Taking up one of Graham Greene’s many novels has for me always been a hit-or-miss affair.  Over the Christmas holidays I read The Honorary Consul, a copy of which I’ve owned for years.  The Third World setting, this time Argentina, will be familiar to Greene’s admirers, and so will the author’s abiding preoccupation with religious faith struggling against doubt—and vice versa.  The story involves the kidnapping of an honorary British consul, mistaken by his abductors for the British ambassador and held for ransom, and the attempt of the English-Latin American doctor who has impregnated the young wife the consul married out of a brothel to rescue him from death at the hands of the kidnappers, the leader of whom is a spoiled priest and a boyhood friend of Doctor Parr’s.  All the elements of Greene’s best work are here, yet somehow they seem not to come together as they did, for instance, in The End of the Affair, the occasion of one of the finest book reviews his friend Evelyn Waugh ever wrote.  The story is interesting only by fits and starts, the general effect tends toward flatness, and the characters are of no particular interest, as Parr’s emotional detachment seems to be reflected in his creator’s detachment from his creation, while Father Rivas’s doubts are commonplace, and thus of little interest.  Still, The Honorary Consul has the virtue of taking a matter of vital importance for its subject—more than can be said for the vast majority of contemporary novels.

As I make a point of keeping something in French on my bedside table, I also began over the holidays Flaubert’s Salammbô.  As I had read only Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimentale and looked into Bouvard et Pécuchet (in English) years ago, I was unprepared for this lush novel, an exercise in Romantic symbolism, about the love of a rebel mercenary chief for the daughter of the supreme magistrate of Carthage during the First Punic War.  Completely unlike Bovary, in many ways the first modern novel, Salammbô is long on atmosphere and action and short on character development.  Also the novel’s exotic setting is sending me to my Larousse at least once every page.  An enjoyable and interesting work nevertheless, by a man who never wrote the same book twice.   

        —Chilton Williamson, Jr.

I’m slogging through Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, by Walter J. Ong, S.J.  First published by Harvard in 1958, it is now in the hands of the University of Chicago Press, whose cover designer included the accurate if understated word “challenging” on the back.

Why should I care?  I’ll answer that first.  Specifically, proponents of classical education should care, because two of the three components of the trivium—dialectic and rhetoric—must, as both subjects and categories of learning, have some kind of continuity.  Practically speaking, we are teaching these things to our children, so we ought to be able to articulate how they are related, and whether and how they are separate and distinct.  But even more generally, those who are interested in intellectual conservatism should care, because, as the vulgar tongue now says it, “this is a thing.”  It certainly was a thing in the 20th century, when Richard Weaver wrote The Ethics of Rhetoric, and Language Is Sermonic, and many other essays that dealt with it; and when Russell Kirk and Mel Bradford publicly disagreed with him on it, and in so doing could cite Weaver’s own intellectual forebears—Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, for starters—as supporting their side, and not Weaver’s.

Ong, whose Orality and Literacy has long been influential on my thinking, is part of a different philosophical grouping that includes Perry Miller and Marshall McLuhan.  Indeed, the anti-Aristotelean logician Peter Ramus (the terrifyingly turbid subject of this book) is an important topic in Miller’s highly regarded The New England Mind, because Ramus’s approach to dialectic, rhetoric, and ontology dominated the thought of the Puritans, and arguably set the intellectual course for America, or at least the half that won in 1865.  (I mentioned this casually over 15 years ago in a Chronicles article, and an angry letter to the editor called me snooty!)

Ong is arguing that Ramus succeeded in divorcing dialectic from rhetoric, to the detriment of Western thought.  He painstakingly chronicles the various approaches to the relationship between these topics, from Aristotle to Cicero, Boethius to Thomas, Agricola to Melanchthon (Ramus’s contemporary).  Each page is a gold mine of information, once I translate it from cuneiform.  When finished, I shall apply my digestion of Ong’s Ugaritic to the Weaver versus Bradford quarrel over the nature of conservative rhetoric and the value of arguments from definition—then apply my findings to the education of my unsuspecting and innocent children and other students at the Friday co-op.           

        —Aaron D. Wolf