Perfection: Coming to Terms with Being Human
What are rhetoricians good for? That query plays on George Scialabba’s 2009 book title about the utility of public intellectuals. Directed toward rhetoricians in particular, the question also helps interpret Michael J. Hyde’s recent book, Perfection: Coming to Terms with Being Human. Christian scholars will quickly appreciate Hyde’s attention to the relationship between rhetoric and worldview, even if they feel disconcerted by the fact that Hyde rarely mentions anyone—Abraham Lincoln, Ricky Scraggs, Elie Wiesel, Leon Kass, Frankenstein’smonster, Seinfeld’s George—without also commenting on the person’s rhetorical style. Is that what rhetoricians are good for—dilettante appreciation of eloquence?
Readers of Hyde’s previous books, The Call of Conscience (2001) and The Life-Giving Gift of Acknowledgement (2006), will know otherwise. Rhetorical action in these books does more than lacquer substance with style, a misconception fully deserving its long line of cultured despisers. Ancients like Plato called such stuff “cookery;” moderns like Locke dismissed it as “a perfect cheat.” Such condemnations, of course, require qualification: most foes of rhetoric have been themselves skilled rhetoricians. But Hyde side steps their criticisms by construing “rhetorical competence” as embodied symbolic action responsive to the experience of time and mortality. By means of such action, we create places to dwell with others. Drawing on both Martin Heidegger and Emmanuel Levinas, his rhetorical theory assumes that we humans talk so much and (sometimes) so well, because it is our peculiar calling to make clearings for existence, that is, to say the mystery of being. In the Levinasian trope, this saying goes on before we ever get around to any specific religious or philosophical said—for example, any doctrinal treatise or commandment. Unlike some such religious statements, Hyde’s ontological exploration remains firmly connected to mundane concerns, thanks especially to his phenomenological methodology. In short, he studies the way that ordinary pursuits in religion and science become “rotten with perfection.”1
Hyde describes his project narratively: “I intend to tell a story about how we have been instructed throughout history to come to terms with perfection” (4). But the work acts less like a plot than a register of topoi, or conversation-starters, about the completeness humanity longs for. Instead of emplotting humanity along an upward course from primitive myths to empirical discoveries, Hyde shows how religion and science perpetually pursue projects in perfection. Just as Charles Taylor says all humans tend toward moral horizons, Hyde assumes that everyone, fideists and empiricists alike, try to name their experience as perfectly as possible. This naming requires more than a better understanding of sacred scriptures or a refining of laboratory instruments; it also requires what Hyde calls “rhetorical competence”(14). Such competence requires people “to deal symbolically with particular matters that we recognize as pressing and that require careful deliberation and judgment, but whose meaning and significance are presently ambiguous, uncertain, and contestable” (12). But if it presses so heavily upon us, ambiguating our awareness and fissuring our society, why do we pursue perfection?
Short answer: we cannot help ourselves; we are only human. Scientists cannot stop refining their understanding of natural phenomena any less than devotees of “western religion,” can stop attending to “discourse and teachings … well known for trying to express as perfectly as possible a conception of perfection that supposedly is the source of all things perfect” (12). Hyde’s phrase “western religion” is problematic, not least because the “God” here described is largely inactive in history, an assumption that does not sit well with two major western religions, the Judaism of the Old Testament (where Yahweh frequently bares an arm powerful and merciful by turns) and the Christianity of the New (where Yahweh’s Word walks among us). But Hyde’s larger point is that before we ever get around to formulating testaments old and new, the experience of divine holiness moves us to seek holiness.“ Where art Thou?” Hyde keeps asking throughout the book, echoing Genesis, and responding, “Here I am!” Heideggerians will recognize the ontology of Being here: the mysterious void from which we come and which makes us yearn for wholeness. Sinai is not the only place for the summons of strangeness; this otherness registers in the faces of other people too. The precariousness of human existence “involves us with the earthly otherness of our everyday lives—and, thus, with others” (75).
This foregrounding of ontology will gratify scholars of faith, even those who wish to ask questions about this ontology’s truthfulness and resourcefulness. Conor Cunningham, for example, critiques Heidegger for treating a nothing like a something with nihilistic results, a critique that may bear on Hyde’s habits of thought as well.2 Hyde’s own criticism for Heidegger is that the poetry of Being tends to distract from the rhetoric of everyday existence, that is, the quotidian summons to say things, to say them well and to submit them to others’ judgment. Perfection, in contrast, fosters an “existential and phenomenological perspective that allows for a robust and empirically oriented appreciation of the ontological nature of perfection and its presence in everyday life” (11). What are rhetoricians good for? For starters, showing how daily decision-making in science and religion involves questions of reason, beauty, and embodiment.
First, reason. After tracing modern rationalists’ construals of rhetoric (such as Kant, who bracketed rhetorical arts from the work of cognitive cant-clearing), Hyde locates a dramatic intersection of reason and rhetoric in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. The monster eloquently insists on being acknowledged by his too-perfectly-rational creator, thus dramatizing how “scientific reasoning [and not just religious faith] is supposed to care for what something is as this something shows itself in how it exists” (103). Next, in discussing beauty, Hyde attends to an experience of shalom in the world or with God. He notes that the beauty of eloquence creates an unlooked-for identification between people of faith and of science, especially in Leonardo da Vinci’s exemplary uniting of science and religion. And, finally, Hyde’s chapter on “The Lived Body” limns what Heidegger calls humanity’s “thrownness” into space and time, an experience Walker Percy has described in his parable of castawayness.3 Anxious lest we be bored, moved by the melancholy of approaching death, we must act deliberately in order to avoid being rotten with perfection (too much order) or rotten with imperfection (too much chaos).
These central chapters show something of what rhetoricians are good for: locating the pervasive rhetorical impulse to reasonably, aesthetically, and existentially name Being. Thetopoi here discussed are diverse. But Hyde sutures subject to subject by terminological lists: “Reason, belongs to the relationship with truth, conscience, acknowledgement, hermeneutics (interpretation), otherness, and rhetoric” (106). Or, again, Hyde describes “ontological structures of existence that … include space, time, place, purpose, freedom, otherness, conscience, emotion, truth, acknowledgement, hermeneutics, salvation, heroism, beauty, rhetoric, reason, and justice” (147). Although he helps us “come to terms” by careful segues, the book’s terminological clusters (resembling what rhetoricians call enumeratio) call for patient endurance from the reader.
The book moves from conceptual exploration to case studies in the next two chapters, as Hyde discusses rhetorics of perfection in the Terry Schaivo case and in the biotechnology debate, where religionists and scientists have at least this in common: both are avoiding rottenness—either rottenness of imperfection (Let go, let God) or rottenness of perfection (Grab hold, play God).
Does Hyde’s book show Christian scholars what rhetoricians are good for? To the degree that faithful scholarship entails seeking shared understanding, yes. Hyde’s study helps opposing sides recognize shared humaneness, pressed by existence, dispossessed of clarity and compelled to speak. In answer to the pained query, “Where art thou?” Hyde responds biblically, over and over again, “Here I am!” But could this existential openness ever become gospel conviviality? Is giving the self to the Other ever convertible with receiving the self from the Other? Some theories of gift would suggest as much.4 Maybe the best way to acknowledge Hyde’s work is to continue inquiry where he leaves off, construing Being’s call not merely as existential provocation but also as excessive gift. Such a construal, transforming genuine acknowledgement into generous exchange, hints at what rhetoricians could yet be good for.
Cite this article
- Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method (Berkeley: University ofCalifornia Press, 1968), 16.
- Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, Radical Orthodoxy Series, eds. John Milbank, CatherinePickstock, Graham Ward (London: Routledge, 2002).
- Walker Percy, “The Message in the Bottle,” The Message in the Bottle (New York: Noonday, 1975), 119-149.
- For these reflections, I am indebted to Todd J. Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity ofBelievers in Union with Christ (Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology), eds. Sarah Coakley and Richard Cross (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), as well as to Stephen H. Webb, The GiftingGod: A Trinitarian Ethics of Excess (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). See also John Milbank’s reflections on “convivial enjoyment” in “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice,” First Things (March, 1999).