Ethos and the Mormon hierarchy of quotational worth

“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

So my friend Beth said on my last blog post:

I think I would like to see your treatises include more source material. I only mention it because it seems you like to use your blog as a forum to encourage sch0larly discussion, but you don’t include, for example, what Hugh Nibley had to say on the subject.

Same with your discussion on polygamy. It’s mostly your thoughts and opinions, but since you’re wanting to incite greater theological discussion I think actual quotes from the Manifesto would have been warranted.

I took this as pretty good advice, and so for the last entry on our Mormon version of American exceptionalism I set out to find quotes of varying opinion to present to you, the wonderful reader. Immediately, I ran into a problem — which quotes were “good” and which were “not-so-good”?

By good and not-so-good, I’m talking about a complex metric system that involves relevance, accuracy, and authority. Everyone has their own metric system to determine what somebody said is actually worth anything. Generally speaking, this metric system is pretty consistent within subcultures and the arguments they use. For example, in an academic setting, using your little brother’s opinions to back up your own in a paper will net you with a big fat zero, while using an anecdote of your sweet little brother’s kind actions will net you big rhetorical points with a talk during Sacrament meeting.

The Mormon Quotational Worth Hierarchy, or, who said it matters most

Mormons, too, tend to have a hierarchial system of “quotational worth.” It generally trends in this direction (the more important ones listed before the least important ones):

1. Anything Joseph Smith said
2. Current general authorities (i.e., Thomas S. Monson)
3. Old general authorities (i.e., Brigham Young)
4. More recently revealed scripture (i.e., Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants)
5. The Holy Bible (note: JST counts as #4)
6. Non-members we like (i.e., C.S. Lewis, whenever the Pew Forum has something nice to say about us)
7. The Founding Fathers (i.e., Thomas Jefferson, Mormonism’s favorite deist)
8. Non-members we’re neutral on (i.e., Emerson)
9. Other scriptures, sort of (i.e., Qu’ran, the Apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls)
10. Academics (hissssss)

Your mileage may vary. For example, some liberal Mormons I know would say that academics are definitely at least higher than the Founding Fathers, while other more Constitutional Mormons would say that what the Founding Fathers say has more clout than the Holy Bible. And some people I know might say that the Qu’ran is a pretty neat piece of scripture and will put it around #5 or #6. My own hierarchal system does not match the one I just listed; this one is more of my very general guess of how a “standard” Mormon might grade quotational worth.

To illustrate, let me show you these quotes:

“If I had a choice of educating my daughters or my sons because of opportunity constraints, I would choose to educate my daughters.”

“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.”

– Gloria Steinem, prominent feminist

Show this quote to a good, orthodox Mormon, and they would say, “Ugh, so typical of a feminazi,” and they would dismiss it without further thought. But who really said these quotes? Brigham Young.

“If I had a choice of educating my daughters or my sons because of opportunity constraints, I would choose to educate my daughters.”

“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.”

– Brigham Young

Ah! Suddenly, this quote becomes worthy of discussion for our Church. Mormons would sit together and ask, “What does Brigham Young mean? What does education constitute? Why do daughters need education more than sons?” Why? Because of who said it.

How Important is Ethos compared to Pathos or Logos?

For those who need a refresher course on classical rhetoric, Aristotle argued that there are three modes of persuasion — ethos, pathos, and logos. Pathos and logos are pretty easy to understand — pathos deals with the emotional aspect of the argument, while logos deals with the “logical” side of the argument. Ethos is slightly harder to understand, but the basic idea of ethos is the rhetorician’s “moral authority,” or how much the audience trusts and believes the speaker.

A good argument will consist of all three of these modes — it will make sense, it will have emotional weight and impact, and the speaker is trusted and respected by the community. If you don’t have ethos, no one will listen to you in the first place. Without logos, your ideas will not make sense. Without pathos, there is little drive or motivation for action. But when you rely solely on pathos, your arguments become emotionally manipulative. When you rely solely on logos, your arguments become dry and weak. And when you rely solely on ethos, well, you have what many people call “blind obedience.”

Do we as Mormons accept arguments solely on ethos? This is not to say that ethos is worthless, but rather that a good argument utilizes all components of a classical argument (pathos, logos, and ethos). Do we put too much emphasis on ethos and ignore the others (though longtime members might say we go overboard on the pathos, too)? We are taught (some would say conditioned) to follow what the prophet says, no matter what. We are taught that who says what very much matters, but just how much does this matter? Should we and do we as a culture consider quotations (or teachings, or ideas) on the merit of their actual content instead of who said it?

Quotational value fluctuation

Of course content does matter, and ethos cannot always carry the day in our culture. I’m reminded of a talk given by Spencer W. Kimball in 1978 titled “Strengthening the Family — The Basic Unit of the Church” in which he recounted a hymn we once had called “Don’t Kill the Little Birds,” and then gave a very anti-hunting anecdote:

“I had a sling and I had a flipper. I made them myself, and they worked very well. It was my duty to walk the cows to the pasture a mile away from home. There were large cottonwood trees lining the road, and I remember that it was quite a temptation to shoot the little birds ‘that sing on bush and tree,’ because I was a pretty good shot and I could hit a post at fifty yards’ distance or I could hit the trunk of a tree. But I think perhaps because I sang nearly every Sunday, ‘Don’t Kill the Little Birds,’ I was restrained.”

According to those who remember that talk, many said that the Mormon hunting community hated this quote, and would even openly mock President Kimball’s reading of the verses. Ethos did not matter as much this time as content (though it is important to note that those who witnessed such mocking behavior were severely disturbed and scandalized). At the same time, if you mention this to someone who is rabidly “anti-environmentalist” (whatever that means), they may do this uncomfortable shuffling of feet and attempt to reinterpret what President Kimball really meant, or perhaps will introduce another quote from a (take note) General Authority that contradicts this statement and trump that as somehow “more true,” because again, we as Mormons are uncomfortable with the idea of rejecting an argument out right from an anointed servant of God.

On top of that, note that many Mormons joke that C.S. Lewis is the “Thirteenth Apostle” because he’s the most quoted non-member in General Conference. Why? Because so many of what he says could have come right out of an apostle’s mouth:

“The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him — for we can prevent Him, if we choose — He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 163

And, content again plays in part when C.S. Lewis says something like this:

“I am afraid I am not going to be much help about all the religious bodies mentioned in your letter of March 2nd. I have always in my books been concerned simply to put forward ‘mere’ Christianity, and am no guide on these (most regrettable) ‘interdenominational’ questions. I do however strongly object to the tyrannic and unscriptural insolence of anything that calls itself a Church and makes teetotalism [abstinence from alcoholic beverages] a condition of membership.”

– C.S. Lewis, in a letter replying to a woman he corresponded with in Salt Lake City, quoted by Marianna Richardson and Christine Thackeray in “What C.S. Lewis Thought about the Mormons”

“Well,” Mormon C.S. Lewis fans would say, throwing their hands up in the air, “I’m sure he accepted the gospel in the next life.” And when asked why this information is not as good as the previous quote from Mere Christianity, they would probably respond with, “Well, he’s not the prophet or anything.” Again, ethos takes precedence (even though C.S. Lewis introduces a very strong argument that “teetotalism” has very little scriptural support). Once again, the ethos argument comes out.

Ethos — what is it good for?

So again I ask, how important is ethos in an argument for Mormons? Does it trump pathos and logos? Is who says it more important than what is being said or how it makes us feel? Is “[insert priesthood office here] So-and-so said it and that’s good enough for me” really good enough?

“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”

– Brigham Young

But what if Hugh Nibley said the above quote instead? Or Billy Graham? Or Martin Luther? Or Ralph Waldo Emerson? How does that change the value of the quote, for better or for worse?

And yes, I’m still digging up stuff on Mormon American exceptionalism. Don’t worry; I haven’t forgotten.



Filed under education, religion, wordsmithing

4 responses to “Ethos and the Mormon hierarchy of quotational worth

  1. dteeps

    Very interesting post. I wonder where you put Mormon academics like Truman Madsen on your list? He’s not a General authority, but he has some clout.

  2. Well, that’s certainly food for thought. I second dteep’s question. Where does Hugh Nibley fit?

  3. Ted

    Egads! I totally forgot to add in the category “Mormons who are not General Authorities whom we trust”! That should be under #3. So…#4? Though some would exalt Nibley to just below Joseph Smith as far as ethos clout.

    • dteeps

      And I know some who throw Hugh Nibley and Cleon Skousen out with the crazy academics, and distrust a lot of what they say.

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