What Speech Reveals, According to a Chinese Philosopher and a Few Rhetoricians

Kung-sun Ch’ou asked Mencius, the Chinese Philosopher, how he was better than Kao Tzu, another Chinese Philosopher. 

Mencius said, “I understand ‘what can be put in words.’ I am adept in the cultivation of the ch’i.

But this answer didn’t satisfy Kung-sun Ch’ou. So he said, “Might I ask what you mean by ‘the ch’i’?” Then Mencius replied,

It is difficult to express in words. The ch’i [often translated as “physical vigour” or “passion-nature”] in this sense is the greatest, the most durable. If it is nurtured by rectitude it remains unharmed and permeates the entire universe. The ch’i in this sense is the fit recipient for Justice and the Way. Without it, man is ill-nourished. It is begotten of the sum total of just deeds. It is not to be seized and held by incidental just deeds. If an act of ours does not meet approval with the heart, then [the life force] is ill-nourished. That is why Kao Tzu has never understood Justice. He thinks it is external to man. One must render service to it; one must not regard it as an objective criterion. The mind must never let it out of its sight, but we must not try to make it grow. Let us not be like the man of Sung who, worried that his young plants were not growing, tugged at them [to help them grow]. He returned home, full of fuss, saying, “What a busy day! I have been helping my plants to grow.” His son hurried out to the fields to look, but the young plants had withered already. There are few men in the world today who are not “helping the plants grow.” Some neglect their plants, thinking it useless to weed them. Some help their plants by giving them a tug. But this is not merely useless; it is actually harmful.

But this somewhat cryptic answer still wasn’t enough for Kung-sun Ch’ou. So he asked what Mencius meant when he said that he “understood what can be put into words.” Then Mencius responded,

I understand what hides the other half of a half-truth. I understand the pitfalls that lie beneath extravagant statements. I understand the emptiness that lies behind evasive statements. Engendered in the mind, they cause harm to government. When they result in governmental action they cause harm to public affairs. If a Sage were to rise again he would agree with all I have said. (Mencius

Stephen Owen has interpreted Mencius’ statement this way,

Mencius’ knowledge of language is a knowledge of what the words reveal about the speaker, what they make manifest. . . . Words become only a surface whose shape reveals what lies within. Mencius’ list of different kinds of language shows that the trained listener can make fine discriminations. Most important, what the speaker reveals in his words is involuntary–perhaps not at all what he would wish to have revealed. Error and deception are not autonomous categories here, but are subsumed under understanding the person: they are nothing more than manifestations of ignorance or the desire to deceive and as such become important pieces of evidence for us when we listen to someone speak, recognizing the truth or accepting error, being deceived or not being deceived rest with the capacities of the listener. (Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, 1992)

In other words, speech is a subset of action. Ways of speaking are ways of acting, and speech patterns reveal thought patterns. All of this suspiciously sounds like Isocrates, who wrote in his Nicocles that “We regard speaking well to be the clearest sign of a good mind . . . and truthful, lawful, and just speech we consider the image of a good and faithful soul” (171). 

That capacity that Owen reads into Mencius–the capacity to listen well and to listen responsibly–is what we as human beings all strive towards. Wayne Booth, at the end of his book that was subtitled The Quest for Effective Communication, wrote that the quality of our lives–not just individually but also collectively–largely depends on the quality of our capacity to listen and respond, in short, our capacity to actually communicate (The Rhetoric of Rhetoric 171-172).

But there is a difference between actually communicating and merely thinking that we are communicating. Actual communication does not happen between beings who do not try to listen with their hearts as well as their heads. Listening is more than merely hearing words, and understanding another human being is more than simply getting enough information that will make me sound cool when I open my mouth. 

Considering Sources of Knowledge as We Near the End of Another Semester

Before we began the current semester just a few months ago, we may have heard or felt a subtle voice that called us by name, saying,

Where are your books?–that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.

You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you! (William Wordsworth, “Expostulation and Reply”)

Had we not heard this voice, at least in some form and to some degree, we probably would not have began our studies this semester.

And yet, now that we’re nearing the end of it, some of us may hear yet another voice, one that is now telling us the exact opposite:

Up! up! my Friend and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it. (William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned”)

We hear this voice as finals week approaches and, especially when we look outside and see the beginnings of a warm and bright spring day, are almost compelled to agree: “An ‘endless strife’ indeed!”

But the purpose of the above poem, as I understand it at least, is not to denounce books or to say that there is no value in learning. It is, on the other hand, to say that there are more and perhaps better sources of knowledge and learning than that which comes out of books alone. The poet continues:

And Hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

. . .

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives. (William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned”)

Enough–that’s what’s on our minds as we contrast sitting in a room and taking a test or writing a paper with what happens on the other side of the window: white clouds, blue sky, and warm sun. When we consider this contrast, perhaps our thoughts flow to this question that was implicitly asked in the first poem: Why do I do the things I do? Why do we read and study so much?

Here’s another related poem by Walt Whitman on the same subject. He writes about charts and diagrams the same way Wordsworth discusses books in the above poem. Here it is:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the stronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Knowledge can come from books and lectures and charts. But these are not the only sources of knowledge.

In the above poem, we don’t get to the stars until the very end–the last word, even. In other words, we don’t symbolically ascend until we’ve physically left the lecture hall and actually turned our gaze upward. A focus on one thing involves to some degree a neglect of something else (cf. Burke Permanence and Change 49), and if a gaze is looking at “charts and diagrams”–or words on a page or a computer screen–it is conversely not seeing stars in “perfect silence” and “mystical moist night-air.”

That isn’t to say that something might not be learned by seeing these “charts and diagrams” or words on a page or a screen. Quite the contrary. But when we sit in a lecture hall and look at charts and diagrams, we’re only seeing a symbolic representation of the stars. The stars are not actually seen with the eye. They are only “seen” symbolically with the mind (Cf. Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By).

Charts and diagrams–books–should ultimately lead people to study things as they really are–dare I use the word truth here? Yes, I think so. I believe that truth is things as they really are. There may, of course be some value in studying books and charts for their own sake–it it is important to look at a lens from time to time in order to make sure that the lens is a pure instrument for letting us see through it.

The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi put it this way:

Men of the world who value the Way all turn to books. But books are nothing more than words. Words have value; what is of value in words is meaning. Meaning has something it is pursuing, but the thing that it is pursuing cannot be put into words and handed down. (Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, trans. Watson 1968, 152)

In more religious discourse, Joseph Smith expresses the same idea as Wordsworth, Whitman, and Zhuang:

Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relationship to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose. Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.

Yes, books are certainly valuable. But there’s more to learning than just seeing words on a page.