It has now been a full two days—by modern standards a generation—since Robert Cheeks released his review of The Book of Eli, which I suppose allows us to begin to engage in commentaries without ruining the film for others. Indeed, I almost never go to the movies, but on the strength of Cheeks’s review I did so, going even so far as to pass up the second half of the Jets-Chargers game, which was the only decent contest of the whole weekend. And lo and behold, the theater was nearly full, a result no doubt of the throngs who read (religiously) the Postmodern Conservative blog. Either it was that, or it was the disappointed overflow of those who could not get into the showing of the blockbuster Avatar, referenced (but not seen) in my own last posting on “America’s theological-political problem.”
Now given this interest in the theological-political problem, I was most taken with the character played by Gary Oldman, the petty tyrant. He wanted Scripture not for the sake of his own spiritual salvation, but as a textbook of political science. With Scripture in his hand, he tells others, he would have the tool to spread his hegemony from the one petty town he ruled to a much larger empire. He does not say whether he planned to do so by taking the literal Biblical teaching and using it to create a theological state, or by learning the techniques of rhetoric by which to move and manipulate mankind (in his case for evil ends). All of which reminds us, as Coleridge and others have pointed out, that the Book can serve many ends.
Which brings us to rhetoric. The Greek sophists and philosophers wrote many fine books on rhetoric, some going overboard in extolling its powers and possibilities. (Plato and Xenephon, while providing excellent examples of popular oratory in their writings, nevertheless taught their readers that the art of persuasion had its limits, and that one needed the force of law as well as speech to govern.) So be it. But it struck Machiavelli that the Greek thinkers never fully plumbed the power of speech. Their techniques, impressive as they were, were like child’s play next to the power of persuasion that was introduced into the world by the prophets and the Gospels. Biblical language set up tropes of persuasion of a force never hitherto seen. The use of these techniques for man’s salvation has been a boon, one might even say a godsend; for his political life sometimes a curse.
There is good reason to study the Bible for an understanding of rhetoric. As it turns out, the very day of Cheeks’s review was the one for the reading of “va-era” from the Book of Moses, which is one of the early teachings on rhetoric. The portion begins in Exodus 6. The Bible at this point is rather closer to the Greek teaching. Moses is told by God to speak, but he demurs, claiming (correctly) that he is not so gifted a speaker. Even with God as his speechwriter (something no Greek orator had at his disposal) Moses is convinced that he will fail. God allows Moses to enlist his smooth-talking brother, Aaron, for the cause (convincing Pharaoh), but even Aaron falls short. One must always accompany rhetoric with something more (in this case, the plagues).
But on the same day as the reading of va-era, the passage read from the later part of the Bible (Isaiah) modifies or amplifies the teaching. Now, with God still the speechwriter, we witness a rhetoric of a much greater force, one that speaks of “the new heavens and the new earth.” It no doubt in the end still needs force and law to be completed in the world in which we live. And that return us to the age-old problem of the dangers of rhetoric in the political world.
The Book of Eli ends on an optimistic note. Oldman, the tyrant, dies without learning the master science he seeks. Eli (Denzel Washington) dies having transmitted his message to posterity, with a (very hot and well-armed) disciple ready to carry it to the nations. I came home from the movies uplifted by the message, only to learn (alas) that the Chargers had gone down.