Michael Edwards

A Rhetoric for All Times

The Speakers

The Young Corax: Later Known as the Father of Rhetoric.

Heraclitus: The Great Mystical Philosopher.

Corax:  Is there, then, in fact a rhetoric for all times and for all occasions?

Heraclitus:  Simply speak the truth.

Corax:  But how shall we speak?  In what manner?

Heraclitus:  Speak low and slow—and don’t say too much.

Corax:  Is this the extent of the art of rhetoric?  But is there no adaptation to the audience?  And is there no adaptation to the occasion?  Should one speak in the same way to the godlike senate, as to the subhuman masses?  And should one speak in the same way after a crushing defeat, as after a miraculous victory?

Heraclitus:  Speak as I have told you.  The truth, presented simply, is adequate to any purpose.

Corax:  But Heraclitus, if that is indeed the sum of all rhetoric, in what should the training of the orator consist?  — That is, if you believe any training necessary at all, since knowing the facts and speaking them to others, are within the grasp even of children?

Heraclitus:  Facts may be clear to the orator, yes, but how to understand them and what to do about them, in order to attain the good, are rarely clear to anyone—even your godlike senate. Training, therefore, is necessary, beginning in childhood and ending perhaps never: the purpose of which training should be, to know the truth, in order to attain the good.

Corax:  These are just so many abstractions, Heraclitus!  And you have said nothing about speaking the truth once one has found it.

Heraclitus:  When the orator knows the good, he can seek it in everything.  Including the art of oratory.  In fact, what is it that you yourself are seeking even now, Corax, if not the good, as it manifests in the art of oratory?

Corax:  What then is the good, Heraclitus?  If only I can know this one all-important truth, I can seek it in everything, as you have told me to do.  And all my questions about oratory—and, I suppose, about every other aspect of life—will be answered, and I need not trouble you, nor any man, ever again, about anything, as long as I live.  And when I die, since I will have become the embodiment of truth, I can take my place in paradise among the immortals!

Heraclitus:  No.  You have said wrong, Corax.  The quest to know the good does not end with death.  The moment of death is, in fact, only the beginning of the quest.  For in that moment, it is confirmed to man that everything he has been able to find out for himself, during his life on Earth, is, for the most part, false.

Corax:  Heraclitus!  Now you begin to confuse me mightily.  Assuming I understand you correctly, you have just contradicted everything you said before.  If the truth cannot be known on Earth, then it cannot be spoken.  And if the truth cannot be spoken, then there can be no art of rhetoric at all!

Heraclitus:  You are correct, Corax.  At last.  You have spoken the truth. 

Currently, Michael Edwards is a professor of English at Santa Fe College, in Florida. At The University of Virginia, he held the Emily Clark Balch Fellowship for Creative Writing. And he has won the Sewanee Review Prize for Fiction.