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by William H. Benson

December 15, 2011

     Benjamin Franklin explained in his autobiography that at a young age he desired to learn and master the best literary techniques. “But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them.” So, he obtained the best literary magazine of the day, the Spectator, transformed one of its essays into poetry, and then he said, “after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again.” “This,” he said, “was to teach me method in the arrangement of my thoughts.”

     These exercises he completed at night after he had finished his day’s work, so, he said, “that I might in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.” We judge he achieved his ambition.

     Last week, I came across a most interesting lecture by an English professor at Purdue University named Dorsey Armstrong, who listed and explained a series of rhetorical strategies.

      A commonplace is that which is widely known and recognized, an obvious and trite observation that is taken for granted, and which an audience would agree as true. People of yesteryear would write down their simplest thoughts into a commonplace book: observations of the weather, of people, the local events, and the arguments. Instead, people of today “journal” their thoughts.

     Armstrong gives examples of a commonplace: “the pursuit of happiness,” and “hiding in plain sight.” She explains that the ancient rhetoric of Aristotle and Cicero is woven into the very fabric of our thought patterns, but even though rhetoric is not taught today, “it is nowhere, and yet it is everywhere.”

     Stasis is related to commonplace in that “both hinge upon the need for agreement.” But stasis is the balance achieved after an argument or a dispute ceases. It is the peace that breaks out after the war has ended, when warring parties sign a peace treaty. Stasis is a process, and normally is ushered in after opposing factions find agreement upon definitions of ideas, and continues when one side yields.

     By invention a writer generates new ideas or enhances and transforms old ones and thus presents fresh thoughts and mind-jiggling considerations to a bored, dull, and weary audience.

     Arrangement is the recognition that a writer must heed conventions, prescribed patterns, and formulas when listing his or her ideas. If the arrangement veers too far from the accepted patterns, the reader will not follow. Good writers use inductive or deductive reasoning, or a combination of the two.

     Correct reasoning requires the skill of distinguishing between fact and opinion, plus a dose of deliberation and judgment, and the art of collecting and sorting evidence. “Assertion is not evidence!”

     Kairos is a Greek word that means time, but it refers to that supreme moment, when conditions are right. Armstrong says that, “It is saying and writing the right thing in the right way in the right time.” Great writers and public speakers are masters of kairos. Ronald Reagan appeared one day in Berlin and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” That was a kairos moment.

     Kronos was the other Greek word for time, but it referred to the steady march of time, its quantitative feature. Kairos, instead, contains a qualitative aspect. Timing is everything. Ideas are in flux. They are elusive. Grab them before they flee. The window is closing, so pay attention to the commonplace, “strike when the iron is hot.” Lincoln speaking at Gettysburg was also a kairos moment.

     The New Testament authors wrote in Koine Greek; that is, the common dialect of the Greek-speaking people, and because they recognized kairos, they included the strategy in their texts. So they wrote, “And it came to pass in those days,” “in the fullness of time,” “straightaway,” and “they came with haste.” The Romans renamed kairos “Carpe diem,” which means seize and capture the day.

     Like Benjamin Franklin, we can shape our thoughts and enhance our writing with certain rhetorical tools until they stand out as something meaningful and worthy of an audience’s deepest consideration. Such a writer can take hold of the commonplace and seek agreement and stasis with an overpowering argument and solid incontrovertible evidence. He or she can invent new ideas, arrange them into logical patterns, and do this quickly, at the opportune moment, before the window drops and the door closes.

     One New Testament writer wrote a lengthy letter to a friend in which he began with a sentence that, when translated from Koine Greek into King James I’s English of 1611, captures certain of these rhetorical strategies: the commonplace, stasis, invention, arrangement, and kairos. “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word.” The friend’s name was Theophilus, and the writer was Luke.

     Have for yourself a very merry Christmas.