Eloquent Contentiousness: On “Farnsworth’s Classical English Argument”

Bryan Garner reviews Ward Farnsworth’s “Classical English Argument,” exposing flaws, foibles, and fallacies employed by English language writers.

Eloquent Contentiousness: On “Farnsworth’s Classical English Argument”

Farnsworth’s Classical English Argument by Ward Farnsworth. 264 pages.

ONCE AGAIN, Ward Farnsworth proves to be a first-rate categorist and analyst: in Farnsworth’s Classical English Argument (2024), he arranges more than 800 passages in 32 short chapters to illustrate the principal means by which rhetoricians have tried to score points, mostly in political and literary debates. The result is a kind of “quotation book” full of 18th- to early 20th-century passages you’ve never encountered, no matter how well-read you are. And it’s an advocate’s toolbox.


Delightfully, the book begins with a chapter on insult and invective. It’s divided into these sections: “limited talents,” “pity,” “low expectations,” “sorrow,” “ridiculing followers,” “talking too much,” “welcoming disapproval,” “criticism by degrees,” “hyperbole,” “density of adjectives,” and “words inadequate.” Which category would you like? Limited talents, you say?


LEWIS. Is the Prime Minister aware of the deep concern felt by the people of this country at the whole question of the Korean conflict?
CHURCHILL. I am fully aware of the deep concern felt by the Honorable Member in many matters above his comprehension.
—Exchange in the House of Commons (1952)


Talking too much?


On every subject which the Professor discusses, he produces three times as many pages as another man; and one of his pages is as tedious as another man’s three.
—Macaulay, Burleigh and His Times (1832)


Words inadequate?


I can not find words which are appropriate to be spoken in this body under its parliamentary rules to express my utter contempt for such a speech as the Senator has made upon this question.
—Miller, Senate speech (1887)


Each type is briefly and aptly introduced, and then comes a profusion of examples.


Why Classical English Argument? It’s classical in the sense that the examples are drawn from the golden age of argument. It’s English in the sense that all the examples originated in the English language—not that they’re from the biggest part of Great Britain.


As Farnsworth demonstrates, the speakers quoted were invested with good manners. The age didn’t suffer from “the quick descent into savagery or imbecility that has become so familiar.” Hence the examples were more “polite.” Does that mean they were gentler? Not at all: The speakers’ good manners often “let them vilify each other with more zing than is common now while debasing themselves less.”


Let’s try another category: fallacies such as circularity and irrelevance. Farnsworth begins the section on circularity by explaining: “A circular argument is one where a premise depends on the conclusion instead of proving it. Stated more practically: you give a reason for X, but the reason is only convincing if X is already true.” That’s useful, of course, but it becomes more so with an example:


The infallibility of the Bible is testified by the infallible Church, whose infallibility is testified by the infallible Bible.
—Huxley, Controverted Questions (1892)


Two other examples—from Hume and Chesterton—follow.


Among the best passages are those dealing with irrelevant refutations. The formal term is “ignoratio elenchi” (ignorance of refutation), which occurs when “you’re trying to refute an argument but aren’t showing that its premises are false or that its logic fails.” Hence: “They say the defendant is innocent; you reply that the crime was terrible. They say an idea is defective; you say it was offered in good faith. They say X is false; you reply that X is important.” Once again, the real-life example derives from a congressional speech:


The Senator from Kentucky has wholly missed the point in the case. He has occupied himself with the southern line, and has shown us the northern boundary, and the southern boundary of Chihuahua down to Durango, but has never said a single word about the eastern boundary, which is, after all, the only question which we have here.
—Benton, Senate speech (1850)


It’s delightful to be reminded of the expressiveness, the pertinence, and the close reasoning that once typified political and literary argument. And it’s doubly good to look at them from a distance, as opposed to Reagan/Carter examples, or those of Clinton/Bush, Bush/Gore, Obama/McCain, or other even more recent and considerably less articulate exemplars. The clinical perspective we get from the temporal distance is a distinct gain in objectivity, but the biggest advantage is in enhanced eloquence. By hearkening back to the golden age, we see nimbler minds that are comfortable handling words and ideas. We’re truly observing speakers “with all the best words.”


Ward Farnsworth is a law professor with an Aristotelian turn of mind. In earlier books, he classified metaphors, rhetorical tropes, and writing styles—all from the same period that is represented here. This is the fourth in a series that is destined to be a mainstay in the libraries of the intelligentsia. These volumes represent a beacon of hope that some people will learn, remember, and imitate our distinguished forebears. In other words, they’re instructive and forward-looking, which is important. As Representative Benjamin Kurtz Focht said in 1916: “The question with us now is not one of ancestors and how we got here, but it is a question of vital importance and interest to determine where we are going and how we will get there.”

LARB Contributor

Bryan A. Garner is an American lawyer, lexicographer, and teacher. His newest book is Taming the Tongue in the Heyday of English Grammar (1711–1851) (Grolier Club, 2021), in which he shows the wild variability among English-language grammarians in tallying the parts of speech (from two to 33). He is the author of Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed., Oxford, 2016).

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