Rhetoric can be a tough word to define and evaluate. Typically, rhetoric is speech that moves its audience in a powerful way. Successful politicians are typically skilled rhetoricians because they can use words to get people to vote for them. Rhetoric can also be something of a negative. While rhetoric might be impactful, it can lack meaning. One might use rhetoric to compensate for substance.
With Lorenzo Valla’s work, one can argue that rhetoric can be used to justify one’s religious beliefs without having to put forward a precise, substantive explanation.
In Dialogue on Free Will, Valla attempts to unite his belief in people’s free will with his belief in an omniscient God. At first glance, the two beliefs seem to be contradictory. If God knows everything and can control all that goes on, people can’t have free will, because what will happen is preordained. Conversely, if people have genuine free will, then God doesn’t know everything, which represents a dangerous belief that could be constructed as sacrilegious.
To solve this conundrum and to create a harmony between these two ostensibly divergent beliefs, Valla uses stealthy, mysterious rhetoric. He deploys elusive language to support his potentially conflicting beliefs. When it comes to why some people act in accordance with their Christian beliefs and why some people depart from their Christian values, Valla writes that God “has placed the hidden reason of this cause in a secret sort of treasury.”
Using the above quote, rhetoric could help a person justify their beliefs by proclaiming that such beliefs can’t be openly explained. To explain them would be to explain God. According to Valla’s rhetoric, only God knows the “hidden reason” and the “secret.”
Of course, it’s possible to find such justification unsatisfactory. But, as noted earlier, rhetoric and substance don’t necessarily move in lockstep with one another.