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Confusticating Claptrap – 7 February 2014

This is a paper I wrote for my rhetoric class, entitled “Confusticating Claptrap.” It’s a close reading of a line from Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. I think it’s pretty sharp and I thought you’d like reading it, so here it is.

 

 

‘Eloquence, like the fair sex, has too prevailing beauties in it to suffer itself ever to be spoken against.’ In this sentence from Locke’s Essay the author’s negative stance on the nature of rhetoric is made clear to see, but all the while he acknowledges the positive potential rhetoric possesses.

At the first, the author doesn’t actually name rhetoric as the focus of his attack. He uses a kissing cousin in eloquence, but the two aren’t quite the same thing. Locke has other monikers for the former, too—easy entertainment; ornaments; harangues and popular addresses. Clearly the author is most comfortable with logic—if the words make sense, sense makes sense. Yes, he writes that rhetoric is free of “order and clearness.” He says that rhetorical skill is nothing but confusticating claptrap, and the only use it has is relegated to the theater-house and bawdy cafes and other “discourses where we seek rather pleasure and delight.” But Locke is doing exactly what he claims to despise.

In the line above he compares the persuasive properties of rhetoric to the seductive charms of a woman, that ultimate temptation of man since time immemorial.  Again though, persuasion and seduction are close, but not the same. A quarter of the way through the line Locke has slighted the “art of rhetoric” but has yet to deliver a decisive blow, employing  a simile instead, and keeps the kid gloves on. He says that rhetoric has “prevailing beauties,” that it would actually suffer a defeat if it were spoken out against. He personifies it, gives it a life in this text as he simultaneously touts to hate it with a passion.

Rhetoric, as a rule, persuades. Locke states this himself, and is persuading the reader to disavow his persuasiveness, claiming rhetorical skill only misleads and confuses. Is this what the Essay does to the reader? Far from it. It is a clear, pointed, rhetorically sound salvo on the faults of rhetoric rather than on rhetoric itself. Writing, speech—indeed no aspect of language can exist without rhetorical mores, and Locke’s essay is no exception.

That slicker edge to rhetorical skill, the spin of chicanery and immorality hucksters and charlatans use—that is what Locke dislikes about the “art of rhetoric.” Simply put, it is human to distrust deception. Unfortunately, rhetoric is bread-and-butter where deception is concerned. A skilled trickster has a hundred ways to swindle a thousand people with only a dozen lies, and it’s that quality in rhetoric that the author condemns.

Clarity is the best quality of rhetorical theory to exploit. Without the smoke and mirrors and with sound, understood points, one’s argument comes across concisely. The Essay is, if not concise (the entire text is four volumes long), certainly crystal clear on the points it makes. This fact alone makes it a rhetoricizing objet d’art.

In veiling his use of persuasion by overtly saying ‘persuasion is bad’ does the author make his strongest argument in support of rhetoric:

“Eloquence, like the fair sex, has too prevailing beauties in it to be spoken against.”

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