Rhetoric Over Evidence: The Inquisitor’s Speech in “Saint Joan”

November 24, 2020 by Essay Writer

The English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley described man as one who obscures facts and evidence with “aimless rhetoric,” in order to “distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.”  Skilled rhetoric has been a flawed tactic of persuasion for centuries in Huxley’s opinion.  One example of rhetoric’s power lies in George Bernard Shaw’s play, Saint Joan,which depicts the trial that condemned Joan of Arc for heresy.  In one of the most well known scenes, the Inquisitor argues her guilt to the church court.  In this speech, he successfully appeals to the audience through the persuasive rhetorical strategies of ethos and pathos.  He furthers these appeals with a paradox and selective diction.  Even though there is no tangible evidence, the Inquisitor is ultimately able to convict Joan by using rhetoric and literary strategies that presents her as a frightening character.

During his speech, the Inquisitor continually persuades his audience through appeals to authority.  He begins this strategy, known as ethos, from the first sentence of his argument: “If you had seen what I have seen of heresy, you would not think it a light thing.”  By starting with a statement that expresses his experience with heresy, he presents himself as knowledgeable and gains the court’s respect.  He goes on to make several similar statements, including: “I have seen this again and again” (lines 16-17), and “mark what I say” (line 17).  These assertions of his expertise are important in establishing a sound argument. 

The Inquisitor also uses ethos to sway his audience by acknowledging their own positive traits.  He calls them “merciful men” with “natural compassion” (line 42). He continues to point out their virtue when he says, “we should forfeit our own hope of divine mercy were there one grain of malice against her in our hearts” (lines 62-4).  This creates a sense of responsibility among the court members.  In addition to presenting the Inquisitor’s own authority, his complimentary statements towards the court lead them to believe that they must listen to him in order to preserve their own integrity.

The Inquisitor effectively applies extensive use of pathos to influence the church court.  He is aware of the pious background of his audience, and he knows precisely how to frighten them.  He consequently defines heresy as a “monstrous horror of unnatural wickedness” (lines 28-9) that will—to the court’s alarm—ultimately “wreck both Church and Empire” (lines 11-12).  Eventually he comes to a ringing conclusion: “be on your guard” (lines 59-60).  Threatening the church is one of the most persuasive strategies that the Inquisitor uses: it frightens his audience into believing that convicting Joan is the only way to protect their way of life.

In the second half of his speech, the Inquisitor intensifies this fear through his characterization of Joan.  He uses a clever strategy of describing her with a paradox: she is “gentle” (line 6); “pious and chaste” (line 45).  By appearance, she wouldn’t seem capable of inflicting the type of harm that he has threatened.  Yet she has a “diabolical pride,” which is “seated side by side” with her external goodness (lines 58-9).  Through this contrast he continues to appeal to the emotions of the court.  He tells them that the criminality of heretics is not obvious or even purposeful.  Rather, these individuals with the alleged power of destroying the church are close at hand and undetectable.  Establishing that Joan cannot be trusted is an important step in convincing the court of her guilt.

Throughout this characterization, the Inquisitor connects with the court members through his choice of diction.  He repeatedly describes heretics with the word “pious,” and similar words such as “humility” and “charity” (line 10); which are all familiar to the devout individuals to whom he is speaking. He intensifies the paradox that he has established by using contrasting diction, including “devilish” (line 53) and “diabolical madness” (line 33).  To the church court, associations with the devil are the ultimate fear.  Thus, his word choice expands their lack of trust in Joan, and further sways them towards her conviction.

Ironically, Joan of Arc was canonized by the Catholic Church 500 years after being convicted of heresy.  Clearly, the Inquisitor’s argument was entirely fallacious; yet with it he was able to convince a court of morally upright members to condemn a future saint.   He accomplished this feat through various literary strategies that present him as a source of knowledge and prove Joan to be an untrustworthy villain. Substituting rhetorical skill for palpable evidence, the Inquisitor was able to justify Joan of Arc’s brutal death.


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