I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: athletes are some of the greatest rhetoricians among us.
Imagine, for example, the relationship between the pitcher and the batter. It’s a complicated relationship forged in a complex calculus of the probable, yet unknown. I love those close-up shots on television of the batter studying the pitcher, waiting for the ball. The batter is poised, bat over shoulder, feet planted just so, ready to nimbly meet whatever comes. In that moment, the batter is both at the mercy of the pitcher, the rules of game, the equipment, the umpire and also a participant and creator of the game.
The ball leaves the pitcher’s hand.
In that moment, the coach can’t tell the batter exactly what to do at the plate. There’s absolutely no way of knowing exactly where that ball is going to go prior to stepping into the situation. There’s no way of knowing from which direction the wind will be blowing. There’s no way of knowing exactly what the umpire is going to call a strike. The only thing the batter can do is to arrive at the plate poised and remain sensitive to the game unfolding.
Of course, the coach can make a pretty good guess about what will happened and how to react based on what has happened in the past and a myriad of other known factors. The batter can guess as well. And they can both prepare accordingly. But in that utterly kairotic moment when the ball is flying through the air, everything is in flux. Everything is becoming. This rhetoric is forged on the fly. And the coach’s line has to be: do the right thing.
That doesn’t mean do whatever you want. It doesn’t mean anything goes. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that if everything is becoming then the terms of ‘rightness’ are always shifting. The response must emerge out of circumstantial propriety and not from prescribed rules. Do the right thing.
No one, I would suggest, understood this better than the sophists.
As John Poulakos notes, the sophists were very much concerned with the concepts of kairos and to prepon. Put simply, they were concerned with both timeliness and appropriateness and they rejected strict, overly prescriptive rules about what the rhetorician should or should not do. Writes Poulakos:
Because the rhetorician concerns himself with the particular and pragmatic, his way is not that of an abstract absolutism created in the spirit of a priori truths; rather, it is that of a relativism of concrete rhetorical situations to which situationally derived truths are the only opportune and appropriate responses. (42)
So it is that Isocrates marvels when he observes “men setting themselves up as instructors of youth who cannot see that they are applying the analogy of art with hard and fast rules to a creative process” (73). Isocrates, like the athlete, understands that general principles, hard and fast rules are destined to fail because they ignore the particulars of any given situation.
So, yes, we can look to people like President Obama as some of the great rhetoricians of our time. We could look to any number of orators, writers, politicians, lawyers. That’s all well and good. But the athlete… look at her poised at that plate. It doesn’t get any better than that.