Ambiguity as Rhetorical Strategy: “Virtue” and its Contemporary Correlatives

As with most discourse of this nature, the authors of these texts draw on a particular vocabulary and a specific lexicon in an attempt to develop a more persuasive argument.  Specifically, these texts implore the various connotations associated with the term “virtue,” in order to achieve a certain objective.  Even the terms “knowledge,” “soul,” and “body” take on meanings seemingly divergent from contemporary interpretations.   Although virtue, knowledge, and soul, become a means by which the authors can validate their arguments, for they emphasize a certain textual authority, these texts absence any explanation relating to their definition or use.   

Throughout each text, these terms are invoked at numerous junctions in order to justify a particular action or a specific argument.  Interestingly, these terms don’t just simply assist in the formation of argument.  In many ways, it seems as though these texts rely on these very terms; that they are dependent on this lexicon.  For these texts, alternative word choice will not suffice.  Here, I am not so much interested in simply suggesting a certain textual weakness.  Rather, I am much more interested in the various means by which a similar reliance occurs in more contemporary contexts.   Though there are numerous examples, such as the use of the term “affect” in intellectual circles, a term that is applied to many issues without much consideration for connotation, it seems as though the realm of political debate/speech is a more interesting point of consideration.  Here, as in the texts we are currently reading, ambiguous terms are invoked without much consideration for divergent connotations or interpretations.  In many ways, the term virtue finds its correlative in the use of terms such as “our values” or “legacy” by Barack Obama, McCain’s ever ambiguous reliance on “tyranny,” to invoke a certain fear, and Hillary Clinton’s suggestion of an “American family.”  These terms, and their uses deny a definitive definition, quite simply, because these texts are devoid of any substantial form of explanation.  What are “our values,” and how do they apply to the “American family.”  Though McCain often references the events of 9/11, tyranny remains ill-defined.  Are there still tyrants present?  As often as McCain invokes this term, tyranny seems all invasive.  Is he still referring to a specific group of people, or an opposing government?  Who are these people? 

Though connotation remains ill-defined, it seems that this functions effectively and conveniently, it must be noted, in contemporary contexts.  Ambiguity serves a specific rhetorical function.  Back to the texts…  In Isocrates, the texts seem to suggest that one use the means necessary in order to obtain the intended objective.  Thus, it seems fruitful to consider whether or not ambiguity is a necessary function?  Whether ambiguity insists structure?  For it seems that by invoking a certain structured ambiguity, the author is able to achieve certain feats.

Derek Risse


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