Now Don't Try to Reason with Me (1970)

Now don't try to reason with me: essays and ironies for a credulous age. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970.


This is a collection of occasional pieces and, however innocuous and benign that may appear, these speeches and sermons are anything but. This book is truly Neo-Aristotelian in its scope and goals. It incorporates the principles of Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Nicomachean Ethics while infusing Boothian pluralism. For the most part, Booth is answering the forces that in the late sixties appeared to be shattering American society. The radical “leftist” student groups and the bureaucratic “right-wing” establishment were spewing vitriolic rhetoric and espousing dogmatic beliefs without regard for the consequences. Each faction viewed the other as unreasonable and the positions appeared incommensurable. Booth stands as one of the few thinkers who can reveal the dangerous absurdity of this situation.

If we read these pieces carefully, we can recognize our own rhetorical and ethical situation that remains dangerously absurd. Booth uses the Aristotelian idea that humankind’s ultimate goal is to pursue the good life. In order to achieve the good life we must forsake piggish desires and strive for an ethical, intellectual, and physically healthy lifestyle. Booth extends this figuration to include a vigorous community as well. A community bonded by the proper use of rhetoric, the enactment of the golden rule and a wholesome love of irony.

It is difficult to divide this collection of occasional pieces into neatly packaged, easily digestible sections. The content of these speeches and sermons are incredibly diverse. However, there are intellectual threads that run through each section: the importance of the “right kind” of rhetoric, the idea of a university (and education in general) and, an ironic view of our foibles and, finally, truth, goodness and beauty. If you have not already done so, please read this book. It is a seminal experience.

What Rhetoric Is

Booth promotes a philosophy of rhetoric that is filled with reasonableness. Booth wonders if reason can viably be used in current human affairs, especially when reason is used unethically to support questionable issues. We need a philosophy of rhetoric that will balance reason with ethics and emotions in order to build vigorous communities. Booth regrets that we require rhetoric; he wishes we lived in an age where philosophy and reason reign, but we do not live in such times.

Rhetoric requires reason in that we need to provide good reasons supported by proof: “evidence and arguments in a causal chain intended to pull the mind toward belief” (60). Without proof an argument is nothing more than conjecture. Proof should not be abstract rules enforced by dogmatic reasons. Proof is the gathering of good reasons into a structured arrangement of ideas. The tools of rational argumentation are highly useful for communicating during disagreements and in general.

Rational argumentation has limitations. When reason is used for reason’s sake then an imbalance occurs and a cold, calculated communication without ethics or emotion rules. Logos as the sole appeal in an argument removes the ethical element and allows reason to be used as a weapon to defeat an opponent and not to responsibly build a stable community. However, the use of ethics and emotions as the primary appeals in argumentation is similarly risky.

Booth laments those thinkers like Marshall Mcluhan and Susan Sontag who opt for intuition and expression as their argumentation strategy rather than a balance of reason, ethics and emotional appeal. He feels their arguments lack good reasons and promote lackadaisical, confused social attitudes with their lackadaisical, confusing writing. Perhaps Sontag took the admonition to heart, or perhaps it's a conicidence, but she has since returned to writing in a rigorous, critically sound fashion, as evidenced in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Its arguments combine ethos, pathos and logos, operating together to produce a reasonable position.

The rhetoric we need to use rigorously and continually in all communication is the art of good reasons: the rhetorical stance. Booth claims that the rhetorical stance will cure what ails you: from bad writing to an unethical worldview. Booth is convinced that writing, reading, and debating, to varying degrees, are what form our individual and communal identities. As such, if we write, read and argue poorly then we will live in a society bereft of enabling values. Booth defines the rhetorical stance as:

  1. Knowledge of the available arguments about a subject.
  2. An understanding of the interests and peculiarities of the audience.
  3. Knowledge of the voice--the implied character--of the speaker.

Booth insists that the rhetorical stance must become an integral part of the curriculum in order to train ethical, rational, and critical citizens. The thoughtless use of language is sinful, in fact, the general lack of proper rhetorical skill across America (and Canada) is more than sinful, and it is frightening. Booth surmises that due to the inability of Americans (and Canadians) to read and write rhetorically, ethically and responsibility, we are training uncritical, unthinking Americans (and Canadians). This is not simply an elitist cry for a return to “good” educational standards. This is a genuine plea to stop the inevitable decline of a society when the polis can no longer critically inquire about the viability of its policies, social standards, and cultural practices.

What Rhetoric Isn't

Rhetoric is not a licence to ramble incoherently or persuade fellow citizens that an issue is right when it is actually wrong. When Marshall McLuhan defends his position regarding a “new and improved” analysis that is much better than “traditional hogwash,” he is misusing his rhetorical ability (8-9). Rhetoric must not be used to distort or misrepresent. Booth describes the “new” rhetoric as a “disguised and dishonest rhetoric” that presents “flim-flam as fact” (10). Booth accuses the media of using a “New rhetoric that presents gross over generalizations; distortion and shrill exposes as factual reporting” (10). This book was written in 1970 and little has changed, except perhaps that this (a)rhetorical mode is now entrenched as the norm.

In order to deal with false rhetoric we must think critically. It is difficult to think through a rhetoric that favours pathos and ethos over logos. The appeal to authority and emotion speak strongly and directly to what we value. This has caused a serious imbalance in the art of communication. Booth shows how the radical, leftist student groups from the late sixties depend on emotional appeal. The denigration of the opposition’s ethos becomes the foundation for argumentation strategy. Booth states that this is analogous to the fundamentalist, self-righteous rhetoric of the Establishment (right-wing factions in power).

Booth continues by predicting the death of the Left unless the ethical rhetorical stance is used. The Left did not take Booth’s advice and still engages in bombastic rhetoric in order to make sound points in bad form. What better example than Michael Moore, the poster boy for the Left, who irrationally screams his points at indecorous moments and expects all to listen? Booth not only attacks the Left but also berates the Right.

Whereas the Left has been dependent on ethos and pathos over logos, the Right is just the opposite. In the hands of the Right, reason and logic become a brutal weapon when: “logical argument can cover up or violate fundamental needs or feelings while seeming to have all the right on its side” (18). The Right and the Left have violated two values inherent to communication: honest inquiry and honest rhetoric.

Booth’s proper rhetorical stance can be corrupted and misused. The unbalanced stance is“often assumed by people who think they are practicing arts of persuasion” (27). When the writer/speaker ignores the relationship between themselves and the audience then pedant’s stance comes into play. The pedant will only focus on statements about the subject. Booth blames pedantry, most notably, for the commodification of everything into consumable products (31). When everything is viewed as available for consumption then human beings become nothing more than objects to assessed and valued. Rhetoric that is geared for this pursuit is unethical and dehumanizing.

The Idea of a University

The previous section, “The New Credulity and The New Rhetoric” refuted America’s social ills and prescribed rhetorical education as part of the solution. This section, “The Last True Church” considers the tumultuous state of post-secondary education in America during the late sixties. There is much to be learned from Booth’s assessment education: the post-secondary education system, at least the administration, has changed very little.

Booth opens this section with an epistolary satire that chronicles Dr, Harvey P. Sellout, Vice President, Surrogate University, receiving advice from the lord of the underworld, Screwtape. Screwtape’s advice seems to have been followed to the letter by many English departments:

  • Every faculty member and every student should be forced to see that EVERYTHING IS DONE FOR THE SAKE OF SOMETHING ELSE AND NOTHING IS FOR ITS OWN SAKE” (178).
  • I must once again go over our four rules on how to deal with ideas:

    There are four slogans to repeat on all occasions:

    1. Each man is entitled to his own opinion, so why bother to discuss or read about it?
    2. All ideas can be explained in practical terms as filling psychological needs in their originators, so why bother about them as ideas?
    3. Every thinker has been refuted by some other thinker, so why bother about him as thinker?
    4. What the world needs is men of passionate commitment to causes. The effort to think a problem through, or to think at all, is a way of putting off action.

I hope you have seen that whenever you convince a student or a faculty member to repeat these slogans, you have ensured both that the actions he takes will be hasty, compulsive, and ultimately disillusioning and that his contact with ideas will always be second-hand and reassuring. (181)

  • In everything you say to students, suggest the following:
    1. They are pure in heart and everyone else is corrupt
    2. They have nothing to learn: in fact, as one of our best men at Chicago said during our recent sit-in, “In these matters you (students) must be teachers of the faculty.”
    3. Encourage them in the notion that when they lie or cheat it is youthful highjinks, or justified white lying in the noble cause of building the future.(182)

Screwtape expresses all that is unethical and perversely rhetorical in education. He advocates the anti-rhetorical stance, which causes students to choose an education that will “prepare them for a degree which will be necessary for good placement in a job which will lead quickly on up the ladder toward an indefinite but no doubt finally glorious future” (189). Booth’s italics show the unethical rhetoric that leads the student away from a university experience that should be training him/her as good citizens and not as potentially high-level workers and consumers. Screwtape has infected students and faculty alike.

Booth ends with one essay, “Reason and Emotion in Education” and two speeches, “The University and Public Issues” and “The Complete Equivocator,” that link back to his discussion of rhetoric and rationality in “The New Credulity and The New Rhetoric.” Here Booth reinforces his rhetorical stance through example. The essay, and two speeches are for widely different audiences but all three present values and goals that match the context and kairos of the audience. Booth is promoting the same ideals as the first section: balanced rhetoric and rhetorical education so we can learn to listen speak and resolve issues. All of these issues are espoused in the same setting: the university but to diverse audiences – and Booth makes his point to all three audiences by using different implied voices, focussing on varied subjects and understanding the needs of the audience; all while advocating universal values: this is the rhetorical stance.

A Notable Use of Wit

The title of Part IV of Booth’s text can be initially disconcerted: “Ironies and the New Science of Ironology?” Scour these pieces in a hunt for irony (in search of the wascally wabbit). “Where is it?" one asks, and, tentatively, “Am I a victim--of Booth, or of this credulous age?” But if we take Booth's advice in A Rhetoric of Irony, that irony is harder to decipher the more contextually distant we are from it, things start to come into sharper focus. A number of these pieces are satires filled with ironies that illuminate the points raised in the previous and following chapters.

For Booth’s part he describes these pieces as dangerous and potentially embarrassing. As he has stated throughout the book, we live in a credulous age, and so he risks the reader taking these pieces “as straight” when “what one has intended” is “obviously absurd” (265). Each piece expresses a different value but with humour, wit and irony. In Boothian fashion, we must ask what this means for the reader. In terms of A Rhetoric of Irony, this group of humorous pieces is a risky venture. A reader who “gets” the joke will enter into Booth’s communal house of meaning. On the other hand, the reader who has missed the humour, and then discovers his/her interpretive error will be embarrassed or, perhaps angry and, as a result, will be excluded from the community of those who “get it”--a victim.

The use of humour to build community may be dicey, but if the joke, witticism or irony is successful then the community is built on solid foundations. Laughter acts as communal epoxy that binds citizens and reinforces values. Booth explicates this process in A Rhetoric of Irony. This small section appears to be a testing ground for some of the theories regarding irony, and, by extension humour, that are found in A Rhetoric of Irony. This becomes especially apparent when Booth admits he is working on a “hermeneutics of ironic literature” (265).

“Ironies and the New Science of Ironology” is strategically placed near the end of the text--after Booth’s estimation of rhetoric, rationality and education, and just prior to the powerful group of ethics and virtues regarding faith, belief, and community at the end of the text. So why is this collection of amusing anecdotes, satires and ironic situations positioned in this way? The flippant answer is that “Ironies and the New Science of Ironology” act as a kind of intellectual “sorbet” between one rhetorical “course” and the next. This is part of the reason; but Booth’s purpose is more complex.

The power of humour is used in Part IV to create an intimate, robust connection with the reader who “gets it.” This connection prepares a contemporary reader, steeped in the unbalanced rhetoric of persuasion and dogmatic scepticism and/or credulity, to accept the “old-fashioned” values and virtues described in “Last Days.” These values include a rethinking of the golden rule, the worthwhile nature of morality and the necessity of respect and love. This is a hard pill to swallow for the best of us and, as Mary Poppins says, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” If only all lessons could be learned in this fashion.