Burke, Perelman, and the Transmission of Values: The Beatitudes as Epideictic Topoi

Stan A. Lindsay, Florida State University


Perelman rediscovered the values aspect of epideictic: It “strengthens the disposition toward action by increasing adherence to the values it lauds.” Burke's entelechy claims that humans unconsciously act upon themselves in accordance with the implicit value systems of the entelechies with which they identify. The two are here merged in a genre study of the gospels.


Kenneth Burke began his shorter articles in Philosophy of Literary Form with the article “Literature as Equipment for Living.” Burke was, of course, pointing in that article to the “rhetorical” element in literature. But, which rhetorical element? Aristotle offered three genres of rhetoric: judicial, deliberative, and epideictic. Literature may offer some small direction for deliberative rhetorical purposes, but it is hard to see how literature as equipment for living is used extensively at all in judicial rhetoric. Judicial rhetoric, as the rhetoric of the court, is interested in factual matters—what actually happened—not scenarios that one might find in literature. Literature as equipment for living, however, may be used extensively primarily in epideictic rhetoric. Burke even notes in the PLF article that what he was doing was “sociological criticism of literature” (293). Sociological emphasis pertains neither to Judicial nor to Deliberative rhetoric. Chaim Perelman rediscovered the values aspect of epideictic oratory, two millennia after Aristotle wrote his Rhetoric. While Perelman thought that classical rhetoric missed the point of epideictic rhetoric, my journey toward the appreciation of the epideictic genre argues that Perelman was wrong. I discovered the values element in classical rhetoric while I was a student of classical rhetoric—well before I became acquainted with Perelman’s work. I will return to Burke and Perelman later, as I sketch out those steps of my journey that brought me to an appreciation of Burke and Perelman and the transmission of values. As an example of how Burke, Perelman, and Classical Rhetoric figured in the development of my epideictic perspective, I consider the New Testament gospels as a text, and more precisely, the Beatitudes of Matthew and Luke.

Step One: Gospels and Rabbinic Literature

My journey began in 1973, while a master’s student of Rabbinic Hebrew at Indiana University under Henry Fischel. In particular, I found the parallels between the New Testament Gospels and Rabbinic Literature to be very informative. For example, the Gospel of Matthew 5:32 presents a teaching on divorce that allows for divorce only in the case of fornication: “But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, except for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery.” Again, Matthew 19:9 states: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Rabbinic Literature supplies the context for the issue. The Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), tractate Gittin, 90a states: “The House of Shammai held that a man may only divorce his wife for a serious transgression, but the House of Hillel allowed divorce for even trivial offenses, such as burning a meal.” The House of Hillel (Bet Hillel) and the House of Shammai (Bet Shammai) were two schools of Rabbinic/Pharisaic thought. Matthew presents Jesus as siding with Bet Shammai in the debate. A great deal of what follows the Beatitudes in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount relies heavily on the assumption that Matthew’s audience already knows the context of the issues addressed—from Rabbinic tradition. The sermon comments included by Matthew are extremely short and pithy, using the formula: “You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you.” Matthew just assumes that his audience has heard the contextual discussion (“You have heard it said . . .”). In this sense, Matthew’s Gospel differs from Luke’s Gospel. Luke frequently explains arcane Rabbinic issues for his audience. As I will suggest in Step Two of my journey, Luke’s audience appears to be more attuned to Greco-Roman culture and less attuned to Rabbinic culture. From a cultural standpoint, it is not difficult to see that Matthew and Luke are operating in slightly different cultural milieus. That Matthew addresses an audience that holds an appreciation for the Rabbinic oral tradition actually argues for a strong value of accuracy in oral transmission as it applies to Matthew’s audience. The Rabbinic oral tradition that was eventually written down, more than one hundred years after it was taught, as the Talmud and Mishnah is exceptional in its historical and textual accuracy. This careful referencing of the Rabbinic oral tradition in Matthew is an argument for the value of historicity and accuracy held by the audience of, at least, Matthew’s account.

The early observation of the cultural difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s audiences was a beginning for my interest in the rhetorical aspects of the gospels. Devotees of Perelman might say that my “universal audience” has long been rather small. It consists of those who know classical and contemporary rhetorical criticism, plus biblical studies and rabbinic studies. Although my master’s was in Hebrew language and literature, largely due to Fischel’s intercultural (Greek-Roman-Jewish-Christian) approach, I also pursued PhD coursework in Comparative Literature at Indiana University. I prepared a doctoral dissertation prospectus in which I sought to determine the literary genre of the New Testament gospels. I reasoned that, if we understood the category to which the gospels belonged, we would have a better perspective for interpreting what they were attempting to accomplish. Although I knew nothing, at this point in my career, of Kenneth Burke, I later would appreciate the fact that Burke would classify genre studies as studies in conventional form and alert us to the notion that form is the arousing and fulfilling of expectation. So, what expectation does or did the “gospel” form arouse and fulfill? The view that the gospel is an entirely unique genre exists, but it seemed likely that it, at least, had literary antecedents. I considered the genres of Romance, Novella, and (a then newly “discovered” genre put forth by Moses Hadas, Morton Smith, and Howard Clark Kee) Aretalogy. These “literary” genres, however, lacked something of the real-life experience sense that those reading the gospels surely encountered. One may read a romance, novella, or aretalogy without risking one’s life or social standing due to the nature of the subject matter. I sensed a definite need for a satisfactory genre classification for the gospels that would direct the audience’s expectations. I first sought that genre classification among contemporary literary genres.

Step Two: Gospels and Hellenistic Biography

Not being convinced of the close relationship between any of the above-mentioned genres and the New Testament gospels, I considered Hellenistic biography—as exemplified by Plutarch’s Lives—as a possible antecedent. The biographical genre holds some definite parallels—especially, I think, to the Gospel of Luke. In 1978, under the tutelage of Vernon Robbins, of the departments of Speech Communication, Classics, and Religious Studies at the University of Illinois (prior to his move to Emory University), I compared and contrasted the Gospel of Luke with Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. Here are some of the parallels:

  1. Plutarch delimits the type of writing he is attempting: “[W]e do not give the actions in full detail and with scrupulous exactness but rather a short summary since we are not writing histories but lives.” Luke likewise delimits: “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them to us . . . it seemed good to me . . . to write to you in order . . . so that you might know the certainty concerning the things wherein you were instructed” (Luke 1.1–4).
  2. Both authors supply genealogies for their subjects—Alexander back to Hercules, Jesus back to Adam and God.
  3. Both authors supply miraculous birth stories for their subjects.
  4. Both authors suggest Divine parentage for their subjects.
  5. Both authors present their subjects as boy geniuses. Plutarch tells of Persian ambassadors who arrived in the absence of Alexander’s father(?) Philip. Alexander impressed them with his solid sense. “He asked them no childish questions.” Luke is the only gospel writer who provides an account of the twelve-year-old Jesus visiting the temple in Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph had lost track of him, but found him sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions. The doctors of the Law were amazed at his answers (Luke 2.41–50).

For reasons, many of which are discussed in Charles H. Talbert’s What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels, I conclude that the Gospels are not to be categorized as biographies. Plutarch took, at least, the appearance of an objective perspective regarding the issue of whether or not Alexander the Great was divinely parented; the Gospel of Luke exhibits no such objective perspective. Rather, the author brazenly argues for the divine heredity of the book’s hero, Jesus. Hence, there remain differences between the gospel form and the Hellenistic biography. Literary genre studies, while not exactly a dead end, did not appear to be completely satisfactory for understanding the gospel genre. Hence, my search for satisfactory genre comparisons began to turn from literary genres to rhetorical genres.

Under Vernon Robbins, I became exposed to the Form Criticism (Formgeschichte), Redaction Criticism (Redaktionsgeschichte), and Rhetorical Criticism of the Gospels. Form Criticism began to point me in the direction of smaller conventional forms from oral tradition. I will return to these concepts/approaches, shortly, but at this stage, Form Criticism opened up the relationship between gospels genre studies and rhetorical genres. Aristotle’s Rhetoric, with its discussion of paradigms, would prove to be quite enlightening as these smaller forms are used in his three rhetorical genres. The gospels extensively employ the “paradigm” form. I was beginning to find a satisfactory track.

Step Three: Gospels and Epideictic Oratory

Under John Bateman, of the Department of Classics at Illinois, I studied Hellenistic Rhetoric. I became particularly intrigued with the rhetorical genre of epideictic. It occurred to me that epideictic and biography were very closely related—the primary differences being that epideictic appeared to be the more explicitly persuasive of the two, that epideictic was more of an oral genre, and that epideictic more closely related to the everyday experiences of the audience. I wondered aloud to Bateman if the gospel genre were a close relative of epideictic. Bateman—not much of a religious believer—laughed. His view of epideictic was that it was a genre not to be taken seriously. It was merely a demonstration of the persuasive skills of the rhetor. For the Classicist Bateman, classifying the gospels as epideictic reduces them to a joke.

Indeed, sophistic encomia, such as Gorgias’ In Praise of Helen, tend to support Bateman’s view. Yet, such sophistic encomia were chronologically prior to Aristotle’s Rhetoric with its epideictic genre. Nevertheless, even English translations of Aristototle’s Rhetoric may have contributed to Bateman’s view, describing the auditor of epideictic as a "spectator,” as opposed to a “judge” in Deliberative and Judicial rhetorical genres. In Rhetoric I.3.ii, the “spectator” appears to be primarily concerned with the rhetor’s skill. The Greek term that George Kennedy translates as “spectator,” however is the term theoros. It is built on the root from which we have the English words “theory” and “theorist.” Aristotle’s very definition of rhetoric uses the same root, usually translated “to see:” “the capacity to see [theoresai] in any case the available means of persuasion” (On Rhetoric I.2.i). Viewing the audience of epideictic as a “theorist” rather than as a “spectator” sheds an entirely new light on epideictic. Later, I would be impressed with Kenneth Burke’s view of Aristotle's rhetoric as explicit: “Here's what to say if you want to smear a man . . . to build him up . . . and so on” (Dramatism and Development 27). In my opinion, the nature of epideictic as a transmitter of values is, by contrast, implicit (perhaps, even that which might require more of a “theorist” than a “judge” to decipher).

Aristotle’s Rhetoric comes from the fourth century BC. A much closer contemporary to the gospels—the Hellenistic Rhetorica ad Herennium, written in the century preceding the gospels—clearly seems to take the epideictic genre seriously. Years later, I was pleased to learn that Chaim Perelman had rediscovered serious epideictic at least two decades before I became interested in it. If the gospels are actually a form of epideictic, one might expect the gospel writers to rely heavily on the value system that was presently (as opposed to the past/Judicial or future/Deliberative) operative in the culture to which they were appealing. By praising or blaming certain individuals in the paradigms they chose to present, they were, in Perelman’s words, “strengthen[ing] the disposition toward action by increasing adherence [of the audience or culture to whom it was directed] to the values it lauds” (50).

Step Four: Connecting Epideictic Oratory with Formgeschichte

Aristotle, in On Rhetoric II.20.ii, admits both historically-based stories and fictions as his two species of paradigms, useful for inductive reasoning. I was struck by the fact that Martin Dibelius, in his ground-breaking work on Formgeschichte, From Tradition to Gospel, emphasizes “paradigms” as the first major type of form he sees in the gospels. He sees the various forms—paradigms, tales, legends, analogies, and the passion story—as the building blocks with which the gospel writers constructed their gospels. He also sees that these various smaller forms were probably transmitted throughout the church in sermon illustrations. He makes a comment on the historicity of these transmissions: “Because the eyewitnesses could control and correct, a relative trustworthiness of the Paradigms is guaranteed” (62). Years later, I would recognize this comment of Dibelius as a statement of what Kenneth Burke calls recalcitrance. Stan A. Lindsay, in Psychotic Entelechy: The Dangers of Spiritual Gifts Theology, explains: “Burke sees recalcitrance as not only something to be overcome but also as a method of overcoming, of correcting. Burke notes that recalcitrance ‘refers to the factors that substantiate a statement, the factors that incite a statement, and the factors that correct a statement’ (Attitudes Toward History 47). He suggests that ‘communicative problems and procedures’ may be ‘corrected by the principle of recalcitrance’ (PC lix).” Dibelius effectively refocused Gospel studies to the study of an oral medium, rather than written literature.

Aristotle’s comments concerning paradigms, however, apply to all three genres of rhetoric, and I think fictions would be more appropriately applied in the Deliberative genre. A political advisor, for example, might, using Deliberative rhetoric, warn his candidate not to use untruths to smear his opponent: “Remember what happened to the boy who cried ‘Wolf’!” Certainly, Judicial rhetoric emphasizes narratives that are arguably historically-based, and the entire point of epideictic in praising and blaming is that the narratives are presumably historically-based. Aristotle discusses the two general modes of persuasion. The “example” or “paradigm” is the basis of inductive reasoning. The “enthymeme” is the basis of deductive reasoning. This article is less concerned with deductive reasoning than it is with inductive reasoning. In terms of “paradigms,” there are two types—historical and invented. Since both historical and invented examples serve to persuade, we may expect both epideictic oratory and literature (whether historically-based or purely fictitious) to be persuasive. What then do both epideictic oratory and literature persuade? They subconsciously persuade auditors and readers to internalize the values they represent. Also, entelechially, they supply “cow paths” to follow in similar situations.

The minor form paradigm figures in a major way in the analysis of Martin Dibelius. In his work, he seeks to “explain the origin of the tradition about Jesus, and . . . to make clear the intention and real interest of the earliest tradition” (Preface). While calling Formgeschichte the “criticism of literary form” (1), he concludes that “[o]nly two or three of [early Christian literary] documents approximate to the literary standards of Philo and Josephus. . . . Without a doubt these are unliterary writings” (2). My conclusion is also that the gospels were not intended to be literary works; they were intended to be rhetorical works. Aristotle’s emphasis on the role of the paradigm in rhetorical genres, therefore, is particularly enlightening. Since Burke suggests that form is the arousing and fulfilling of expectations, the realization that the gospels are a rhetorical form, rather than a literary form, supplies an important expectation: The gospels were not intended to be classical literature, that might touch audiences in different ways throughout the ages; they were intended to be rhetorical works that were directed towards specific audiences, in specific cultures, at specific points in time. To interpret the gospels, one needs to consider them, as Burke puts it, neither as art for art’s sake (Counter-Statement 16), nor as art for the artist’s sake, but as art for the audience’s sake (Dramatism and Development 16). What is the psychology of the audience? What are the values of the audience? What are the specific, timely needs of the audience? In my analysis of the gospels, later in this article, I contend that the audience of Luke’s gospel holds as a much higher value than does the audience of Matthew’s gospel the virtue of being voluntarily poor. One might, therefore, speculate that Luke’s audience found itself in a much more severe situation of (voluntary?) poverty than did Matthew’s audience. One might wonder if Luke’s audience has already begun to become more “dispossessed” of their property, as Christians, than Matthew’s audience was. Perhaps, a persecution of Christians had begun against Luke’s audience. One might envision a situation similar to the Jews of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof, in which Christians were forced out of town, forced to leave their homes and lands behind. One might wonder if the Most Excellent Theophilus, to whom the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles was addressed, may have originally been a rather wealthy official who lost a great deal of his property by converting to Christianity. This type of audience scenario might account for a difference in emphasis between Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s gospel. Of course, these are only speculations; the values system at work in Luke’s gospel may be demonstrated by objective citation.

Step Five: Epideictic Topoi and the Rhetorica ad Herennium

My professors at the University of Illinois, Ruth Anne Clarke and Jesse Delia, comment: “Since the Classical period, rhetoricians have taught topoi, or commonplaces—general strategic approaches to be adapted to specific communicative needs” (195). The epideictic topoi of a given rhetorical handbook, for example, would provide a tool for an orator of the milieu in which the handbook is valid in order to persuade an audience from that milieu to either praise or blame the individual who was the subject of the epideictic speech. The topoi serve as indicators of the level of virtue of a person, according to the values the audience accepts.

In the Hellenistic Greek milieu, the Rhetorica Ad Herennium provides an interesting list of epideictic topoi. Topoi may vary greatly from age to age and from culture to culture, but the Ad Herennium epideictic topoi are at least indicative of what Burke means when he links topics/ topoi with values. The Ad Herennium divides the topoi of epideictic oratory into three categories: external circumstances, physical attributes, and qualities of character. The topoi that the Ad Herennium (III.10) lists under the heading of external circumstances are: a) Descent, b) Education, c) Wealth, d) Kinds of Power, e) Titles to fame, f) Citizenship, g) Friendships (3.10). Further elaboration is probably unnecessary. In the list of topoi are revealed the sort of values that were held in esteem in this milieu.

These topoi work quite well when judging the virtues of Alexander the Great as presented by Plutarch. The values indicated in the Ad Herennium are clearly reflected in Plutarch. In terms of Alexander’s descent, the issue is whether he is the son of Philip or of the god Apollo. His education in the Greek schools is unquestioned. His wealth, power, fame, and citizenship are given. However, some important differences in values may be noted when attempting to utilize the Hellenistic topoi of the Ad Herennium to examine the virtues of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospel accounts. Although both works (Plutarch and the Gospels) are produced in roughly the same age, they differ in cultures. The Gospels provide virtually no physical attributes of Jesus whatsoever. There is no clue concerning his height, weight, relative handsomeness, color or length of hair, etc. Whatever exceptional physical feats he accomplishes (walking on water, healing, calming storms) are attributed in no way to his physical attributes. Hence, an entire major category of topoi is missing. Certainly, other topoi such as “wealth” and “citizenship” which were important for Plutarch's primary audience are unimportant or even anathematized in the Gospels. Quite obviously, an alternative value system/symbol system/epideictic topoi system is at work in the Gospels, despite the fact that the Ad Herennium is from roughly the same age as the New Testament. I began to realize that, when Aristotle suggests that epideictic rhetoric deals with the “present,” that term “present” can refer to not only time limitations, but also cultural limitations. The gospels and the Ad Herennium shared proximity in time, but certainly not in culture. Likewise, Matthew and Luke shared much closer proximity in both time and culture, but there were still distinct difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s cultures.

This sense of “presence” is not what Perelman means by his use of the term “presence,” but it is, perhaps, more significant than Perelman’s term, as the term is applied to the understanding of epideictic. For Perelman, presence is “the displaying of certain elements on which the speaker wishes to center attention in order that they may occupy the foreground of the hearer’s consciousness” (142). Conversely, an Aristotelian understanding of “presence,” might convey the concept of the exact set of temporality and cultural values at any specific point in time and place and culture in history. Luke’s audience may be separated only slightly from Matthew’s in culture, time, and place, but the “present” or “presence” of Luke’s audience may be vastly different in some respects.

Step Six: Chaim Perelman’s Epideictic and Universal Audience

Yet one more University of Illinois professor, John Patton—my major professor, who moved to Tulane University before I could complete a dissertation under him—introduced me to the works of Kenneth Burke, suggesting to me that Burke’s perspective could supply many of the answers I sought. Since all of the members of my committee at Illinois were either moving away to other universities or retiring, I would eventually begin my PhD program anew, from scratch, at Purdue University, under the tutelage of the Burkean Don M. Burks. But, before I took my program to Purdue, I flirted with doing a PhD under Wilhelm Wuellner, at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California Berkeley. Wuellner pointed me in the direction of Chaim Perelman. Perelman's observations regarding the connection between epideictic oratory and values are not difficult to grasp. He states, “since argumentation aims at securing the adherence of those to whom it is addressed, it is, in its entirety, relative to the audience to be influenced” (New Rhetoric, 19) and “Epideictic oratory has significance and importance for argumentation because it strengthens the disposition toward action by increasing adherence to the values it lauds” (50). Epideictic implicitly contains those “starting points” of Perelman’s argumentation—those facts, truths, and presumptions—that each specific culture unconsciously admits. By supplying concrete examples of the values of a culture in the life being praised, epideictic supplies “presence” and “amplitude.”

Burke has consubstantiality/communion with Perelman. Both epideictic and entelechial perspectives may be used. Perelman’s primary contribution to my journey was his work with epideictic and audience analysis. Since, as I noted earlier, the gospels appeared to me to be written to somewhat divergent audiences, and since the Rhetorica ad Herennium, though written in approximately the same historical period, was clearly divergent in cultural assumptions from the gospel accounts, I posited that the key to determining the values system that is being transmitted through epideictic rhetoric is the determination of the epideictic topoi that are functioning in the culture. Perelman’s concept of a universal audience—a mental concept that the speaker constructs—is comprised of all reasonable and competent people (14), “those whom the speaker wishes to influence by his argumentation” (19). The universal audience for epideictic must include the members of the culture whose adherence to the values presented the epideictic speaker wishes to accomplish. Since Matthew and Luke constructed mental concepts of their audience—those competent and reasonable people they wished to influence—they, no doubt, used their knowledge of those audiences in the audiences’ “present” time and situation. They spoke to what Lloyd Bitzer called the “exigences” faced by the audiences, those “imperfection(s) marked by urgency,” those defects, obstacles, things waiting to be done, things other than they should be (6). The rhetorical situations of Matthew’s and Luke’s audiences differ, and each author’s skill in addressing the values that pertain to the exigencies of their specific universal audiences will determine their success in praising and blaming.

Step Seven: Kenneth Burke’s Methodology

While Perelman points us in the right direction, he does not offer a methodology for locating the cultural values as useful as does Kenneth Burke. Kenneth Burke’s methodology is especially useful in elucidating the values one finds in a given piece of epideictic oratory. Burke's concept of entelechy as a process of development in which the telos or goal of the individual is implicit throughout the process is more difficult to grasp, however. Burke uses the Aristotelian biological entelechy of a seed, growing to maturity, and then makes human symbolic extensions. Essentially, Burke claims that humans unconsciously act upon themselves (in a manner analogous to the seed growing to maturity) in accordance with the implicit value systems of the entelechies/stories with which they identify. Both Perelman’s and Burke’s approaches supply metarhetorics explaining how values are transmitted implicitly to the audience. While epideictic utilizes primarily historical persons and events, entelechy is present in both historically-based stories and in fictions. The song made famous by Burke’s grandson Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” points simultaneously to both types of entelechy. The song’s narrator speaks/sings of his child who arrived just the other day, that child’s gradual maturing (during which process the child assimilated implicitly the value system of his father), and the father’s epiphany at retirement that, to his dismay, his boy had grown up just like him. While this type of entelechy can be seen in countless historical situations—the proverbial acorn does not fall far from the oak—we actually realize that Harry Chapin is not speaking/singing autobiographically. He is speaking/ singing literature. Burke’s concept of entelechy encompasses both historically-based stories and fictions.

Clause Two of Kenneth Burke's definition of the human—inventor of and moralized by the negative—introduces the existence of “polar” terms such as “true-false, order-disorder, cosmos-chaos, success-failure, peace-war” (Language as Symbolic Action 11), etc. Burke observes that certain clusters of terms automatically exclude certain other clusters of terms. These clusters of terms at times can be violated so as to produce a perspective by incongruity. But, usually, these clusters can be studied for the purpose of understanding the peculiar symbol system of a given author (or, more specifically, a given author within a given work) to find out which terms s/he automatically associates with which other terms. For Burke, “a book is a replica of the human mind” (Dramatism and Development 20). He would qualify the comparison by adding that “in a book,” the “vast assortment of ‘equations’” is “finished, whereas in life there is always the possibility of new situations which will to some degree modify such alignments” (Dramatism and Development 20). The mind is in a state of constant modification. Note, however, that for Burke, “Any work is a set of interrelated terms with corresponding ‘equations,’ sometimes explicit, but more often implicit” (Dramatism and Development 20). Such clusters of “implicit or explicit ‘equations’” form a “structure of terms, or symbol-system” (The Philosophy of Literary Form viii).

The associational nature of these equations, according to Burke, make them similar to what “contemporary social scientists call ‘values’ or what in Aristotle's Rhetoric are called ‘topics’” (The Philosophy of Literary Form ix). Otherwise put, the inductive procedure to which Burke adheres is capable of providing not only enlightenment regarding the specific text under consideration, but also of revealing a picture of the scenic background in which the literary act takes place (since Burke considers the scene to be the ideological background in which the act occurs, and values considerations are ideological). So, how is Burke's method to be used to become enlightened concerning the values and associations of New Testament authors? In charting the specific symbol system of a given author, Burke's method requires “objective citation:”

    Now, the work of every writer contains a set of implicit equations. [S/h]e uses “associational clusters.” And you may, by examining his[/her] work, find “what goes with what” in these clusters—what kinds of acts and images and personalities and situations go with his[/her] notions of heroism, villainy, consolation, despair, etc. And though [s/]he be perfectly conscious of the act of writing, conscious of selecting a certain kind of imagery to reinforce a certain kind of mood, etc., [s/]he cannot possibly be conscious of the interrelationships among all these equations. Afterwards, by inspecting his[/her] work “statistically,” we or [s/]he may disclose by objective citation the structure of motivation operating here. There is no need to “supply” motives. (The Philosophy of Literary Form 20)

Burke includes the proviso, “by objective citation,” and his elaboration, “There is no need to ‘supply’ motives,” as an answer to and protection against his method being “characterized as ‘intuitive’ and ‘idiosyncratic,’ epithets that make (him) squirm” (The Philosophy of Literary Form 68).

Burke would begin his search for “equational clusters” by watching “for the dramatic alignment. What is vs. what” (The Philosophy of Literary Form 69). Another way of considering this first step is as a search for polarities. When Burke says that he might “sloganize [his] theory . . . by treating the terms ‘dramatic’ and ‘dialectical’ as synonymous” (The Philosophy of Literary Form xx), he implies that there are “two quite different but equally justifiable positions . . . in [his] approach” (Language as Symbolic Action 54):

    There is a gloomy route of this sort: If action is to be our key term, then drama; for drama is the culminative form of action (this is a variant of the “perfection” principle . . .). But if drama, then conflict. And if conflict, then victimage. Dramatism is always on the edge of this vexing problem, that comes to a culmination in tragedy, the song of the scapegoat.
    There is also a happy route, along the lines of a Platonic dialectic. . . . [T]his happier route . . . states the problem in the accents of an ideal solution. (Language as Symbolic Action 54–55)

Whether Burke's method is called “dramatic” or “dialectical,” the implicit antithetical nature of Burke's method may be noted. In drama, the antithetical hero and villain are present. Burke can speak of “the ‘villain’ that makes the total drama go” (Attitudes Toward History 343). In Platonic dialectic, something similar to the “opposite banks of a stream” is present. The antithetical nature of the “opposite banks” may be transcended by the “reality” of the whole stream. It is not necessary in dialectic to disprove one bank of the stream, in order that the opposite bank may be true. Still, in both the “dramatic” and the “dialectic” separate “bins” (Attitudes Toward History 135) are present. Polarities are present. The question, “What is vs. what?” is present.

Step Eight: Applying Burke and Perelman to the Beatitudes

The present article is not the first to identify the Beatitudes as rhetoric. Charles H. Talbert in Reading the Sermon on the Mount states of George A. Kennedy that he sees the beatitudes of Matthew as the Prooemium to Jesus’ sermon (23). According to Aristotle, III.14.ii, “The prooemia of epideictic speeches are drawn from praise or blame. . . . Gorgias praises . . . ‘You are worthy the admiration of many, O men of Greece.’” L. John Topol states in Children of a Compassionate God: A Theological Exegesis of Luke 6:20–49: “The beatitude has the social function of promoting those values and behaviors which the community holds dear (Hamm, Beatitudes 12). “The beatitude . . . functions as a kind of epideictic rhetoric” (62). Yet, to my knowledge, this article may be the first to identify the beatitudes as epideictic topoi. Aristotle, Book I, Chapter 9 discusses epideictic rhetoric. In verse 34 of that Book and Chapter, Aristotle identifies the blessing/ makarismos as a type of epideictic. The Greek word makarios is precisely the term used in the Beatitudes. The values=epideictic topoi of the Gospel According to Matthew are fairly well explicated in Matthew’s Beatitudes (New International Version, Matthew 5.3–12):

  1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit. . . .” This beatitude is backed up by stories such as the rich young man whom Jesus commanded to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor (Matthew 19.16–24). It stands in direct contrast to the ad Herennium topos of wealth.
  2. “Blessed are those who mourn . . . .” This beatitude is backed up by stories such as Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26.36–46).
  3. “Blessed are the meek . . . .” This beatitude is backed up by stories such as the Palm Sunday entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey (Matthew 21.1–11). It stands in direct contrast to the ad Herennium topos of power.
  4. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness . . . .” This beatitude is backed up by stories such as the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14.13–21). It stands again in contrast to the ad Herennium topos of wealth.
  5. “Blessed are the merciful . . . .” This beatitude is backed up by stories such as the many healings performed by Jesus (Matthew 8.14–17).
  6. “Blessed are the pure in heart . . . .” This beatitude is backed up by Jesus’ seeming literary allusion to wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7.15) and by the label hypocrite which he applies to his opponents (Matthew 23.13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29).
  7. “Blessed are the peacemakers . . . .” This beatitude is backed up by Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies (Matthew 5.43–48).
  8. “Blessed are those who are persecuted . . . .” This beatitude is backed up by stories such as the passion of Christ.

These are just a few of the explicit epideictic topoi to be found in Matthew. Many more implicit topoi are present. The religious phenomenon known by the slogan WWJD (What would Jesus do?) is evidence of both the epideictic and the entelechial nature of the gospels. There is not space in this article to examine all of the beatitudes, but, since two of the beatitudes seem to stand in direct opposition to the ad Herennium topos of wealth—“Blessed are the poor” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst”—it is informative to check the wealth-related paradigms of Matthew and Luke (the only two gospel writers who include a list of beatitudes).

We must apply Burke’s methodological instruction requiring “objective citation.” Before checking the paradigms we note the difference in the phraseology used by Matthew and Luke. Whereas, Luke states flatly “Blessed are ye poor” (6.20), Matthew seems to pull his punches: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (5.3). Whereas, Luke states flatly “Blessed are ye that hunger now” (6.20), Matthew seems to pull his punches: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” (5.3). Does Matthew’s audience/culture not hold the same value towards poverty as Luke’s audience/culture? Bear in mind that no matter how Jesus originally may have phrased such beatitudes, they would have been uttered in Aramaic or Hebrew. Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, are writing in Greek. Therefore, the interpretation of Jesus’ sayings could be emphasized differently in different cultures. This could be a translation issue. Luke, however, seems intent on clarifying that his value of voluntary poverty should be taken literally—not reinterpreted as being poor “in spirit.” He supplements his list of beatitudes with woes: “Woe unto you that are rich! For you have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full now! For you shall hunger” (Luke 6.24–25).

Luke’s cultural value as it regards money/wealth appears to be more severe than Matthew’s cultural value. Luke is the only writer (albeit, in his companion work, Acts of the Apostles) who reports that the early Christians in Jerusalem “sold their property and their belongings and distributed them to all as anyone might have need” (Acts 2.45). He presents Peter and John as having neither silver nor gold (Acts 3.6). He praises Barnabas who owned a field, sold it, and brought the proceeds to deposit at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4.36–37). He condemns Ananias and his wife Sapphira for attempting to fake this act of poverty. They sold a field and secretly kept back some of the profits, but they reported to the apostles that they had given all. They were both struck down dead (Acts 5.1–11).

Of course, since Matthew did not, as Luke did, write an account of the early church after Jesus’ death, the paradigms of Acts can only be used to account for Luke’s culture’s value system. We may, however, compare and contrast the paradigms in the two gospel accounts to note the comparative emphasis placed on voluntary poverty.

  1. In an account that only appears in Luke, Jesus’ mother Mary, during her pregnancy, remarks about her own “low estate” (Luke 1.48) and how God has “exalted them of low degree . . . has filled the hungry . . . [and] has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1.52–53).
  2. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is the only one that mentions that he was “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger”—details that suggest poverty —at his birth (Luke 2.7). By contrast, Matthew is the only gospel that mentions “wise men from the east . . . opening their treasures . . . [and] offering unto him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2.2–11).
  3. Luke’s account of Jesus’ baby dedication, with Mary and Joseph offering up “a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2.25) indicates that Mary and Joseph’s offering was of the variety offered by the poor.
  4. Luke is the only one who chooses to include the money-themed account of John the Baptist’s advice to his audience when, after being converted, they asked what they must do: “He that has two coats, give to him who has none; and he that has food, do likewise . . . publicans . . .extort no more than that which is appointed to you . . . soldiers . . . do not exact anything wrongfully and be content with your wages” (Luke 3.11–14).
  5. Luke is the only evangelist to record Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth in which he says he is anointed to “preach good tidings to the poor” (Luke 4.18).
  6. Both Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ admonition to love your enemies, but Luke adds the embellishment: “[F]rom him who takes away your cloak withhold not your coat also. Give to everyone that asks of you and of him that takes away your goods, ask not to have them back” (Luke 6.29–30).
  7. Only Luke records the paradigm of a man who disputed with his brother over their inheritance. Jesus responds that he is not a judge or divider over people and follows up with the parable of a rich man who decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Jesus condemns him: tonight his life will be required of him (Luke 12.13–20).
  8. Only Luke records two parables on stewardship. In the parable of the steward who forgave many debts that were owed to his “rich” boss who was firing him, his boss commended him because he had done wisely. In the parable of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus, both die and the rich man finds himself in torment while the poor man is relaxing in Abraham’s bosom. Abraham tells the rich man: “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus received evil things; but now here he is comforted and you are in anguish” (Luke 16.1–26).
  9. A very significant paradigm, the story of the rich young man, appears in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 19.16–20.16, Mark 10.17–31, and Luke 18.18–30). In this paradigm, the rich man asks what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep all the commandments. He responds that he has kept them since he was a child. Mark and Luke have Jesus responding: “One thing you lack . . .” (Mark 10.21 and Luke 18.22). Matthew rephrases: The man asks, “What do I lack yet? Jesus says to him, ‘If you would be perfect . . .’” (Matthew 19.21). Then all three accounts tell the man to “sell all that you have and give to the poor, and . . . come, follow me.” This difficult requirement astonishes all of the disciples. The only hint that Matthew may have pulled his punches on this paradigm is that he has Jesus tell the man, “If you would be perfect, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and . . . come, follow me.” Perhaps, Matthew is setting up an ideal value for his audience, but implicitly recommending, at least, that they be “poor in spirit.”
  10. Luke alone records the paradigm of Zacchaeus the publican, who though rich, tells Jesus, “Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have wrongfully exacted anything of any man, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19.1–9).
  11. Only Luke and Mark record the story of the Widow’s mites. Jesus comments, “This poor widow cast in more than the all; for all these did of their plenty cast in, but she of her want did cast in all the living that she had” (Luke 21.1–4).
  12. Only in Matthew is the kingdom of heaven likened to a man finding hidden treasure and to a man finding a pearl of great price (Matthew 13.34–46).

The sheer volume of paradigmatic amplification presented by Luke, as compared to Matthew, suggests that epideictically-speaking, Luke’s culture held the notion of voluntarily giving away one’s wealth to be a much higher value than did Matthew’s culture, even though both cultures saw the topos of wealth in an opposite sense from that presented in the Rhetorica ad Herennium. Matthew’s cultural value as it pertains to poverty and giving may be connected to the words “in spirit” that he includes with the beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Burke recommends that we ask, “What is vs. what?” Matthew appears to set up his Christian culture’s antagonists as the Pharisees. In Matthew’s gospel, it is clear that the Pharisees do give alms, so it is difficult to criticize their giving, but Matthew’s culture questions the motive for their apparent liberality:

    1. While both Matthew and Luke have John the Baptist, preaching and calling people in his audience “the offspring of vipers,” only Matthew identifies these antagonists as “Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 3.7).
    2. Matthew also has Jesus calling the Pharisees “the offspring of vipers” and comparing a good man who “out of his own good treasure brings forth good things” with an evil man who “out of his evil treasure brings forth evil things” (Matthew 12.34–36).
    3. Only Matthew criticizes the “hypocrites” for doing “their righteousness before men, to be seen of them.” He recommends giving alms—but in secret (Matthew 6.1–4). Likewise, he recommends praying in secret—not on the street corners.

    Form criticism (Formgeschichte), according to Dan O. Via, Jr. in the foreword to Norman Perrin’s What is Redaction Criticism, “has concerned itself largely with investigating the individual units—stories and sayings—in the synoptic gospels. Redaction criticism . . . grew out of form criticism, and . . . investigates how smaller units—both simple and composite—from the oral tradition or from written sources were put together . . . . Its goals are to understand why the items from the tradition were modified and connected as they were, to identify the theological motifs that were at work, and to elucidate the theological point of view which is expressed in and through the composition” (vi–vii). But Redaction criticism would be more of an Art-for-the-Artist’s sake approach. What I am proposing with this article is an essentially new approach—an Art-for-the-Audience’s sake approach. It could be termed “epideictic criticism.” The examples of epideictic rhetoric I have cited here appear to be less concerned with the theological perspective of the author than they are with the values system of the audience. Therefore, epideictic criticism is not the same as redaction criticism.

    To view the gospels as epideictic, as Perelman says, “strengthens the disposition toward action by increasing adherence to the values it lauds” (50). Aristotle instructs: “[In epideictic] one should also use many kinds of amplification, for example if the subject [of praise] is the only one or the first or one of a few or the one who has most done something . . . these things are honorable” (I.9.38). Therefore, when Matthew amplifies the proposed behavior pattern for the rich young man—“If you would be perfect, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and . . . come, follow me” (Matthew 19.21), he increases the audience’s disposition toward action by increasing its adherence to that value. Matthew can then reinforce this adherence by offering Peter’s example: “Lo, we have left all, and followed you” (Matthew 19.27). Then Jesus responds with amplification and laudation for all who have left things and people to follow him (Matthew 19.28–30). Sonja K. Foss, et al., in discussing Perelman, note: “Amplitude in argumentation can be accomplished by adding new evidence to lines of arguments, increasing the range of kinds of argumentative techniques employed, and adding redundancy. In many cases, increasing the amplitude of arguments increases their strength” (105). The redundancy of Luke in exhibiting paradigms of people giving all that they have would almost certainly increase his audience’s adherence to the value of voluntary poverty. The epideictic approach to the gospels differs from much of the current emphasis in rhetorical criticism of the gospels in that it views the gospels from the perspective of a culture (or subculture) whose values are already somewhat established (and seeks to reinforce them) rather than from the perspective of an author who wishes to present new rhetorical argumentation.

    The cluster-agon method of Kenneth Burke assists the researcher in determining not only the values and symbol-system of the author of a given gospel, but also (since the Greek formulations of the paradigms in the gospels are largely the product of early Christian culture) the values and symbol system of something like Perelman’s “universal audience” of a specific gospel.

    After determining the epideictic topoi (as this study does, using the values listed in the Beatitudes), this method begins by identifying the protagonists and antagonists in the story. In Matthew, there seem to be strong indications of an agon between the “the pure in heart” (a beatitude that is not reported in Luke, and terminology that might be used to interpret the meaning of those who are poor “in spirit”) and those whose hearts are disingenuous (hypocrites, Pharisees, those who may appear to be liberal but who are only doing it for selfish, cynical reasons).

    Next, the method would trace the terms that are associated with the protagonists and antagonists by using Burke’s statistical method of equations, where each term—such as “rich,” “poor,” “viper,” “hypocrite,” “Pharisee,” “give,” “low,” “hungry,” “fool,” “forgive,” “good,” “evil,” “perfect,” “all,” “treasure,” “price,” and “alms”—can be placed in either the protagonist bin or the antagonist bin (or the situation in which it has, in the past, been in one bin but is now changing to the other—Burke’s “arrow” notation). The method would also note those terms that seem to be equated with or opposed to those terms, to determine what values are being expressed. This step is actually easier in gospels studies and biblical studies than it is in the analysis of many other types of literature or rhetoric. Elaborate, analytical Bible concordances in English and Greek exist, which make the tracing of terms in biblical literature comparatively easy, while other literature requires detailed analytical work just to form connections between terms in the literary work. As one who has engaged in concordance work in Burkean studies, I find such tasks to be monumental. For a more thorough account of Burke’s entelechial statistical method of elucidating values and symbol systems, the reader is referred to Chapter 6 (“The Entelechial Statistical Method”) in Stan A. Lindsay’s Implicit Rhetoric: Kenneth Burke’s Extension of Aristotle’s Concept of Entelechy.

    Finally, it should be emphasized that epideictic rhetoric is highly entelechial. Lindsay’s Implicit Rhetoric (9–10) observes three levels at which implicit persuasion, or entelechy, operates: Level One is the model that the reader may follow. Paradigms supply such entelechies, if they are paradigms that are placed in the protagonist bin. Level Two is the anti-model, the reactionary level. Lindsay writes: “Not all entelechies are followed. Some are reacted to” (9). Paradigms supply such entelechies, if they are paradigms that are placed in the antagonist bin. Level Three is the literary level. Since literature, to a greater extent than rhetoric, is subject to different perspectives that may produce various and sundry identifications and applications, the “actual attitude . . . engendered by the [literature] might be quite different. It depends, as Burke indicates, upon the situation of the audience member and how s/he identifies with the characters in the” story (10). As Burke suggests, humans unconsciously act upon themselves in accordance with the implicit value systems of the entelechies/stories with which they identify. Hence, values are transmitted.

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