Persuasion and the 8th commandment

The Archdiocese of Denver’s language arts curriculum for the 9th and 10th grade includes a seemingly simple standard:

“Analyze the truth of an argument in light of Catholic doctrine” (RI 2).

Okay, we’re at a Catholic school, so of course we should look at the explicit and implicit arguments we read in all sorts of texts “in light of” Church teaching. Would the Church like this idea? No. Okay, why? Would the Church like that idea? Sure. Okay, why? Etc.

But if you think about it, in order to get kids to read a text “in light of” anything, you need to enlighten the kids. They need to know what the “light” is in order to learn how to see by it.

So  I try to end almost all of my units using this standard. We step back at the end of a novel or series of poems or a play and see what the Gospel has to say about it all.

We’re (finally) finishing up Julius Caesar this week. The unit was about the art of persuasion, since persuasion is at the heart of this tragedy; Cassius manipulating Brutus and convincing him to join the conspirators who assassinate Caesar is only one of many examples of persuasion in this play. And most of these acts of persuasion, though effective, are bad. They are either riddled with logical fallacies or stocked with deceitful uses of pathos, logos and ethos.

See, for example, this masterful performance of Antony’s speech to the Roman rabble. He has to convince them that their beloved Brutus is a criminal. And he does:

He uses mostly pathos — playing upon the crowd’s hopes and fears. He establishes his credibility with ethos and pretends to be on the side of Brutus and the others. He repeats the phrase “honorable men” — at first with reverence, then with doubt, and eventually with increasing sarcasm so that the crowd begins to wonder why it ever considered Brutus honorable at all.

The whole play is largely about how people manipulate the truth in order to convince others to do and think what they want.

#Americanpolitics

So I teach my kids about what the Church says about the truth and the 8th commandment — the rule that God gave us to safeguard the truth: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

6.5 SWBAT apply Church teaching on the 8th commandment to persuasive arguments.

That way, maybe my students will not be so easily manipulated. And maybe they will think about their own reverence (or lack thereof) for truth.

So we look Christ’s intriguing conversation with Pilate:

So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?”

Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”

So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

When he had said this, he again went out to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in him.”

(John 18:33-38)

We discuss how since Jesus’ primary language was Aramaic, and Pilate’s was Latin, that they were both probably speaking Greek to one another (the universal language of commerce in the ancient world) and that therefore the word Pilate used when he asked that fascinating question “What is truth?” was probably ἀλήθεια (aleteia).

At any rate, ἀλήθεια is the word John’s Gospel uses, as John wrote his gospel in Greek.

The Greek word for truth has a literal meaning akin to “unveiling” or “disclosed-ness”. Truth, then, has many philosophers have discussed, is the “unveiling of being” or the “disclosure of reality.”

Yeah – I guess that’s pretty intense for 10th graders.

But it is very beautiful, too. Going to a Catholic school that talks about “Truth, Goodness and Beauty” a lot might have given them the impression that “Truth” is some sort of abstract object in the sky they ought to adhere to or else.

But thinking of truth as the uncovering of reality, the unveiling of being, gives my kids a fresh look at their own relationship with the truth. How do they try to uncover the truth about themselves and others? What is the right way to approach the truth? What is the right way to unveil ourselves or to unveil truths to other people?

When you try to persuade someone, hopefully you are trying to persuade that person toward the truth about something. But so often we merely use the truth – or facts, perhaps – to manipulate and to control others, as Antony does in his speech to the gullible Romans and [insert politician’s name here] does to the gullible Americans.

We then talk about the 8th commandment and what the Catechism says — how the 8th commandment is about much more than simply not lying, but that it also forbids gossip and detraction and calumny.

The kids are pretty floored that you can say something 100% true about someone else, and yet still break the 8th commandment.

I even give them a little Hans Urs von Balthasar to consider:

“Even though man is predisposed to communication in general, he is not compelled by nature to any one conscious communication in particular. He does not have to say what he knows. He has the command of his treasury of knowledge, so that he can make a free gift of every particular disclosure. No one can wring his truth from him or manipulate it without his knowledge and consent. Truth as self-unveiling is, in the case of man, a free, hence responsible, ethically consequential act.”

Theo-Logic: Truth of the World

Every act of self-disclosure is “a free” and “ethically consequential act.” How beautiful, and how humbling.

Basically, this seeing things “in light of Catholic doctrine” part of every unit is my way to be a theology teacher and an English teacher at the same time.

Happily, at a Catholic school, those two things are not mutually exclusive.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Persuasion and the 8th commandment

  1. Lucretius

    I don’t know if this is an appropriate place to ask this, but still:

    I would like to learn how to *really* write English poetry and prose in clarity, simplicity, and elegance. I figure that the most obvious way would be to read and study the Masters. Could you please give a recommendation as to what authors and/or books to begin? Or do you have an even better approach?

    Thank you,

    Lucretius

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