Most contemporary connotations of the word rhetoric are negative today, but Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes in Skill in Questions that the Buddha’s enterprise was essentially a rhetorical one:
Because his primary task was to inspire in his listeners the will to follow the path, the Buddha adopted an approach as a teacher that was more rhetorical than logically dialectical. In other words, instead of presenting his teaching as a body of knowledge derived logically from a foundation of first principles, he focused on the impact his words would have on his listeners: getting them not only to acquiesce to his teachings but also to act on them. This meant that he, like any rhetorician, had to tailor his instructions to his audience, sensitive to their level of understanding and to the mixture of skillful and unskillful qualities in their minds. Instead of starting all his discourses with the same principles, he had to start each one at a point accessible to where his listeners already were.
However, his purpose in speaking was not to leave them there. It was to induce them to act in the direction of the desired goal. In fact, this is precisely the difference between a dialectical or foundational approach and a rhetorical one: In dialectics, everything lies in the foundational principles, and the duty of logic is to draw out their implications to wherever they will lead. In rhetoric, words are not merely descriptive. They are also performative, having an impact on the listener and leading the listener to react in various ways. The duty of the rhetorician is to use this performative aspect of words skillfully to induce his or her audience to move from where they already are toward a specific desired result.
In the common practice of rhetoric, the desired results are often ad hoc and subject to the mood of the moment, but it is possible to develop a coherent rhetorical system where intermediate results are all directed toward a single overarching end. This was the rhetorical approach the Buddha adopted. But it is important to understand what “coherent” means in the context of a system of this sort. In a logical or dialectical system, coherence is foundational, lying in the logical consistency with which secondary principles are derived from first principles. In a systematic rhetorical approach, however, coherence is teleological, lying in the consistency with which intermediate ends assist in reaching a common final goal. This point is important to keep in mind as we evaluate the coherence of the Buddha’s teachings.
The word “rhetoric” has acquired some unfortunate connotations in our aculture—as in the phrases, “empty rhetoric” and “rhetorical tricks”—but we have to remember that when combined with compassionate and responsible motives, rhetorical tools can have a powerful effect for the good. Because the Buddha aimed his teachings at leading his listeners to the end of suffering, we can characterize his teaching style as the rhetoric of compassion. And because he was concerned with the long-term beneficial impact of his teachings—he wasn’t the sort of person who simply wanted to gain their approval or get them to feel good in the present moment—we could add that the compassion of his rhetoric was also responsible.
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In January, to accompany Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Tricycle Retreat The Ten Perfections, now in its third week, we’ll be offering his new book Skill in Questions for download.
Skill in Questions is about asking skillful questions and answering questions skillfully. Thanissaro Bhikkhu quotes the Buddha about answering questions skillfully:
There are these four ways of answering questions. Which four? There are questions that should be answered categorically. There are questions that should be answered analytically. There are questions that should be answered with cross-questioning. There are questions that should be put aside. These are the four ways of answering questions.
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Photograph by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2010
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