating games.
Probably the most direct descendant of the ancient and medieval declamation
is the modern oratory contest. Seneca's comment on declamation is appropriate
Which do you want, a good reason, or my real reason? Whoever prepares
a declamation writes not to win but to please. He seeks after all a-lurements.
Because arguments are tiresome and are least capable of adornment, he will
leave them out. He is content to charm his audience with sententious epigrams
and with dilation. He seeks approbation for himself, not for his cause.
Could we not substitute the word "oration" for the word "declamation"
in Seneca's quotation and find it an art description of modern oratory
contests? Certainly many of our modern oratory contests are merely a new
"oratory of themes." Witness the efforts of students in "American
Legion Oratory" and "I Speak for Democracy" contests. Invention
is severely restricted. Style and delivery are paramount. Even in our "better"
oratory contests the speeches are not developed to influence audience's
attitudes, but rather are designed to exhibit skill and win an award. The
audience for whom they are prepared is the critic judge. Of course, many
of these orations are presented before other audiences. However, even when
this occurs it is merely for the practice of the student and the edification
of the public, and it is likely to be announced as a display. The oration
is declaimed, not adapted to the immediate audience. The sophistic art
of Philostratus is far from dead.
Ideally the extemp contest is the combination of the invention and disposition
of the logical argumentative art of debate with the stylistic and presentational
art of oratory. To the extent that this ideal is achieved, extemp is less
subject to the criticism of "partial rhetoric" that we must level
against debate and oratory. The achievement of this ideal, however, is
restricted by three factors. First, the topics for extemp speeches are
not always on current problems. Frequently, the "theme" drawn
by the student will be nearly as remote and abstract as those provided
to Prohaeresius, the great sophist of ancient times. Secondly, the severe
limitation on preparation time prevents the student from really applying
his rhetorical knowledge. It is a wonder that some students can prepare
a reasonably cogent speech in the time permitted. Actually, it is not so
surprising when one realizes that such students frequently have prepared
complete speeches and speech segments that they merely have to somehow
relate to the theme drawn. Finally, like oratory, the judging is on the
skills of the speaker, not the moving of the audience. Consequently, the
speech is so constructed as to display the speaker's art before the critic.
The evils that Seneca noted centuries ago are still with us.
Of all the modern speech activities the student congress evidences the
least remnants of our sophistical heritage. It is not an activity involving
only a partial rhetoric. Important current topics are discussed. Real audiences
of peers are present to be moved. Effectiveness of a speaker is judged
by the vote on the resolution. Only two factors inhibit this activity.
First, the students do not have the power to act on their decisions. This
can be, and often is, overcome by having the students debate resolutions
which, if adopted, will be sent to the group holding the power to act for
their consideration. The second inhibiting factor is the desire on the
part of some congress directors to give awards to the top participants.
This problem can be overcome by eliminating the awards or allowing the
students themselves to select those among their number who shall receive
One may conclude from the foregoing discussion that modern speech activities evidence an excessive amount of our sophistical heritage and that at least debate, oratory, and extemp contests should be abolished. I believe that a more reasonable conclusion would be that we must recognize the weaknesses of our present programs and make adjustments to overcome them. Training in either debate, oratory, or extemp alone is not enough. Each is training in partial rhetorical skills. For the student to develop total rhetorical skills he must receive training in all of them. Each of these speech activities is uniquely valuable in partial training, but to concentrate on only one of these is to find our program guilty of the same errors as the programs devoted to ancient declamation or disputation.
We must also recognize the difference between the laboratory and real life. Contest debate oratory, and extemp are laboratory activities. Rather than expressing concern when popular audiences do not appear to hear these contests we should make every effort to keep them removed from the public platform. Football is a fine activity for the physical development of young men. When it becomes an art unto itself we have professional football. Debate, oratory, and extemp are fine activities for the rhetorical development of young men and women. When these become arts unto themselves we have sophistry.
This should not be interpreted to mean that our students should not appear before real-life audiences. To the contrary, they should speak to as many audiences as are possible. But this speaking should not involve academic game speeches--it should be speaking specifically adapted to the real audience. Not contest orations, but persuasive speeches on topics of concern to the audience. Not exhibition debates on the "national topic," but debates on issues of major concern to the immediate audience.
At this point a reasonable question might be, "Why not have all of our speech training be before real audiences?" One obvious reason is that it would be impossible to obtain that many real audiences. In addition, even if it were possible, a beginning speaker is not ready to appear before a real audience. The lawyer learns his skills and practices in moot court before going into the real court. If he didn't, his client would suffer. The doctor learns his skills and practices with a cadaver before operating on live people. If he didn't, his patient would suffer. The soldier learns his skills and practices in war games before facing the real enemy. If he didn't, his country would suffer. Similarly, the speaker learns his skills and practices on critic judges before facing a real audience. If he didn't, the propositions which he supports would suffer.
To conclude this paper, I would suggest that three main things can be learned from our sophistical ancestors that must be considered in developing a sound modern forensics program. (1) A training activity that involves only a partial rhetoric leads to a distorted rhetoric. A sound modern forensics program must include training activities that encompass the totality of rhetorical skills. (2) A training activity that is presented for the edification of the public becomes an art unto itself and tends to replace real rhetoric. A sound modern forensics program must keep its forensic games in the laboratory and not on the public platform. (3) A training activity that is divorced from reality and urgency of subject matter does not provide adequate training in rhetoric for the public platform. A sound modern forensics program must provide students abundant experience in speaking on vital topics before real-life audiences.
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