Introduction to Rhetoric

This primer and The Rhetorica Network are named for Rhetorica, the beautiful warrior. Words are her weapons, and she wins by the logic of her arguments, the passion of her emotions, the strength of her character, and the eloquence of her expressions. She represents the classic concerns of rhetoric: applying skilled public speaking and writing to the issues of the day to move hearts and minds.

You've probably heard someone say: "Oh, that's just rhetoric"! In other words, whatever the statement is, the amateur critic believes it to be simply empty or evasive language. And perhaps it is. So is it rhetoric? Certainly. Every human utterance is rhetoric because, from my particular theoretical perspective, all human utterances are speech-acts meant to persuade. In an academic, non-pejorative sense, rhetoric is the effective use of language. Effective to what end? There are lots of answers to that question, and you now know mine: persuasion.

For the writer or speaker wishing to move hearts and minds, a familiarity with rhetoric will help in achieving the goal by suggesting possible answers to these questions:   What is the situation of the speech-act? Who is the audience? What arguments and appeals are likely to sway them? How might one achieve the proper tone, or eloquence, for the given situation? The quality of a rhetorical performance can be anything from sublime to insipid, but what is most important for the critic of a speech-act is to decide if the rhetoric persuades and, if it does, how it works to persuade.

Rhetoric has always been difficult to define. I often use the term to mean: 1) an academic discipline; 2) a socio-political skill in language use; 3) persuasive, stylistic features in language use, and; 4) following George Kennedy, a form of "energy" in language. None of these ways of defining rhetoric is exclusive. The term has multiple denotations and connotations, and I will not attempt to settle on any particular one.

Dictionary definitions most often describe rhetoric as the effective use of language to persuade or as the study of the elements of style and structure in writing or speaking. These typical dictionary definitions clearly point to a dualistic nature of rhetoric as understood for much of the past 2,500 years. On the one hand, rhetoric is a skill with a socio-political purpose: to persuade. On the other hand, rhetoric is the study and application of style and structure. These two definitions are not necessarily exclusive.

Rhetoric for the ancient Greeks was not a concept without conflict. Plato's early conception of rhetoric called it a "knack" that could be used to make poor arguments seem the better (a view we often hear today). For Plato, a proper rhetoric was a skill, used in the service of philosophy, to help mankind arrive at transcendent truth. His antipodes, the Sophists, maintained a position much like many rhetoricians today, that rhetoric identifies and creates contingent truths. Aristotle, on the other hand, compartmentalized rhetoric into distinct subsets of skills and called it "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion" (On Rhetoric 1355b). These are just three of the many ways the Greeks conceived of rhetoric. All three share a concern with the public sphere, moral philosophy, and politics.

So I use these four working definitions: As an academic discipline, rhetoric is the theory, practice, and critique of effective written and oral communication. As a socio-political skill in language use, rhetoric is the use of certain discourses in certain contexts with certain audiences for the purpose of persuasion. As the persuasive features of language use, rhetoric is the theory, practice, and critique of the persuasive effects of language features, i.e. how various features persuade. As the energy of language, rhetoric is the ever-present, pre-linguistic source of our ability to understand the persuasive intent of a message.

The system of rhetoric I describe in this primer could be called the classical system, but that would be misleading. Instead, it is a blend of classical systems as espoused by, among others, three ancient Greek teachers: Plato, Isocrates (and the Sophists), and Aristotle.

...next A Brief History of Ancient Greek Rhetoric


For a more detailed look at the canons of rhetoric, I highly recommend Silva Rhetoricae. For more detail about critical techniques, refer to the Rhetorica Critical Meter.

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