A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Metaphorical Morals

Studying rhetoric can be fun because of its moral ambiguity. It feels as if you are given tools with which you can do something because they can do some actual damage if necessary. You have to be responsible enough to check your own moral character and try to figure out how to do the right thing with what you’ve been given. Kids might even like this sort of thing because the mastery of these tools endow them with power. The second great thing about studying rhetoric is that it feels sort of sciency with its approach to words as tools. Furthermore, the leading people who write about argumentation and rhetoric are, unsurprisingly, very good at what they teach and thus rarely screw up their own stuff. That is, it is very hard to disagree with them on any major points because it is their job to study the kinds of things that lead to agreement and disagreement.

I’ve quoted Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca a few times already and I’ll probably do so many times more. Their New Rhetoric is a masterpiece despite its somewhat chaotic ordering of topics and I’d like to quote a longer passage from it in order to say something about metaphor and also to try to show what it is that rhetoric, as these two saw it, actually studies.

Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca hold on to their notion of metaphor derived from analogy, but they recognize that metaphors which are presented at the outset as metaphors by coupling the superior terms and leaving the inferior terms unexpressed usually fare much better than those that are spelled out. The two inferior terms, they say, cannot really be considered implied — the fusion of the superior terms creates an expression complete in itself. Rather, the metaphor hints at a whole range of possible terms which can be combined in all sorts of ways.

Thus, the metaphor “an ocean of false learning” suggests different viewpoints and attitudes according as terms B and D are considered to be represented by “a swimmer” and “a scientist” or as “a stream” and “the truth” or as “terra firma” and “the truth.” All these analogies, simultaneously present to the mind, influence and enrich one another and suggest a number of different developments between which only the context allows one to choose. And even then the choice is rarely unambiguous and definite. Metaphor can also take the form of a bringing together of terms B and C of a three-term analogy, as in the expression, “life is a dream.” In this case, it is term A of the theme (“eternal life,” for example) which will be inferred thanks to the metaphor, “life” being the term common to the two spheres. (401)

All this is pretty clear (if it isn’t and you’re still reading, you might want to do some backreading). The objective in analyzing a metaphor into its constituents is not to come to one single analogy that will explain everything in a neat little diagram. If you thought this would be like high school math where you are given a formula and assured that applying it to the numbers presented in the problem will make the problem magically disappear, tough titties! The actual work is messy and requires reasoning from case to case, each case riddled with contingencies. Much of it might even be called guesswork. The audience must always be taken into consideration as well. If they are dunces, you’ll have to adjust your metaphors to “dunce,” if well-read you can do much more. But the fact that you now have names and labels for these things, these rhetorical devices or whatever we call them, means that you can plan your strategy much better. You can read better and write better, with greater care and thought, because information about your tools has been chunked in a way that creates clarity in writing and clarity in thinking. You can also decide to break all the rules and yield to all sorts of rhetorical temptations if you so wish, but in order to break the rules you have to first know the rules.

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