Devices and Desires: Concerning Kenneth Burke’s The War of Words

Richard H. Thames, Duquesne University

“We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”—The General Confession from the Service of Morning Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer (1979)


Before McLuhan or Ong, “Speech” secured a place in Academe as the offspring of “Poli-Sci.” Accordingly, the discipline traced its roots to democracy’s birth in Athens. With reconsideration of “orality” inspired by developments in communication technology, the discipline reclaimed its place as foremost among the trivium, a restoration foretold by Burke and other New Rhetoric exponents. Publication of the The War of Words and the issue of its relationship to the Rhetoric and the Motivorum tetralogy raise questions concerning Burke’s as well as the discipline’s significance.  

Introduction: “My History”

I remember one of my college roommates telling me he was taking public speaking. I was somewhat surprised, never having considered Public Speaking a college course. We had remedial classes in “bone-head” English and math. I knew nothing of such classes in speech. Who taught the course? The school drama director, a speech and theater graduate from the University of Iowa. More surprise. There were such departments? Offering graduate degrees?

Meanwhile I meandered my way through myriad majors. I eventually settled on psychology, but having earned enough credits to major, abandoned it my final semester for poetry, philosophy, and theology, then followed a second roommate to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
At PTS I was drawn to Homiletics professor David Buttrick who graciously directed an independent study in theology and poetry my second semester. I was reading Oscar Williams’ anthology Master Poems of the English Language which matched each poem with an equally masterful critique. Reading Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” I encountered Kenneth Burke. I ran across campus to ask Buttrick if he’d read this astonishing critic. Of course! And he’d ordered everything Burke for the library. I started with Language as Symbolic Action but quickly realized there was more to Burke than I then had time for.

Buttrick encouraged me to pursue graduate work in English. My great hope was to study Eliot and Auden in England (more theology and poetry). Alas, I did not get the fellowship I’d applied for. Deeply depressed, I shambled into Buttrick’s class the next morning. He was lecturing on Augustine. My depression began to lift. After class I told him my bad news but quickly moved on to his lecture. If I wanted to learn more about the issues he was addressing, what would I study. “Rhetoric,” he replied. There was a good graduate program across town at the University of Pittsburgh. What department? “Speech and Theater.” I WAS MORTIFIED.

Still, I applied. My first class was with Trevor Melia! More incredibly, that spring Burke was contracted as Visiting Mellon Professor. The following fall Melia offered a seminar on Burke, that spring a seminar with him.

On occasion I saw Burke home after class when Melia couldn’t. We talked more about poetry than rhetoric. When my turn came to present in seminar, Burke responded enthusiastically. He opened up his battered briefcase, pulled out a manuscript, and copied things onto the board. After class I asked, was that the Symbolic? Yes. Could I make a copy? Yes. And so, in 1974 I copied a manuscript that did not see the light until Burke died in 1993. The manuscript played a significant part in my dissertation. I came to realize my manuscript (from the early 60s) was different from the one Burke had distributed in 1958. I told William Rueckert when I first met him at ECA New Haven in 1982 (coincidently the convention at which the Temple conference on Burke was first broached, a conference at which the Kenneth Burke Society was founded). Rueckert was not much interested.

The point of my story? I came to rhetoric through epideictic. Burke did as well.

The Discipline’s History

The second point? My poor opinion of speech was not uncommon, even within the discipline.

Jeffrey Walker argues in Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity (Oxford University Press, July 13, 2000) that originally judicial and legislative rhetoric were secondary to and derivative of epideictic. Aristotle “rescued” rhetoric from Plato’s condemnation by treating it as a species of logic concerned with uncertainty. Judicial and legislative rhetoric were classified as genre (characterized as repetitive arguments made in recurring situations) that were independent of and (at least) equal to epideictic. But rhetoric in antiquity was actually dominated by the citizen-orator tradition associated with Isocrates, a tradition that continued to value epideictic. (See Walker’s The Genuine Teachers of This Art: Rhetorical Education in Antiquity, University of South Carolina Press, December 7, 2012.)

Isocrates advocated enkyklios paideia—a“rounded education” that would improve the quality of debate about human affairs and hopefully its outcome. The letter-based disciplines of dialectic, grammar, and rhetoric constituted the trivium; the numbers-based disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music the quadrivium—the original “arts and sciences.” (See Bruce Kimbel’s Orator and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education, College Board; expanded edition, January 1, 1995.)

Late in the Medieval era, rhetoric again came to the fore with Italian Renaissance Humanism (see Charles G. Nauert’s Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe, Cambridge University Press; updated edition May 4, 2006) when the power of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor (who was neither holy, Roman, nor an emperor) over northern Italy was broken and the now free urban centers saw themselves as antiquity’s city-states reborn—thus, the renaissance. Self-ruling like their ancient counterparts, they looked to antique models proper to the education of their citizens. Rhetoric was central, as was ethics (as with Protagoras’ burden, humanity being “the measure of all things” absent sure access to some superhuman criterion). History, politics, and political economy were also stressed, having been part of rhetoric for more than a millennium.

But other educational reformers such as Agricola carved up rhetoric’s domain and distributed the parcels to other disciplines. The canons of rhetoric were reinterpreted vis-à-vis the trivium. Logic was logic, there being nothing different about the logic of uncertainty. So, invention was given to dialect. Organization, involving logic or narrative, was split between dialectic and grammar/literature. No one cared about memory with printing and the greater prevalence of books. Style was of course relegated to grammar/literature. All that was left for rhetoric was delivery—Speech!

A New History

Early in the 20th century the emerging discipline of Speech sought to distinguish itself from English—thus Herbert Wichelns’ 1925 “The Literary Criticism of Oratory” and Hoyt Hudson’s 1924 “Rhetoric and Poetry.” Epideictic only confused the disciplines. During graduate school a constant complaint about Burke was his failure to adequately distinguish between rhetoric and poetic. The editors claim the Rhetoric’s opening anecdote of Milton and his Samson Agonistes “erases clear differences between rhetoric and poetic works” (WoW 22)—but perhaps not (see below).

Speech also sought to “distinguish” itself (i.e., establish its significance) by designating political discourse as its field of study. Still, the discipline’s self-esteem suffered for the remainder of the century, its repeated applications for admission into the American Council of Learned Societies being rejected until 1997.

The new discipline constructed a history addressing its identity issues. Rhetoric’s emergence coincided with democracy’s rise in Ancient Greece, its decline with Alexander’s conquests. Rhetoric’s re-emergence coincided with the Roman Republic’s rise, its decline with the Empire’s advent. The degraded rhetoric associated with decline was “display” rhetoric, a rhetoric valuing “style” over “substance,” rhetoric “literaturized”—in other words, epideictic.

But the growth in communication technology over the 20th century eventuated in a different history for the discipline. Scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and more recently Walker, looked back to the first great technological breakthrough—the alphabet—and further back to oral cultures. The authority of judges and rulers, argued Walker, was established by epea, “great words” allusive of epos, the treasure house of poetry preserving cultural values against the forces of change and forgetfulness—e.g., Homer and Hesiod for the Ancient Greeks. The Bible is (was?) part of the Western world’s epos. Lincoln’s “Four score and seven” alludes to the Biblical “three score and ten” and clues his audience to the Gospel narrative underlying his address (a fantasy theme, though Wills never uses the term)—a miraculous birth (“conceived in liberty”), dedication (“to the proposition”) at the Temple, suffering and death (“a great civil war”), and resurrection (“a new birth of freedom”) (Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Vintage, reprint edition January 2, 2018, xx).

Culture, which varied from time to time and place to place, was the product of rhetoric. Culture was a socially constructed reality, nomos as opposed to phusis, a “second” nature in contrast to Nature, that which was made in imitation of Nature which itself made things, imitation made possible by our acquisition of speech. Aristotle’s “animals with logos” (Burke’s “bodies genetically endowed with the ability to learn language”) anchored that which is subject to change (and forgetfulness) in that which is not, that which is permanent; they anchored second nature in human nature.

The poetic motive, using language purely for the sake of using language, speech for the sake of speech, is the joyful exercise of our nature, our specific way of being—like birds swooping in the spring air, flying for the sheer love of flight. Burke defines “form” in Counter-Statement as the creation and satisfaction of an appetite (31). Too often readers interpret “appetite” metaphorically, thereby idealizing Burke. But “appetite” is meant literally. In music “Every dissonant chord cries out for its resolution, and whether the musician resolves or refuses to resolve this dissonance into the chord which the body cries out for, he is dealing in human appetite” (CS 34, emphasis mine)—a specifically (i.e., characteristically of the species) human appetite.

Form is cathartic for Burke. As a Marxist seeking to stimulate change, Bertolt Brecht argues against catharsis—i.e., he argues for rhetoric over poetry. Rather than purge emotion, Brecht would heighten tension and reject purgation, leaving an audience frustrated, hoping frustration would lead to thought and thought to action. Burke’s notion of “perspective by incongruity” is Brechtian and rhetorical, the violation of formal expectation stimulating thought—not the anticipated “trained capacity” but the unanticipated “trained incapacity.

Our appetite for form is natural like hunger or thirst. As a natural appetite it bears repetition. We do not tire of sating hunger or slaking thirst. We may listen to our favorite song, sonata, or symphony again and again, just as we may return to a favorite sonnet, short story, novel, drama, or film. There is joy in rediscovery.

Music is form devoid of content, like language for the sake of language, like a baby’s babbling. Content is rhetorical. Content changes. Formal appeal does not. Form appeals to Chaim Perelman’s universal audience, while rhetoric addresses historical (local and temporal) audiences. The poetic always has an audience, whereas the rhetorical may lose its original intended audience as time passes, then later find another. I remember my daughter’s bringing home Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and my asking if her class was studying McCarthyism. No, she said. What was McCarthyism? We forget Brecht’s Galileo was an apology for naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. We now interpret his drama in terms of the science/religion conflict. We forget that Inherit the Wind also addressed McCarthyism. We interpret it just as we interpret Galileo (substituting evolutionary theory in particular for science in general). We enjoy The Crucible for its poetic qualities much as we enjoy Othello or Coriolanus, ignorant of enclosure laws (see Scott Newstok’s Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare. Parlor Press, 2007); or Virgil’s Aeneid, ignorant of his patron Augustus’ campaign to restore Roman virtues following decades of civil war (see the 1986 Oxford History of the Classical World edited by John Boardman et al.—in particular essays by R.O.A.M. Lyne, “Augustan Poetry and Society,” and Jasper Griffin, “Virgil” but especially Nicholas Purcell, “The Arts of Government” in which he argues (pp. 589-90) that “[t]here was no distinction between the Arts of Government and the other techai, artes, with which ancient elites concerned themselves. The art of rhetoric above all united what we see as these two distinct worlds. . . . The generalizations and principles expressed in Roman governmental pronouncements are not a coherent ideology . . . but simply commonplaces of moral or political thought deployed appropriately in a literary composition.”) In Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (Simon & Schuster; reissue edition November 14, 2006), Wills resurrects forgotten rhetorical issues about which the historical audience would have been aware—the Greek Revival, the rural cemetery movement, the Webster-Hayne debate, Transcendentalism. Laurence Olivier’s WWII film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V inspires England to fight an enemy on the continent against overwhelming odds much as Henry himself successfully did.

If poetry is play, using language for the sheer joy of using language, then it makes sense as Auden says in “The Truest Poetry is the most Feigning” that “Good poets have a weakness for bad puns.” Every “body that learns language” does to some degree—poets more, others less, but still, every body. When Melia and I went sailing on the Chesapeake, we invented names for restaurants: a seafood bistro in Annapolis, home of the Naval Academy—“Wharf Fare”; al fresco Chinese—“Side Wok”; Thai food in a gorgeous garden—“Beau Thai.”  Then names for other businesses—a hair salon, “Curl Up and Dye” (the favorite of my wife and daughter’s hair stylist). Advertising slogans—a plumber’s “Don’t sleep with that drip tonight.” Advertising jingles. Country-Western lyrics: “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”
The poet loves linguistic play. He writes to write. He finds a subject—perhaps a personal dilemma (like Milton or Arnold); perhaps a social, political, or economic problem that his audience would know of or be caught up in, a problem that might be forgotten over the years (see above). It matters not. Poetic form, rhetorical content. Poetry making rhetoric memorable.

Burke’s early form/information distinction in Counter-Statement is a variation on the familiar form/content distinction (typical of literary criticism) which develops into his later poetic/rhetoric distinction. Awkwardly housed at first in a discipline stressing political discourse as its field of study, Burke is now embraced like an old friend, offered a Burka and a chair by the fire, at home in a discipline changed, enlarged by media ecology, a discipline once more comfortable with epideictic.

The Rhetoric

During a period in which our department at Duquesne University was affiliated with English, I gave a colloquium presentation on Burke. In the discussion following, an English colleague asked if such “dry formalism” characterized Burke’s understanding of poetry. Clearly, she was not fond of formalism. Today, literary criticism is more rhetorical, more focused on content than form.

Literary studies cycle through different approaches over time. Once, persuaded the poet was extraordinary, if not unique, scholars focused on biography. Then critic William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity) complained literary scholars knew what Wordsworth had had for breakfast on any given morning but nothing about what made his poetry “poetic.” Empson’s approach has since given way to the current stress on content.  In Burkeian terms literary studies shift, stressing agent (prior to Empson), then action (Empson and the New Critics with whom Burke was associated), or purpose (today’s fashion).

In his 1954 essay “The Language of Poetry, ‘Dramatistically’ Considered” (Chicago Review 8 (1954): 88-102; cont. 9 (1955): 40-72.; also in Essays toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950-1955. Ed. William H. Rueckert. Parlor Press, 2006. 36-48), Burke supplements Cicero’s three “offices of the orator” with a fourth—teaching (associated with scene andthe Grammar), pleasing (associated with action and the Symbolic, “poem” meaning “action” in Greek), moving (associated with purpose and the Rhetoric), plus expressing or portraying (associated with agent and the Ethics, Burke’s analysis of Augustine’s Confessions in the Rhetoric of Religion being an exemplar).

The anecdotes opening the Rhetoric would now be considered “ethical” (involving agent) as well as “rhetorical” (involving purpose), but in 1950 the Symbolic had not yet split, rendering the Motivorum trilogy a tetralogy (with the fourth volume on Ethics). A reader then would have characterized the anecdotes and the act of identification (the process by which a reader or viewer associates him or herself with a character in film and literary studies) as literary.

Brecht argued that the process of identification drew an audience into a work, making catharsis possible (through intensification and purgation).  Identification had to be countered by alienation to arrest catharsis, leaving an audience filled with strong emotions and thus frustrated enough to provoke thought and eventually action. Buttrick used to argue the parables were Brechtian. Listeners would identify with more and more workers being hired for the harvest over the course of the day (some from the afternoon, others the morning) but be alienated with the master’s choice to pay all the same. Jesus told the parable to provoke thought about the nature of God’s grace.

Milton and Arnold clearly identify with their characters and use their poems to work through personal problems. In their cases the audience is the self; the poem is understood as an instance of the self persuading the self. The poems clearly function rhetorically (and/or “ethically”).
Aristotle’s key rhetorical term is ­persuasion, a term connoting “conscious intent.” Burke advocates identification, a term opening rhetoric to “an intermediate area of expression that is not wholly deliberate, yet not wholly unconscious” (RM xiii).

Like Aristotle, Burke looked to characterize genre—repetitive arguments made in recurring situations, forms arising out of sitzenleben. Unlike Aristotle, he looked to hierarchy, arguing that wherever two or three were gathered together, there would be hierarchy. Friends might minimize it. Hierarchical relations might be nominal; they might be ever fluid, ever changing. Rhetorical savvy involved recognizing situations for what they actually were and acting accordingly. Inferior to superior rhetoric employs flattery or imitation (flattery’s sincerest form), identification, or prayer; superior to inferior, inspiration or mystification. There are broad genres such as those associated with hierarchy. There are more specific strategies. At Pitt Ted Windt argued that faced with a dilemma, presidents would look to predecessors who had dealt with a similar problem successfully and adopt their strategy—thus “presidential rhetoric” as a genre. One might wish to engage a political opponent without giving credence to his position—thus the “diatribe.” Burke’s “devices” catalog such strategies, much like Aristotle’s “topics.”

A common strategy is to claim one is not engaged in persuasion to hide the fact that he is. Such would be the case with supposed equal to equal rhetoric which might serve to mask superior to inferior.

Newspapers early in the 19th century were financed by political parties. With the possibility of profit from wide circulation made possible by modern presses and even greater profits from advertising addressed to ever larger audiences, it made sense for newspapers to appear less partisan, separating editorials and business interests from news reporting which could then lay claim to an objectivity associated with modern science. Press associations such as the AP or the UPI could save newspapers money on correspondents, but their reports would also have to be neutral rather than partisan.

Federal judge Richard Posner has argued that with the low cost of publishing made possible by computers and the internet, news and editorial organizations have been able to attract followers from the audiences of large, supposedly neutral news organizations such as CNN, MSNBC, and FOX by appealing to more partisan interests, forcing larger organizations to take on more partisan identities to survive being nibbled to nothing. (“Bad News,” New York Times Book Review, July 31, 2005.) We may be witnessing the reverse of what happened in the 1800s.

Burke’s Devices1

And now, having dispensed with preliminaries, let us turn to The War of Words.

The editors claim that “from the beginning Burke had conceived of the Rhetoric and the War of Words together, “as part of one sustained argument,” and that “until the last minute” he expected the Rhetoric to contain a section on “The War of Words.”

In other words, the story of The War of Words is intertwined with the larger story of the development of A Rhetoric of Motives. Taken together The War of Words manuscript and the recountal of its compositional evolution provide an opportunity to outline Burke’s vision of modern rhetorical studies as a coherent project. While it is somewhat artificial to treat The War of Words and A Rhetoric of Motives as proceeding through discrete phases, nevertheless the two did develop together across four overlapping phases. Informing each of the four phases was the backdrop of World War II and its aftermath; each phase offers witness to Burke’s obsession with the problem of “purifying war.” (WoW 10)

 A Grammar of Motives having been published in December 1945, Burke had turned to the Rhetoric.

Focusing on the relationship between war and words had always been the plan for “On Human Relations” [begun in 1939, see below] in general and A Rhetoric of Motives in particular. After all, A Grammar of Motives had been published with the motto “Ad Bellum Purificandum,” a motto that just as easily could serve for the entire motives trilogy [emphasis mine]. However, the introduction of atomic bombs into world history during the summer of 1945 added urgency to Burke’s vision. (WoW 12)

But we have known about the “Devices” (if not the rest of the War of Words) for 67 years. Burke’s 1953 account in “Curriculum Criticum” dates their origin to the early 1930s. The editors’ account of their evolution starts in 1939.  They associate the devices somewhat with the Grammar and later with the Rhetoric but mostly with the Rhetoric. Burke associates them with Permanence and Change, Attitudes toward History, the Grammar, the Rhetoric, and the Ethics (the fourth volume of the Motivorum trilogy that unexpectedly morphed into a tetralogy in the early 1950s, see below).

Following publication of Counter-Statement in 1931, Burke says he began taking notes on “corporate devices whereby business enterprisers had contrived to build up empires by purely financial manipulations.” Unexpectedly finding answers to many of his questions in Congressional committee records, Burke moved on, widening “his speculations to include a concern with problems of motivation in general.” Permanence and Change in 1935 was “the first completed manuscript of this material.” Attitudes toward History followed in 1937 (and Philosophy of Literary Form in 1941). Along the way Burke’s notes on “corporate devices” resumed in a more general form which he finally sought to treat in a book, “On Human Relations,” that would “round out the concerns of P&C and ATH.” But as he sought to write up his notes, he found “more preparatory ground-work” was needed, leading to A Grammar of Motives in 1945 (“Curriculum Criticum,” CS 216-18). According to the book jacket of the 1945 Prentice-Hall edition, the Grammar was the first volume of a trilogy on human relations to be followed by A Rhetoric of Motives in 1947 and A Symbolic of Motives in 1948.

After the difficulties Burke had encountered with the Grammar (“I wonder whether there has ever been a more revised and rerevised book?” he had asked of his patron James Sibley Watson on April 12, 1945), he predicted to Malcom Cowley on October 13, 1945 that

The Rhetoric should be the easiest volume of the three to write. My main problem is to keep the book from disintegrating into particular cases (so that it becomes in effect a disguised way of saying repeatedly: “another instance of this is . . . and still another instance is . . . etc.”). I want it to be rather a philosophizing on rhetoric (as the main slant), though the particular instances should be there in profusion. (WoW 12)

Burke’s prediction, however, “proved naive.” His plans “changed several times.” But “through it all, The War of Words and its component chapters . . . would remain central to his developing vision” (WoW 16)—

So central, in fact, that The War of Words and its component chapters would constitute the first, second and fifth parts of the Rhetoric according to the January 2, 1946 prospectus submitted to Prentice Hall (WoW 13-15); would be included in what is Part Three on “Order” in the published version of the Rhetoric as indicated by Burke’s footnote on page 294 (“The closing sentences were originally intended as a transition into our section on The War of Words. . . .) (WoW 1); would be published separately (“. . . But that must await publication in a second volume” (ibid)—a theory/application division also contemplated for the Symbolic and later the Ethics); would be included in the Ethics—“the Ethics . . . furthermore quoth the raven should contain our lore of Devices, Burke on de virtues and de vices . . . ” according to a September 27, 1954, letter to Cowley (Williams, “Toward Rounding Out the Motivorum Trilogy: A Textual Introduction” Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke. Edited by Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001, p. 12) and according to his first letter to Rueckert on August 8, 1959, “The Ethics also is scheduled to contain ‘a batch of devices’ that I never published except for a few samples on the pages I have marked in the enclosed offprint [of ‘Rhetoric—Old and New’] from the [April 1951] Journal of General Education” (Rueckert, Letters 3).

Having suffered from ALS for several years, Burke’s wife Libbie died the morning of May 25, 1969. Late that July, Burke mentioned to Rueckert his settling down to clear away the “Poetics biz” (Rueckert, Letters 153); in September he indicated to Cowley, that doing so would be largely a job of “editing and typing” (Williams, UC 19). In March 1973 he wrote to Cowley about putting together a Shakespeare book with unpublished work on “William Himself” plus all his published essays as well as editing two manuscripts (presumably the “Devices” and the Symbolic). In May he talked about the former two (Shakespeare and the devices) and a topical index for the new edition of Philosophy of Literary Form but not the Symbolic (Williams, UC 20).

The editors of The War of Words add details to Burke’s on again, off again plans for “the Devices” from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. October 17, 1968, Burke wrote Bob Zachary at the University of California about publishing the “Devices.” He mailed the manuscript December 2 and followed up with letters on December 4 and 8 elaborating his plans. “And yet a month later, Burke was expressing second thoughts.” He and Zachary “exchanged comments” about the Devices in letters throughout 1970. In spring 1971 Burke “got enthused about publication” once but nothing materialized. Early in 1972 Zachary again ”expressed interest in the project.” May 11, 1973 Burke wrote both Zachary and Malcom Cowley that he was “turning his attention to finishing the book.” But thereafter nada. In May 1974 and August 1976, Zachary yet again expressed interest. Zachary left the press early in 1977.

Burke had written to Zachary on March 3, 1974: “Heck. I got to taking a hard look at the MS, . . . and I see no grounds for its publication now. . . . Troubledness lies behind it, . . . [so] it shd. be published posthumously.” (WoW 33-36)

In a Strange Way Then, the “War of Words,” Is Both Everywhere and Nowhere

Buttrick claimed his wife Betty was his finest critic. He would sometimes ask for her opinion on a sermon he was writing. “Very good,” she might opine. “What did you think of the second point?” of which he was quite proud. “Oh—particularly good. Cut it! It doesn’t fit.” He followed with a story of Rodin sculpting a statue of Balzac, a great bear of a man with the most delicate hands. The statue finished, Rodin thought the sculpted hands his finest work. But he smashed them with a sledge, because they did not fit.

Sometimes, the artist just knows, though he remains ambivalent, though he may finally yield to temptation.

For years Burke talked about an unpublished manuscript that preceded Permanence and Change. “Auscultation, Creation, and Revision” was finally published in Extensions of the Burkeian System (edited by James W. Chesebro, University of Alabama Press, 1993, 42-172), the volume from the Kenneth Burke Society’s first (1990) triennial in New Harmony, Indiana. The work is interesting to Burkeians who are glad to have it, but in this case Burke appears to have yielded to temptation, the now published monograph impressing the reader as greatness treating the trivial seriously, like rolling out artillery to annihilate an army of ants.

As fine as The War of Words is, as welcomed as its final publication is, Burke may have felt it didn’t fit the Rhetoric—nor Permanence and Change, nor the Grammar, nor the Ethics; that it should finally be published as its own volume, posthumously—even 25 years after his death, decades after the events he analyzed were as immediately relevant as Elizabethan enclosure laws.

The editors argue that “The relative hastiness of Burke’s decision” to submit the Rhetoric sans The War of Words whose publication he would sort out later “helps explain in part why some readers have had such a hard time making coherent sense of A Rhetoric of Motives”—a problem I have never had. I find the third part on “Order” both powerful and coherent. I recommend students read it if possible in one session to experience the ascent to its final lines, “while the strivings of the entire series head in God as the beloved cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire” (RM 333). I sought the same effect writing “The Meaning of the Motivorum's Motto.”

The editors continue, “The War of Words” was designed from the start to be the analytic realization of Burke’s theory of the rhetorical motive, which constituted the first half of the book. Without The War of Words,the RM remains incomplete.”(WoW 30) As perhaps the Grammar does too?

As chronicled above, Burke began taking notes on “corporate devices” early in the 1930s. Later in the decade those notes took on a more general form which he finally sought to treat in “On Human Relations.” But seeking to write up his notes, he found “more preparatory ground-work” was needed, eventually leading to the Grammar (“Curriculum Criticum,” CS 216-18). Surprise—writing the Grammar proved difficult. He wondered in a letter to Watson if any book had ever undergone more revisions and re-revisions. Perhaps Burke asked himself the same thing regarding the Rhetoric (which was going to be easier to write) or the Symbolic (which split, yielding the Ethics); or “Auscultation, Creation, and Revision” and Permanence and Change; or Attitudes toward History with its infinity of footnotes? Perhaps writing for Burke was always a struggle! The Rhetoric has no claim to being unique.

So—why the “hasty decision” to cut out The War of Words? No doubt “the unexpected amount of energy it would take to complete” the last two sections (an expenditure Burke must have anticipated would prove colossal given his never completing the manuscript in his remaining 43 years). And the ubiquitous, “Perhaps the political fears associated with developing McCarthyism figured in too” (but see below, the 1950 critique by Richard Chase in Partisan Review).

The editors do report thoroughly on a third reason—though they then appear to ignore or dismiss it, perhaps because they favor another explanation.

In a July 29, 1948 letter Burke reported to Watson regarding his progress on “Scientific Rhetoric”( the second section of “The War of Words”)—per the editors, he worried about “getting bogged down in overly topical cases that could potentially alienate readers and reduce the book’s shelf life.” In a May 30, 1948 letter, he reported Stanley Edgar Hyman’s worries that “the political logomachy will just about get you tarred and feathered by the reviewers.” Burke explained to Watson that “he would remove any topical invective by means of a generalizing stylistic move.” The illustrations of each device would be “de-localized, exactly as I de-localized the personal anecdotes.” (WoW 26).

Perhaps Burke’s concerns about topicalities were not as trivial as the editors assume. Perhaps Burke suffered from trepidations from which the editors are immune.

From the beginning (see above) Burke had said his “main problem” was “to keep the book from disintegrating into particular cases.” He wanted the Rhetoric to be “a philosophizing on rhetoric.” (WoW 126) In the published book’s introduction he writes

We have tried to show how rhetorical analysis throws light on literary texts and human relations generally. And while interested always in rhetorical devices, we have sought above all else to write a “philosophy of rhetoric” (RM xiv-xv, emphasis mine).

Burke’s Motto2

The second leg of the stool supporting the editors’ evaluation of The War of Words as central to the Rhetoric is their identification of the motto ad bellum purificandum principally with the Rhetoric. They do admit that the motto “just as easily could serve for the entire motives trilogy” only to dismiss that position by claiming the United States’ dropping of atomic bombs in the summer of 1945 “added urgency to Burke’s vision” (WoW 12).

But the motto stands at the head of the Grammar, not the Rhetoric, and serves more as a motto for the Motivorum tetralogy than for the Rhetoric alone. Given the tendency to quote the standard translation, “toward the purification of war,” rather the actual Latin begs the question—why render the motto in Latin in the first place for any reason other than scholarly pretense? Because Burke can say more in Latin than English. The Latin is ambiguous. War (bellum) is indeed associated with the Rhetoric, but Beauty (bellus, the accusative of which is bellum) might be associated with the Grammar or the Symbolic or even the Motivorum entire given its association with Plato’s Symposium (discussed at the end of the Grammar), making ad bellum purificandum (“toward the purification of beauty (or the beautiful)” and/or “toward the purification of war”) a perfect motto for a modern trivium of dialectic, rhetoric, and poetic—i.e., Burke’s Grammar, Rhetoric, and Symbolic.3

Burke indicates in a lengthy interview in the 1980s with the now defunct journal All Area that after having written “Psychology and Form” and “The Poetic Process” in Counter-Statement, he intended to round things out with a third essay on “Beauty and the Sublime,” but “that fell through, and I’ve been racing around ever since. You’ll find little bits of it in The Philosophy of Literary Form [“Beauty and the Sublime,” pp 60-66], but it never got fully developed.” (On Human Relations 374).

Beauty is the traditional end of poetry going back to Plato. And Burke’s fascination with beauty explains his fascination with Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” according to Burke the most perfect lyric embodiment of Platonic dialectic. But not beauty as decoration. Rather beauty as the sublime—the mystic experience of a power beyond all parturition, an ultimate unitary ground, the experience of which he discusses in the final pages of the Rhetoric (which Burke associates with the pentadic term purpose which he in turn associates with mysticism)“the beloved cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire” (emphasis mine).

In 1959, writing Rueckert “concerning the final bits of the Poetics,” (echoing his comments at the end of the unfinished 1957 draft of the Symbolic), Burke proposes doing “a section on comic catharsis, . . . though the general lines are already indicated in the Kenyon article” [“On Catharsis, or Resolution” which appears to be a sketch for the penultimate chapter] and making clearer “the relation btw. dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/transcendence,” the main lines having been indicated there as well.

Burke wrote to Malcom Cowley in a 1956 that he had finished an essay on Emerson that will be a big part of his “godam Poetics.” (Williams, UC 13) Among other things, the essay addresses the relationship between “dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/ transcendence.” The essay ends with the image of transcendence alluded to in the subtitle of “The Meaning of the Motivorum's Motto”—the scene from book six of the Aeneid where early in Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld Virgil descries a wailing throng stranded on the shore opposite death, the land of life behind them; unburied and hence as yet unferried to their final abode, those shades are said to have “stretched forth their hands through love of the farther shore” Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore (LSA 200, emphasis mine).

But writing Rueckert on June 18, 1962, Burke indicates he will conclude the Symbolic with a discussion of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” drawing upon his essay, “The Principle of Composition” (Poetry 99 (October 1961), pp. 46-53; also Stanley Edgar Hyman (editor), Terms for Order, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964, pp. 189-98). Burke also indicates in the unfinished Symbolic that the direction in which he is “ultimately headed” will involve discussion of Poe’s essay (SM 129). [My position in “The Gordian Not” has “evolved” with more research.] Somewhere between 1956 and 1961, Poe’s essay on “The Raven” replaces Emerson’s “On Nature” but the same issues are examined. Some of those issues are discussed in Burke’s other essay on Poe, “Poetics in Particular, Language in General” (Language as Symbolic Action 25-43; taken from a talk given at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the fall of 1964).

Burke’s “The Principle of Composition” is concerned with Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition.” Burke addresses the relationship between the critic (Burke) and the author (Poe)—an appropriate topic for the end of the Symbolic—and the problem of logical priority and temporal priority (i.e., the temporization of essence, a long discussion of which ends the Grammar, specifically a discussion of Pier Gynt). But he is also concerned with Poe’s claim to have arrived deductively at his subject in “The Raven,” the death of a beautiful woman—death (the end of transcendence by dialectical mounting, the final slaying of image by idea; and “a species of perfection” or “finishedness”) and beauty (the traditional end of poetry and aesthetics),4 both appropriate topics for the end of the Symbolic. (Terms for Order 197)

“Pure” Burke

Without doubt one of the most devilishly difficult notions in dramatism is that of “pure persuasion.” One need not be ancient in the ways of Burke to beware his invocation of the adjective “pure,” tempting him at every diabolical twist and turn to ensnarl in paradox whatever it modifies.

Burke’s analysis of “pure persuasion” is supposed to be unique, but Aristotle’s analysis of money in Nicomachaean Ethics (5.5) and Politics (1.8-10) is remark­ably similar and may provide an easier entry.

According to Aristotle, in barter one commodity is exchanged directly for another (wine for wheat). In more advanced markets money mediates exchange; one commodity is sold for money to buy another (wine is sold to buy wheat). But as exchange after exchange extends over time the exchange of commodities mediated by money becomes instead the exchange of money mediated by commodities (money buys wine or wheat to be sold in turn for even more money). Ultimately the mediating commodity is dropped and money is exchanged directly for more money still (money is lent for interest—or in modern times made by playing exchange rates, though ancient “bankers” were often money-changers. Jesus may have thrown the money-changers out of the temple because they charged “exchange rates” for their service.) Thus money, intro­duced as a means to facilitate the end of exchange, is transformed into an end in itself.

Commodities have natural ends—wheat to be eaten, wine to be drunk. There are natural limits to consumption, duration, and therefore acquisition—wheat spoils, wine sours. Because there are natural limits to the acquisition of any one thing, as well as many things in toto, at some point there will be enough. In other words, wealth is not unlimited; its natural end is in whatever constitutes enough—not the store of money for exchange but the stock of real things useful for living the good life, achieving happiness, realizing our nature in the polis.

But money as a means has no proper end. There is no natural limit to its accum­u­lation, no such thing as enough. Its pursuit as an end is therefore endless, irrational, and unnatural.

Pure persuasion would likewise involve transforming a means (persuasion) into an end (persuasion for the sake of persuasion alone), thus making pure persuasion the endless pursuit of a means.  

Burke’s point is more than mere wordplay, an end being not only a goal or purpose but also a termination. Therefore pure persuasion as a means transformed into an end would paradoxically become both purposeless and perpetualpurposeless in that once persuasion’s purpose is accomplished, it ceases to be persuasion for the sake of persua­sion alone, becoming instead persuasion for the sake of whatever was purposed (RM 269-70); and perpetual in that once persuasion reaches its goal, it ceases, thereupon becoming something else (RM 274).

The perpetual frustration of purpose requires an element of standoffishness or self-interference, says Burke (RM 269, 271, 274), to prevent persuasion’s ever achieving its end. For example, constructing a Rhetoric around the key term identification means confronting the implications of division (RM 22). Identification compensates for division, but pure identification could never completely overcome it; identification for the sake of identification alone would require standoffishness, the perpetuation of some degree of division for identification to forever overcome.  Or, insofar as rhetoric involves courtship grounded in biological and/or social estrangement (RM 115, 208 ff.), pure persuasion would require coyness or coquetry (RM 270)—again a degree of standoffishness, but more obviously connoting eros.

According to Burke rhetoric is rooted in the use of language to induce cooperation as a means to some further end (RM 43). Cooperation is always being sought because there is always competition. Cooperation for the sake of cooperation alone would require some interference, the perpetuation of some degree of competition for cooperation to forever overcome.

Burke’s analysis of pure persuasion reveals a resistance to rhetoric that lies at its very heart. His point is that analysis of an ultimate form (e.g., pure persua­sion) reveals a motivational ingredient present even in the most elemental form (RM 269, 274)—i.e., what is ultimately the case is always the case to some degree. Or—“if the ultimate reaches in the principle of persuasion are implicit in even the trivial uses of persuasion, people could not escape the ultimates of language merely by using language trivially (RM 179).

Burke’s exact phrasing is important given his claim: “though what we mean by pure persuasion in the absolute sense exists nowhere, it can be present as a motivational ingredient in any rhetoric” (RM 269); and “as the ultimate of all persuasion, its form or archetype, there is pure persuasion. . . . The important consideration is that, in any device, the ultimate form (paradigm or idea) of that device is present, and is acting. And this form would be the ‘purity’” (RM 273-74, emphases mine).

Therefore, any rhetorical act would comprise a complex of motives, minimally consisting of (1) persuasion itself, compounded with (2) some degree of pure persuasion (i.e., some degree of standoffishness or self-interference). Rhetoric as rhetoric then can never transcend itself. Rhetoric as rhetoric can never be salvic, for all rhetoric is somewhat self-defeating. Burke’s argument is a variation on the theological argument that the sinful man cannot by his own action save himself because every act would to some degree be sinful. He can be saved only by someone without sin.

War constitutes the ultimate instance of pure persuasion—the greatest degree of cooperation perpetuated by the greatest degree of competition; the greatest degree of identification perpetuated by the greatest degree of division. (See also RM 218 where Burke discusses Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and the “antinomian yet intimate relation between love and war” where he characterizes the marriage between Venus and Mars as “a love match that is itself a kind of war.”)

Burke regards war as diseased cooperation (RM 332) in that complete cooperation cannot be achieved by means of competition, because there must always be some­thing against which we compete; the communion of complete identification can­not be achieved by means of division, because there must always be an enemy from which we are divided, an enemy in opposition to which we stand united.

War, says Burke, is a special case of peace—“not as a primary motive in itself, not as essentially real, but purely as a derivative condition, a perversion”(RM 20)—like evil for Augustine. Little wonder then that Burke writes that the Rhetoric

must lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and the flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counter­pressure, the Logo­machy, the onus of ownership, the War of Nerves, the War. It too has its peaceful moments: at times its endless competition can add up to the transcending of itself. In ways of its own, it can move from the factional to the universal. But its ideal culminations are more often beset by strife as the condition of their organized expression, or material embodiment. Their very universality becomes transformed into a partisan weapon. (RM 23)

If war constitutes pure persuasion’s ultimate instance, then we are always somewhat at war. If war constitutes pure persuasion’s ultimate instance, then war would be the “essence” of rhetoric. And the motto “ad bellum purificandum,” “toward the purification of war,” could be justly translated “toward the purification of rhetoric” as well. Rhetoric cannot save us from war, for rhetoric is itself essentially war.

If war perverts cooperation, turning it toward competi­tion, war purified would transform competition, turning it toward cooperation—as in dialectic. In rhetoric, says Burke, voices cooperate in order to compete (i.e., “cooperative competition”); but in dialectic, voices compete in order to cooperate (i.e., “competitive cooperation”) (LSA 188). If rhetoric is in essence war, then dialectic is in essence not peace negatively defined as the absence of war but positively defined as loveas in Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus where Beauty is the ultimate object of love or eros (see “Catharsis—Second View” 132; PDC 359).

Burke’s own etymological analysis supports as much, bellum suggesting war on the one hand, beauty and good on the other. The “bellum-bellus” or “war-beauty” pair suggests the rhetoric-dialectic contrast again, but embodied in victimage (associated with tragedy) on the one hand and on the other eros (associated with comedy and dialectic as well). The adjective bellus is derived from benus and bonus meaning “good,” once more suggesting Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus and the dialectical climb to the mystic experience of Beauty “by itself with itself” (Symposium 2111b), the Good, the One.


How can we sum up? Let me count the ways, my having attempted at various times to summarize Burke’s system.

First—Plato, Aristotle, Marx (and Eliade)

Burke’s conception of the relationship between language, mind, body, and reality is informed by (a) naturalism, the mean between an anti-scientific idealism and a reductive materialism; and (b)organicism (biology), the source for hierarchy (an organism’s organization) and entelechy (its development). Language is the entelechy of the human organism, generating the mind, the highest (meta-biological) level of a body genetically endowed with the ability to learn language. Language itself mirrors biology (a terminology generating a hierarchy on the path to its entelechy) and possesses its own entelechy (an all-inclusive “nature . . . containing the principle of speech,” or NATURE. (see RM 180) The system resulting is basically Aristotelian.

However, while Burke’s system is Aristotelian, his concept of rhetoric is Platonic. There is no “fall” for Aristotle, but there is for Plato and a corresponding fall for Burke, the consequence of which is a “false” or “fallen” conscious­­ness regarding the relationship between body and mind, nonverbal and verbal, material and ideal, as well as ourselves and others. Being primarily ontological rather than historical, this fallen consciousness can be characterized on the one hand as Platonic; being a fall into the ideal world of language rather than the material world, it can be character­ized on the other as Marxoid (Burke’s neologism); but being naturalistic (i.e., being primarily neither idealistic as with Plato nor materialistic as supposed with Marx, but acknow­ledging both the material and the ideal as natural), it is more Aristotelian than either (unless like Burke one considers Marx a naturalist and an Aristotelian).5

Consistent with Plato, rhetoric leaves us mired in this fallen realm; only dialectic can mystically lift us from it. All rhetoric (i.e., action for the sake of some purpose) is always to some degree self-defeating; every attempt to compen­sate for or overcome the imbalances and conflicts that characterize the human condition leads to but further imbalance and conflict. Only dialectic (i.e., lin­guistic action for itself alone) leads to true, though momentary, transcendence. No linguistic action is ultimately efficacious other than purely linguistic action effecting transcen­­dence through dialectic (the preferred route) or catharsis through drama (the less preferred in that drama mixes dialectic and rhetoric). The problem being language, the only solution is more of the same—rhetoric’s giving way to dialectic (i.e., a true and transcendent Rhetoric as with Plato) that overcomes the imbalance or conflict between body and mind, nonverbal and verbal, material and ideal, the conflict between ourselves and others, and for the moment makes us whole.

The cause of this fall can be traced to language which in its thorough (“cathartic”) operation turns distinctions (such as mind and body) into divisions. The remedy is likewise found in language which in its thorough (dialectical and in the Crocean sense “cathartic”) operation overcomes divisions. The cause is too much language, the cure more of the same—a “homeopathic” approach Burke characterizes as Aristotelian.

But the ultimate cause must be traced to the very nature of things (the existence of time and space and thus of distinction and potential division between parts which language in its thorough operation makes actual)—a “proto-fall” for which language provides no remedy. The ultimate remedy lies only in an end to the nature of things—the escaton. Language provides temporary solace by generating an experience of wholeness through drama and (preferably) dialectic. But the experience of wholeness is shattered by (linguistic) action of any kind. The experience can be maintained only by a constant repetition of drama or dialectic. The eternal repetition which at first provides solace eventually becomes a source of despair from which death is the only escape, a position characteristic of Zen Buddhism in which the Nirvana of nothingness and oblivion is sought. Thus, action is depreciated by Burke, the only action sanctioned being incipient (or more accurately, substitutive): an attitude of Neo-Stoic resignation à la Spinoza.6

Second—Richard Chase

My dissertation’s thesis was “Underlying the system of Kenneth Burke is an anhistorical, mystical ontology that leads to the depreciation of historical, political acts.” In the final chapter (“The Critique”) I turned to a 1950 review of the Rhetoric by Richard Chase (“Rhetoric of Rhetoric,” Partisan Review 17 , 736-39) collected in Rueckert’s Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke 1924-1966 (University of Minnesota Press, 1969, pp. 251-54; Rueckert’s comments are on 255). I summarized Chase’s argument in “The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum” in KB Journal (2007).

Artists may be fully aware of writing a poem or play or novel, but they are not always fully aware of everything they are producing. They often incorporate elements in a work that are organically related to the whole but are not “consciously intended.” To the extent that we are all artists (bodies that learn language engrossed in the sheer exercise of our distinctive trait), we would do the same, but not always with the awareness of “writing”(i.e., giving form to our desires or experiences). We would be ignorant or unaware in two and ultimately three regards—(1) our linguistically motivated act of giving form (writing a drama); (2) our linguistically motivated act of tracking down implications of our original action; and (3) our unconscious projection of such linguistic acts (dramas) onto human relations where real rather than stage blood is spilt.

In his (rather strident) review of the Rhetoric in 1950, Richard Chase criticizes Burke for characterizing our interactions with the world in just such a fashion, writing that for Burke every aggressive act begins in

man’s incorrigible delight in creating symbols and becomes reflexive, in the sense that as an aggressor you are really only using your victim as a device for purging or transforming a principle or “trait” within yourself. Thus, on Mr. Burke’s own implicit assumption that the extensions of linguistic method are reality, are human events translated into a ghostly dumb show.

(Or, perhaps, a Platonic shadow play.) For Burke, he continues, the play’s the thing. “Nobody has ever taken so literally the idea that all the world’s a stage. Behind every human event there lurks man’s natural desire to perform symbolic acts” (Critical Responses 253).

Chase attacks Burke’s Rhetoric as less a “rhetoric” than a “meta-politics.”

One will be disappointed if one expects from Mr. Burke as rhetorician a firm and adequate idea of politics—and such an idea surely must be implied by (though not confused with) any responsible investigation of rhetoric. The book carries a very heavy charge of political implications, but the author, like so many of his admirers and so much of the modern world, is beyond politics. He has no idea of man as a social animal, no idea of the state, no idea of democratic, socialist, or even aristocratic institutions, and no idea, in any concrete form, of either the philosophy or the rhetoric of politics. He has “purified” politics and political man out of existence. (Critical Responses 252)

Chase is hard on Burke, but even Rueckert admits his essential attack holds. Commenting on Chase’s review, he writes that Chase objects to Burke’s tendency toward “purely verbal manipulation and problem solving,” because it is

essentially conservative and anti-revolutionary, because it substitutes verbal for real solutions and hence encourages the maintenance of the status quo. . . . There can be no question that this tendency does exist, powerfully, in Burke and that it supports the motto—toward the purification of war—of A Grammar of Motives (Critical Responses 255).

I agree and at the same time somewhat disagree with Rueckert, pointing not to Burke’s language-centered view of reality but his mysticism as the culprit. His anhistorical, mystical ontology leads to a depreciation of historical, political action. His inclinations to inaction (being in fact disinclinations to possibly disruptive change) are consequentially conservative. But Burke’s Platonic suspicion of change on the one hand is balanced on the other by his dehistorized Marxoid faith in the material recalcitrance of Nature and the human body. Continuing action of the same kind grows increasingly problematic, encountering obstacles that eventually create pressure for change.

Burke analyzes this dialectic in Permanence and Change where he argues that historic institutions result from the externalization of non-historic, biologic patterns. These externalized patterns bring forth recalcitrances that eventually frustrate the same biologic needs satisfied at an earlier stage or other equally important biologic needs—e.g., ecological issues resulting from the hubris of modern scientism (PC 228-29, 257). Increasing recalcitrance leads to new patterns being externalized and embodied in new institutions, in turn bringing forth new by-products, new orders of recalcitrance, new patterns, and so on. A never-ending cycle . . .

Over the decades, critical response to Burke has varied from appreciative to adverse. Hostile critics have chastised him for being radical or revolutionary on the one hand and conservative or anti-revolutionary on the other (e.g., Chase). Rueckert explains these hostile charges from a chronological, developmental perspective—the perspective that forms the basis for both his own study of Burke and his edition of others’ critical evaluations.

Such “periodization” is the biggest crutch in Burke criticism. Samuel Johnson famously said, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. ” Too often periodization is the first resort of the critic. 7

As I observed in “The Meaning of the Motivorum’s Motto, ”

All too often we over-complicate Burke, bifurcating him into early and late; then middle, post-modern, post-structuralist, etc. Actually, Burke is simple in the sense that all great thinkers are—which is not to say easy. Great thinkers thoroughly, relentlessly, and oft times systematically pursue one or two profound ideas for decades or even a lifetime.

Continuing in a footnote,

The question of how systematic Burke actually may be is subject to ongoing debate. Burke’s system is not readily apparent because he was an autodidact with a dense and difficult highly personal (not to say jargon-laden) style. Had he stayed at Columbia he might have proven easier to categorize and read, but within the straitjacket of academe he might never have become the protean thinker beloved by his admirers.

When Burke explains Burke, he sees but one Burke, not many. Burke acknowledges that when the author speaks of his own work, he speaks not as an “authority” but as a critic competing with other critics with their own critiques. (See above, Terms for Order.) But Burke is consistently the best critic of Burke!

So—according to Rueckert, Burke was “always essentially radical, revolutionary, open: he was the great acceptor and synthesizer . . . who was committed to change (change or perish, he once said) without the loss of what was permanent and valuable.” Around the mid 1950’s, however, the dramatistic vision finally set and “the radical drive that produced it began turning conservative to defend its own. . . . The truth had been revealed; the energies were now expended on applications and defense. ” (Rueckert, Critical Responses 244, emphasis mine) Such is “the discovery of youth turned dogma of old age” explanation that Thomas Kuhn rejects in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

But this chronological explanation for the contradictory antagonisms Burke provokes in his critics is not wholly adequate for Rueckert. He suggests another reason that goes more to the heart of the matter. Burke’s “language-centered view of reality” prompts two kinds of opposition. The extraordinary emphasis “on purely verbal analysis and on the study of verbal system building as an end in itself” that goes with a language-centered view of reality that “tends to encourage a curious kind of stoical withdrawal into an ironic contemplation of human affairs.” Thus, Burke is opposed as a conservative whose thought encourages maintenance of the status quo. (See discussions of Brecht above.) At the same time “this language-centered view of reality always tends toward the mixing, the pluralism, the breaking down of the old categories” that many critics of Burke object to. (Critical Responses 255) “Verbal action becomes the prime human act and the difference, in kind and value, between verbal acts tends to be forgotten in the emphasis on verbalization as such. ” (Critical Responses 122) Thus, Burke is opposed as a radical whose thought threatens traditional systems of thought and action.

I have claimed throughout this study that Burke is a mystic. If we approach him as such, we can make more sense of his system and more sense of the harsh and contradictory reactions of critics to it. Howard Nemerov describes Burke as “radical,” “ explosive,” a “lyric and rhapsodic philosopher whose entire effort is to make every poor part contain the glorious, impossible whole” (“Everything, Preferably All at Once,” Critical Responses 197-98). What are distinctions, the Many, when ever before Burke shines a vision of unity, the One? How exasperating for those who do not share that vision, who insistently point to the need for clear distinctions, who turn pale and puffy at the slightest inclination toward ambiguity. But, besides Burke the radical, there is also Burke the conservative, the mystic with a static view of history. What is time when ever before Burke is the blaze of eternity’s light? How infuriating for those who insist we can act meaningfully within the arena of history, who call us to forsake the heights of mystic attitude and inaction, who exhort us to come down and engage in righting vast inequities.

Within the field of speech and rhetoric, though the first critique (that Burke is radical) has been articulated more than once, the second (that Burke is conservative) has to my knowledge seldom been advanced. Admonishers and admirers both seem blind to the anhistorical character of his work; the apolitical implications of his anhistorical thinking are often invisible to them. They wax indignant, they wax indulgent, seldom noticing that in Burke’s system incentive to “political” action is everywhere on the wane. Aristotle’s political animal and Burke’s symbol-using animal are vastly different creatures ranging in vastly different realms.

Third—Paul Tillich

I discovered Chase in the course of writing my dissertation. From the beginning I had planned to start my dissertation on the word “mysticism” and end on the word “monologue.” (I remember John Baiz, rector of Calvary Episcopal where I attended services having decided upon the academy rather than the church, used to criticize “mysticism” for starting in mist, ending in schism, and revolving around I.)

My position had arisen out of reading Paul Tillich8 in seminary with theology professor Walter Wiest, himself a student of Tillich at Columbia University where he earned his Ph.D. Wiest was the outside member of my dissertation committee. Given my interest in Tillich’s mystical apriori, he had directed me to Authority in Protest Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) by Robert C. Johnson, his former colleague at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and at that time Dean of the Divinity School at Yale. Johnson argues that

Tillich posed for himself quite early the two-edged query, What fate would the Christian faith suffer if skepticism as to the existence of the man Jesus should prevail, or if criticism should so alter the picture of this historical figure that it became entirely incompatible with the Christ of the Gospels and Christian tradition? He felt that this threat, which was quite real in 1922, called for a serious attempt “to answer the question, how the Christian doctrine might be understood if the nonexistence of the historical Jesus should become historically probable.” And , for whatever reasons, at its deepest level this is precisely what the principle of authority developed in Tillich’s system endeavors to accomplish. (Authority 130)

Of course, given that Christianity like Judaism and Islam is an historical religion, Tillich’s apology is an heterodoxy. Christianity cannot be saved from the possibility that concerned Tillich (with good reason at the time) and still be Christianity.

I believed that Tillich and Burke shared de-historizing tendencies. My position was that you could not be both a Burkeian and a Marxist or a Christian believing in the efficacy of historical, political acts. Given their dehistorical tendencies, while writing my dissertation, whenever I stalled, I would read Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology.

For years I was puzzled why reading Tillich always seemed to help with Burke. So let us end there (near where we began), summing up not with Aristotle the ancient philosopher, nor Aquinas the medieval theologian, but Augustine the rhetorician who stands between them, their Loves being similar though not quite the Same—let us call such Love the theistic motive.

Augustine famously says, “God has made us for Himself, and our hearts remain restless until they find rest in Him.” Modern theologian Paul Tillich agrees: God is the end of all our striving, that with which we are ultimately concerned. Our actions may be misdirected toward other ends (wealth, power, glory—other “gods”), but no substitute can fully satisfy. The theistic motive (though often unrecognized as such) inspirits every aspect of our lives, so no account of human motivation is complete without it.

The theistic motive in Augustine and Tillich is secularized as the hierarchic motive in Burke. The end of all striving is not God but a principle (such as money) infusing every level of a particular hierarchy and functioning as God. Thus, “sheerly worldly powers take on the attributes of secular divinity and demand our worship” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives, Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, Meridian Books, 1962, p.523—an extension of the introduction in that joint addition).

But for Burke the hierarchic motive is ultimately linguistic, and the linguistic motive ultimately natural—meaning the natural world would comprehend more than the merely material as with nature containing the principle of speech (RM 180). The end of all linguistic striving would be that NATURE which gives birth not simply to our bodies but also to language and our minds. Such is Language and such too Love.

Thus, Augustine and Tillich’s theism is transformed into Burke’s naturalism— we emerge from NATURE as symbol-using animals, remaining restless until our symbols bring us to rest in IT. Such is the wonder of Language, such too the wonder of Love.9

The first triennial of the Kenneth Burke Society was held in New Harmony, Indiana, the site at which theologian Paul Tillich’s ashes are interred in his eponymous park. 

Postscript—The Unending Conversation

More Burke, unpublished Burke, is always to be desired. No matter our evaluation of the book vis-à-vis the Rhetoric and the larger corpus, we owe Anthony Burke, Kyle Jenson, and Jack Selzer thanks for finally shepherding The War of Words to posthumous publication as Burke had wished and especially Jack Selzer for his archival work over the years. The rest is the delight of debating over Burkas.


1.The following is taken from my mammoth (140+ page) review of Essays toward a Symbolic of Motives edited by William H. Rueckert (West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2007), “The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum” (KB Journal, Spring 2007). It draws on Burke’s own 1953 account of the “devices” in “Curriculum Criticum” (Counter-Statement 213–25) supplemented by David Cratis Williams’ archival work as recorded in “Toward Rounding Out the Motivorum Trilogy: A Textual Introduction” (Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke. Edited by Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001, 5-34) and Burke’s correspondence with Rueckert (Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert: 1959–1987. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2002).

2. The following two sections are taken from my essay, “The Meaning of the Motivorum’s Motto: “Ad bellum purificandum” to “Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore” (KB Journal, Spring 2012)—though more so the second section (“Pure” Burke) with minimal change given the argument’s complexity. The essay has been republished in Best of the Independent Journals in Rhetoric and Composition 2012, edited by Julia Voss, et al., Parlor Press, 2014. It is to be collected in a forthcoming anthology edited by Clarke Rountree. The essay is a “close reading” of the Latin motto and the last four pages of the Rhetoric.

3. Burke warrants a close closing of the Latin given his detailed discussion in the unpublished second draft of A Symbolic of Motives (left unfinished in 1963) in which there is an early section entitled “Preparatory Etymology” with a sub­section on “Beauty and War.”  

4. See the ever-perceptive critic of Burke, Denis Donoghue, Speaking of Beauty, Yale University Press, April 10, 2003.

5. In his Grammar ( 200-14) Burke argues that, so far as dramatistic terminology is concerned, Marxist philosophy begins by grounding agent in scene but requires a systematic featuring of act given its poignant concern for ethics; in other words, that Marx, an “idealistic materialist,” should be grammatically classified with Aristotle and Spinoza as a “realist” (or “naturalist”)–like Burke! Consequently, Burke offers “a tentative restatement of Marxist doctrine formed about the act of class struggle”–a “somewhat Spinozistic” characterization consistent with Soviet philosophical thought during the 1920s and ‘30s but also with Burke’s own philosophical stance. (See G. L. Kline, Spinoza in Soviet Philosophy, London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1952.)

Burke accepts the idealistic-materialistic dialectic as descriptive of the dynamic underlying social change but not the Marxistescatology–sub specie aeternitatis all revolutions are essentially the same, ultimately leading to but another revolution, one system of inequality being replaced by another perhaps for some period more adequate to the demands of a particular time and place. (See Thames, “The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum. Part One: Seeking the Symbolic.”)

Not only does Burke assimilate Marx to Spinoza and Aristotle and the naturalist tradition in the Grammar, he assimilates him to Plato and the dialectical development of terms in the Rhetoric (183-97). There Burke distinguishes between three orders of terms: the positive that names visible and tangible things which can be located in time and place; the dialectical (i.e., says Burke, dialectical “as we use the term in this particular connection”) that permeates the positive realm but is itself more concerned with ideas than things, more with action and attitude than perception, more with ethics and form than knowledge and information; and the ultimate (or mystical) that places the dialectical (actually from context, the rhetorical—see above)competition of voices in a hierarchy or sequence or evaluative series, a developmental series ordered by a “guiding idea” or unitary principle, transforming the competing voices into “successive positions or moments in a single process” (RM 183-87). The dialectic development typical of Platonic dialogue is the instance par excellence of the third order (see the discussion above in “Bellus”).

Burke contends the Marxist dialectic gains much of its strength by conforming to an ultimate order. Rather than confronting one another merely as parliamentary voices representing conflicting interests, various classes are instead hierarchically arranged, each with a disposition or “consciousness” matching its peculiar set of circumstances, “while the steps from feudal to bourgeois to proletarian are grounded in the very nature of the universe” (RM 190).

The assimilation of Marx to Spinoza and Plato are both examples of Burke’s tendency to de-historicize—to essentialize the temporal rather than temporize the essential (see Trevor Melia’s “Scientism and Dramatism” in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, edited by Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, pp. 66-67).

See also Richard H. Thames, “Unforgetting a Tradition: Kenneth Burke, Karl Marx, and Aristotelian Naturalism.” Russian Journal of Communication 7.1 (January 2015) 116-124.

6. See Mircea Eliade, Myth of the Eternal Return (Princeton University Press; reprint edition, November 20, 2018). According to Wikipedia, , Eliade moved to the United States in October 1956, settling in Chicago the following year. He had been invited by Joachim Wach to give a series of lectures at the University of Chicago. He and Wach are generally admitted to be the founders of the "Chicago school" that basically defined the study of religions for the second half of the 20th century. Upon Wach's death (before the lectures were delivered), Eliade was appointed as his replacement. In 1964, he was appointed the Sewell Avery Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. Beginning in 1954, with the first edition of his volume on Myth of the Eternal Return, Eliade also enjoyed commercial success: the book went through several editions under different titles, and sold over 100,000 copies.

Burke must have read Eliade by the mid-50s. He discusses Eliade in his Rhetoric of Religion (238-40) regarding an explanation for the experience of déjà vu. But Eliade’s influence or more likely his reinforcement of many of Burke’s own positions figures significantly into the Symbolic to which Burke had returned having worked out the nature of the Ethics after the Symbolic split. (See Richard Thames, “Mystical Ontology in Kenneth Burke: Consequences for His Theory of Rhetoric.” Dissertation. University of Pittsburgh. 1979.)

According to Eliade, “sex” and “victimage” were central to primitive festivals in which time and space were ritually abolished and regenerated. Both constitute repetitions of the cosmogony—the act of Creation. Sexual intercourse ritually repeated the hierogamy, the union of heaven and earth resulting in the cosmos’ birth. In the Babylonian New Year festival the king and a temple slave reproduced the hierogamy, a ritual to which there corresponded a period of collective orgy. Intercourse and orgy represent chaos and a rebirth of the universe. It was also during New Year festivals that demons, diseases, and sins were expelled in ceremonies of various types, all involving some form of victimage. According to Sir James Frazer (in that part of the Golden Bough entitled the Scapegoat) the “riddance of evil” was accomplished by transferring it to something (a material object, an animal, or a human being) and expelling that thing (now bearing the faults of the entire community) beyond inhabited territory. With the scapegoat’s sacrifice, chaos was slain. Such ritual purification means a combustion, an annulling of the sins and faults of the individual and the community as a whole—not a mere purifying, but a regeneration, a new birth.

Both sex and victimage repeat the cosmogony. Both represent attempts, in the words of Eliade, “to restore—if only momentarily—mythical and primordial time, ‘pure’ time, the time of the ‘instant’ of the Creation” (Myth 54). In illo tempore the gods had displayed their greatest powers, the cosmogony being “the supreme divine manifestation, the paradigmatic act of strength, superabundance, and creativity.” Religious man, says Eliade, thirsts for the real. “By every means at his disposal, he seeks to reside at the very source of primordial reality, when the world was in statu nascendi” (The Sacred and the Profane 80).

Burke argues that Aristophanic comedy culminates in secularized variants of the “sacred marriage” (the hierogamy) and the “love feast” whereas tragedy culminates in secularized variants of ritual sacrifice, victimage, the “kill” (“On Catharsis” 348, 362).

Dionysian ritual comes first (an issue both Nietzsche and Burke examine), then tragedy, then comedy, then Platonic dialectic which Nietzsche views negatively as “the death of tragedy” but Burke views positively as the emergence of that which was implicit all along within language itself—thus the issue that runs through the Symbolic of the relationship between dramatic catharsis and dialectical transcendence, the issue Burke indicates will be the subject of the Symbolic’s ultimate chapter (anticipated in his essay on Emerson and his two essays on Poe).

7. Many suppose a break between epistemological (“poetic metaphor”) and ontological (“dramatization is literal not metaphorical”) periods; or the “meta-biology” of P&C and the “dramatism” of the Grammar—though the latter could be interpreted as the realization of the former. From the Grammar on Burke clearly thinks he is being systematic, the question thereafter being whether he abandoned “dramatism” following the Rhetoric with the development of “logology,” though Burke himself claims dramatism is his ontology and logology his epistemology (“Dramatism and Logology, ” The [London] Times Literary Supplement, August 12, 1983, p. 859)—as Aristotle’s “political” is his ontology (we cannot become what we are—animals with logos—outside the polis as a language-using community, language being a potential that is actualized only within the polis, our never learning to speak without our first being spoken to); and “rational” his epistemology, both definitions secondary to and derivative of the primary definition, “animals with logos.” (See Richard Thames, “Kenneth Burke: Bodies in Purposeful Motion. ” An Encyclopedia of Communication Ethics: Goods in Contention. Edited by Ronald C. Arnett, Annette M. Holba, and Susan Mancino. New York: Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers, May 31, 2018). Burke’s never publishing his proposed Symbolic is also supposed as the ground for arguing he abandoned dramatism. Clearly the author believes otherwise. Burke’s thought is systematic though its expression may be more like that of a poet than a philosopher, more Plato than Aristotle.

8. Having been dismissed by the Nazis from his position at the University of Frankfurt, Tillich was offered a position at Union Theological Seminarywhich is affiliated with Columbiathrough the efforts of the Seminary’s Reinhold Niebuhr and the University’s F. J. E. Woodbridge, Dean of the Faculties of Political Science, Philosophy, and Pure Science and former head of the Philosophy Department. (Burke had studied Bergson with Woodbridge while at Columbia—Jack Selzer, Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-1931, University of Wisconsin Press, 1996, p. 186). From 1933 until 1955 Tillich taught at the Seminary. During 1933–34 he was also a Visiting Lecturer in Philosophy at the University.

9. See my essay “God Is a Circle Whose Center Is Everywhere: Kenneth Burke & Charles Williams, Language & Love.” Listening: Journal of Communication Ethics, Religion, and Culture 50.3 (2015) 199-297.

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