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Part 2: What is Rhetoric?

The following is the second article in a series on teaching the art of rhetoric in the classroom.

 Before diving into particular appeals and fallacies, it will be helpful to establish a general understanding of what rhetoric is: its purpose and function. If we can get a clear picture of what rhetoric is supposed to be, it will better help us understand how we should think about specific examples of rhetoric in action and what should constitute a fallacy.  

Here, there is no universal, be-all-end-all definition that will solve our problems for us, so I will offer you several different definitions of rhetoric in the hope that we can synthesize them into a more robust understanding of this art rather than a one-sided, singular definition.  

If you ask the average person what the definition of rhetoric is, you will probably get an answer like, “Rhetoric is the art of persuasion.” The Greek philosopher Socrates poetically calls it “the art of enchanting the soul,” which gives rhetoric a magical flare, but his student Aristotle takes a more scientific approach and calls it “the faculty of discovering in any particular case the available means of persuasion.”  Roman orator Quintilian gives us a helpful clue when he defines rhetoric as “a good man speaking well,” which suggests, not just the idea of speaking, but a judgement about the character of the speaker and the speech. The enlightenment philosopher John Locke rather cynically calls rhetoric “that powerful instrument of error and deceit,” highlighting a more negative aspect. More recently, philosopher Richard Weaver gives a definition of rhetoric as “that which creates an informed appetition for the good,” which highlights the connection of rhetoric to appetites and desires. And finally, classical educator Andrew Kern has an interesting definition: “Decision-making in community,” which draws attention to rhetoric’s role in making choices based on relationships. All of these definitions can be helpful in various ways. 

 It is worth noting up front that, colloquially, the term rhetoric is generally used negatively, usually in reference to dishonest, corrupt politicians—a more Locke-ian definition. I would emphasize that what is commonly and pejoratively called “rhetoric” would be better labeled as “sophistry.” It is not a new problem, and even Socrates had to deal with it—and that is probably why Locke viewed rhetoric as a means of deception; it is a perennial problem. Sophistry is not the use of language as a means of seeking and expressing truth, but rather is used in order to pursue manipulative, selfish ends. What is crucial to understand in this distinction is that rhetoric is fundamentally an ethical art—it is essentially concerned with morality and value judgments about good and evil. In fact, the only way to distinguish true rhetoric from sophistry is its moral end: is it seeking to help others or to help itself?   

True rhetoric will be essentially selfless in that it is concerned primarily with helping other people to find and pursue goodness. This is why I dislike calling rhetoric “the art of persuasion.” There is no element of moral distinction with simple persuasion. Rhetoric is not just being able to get people to do what you want—that is usually nothing but sophistry and manipulation. Rhetoric is about getting people to want to do what they ought to want to do. It’s a subtle distinction, but we cannot stress the importance enough: concern, respect, and self-less love for the Other is the heart of all true rhetoric. The passage of scripture often quoted at weddings is perhaps the most succinct way of saying this: If I have all the knowledge in the world, and have knowledge even of heavenly secrets, but I do not possess love—all my words will be meaningless, annoying, and grating like clanging cymbals (paraphrased). Genuine care and well-being must be at the root of all true rhetoric. To this end, we could give a definition of rhetoric as something like: “Communication guided by truth, love, and humility directed at helping people to choose the Good.”  

 Obviously, none of us consistently measure up to this high standard. But we’ve got to have a standard, nonetheless. And we’ve also got to have the courage to daily hold up our own words and actions to this standard and be willing to be judged by it. None of us like being subjected to sophistry, so if we want to avoid being sophists ourselves, then we will need to be willing to pull up by the roots, and weed out, all our own sophistic tendencies. Leo Tolstoy once said, “Everyone wants to change the world; no one ever thinks about changing himself.” Before we begin worrying about the sophistry of our neighbor, we should be concerned about our own sophistry, our own tendency to use language as a tool for our selfish desires. Take the plank out of your own eye before complaining of the speck in your neighbor’s.  

One last thing before we move on: one thing that I like about the definitions of rhetoric by Weaver and Kern above is that they connect rhetoric to real, concrete things like appetite and decision-making. People tend to think of rhetoric as being a primarily linguistic subject (and therefore abstract), but the content of rhetoric is very often about making difficult choices that will affect your real, lived experiences in the world, not to mention those around you. Lest rhetoric be seen as some lofty, impractical academic interest, we should rather understand rhetoric as one of the main ways by which we (usually unconsciously) make decisions and take action, both individually and communally. Even decisions that you make about your own self are (or should be) held up to the way those decisions will impact others around you—at least, that is what mature adults learn to do. Children are often remarkably unaware of how their own words and actions will affect the world around them. It is something we should grow out of, but oftentimes we don’t, and we entertain childish tendencies well into adulthood. The study of rhetoric is the study of learning how to choose wisely. 

Because rhetoric is fundamentally an ethical art concerned with the good of the Other, the actions we choose to take in this world should be based in part on the relationships that we are involved in. A rhetorician does not pretend like men are separate, isolated islands, but rather they are interconnected fibers woven together, a web of connected relationships. Rhetoric very often tries to answer the question, “Given these particular people, and these particular circumstances, what is the best thing to do?” I hope, by the examples of appeals and fallacies to come, to show that rhetoric is not just useful to academics and philosophers but is eminently practical to everyone on a day-to-day basis in helping us understand why we do and choose the things that we do! 

Next time we will explore the foundation of all rhetoric, appeals and fallacies: The Three Modes of Persuasion! 






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