What is rhetoric?

It is important to appreciate rhetoric because it is one of the foundations of democracy


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CALGARY, Alta. Dec. 15, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Rhetoric has a bad rap and is in need of a rhetorical defense. After all, what else can rhetoric do but defend itself rhetorically? This is not to suggest a need for linguistic legerdemain or spurious speech. Yet, the very word “rhetoric” today bears a negative connotation. This is a misconception with consequences, not least of all for civic and civil life.

Common dictionaries offer primary definitions of rhetoric such as, “the undue use of exaggeration or display in speech,” or “insincere or clever language.” Needless to say (although it ought to be said), dictionaries are not that convincing on the import and meaning of rhetoric. An otherwise excellent instrument for rhetoricians itself participates in the contemporary corruption of rhetoric.

Examples of this misconception abound. Discussion surrounding the latest climate summit in Paris provides many. Progressives and conservatives alike have lamented the “mere rhetoric” of such an occasion. Whatever one’s position on the issue, the invocation of mere rhetoric is a meaningless addition of insult to injured rhetoric. What progressives really mean is that the rhetoric was not sufficiently convincing (or binding), whereas conservatives mean that the rhetoric was insufficiently truthful (or pragmatic).

There may be better or worse rhetoric – more or less convincing, or more or less truthful rhetoric – but rhetoric is always merely rhetoric. In fact, rhetoric is a direct alternative to force, or violence, for which we should be grateful. As such, rhetoric is central to democracy, of which we need be reminded. In defending rhetoric we defend democratic politics. Rather than assuming rhetoric to be an aberration or threat to democratic debate, we need to understand and practice it as the key to improving democratic deliberation.

What is rhetoric? Simply speaking, it is artful public speech, or oratory. (This simplest and oldest of definitions usually shows up third or later in dictionaries’ lists.) Of course, people speak in public for many reasons, be it to inform or to inspire, to entertain or to idle away time. However, in democracies public speech often serves the purpose of persuading people.

Political rhetoric aims to bring others to one’s side; to convince fellows of one’s position. Rather than ruled through violence or its threat, democratic citizens are generally ruled by the power of speech. The most persuasive speakers are typically the most rewarded. Thus, talented talkers usually fare better in campaigns and elections. So much, one might say, is for better and for worse. And it is true that words can be deceptive. But overall this is assuredly better than the strongest or most violent reaping the rewards of the democratic contest.

It is by no accident that the study of rhetoric first emerged in the oldest democracy, Athens, and continued to flourish in the Roman Republic and beyond where democratic ideals persisted. The art of rhetoric was considered fundamental to the education of democratic citizens, taught alongside science and philosophy, mathematics and law, literature and history. Where government is based on the consent of the governed, citizens require the tools to successfully persuade and be persuaded in turn, when granting as well as receiving consent. Mutual persuasion is central to democratic citizenship.

The artfulness of rhetoric has never been equated with a purity of speech or argument, per se. Both the speaker and listener are human beings with hearts and minds, with a particular set of experiences and a history. Artful rhetoric operates on, and therefore appeals to, all aspects of human experience. This is no reason to dismiss rhetoric. For, as Aristotle famously wrote long ago in his work, Rhetoric, there are three general elements to public persuasion: ethos (character), pathos (emotion), and logos (reason).

As individuals and citizens, we can neither deny our own particularity (or character), the passions that move us (or our emotions), and the arguments that compel us (or what we find reasonable). We must in turn take the time to recognize and understand all these elements in our interlocutors – in those who speak to us, and to whom we speak.

The more attention we pay in this regard, the better will we cultivate our judgment of both speeches and persons. Studying and practicing anew the art of rhetoric, we will therefore be less inclined to mere force or violence.

Trevor Shelley completed his PhD in political science at Louisiana State University. His book, “Liberalism and Globalization,” will be published in 2016 with St. Augustine Press. Trevor is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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