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The Elements of Rhetoric and Evangelization with Dr. Ryan Topping

February 20, 2018


Dr. Ryan Topping is Vice President and Academic Dean at Newman Theological College and the author of The Elements of Rhetoric: How to Write and Speak Clearly and Persuasively. Today we talk with Dr. Topping about the decline of rhetoric, the interplay between rhetoric and evangelization, and the importance of wedding truth to beauty.


The art of practice of rhetoric goes as far back as early Mesopotamia, through the Greeks and Sophists, right through to the modern day, yet it seems that in the modern era, the practical knowledge of the art in the general population has significantly decreased. Rhetoric at many times through history was an essential part of any full education. What do you see as the reason for the decline? And what ought we do as parents, teachers, priests, and evangelists to help revive the art? 

The reason for rhetoric’s decline is the separation of sense from sensibility.  This divorce has a long backstory.  Starting with the eighteenth century, modern philosophy cut itself off from metaphysics, and reason was left bereft of the benefits of religion. The practical consequence is that our science became less responsive to human goods and our art more given to irrational expressions. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein gave an early warning of the first, Jackson Pollock’s splattered paints delivered a visual representation of the second. 

Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, remains. Corporations in the US annually dump some 180 billion dollars into convincing us to drink their brand of soda pop or wear their style of sneakers. The problem is not that rhetoric is ignored but that it is abused. Advertisers regularly, shamelessly, appeal to our passions against our reason. This creates a situation where we can come to feel that all persuasion is manipulation. An argument comes to mean little better than a willful assertion. Democracies cannot long survive such a climate.

What can parents do? Do not toss your children into battle unawares. Forewarned is forearmed. My advice: give your children a classical education and make up for the one you never had yourself. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is by reading great works of literature. Up until about 1960, the art of persuasion was still integrated with its aligned arts, logic and grammar. Turn off the television! Silence the internet and enjoy the feast that awaits! C.S. Lewis once remarked that a modern person ought to read one old book for every three new ones. If he were alive today, I bet he would reverse those numbers; for every Saturday evening with a bestseller off of Oprah Winfrey’s list, try one night with Chesterton’s Fr. Brown, another with Dickens’ Christmas tales, and yet one more with a play by Shakespeare or a short story by Hawthorne.  


In Cicero’s Orator he states that there are three purposes of rhetoric: teaching, delighting, and persuading. It seems to me that there is much to learn from rhetoric for the art of evangelization as well. What might you describe as the interplay between evangelization and rhetoric, especially in a more conversational setting as opposed to writing and giving a speech?  

Those three purposes of rhetoric are worth keeping in mind. I find myself constantly marveling over how they can be applied in any situation. Cicero’s observation on this, which St. Augustine later echoes, is simple: in order to convince you must appeal to head, heart, and hands.

In order to teach you must be clear, your definitions precise, your arguments sensible.  This cluster of skills appeals directly to the head, the logos, or the rational aspect of your listener. Every other kind of appeal should have its foundation in this one. Next comes the appeal to the heart: that’s your pathos.  You have good pathos when you speak with emotion, use vivid examples, and pitch your case with passion. Finally, there’s ethos. This term is trickiest to define. Broadly, it has to do with the character that you project as a speaker or writer. If your listener doesn’t trust your intentions he’s unlikely to give your arguments a fair hearing. On the other hand, even if an argument is not air-tight, if you love the man making it, you are more likely to follow it than you would the advice of someone you thought odious.   

I have a priest-friend who recently came to a new parish and is trying to introduce more beauty into his church’s Sunday liturgy. He’s added improvements slowly. I, for one, who am a little impatient to tear down the Godzilla-sized movie screens hovering over the sanctuary, chided him for his pace. “My friend,” he sagely replied, “they have to love me before they will follow me.” This priest understands well the value of ethos.


How would you explain the use and juxtaposition of logos, pathos, and ethos in light of evangelizing a growing population of religiously unaffiliated people?

Each age nurses its own vices and virtues. From our mother’s milk, we’ve been told that tolerance is next to godliness. About the worst thing you can do in public is to judge someone. Unadorned argument can therefore appear offensive to twenty and thirty-somethings. This doesn’t mean Christians should stop talking in public. It does mean, however, that we need to learn better how to appeal to the passions of our listeners. 

This is where Christian art can be effective. An argument, I can dismiss. But beauty sticks. I recall once sitting in a museum where the display was forty speakers out of which sang the forty voices of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, a masterpiece of the English renaissance. I was struck how struck were the visitors to this room of the gallery. Some would literally stop dead, as the wall of beautiful sound washed over their sore ears. Others walked around the circle of speakers in a slow, prayerful pace. A few others rushed out, as though confused. Gothic arches, sumptuous chant, and the dignity of the Mass in all its evocative sensuality have always contributed to the evangelization of peoples. By lavishing the temple with all the beauty at our disposal we give glory to God, and that glory attracts.   

So do stories. Nones want heroes just like the rest of us. How many a saint has come into the Church through reading! Just prior to the opening of the Second Vatican Council there bloomed an august story-telling culture within the English-speaking Church. Literary conversions abounded. Think of the evocative power of The Lord of the Rings, or the tales of Flannery O’Connor, or the gripping biographies of Louis de Wohl. Film can also soften a heart. But I am less optimistic about that medium. A book you must live in, literally, because it takes you days to read. Let a new generation of novelists arise.


In your book you make several helpful observations and recommendations, but one in particular stood out to me, that is, “wed truth to beauty”. Could you explain this concept and perhaps contextualize it concretely in the art of spreading the Gospel? 

For Cicero, the cardinal virtue of temperantia, which I would like to translate as sweet-souledness, regulates and makes beautiful all the other virtues. Consider, for example, what happens within a soul that lacks this grace: justice becomes harsh when not mixed with sympathy; courage becomes boring when not moderated with gaiety; truthfulness becomes bitter if not sweetened by charity; and so forth.  What Cicero encouraged, and what the saints perfect, is a sense of the beauty of holiness. Holiness elevates, ennobles, and makes radiant what is merely common and natural. St. Irenaeus once said well that “the glory of God is man fully alive.”     

So how can we wed truth to beauty? Perhaps I can offer one rather mundane example to illustrate this difference the Gospel can make to our approach to life. For years I taught at a Catholic Great Books college, and here at Newman Theological College I have the privilege of working beside and around seminarians. In other words, for years I have been surrounded by university students who dress well.   My students are not the norm. When I visit other campuses I am constantly reminded of what I always forget: most students today arrive at class as though on route to the bar or the beach. This reveals a lack of inner grace, of fittingness, or temperantia—the sense of one’s dignity that human life is gloriously lived under God.

We can wed truth to beauty in a thousand ways. One of the simplest is to dress well for one’s work and especially for Mass.


Lastly, you give a list of poems you suggest people try and memorize, from Percy Shelley to Wordsworth to Fulton Sheen. What aspect of rhetoric does memorizing these poems assist and how might an evangelist best be able to use such knowledge? 

Poetry is particularly helpful for training one’s ear. It can give one a sense of a pleasing cadence, a fine phrase, a tempered pace. If you are called to the intellectual apostolate—as every evangelist is called, at least in some fashion—then one has to work out for oneself a daily and weekly regimen of prayer, yes, but also of study. Poetry, alongside with the study of Scripture, philosophy, history, biography, and the fine arts, is part of a balanced intellectual diet. Faith is simple, but evangelists should not indulge in a simplistic faith.