While preparing for my sophomore rhetoric class today, I was reminded of this line by Denis Diderot: “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” The thought crossed my mind that this incendiary line isn’t much different from statements we see by Ann Coulter, such as: “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building.” But it took only a moment’s more reflection to see that, no, the Diderot quote is different. Diderot uses “king” and “priest” as synecdoches for the problems Enlightenment thinkers saw in monarchy and organized religion. Strangling someone with the entrails of another is certainly a ghastly image. Diderot, however, isn’t targeting specific people. He’s targeting ideas. Enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot and romantic thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau battled over the meaning of progress and the nature of man and morality. Although Diderot criticized Rousseau individually and specifically for being “deceitful” and “hypocritical,” he didn’t use simplistic, pejorative concepts such as “retarded”–a Coulter favorite. One may argue about deceit and hypocrisy. Invectives end rational argument and discussion.
The Rhetorica Network
I offer commentary on the rhetoric of the American conversation, especially as it unfolds in documentary film, the news media, and politics. Check out my feeds on Twitter and Instagram. Also be sure to see my work at Carbon Trace Productions, a non-profit documentary film studio in Springfield, Missouri. I am a Professor of Media & Journalism at Missouri State University. I teach classes in mobile journalism and documentary filmmaking.
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