Essay / Education

An Excerpt on Knowledge and Rhetoric From “Education for Human Flourishing”

To follow up Fred Sanders’ review of my book, I have posted a short excerpt from Education for Human Flourishing published by IVP Academic. The passage below describes the difference between rhetoric and knowledge, and how important it is for us to be able to distinguish between the two.

Rhetoric Versus Knowledge

It is easy to feel defeated and confused given daily cultural pressure. No one is immune from doubt. Even someone like C. S. Lewis, who was a stalwart believer, had times of doubt.

It is July 1940 in England. Just months earlier, Winston Churchill was elevated to position of Prime Minster. The British Empire finds itself engulfed in a war with Germany, Italy and Japan. In June, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and France fell to Germany, and Great Britain is in a desperate situation as the Battle of Britain begins.

On July 19, 1940, at 6 p.m., Hitler’s Reichstag speech is translated by the BBC live. He makes a final appeal to the common sense of the British people, saying:

It never had been my intention to wage war, but rather to build up a State with a new social order and the finest possible standard of culture. Every year that this war drags on is keeping me away from this work. . . . Mr. Churchill ought, perhaps, for once believe, when I say a great empire will be destroyed—an empire which it was never my intention to destroy or harm.

Hitler is attempting to make his case that the people of Germany are only trying to save themselves from the oppressive Treaty of Versailles, which is controlled by a small group of capitalists and profiteers. Of course, this is all political rhetoric intended to justify the military actions of Germany.

The very next day, July 20, C. S. Lewis writes his brother, Warren, a letter in which he comments on Hitler’s speech:

I don’t know if I’m weaker than other people, but it is a positive revelation to me how while the speech lasts it is impossible not to waver just a little. I should be useless as a schoolmaster or a policeman. Statements which I know to be untrue all but convince me, at any rate for the moment, if only the man says them unflinchingly.

Lewis does not finish the letter that day but on Sunday, after he has been to church. In his letter he reflects on an epiphany he has during service:

Before the service was over . . . I was struck by the idea for a book which I think might be both useful and entertaining. It would be called As one Devil to Another and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started to work on his first patient. The idea would be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.

Lewis realizes that the rhetoric he had heard the night before is not unique to Hitler but is a tool of the devil. From this insight Lewis goes on to write The Screwtape Letters, a series of letters of instruction between the demon Uncle Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood. The letters teach Wormwood how best to tempt his patient away from God. Through these letters Lewis gives us insight into the devil’s schemes.

The first chapter of The Screwtape Letters seems to respond directly to some of the confusion that Lewis is feeling when he writes to Warren. Uncle Screwtape, giving advice to his nephew Wormwood about his “charge,” states:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That is the sort of thing he cares about.

Uncle Screwtape suggests that language is not about truth claims but about “jargon.” Rhetoric, not truth, must rule if evil is to be successful. Hitler was not interested in truth, but in rhetorically justifying his case.

The difficulty today is that knowledge is no longer understood holistically but as a competitive notion in which society determines its nature. Who gets to determine what is knowledge is at the forefront of our educational endeavor. The definition of knowledge has been changed. In today’s society we have anointed our popular artists and our research universities as kings of knowledge.

For more from my book, Education for Human Flourishing, please click here.

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