Not with Wisdom of Words by Gary Selby (Review)

Gary S. Selby, Not with Wisdom of Words: Nonrational Persuasion in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). 187pp. (Amazon)

Gary Selby’s book Not with Wisdom of Words seeks to show how Paul tries to rhetorically persuade the audience of his letters through the use of rhetorical techniques that are “non-rational.” He situates his book in the stream of rhetorical criticism of the New Testament but argues that this approach has tended to be too “rationalistic” by focusing on the particular features of “rational” argument (3–6). Instead, Selby’s book examines how “the poetic texts of the NT represent the attempts of early Christian writers to create . . . numinous experiences for their audience” (16).

Chapter one gives an overview of the classical rhetorical theory of non-rational persuasion. Selby sets up a contrast between Aristotle’s deliberative account of rhetoric—the end of which is a judgment via proofs and enthymemes—and Aristotle’s poetics—the end of which is an emotional response via imitation (μίμησις). “Poetic discourse,” Selby summarizes, “afforded its hearers an opportunity, in a moment of imaginative transcendence, actually to experience the conviction, perspective, aspiration, or event that it represented” (29). Selby explores this further by looking at Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen and (pseudo) Longinus’s On the Sublime which present μίμησις as having the power to bring before the audiences’ mind things not present by activating φαντασία (mental images). In the church, Selby argues, poetics is more appropriate because the audience is not called to a judgment but to faith (25).

The main body of the book, chapters two through five, explore four NT passages (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Romans 7:14–25; 1 Corinthians 1:3–14; Ephesians 1:3–14, respectively) that Selby argues exhibits this type of use of non-rational presentation through vivid language to supplement or encapsulate the broader argument of each epistle. Each chapter addresses the context of the epistle and how these poetic passages fit within their respective contexts and what they are intended to produce.

Chapters six and seven explore the implications of Selby’s rhetorical/poetic analysis of μίμησις. Chapter six focuses on the how μίμησις transports the audience from listeners on the outside who relate to content in more rational ways (e.g., accepting or rejecting the argument) to being in the content. The audience, then, is “not simply being asked to believe that something was the case. Rather, in that moment the hearers experience those realities as if they were present reality. In that imaginative moment, faith was caught up in sight” (140–41). Chapter seven then looks at how this process also bypasses the question of the speaker’s/writer’s credibility (the author “disappears”) and creates unity in a community by creating a shared experience. Finally, Selby’s concluding chapter looks at further implications for understanding early Christian persuasion.

Overall I think Selby has put his finger on an important aspect of early Christian persuasion and his push to broaden the nature of rhetorical criticism of the New Testament is to be commended. That being said, I think there are two ways his argument could be made stronger. The first is to offer a more nuanced account of what rationality would have been in antiquity. For the most part, Selby’s use of “non-rational” seems more indebted to modern accounts of rationality and emotion than to classical accounts. The most obvious counter-example would be the Stoics who defined emotions as a false judgment. Even Aristotle thinks that emotions involve a perception of an apparent good or bad, meaning there is some kind of rational content (e.g., “this is good”) upon which emotions are based, even if rational arguments are absent. More so, even non-rational πάθος has a function to play in Aristotle’s rhetoric beyond mere style (e.g, Rhetoric 2.1, 1378a19–22). But Selby offers little nuance for how to demarcate rational and non-rational/emotional. On his account, rhetoric is rational because it focuses on λόγος, poetics is non-rational because it focuses on πάθος. While this distinction is perhaps heuristically useful, it paints a distorted picture of what classical authors—including New Testament authors—actually thought about emotions, arguments, and the cognitive process (about which he says nothing).

The second way Selby’s argument could be made stronger—and this is admittedly more pedantic—is if he provided a more nuanced account of φαντασία. Φαντασία is an important term in classical accounts of cognition as well as in rhetoric. Indeed, shortly after Paul, there was much discussion amongst writers in the Second Sophistic about the nature of φαντασία and concepts of the divine in writers like Dio Chrysostom, Maximus of Tyre, and Philostratus. In Selby, however, φαντασία is merely defined as a capacity to visualize. This is to conflate three distinct things: φαντασία, ἐνάργεια, and ἔκφρασις. Φαντασία can either be the images stored in the memory from past experience or a quasi-capacity of the soul to retain (stamp) sensation on the soul, ἐνάργεια is vivid description, and ἔκφρασις is the technique of bringing something absent to the mind of the audience through words. An ἔκφρασις is brought about through ἐνάργεια that manipulates φαντασία stored in the mind of the audience. These concepts are not clearly distinguished in Sebly’s account and are instead conflated into φαντασία which is sometimes made synonymous with μίμησις. This is particularly interesting because author’s like Dio Chrysostom and Philostratus both speak at length about the superiority of φαντασία to μίμησις using the example of Phidias’s statue of Zeus. Those in the plastic arts like Phidias rely on μίμησις because they need the archetype present for them to imitate, but one who speaks can harness φαντασία to create new images of what has never been seen before. However, I do not want to sound like I am criticizing Selby for the book he did not write. As I said, I think Selby has put his finger on an important part of classical rhetoric that deserves to be explored, but I think there are more aspects of the rhetorical tradition that could fill out a picture of the nature of what Selby labels “non-rational” persuasion.


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