Culture & Society

Why Rhetoric Still Matters

To better combat political polarization, we can all benefit from reviving the study of the power to persuade

Plato and his student, Aristotle, helped formalize the study of rhetoric. Raphael Sanzio (Italian, 1483-1520) Detail from “The School of Athens.” Image Credit: Vatican Museum

As a professor of rhetoric, I am often asked a very simple question: What exactly is rhetoric? Throughout most of the history of Western civilization, this would have been an easy if not banal question for the formally educated to answer. Rhetoric was seen as one of the primary subjects of the formalized liberal arts dating back to medieval universities. Part of the core liberal arts curriculum, it was combined with grammar and logic to form the academic “trivium.”

Rhetoric was a primary subject in formal learning from antiquity to the middle of the 19th century, when it was replaced by the study of literature and absorbed into the kind of English department we all recognize today. Exactly why it fell out of favor is a matter of debate, but now that rhetoric has made an academic comeback in the past 50 years as a distinct discipline, we would do well to know what it is and why it is so important.

Plato’s Two Views of Rhetoric

Although rhetoricians (those who practice or study rhetoric) existed before Plato, the great ancient Greek philosopher is credited with the most important seminal texts on the subject. Plato’s original take on rhetoric is that it was unimportant and unworthy of study. At best, it was what he—using Socrates as a mouthpiece—described as a form of “flattery,” a “habitude or knack” that leads not to political savvy but to its mere semblance. He went as far as to say rhetoric is to truth what cookery is to medicine, which is to say that medicine is good for the body, but a delicious cake, although not healthy, may be more appetizing. Thus, a rhetor (Greek for speaker or writer) may provide unhealthy information by couching it in palatable terms.

Plato also saw rhetoric as dangerous in the wrong hands. In his dialogue “Gorgias,” Plato creates a straw man by having the title character, the philosopher and rhetorician Gorgias, explain why he sees the “art” of rhetoric as the most important talent a person can have. Gorgias declares:

[I]f a rhetorician and a doctor were to enter any city you please, and there had to contend in speech before the Assembly or some other meeting as to which of the two should be appointed physician, you would find the physician was nowhere, while the master of speech would be appointed if he wished. And if he had to contend with a member of any other profession whatsoever, the rhetorician would persuade the meeting to appoint him before anyone else in the place; for there is no subject on which the rhetorician could not speak more persuasively than a member of any other profession whatsoever, before a multitude. So great, so strange, is the power of this art.

Speaking through his frequent protagonist, Socrates, Plato refutes this description of rhetoric and insists that as long as one tells the truth and speaks in good faith, a formal study of rhetoric is unnecessary. The aforementioned medicine is all that is necessary for truth to prevail to the benefit of society.

If you find Plato’s take on rhetoric naïve, you aren’t alone. Plato himself would change his tune almost two decades later when, in the dialogue “Phaedrus,” he has Socrates actually defend “good” rhetoric, distinguishing it from “bad.” Unlike Gorgias’ “bad” rhetorician, a “good” rhetorician appreciates both the truth and the need to convey that truth in ways people can understand. When instructing his student Phaedrus on how to be a good rhetorician, Socrates says:

First, you must know the truth concerning everything you are speaking or writing about; you must learn how to define each thing in itself; and, having defined it, you must know how to divide it into kinds until you reach something indivisible. Second, you must understand the nature of the soul, along the same lines; you must determine which kind of speech is appropriate to each kind of soul, prepare and arrange your speech accordingly, and offer a complex and elaborate speech to a complex soul and a simple speech to a simple one. Then, and only then, will you be able to use speech artfully, to the extent that its nature allows it to be used that way, either in order to teach or in order to persuade.

Plato seems to have developed an appreciation for rhetoric as a necessary for conveying the truth, yet it is subordinate to that truth in every way. This understanding of rhetoric has continued to be salient in Western thought.

The Power To Persuade

Later, Plato’s student, Aristotle, would formalize rhetoric systematically by laying down instructions on how and why to use it. In his treatise “Rhetoric,” Aristotle breaks the concept down into various steps and categories.

Aristotle provides the first succinct—and probably most cited—definition of rhetoric in Western literature: the ability, in any given situation, to discern the available means of persuasion. By “available means of persuasion,” Aristotle means that different modes of persuasion—references, figurative language, word choice, etc.—will not affect all people the same way. For example, if you are trying to persuade people of the merits of organized team sports, you may speak differently to a staunch individualist than you would to someone more communally minded. When speaking to the individualist, using the saying “There’s no ‘I’ in team” would not help your cause, whereas the phrase could be a selling point for the one who values community. Thus, considering your audience is a key to persuasion.

Aristotle identified three kinds of rhetorical appeals or framings by which persuasion is achieved. The first appeal is logos, most simply understood as the use of reason to make a case. However, logos denotes not only reason, but empirical information, maxims, historical references, testimonials and even fables (as allegories). Also, he advises the reader on how to frame arguments in ready-made templates—what he called topics—to assist people in making and refuting arguments. The second appeal is pathos, the appeal to emotion. Aristotle realized that humans are emotional beings; thus, a rhetor should understand and use emotion when trying to persuade. He even took time to discuss when and where to induce particular emotions for the utmost effect, including sadness and anger. The third appeal, ethos, is the appeal to one’s character—people are more likely to believe someone who is trustworthy and credible. For this reason, Aristotle said that ethos may be the most important of the rhetorical appeals.

Four Reasons to Study Rhetoric

Aristotle seemed to take pleasure in dissecting and categorizing the world, and the world of language was no exception. However, he was clear that this was not done for its own sake. It is important to understand why, exactly, Aristotle saw rhetoric as useful and worthy of formal study. He gives four main reasons for this, and each is worthy of individual attention. The first reason is that “things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites,” so that if one tells the truth but loses an argument, it is because of one’s lack of rhetorical skill. The second reason is that not everyone has the capacity to be instructed through logical and reasonable explanation alone; these people have to be led by the appeals of ethos and pathos, as well. Third, we must be able to argue both sides of an issue, not for purposes of deception but to understand, to the best of our ability, the thinking and rationale of those who oppose us. This kind of cognitive empathy can inform us on how to address these people and help us clarify our own position. Lastly, rhetoric, though dangerous in the wrong hands, should be perfected in each of us, for “it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason.” Defending oneself through language is a skill worth cultivating, even at the risk of misuse by others.

These are Aristotle’s main justifications for the study of rhetoric, and from these reasons one can glean how imperative rhetoric is. To effectively influence our words and defend ourselves against the words of others, one must study and master the tools of persuasion. Thus, in a sense, Aristotle’s writing on rhetoric is more than just a philosophical treatise; it is a self-help book of sorts.

Subjective vs. Objective Truth

Although Plato and Aristotle are seen as the primary players in the initial development of rhetoric, we would be remiss to neglect the Sophists. A group that included the likes of Protagoras and the aforementioned Gorgias, Sophists were traveling tutors paid to instruct citizens in a variety of subjects—but especially rhetoric, since the advent in ancient Greece of democracy and self-representation in law courts made it a necessary skill. But these philosophers’ understanding of rhetoric was almost completely antithetical to Plato’s, and they considered some of Aristotle’s distinctions illusory. In their view, rhetoric could be used only to persuade others of subjective truths, for human perception is too limited to discern absolute truth.

This distrust in the human ability to discern absolute truth finds its most famous articulations in the work of Protagoras and Gorgias. Protagoras stated that “of all things, the measure is man.” By this statement, Protagoras was questioning the validity of truth claims and other dogma. If “man” has limited perception, truth claims can be only subjective in nature. More perplexing was Gorgias’ take on truth. Addressing language’s relationship to truth, he wrote, “Nothing exists; if it does exist, it cannot be known; if it can be known, it cannot be communicated.” This is to say that language is inadequate for conveying one’s thoughts and discoveries to others clearly and directly. No two people can understand something exactly the same way. Thus, even if absolute truth exists, human language is inadequate for conveying it precisely. Both men questioned the very notion of truth and our ability to communicate it to others.

The tension between the beliefs of Plato and Aristotle and those of the Sophists has never really gone away. In fact, one may recognize this tension in contemporary arguments between conservatives and liberals, modernists and postmodernists, those that believe good and bad are universal values and those who believe such concepts are culture-bound and dependent on one’s social position, etc. People who insist that truth is nothing more than the opinion of the powerful and that the privileged could not possibly understand the beliefs and outlooks of the underprivileged carry on the sophistic tradition, if only inadvertently.

Although these thinkers discussed rhetoric 2,500 years ago, many scholars consider any treatment of rhetoric thereafter as a footnote to these ancient Greek thinkers, with Plato and Aristotle winning out throughout history. That being said, in the millennia since, philosophers have questioned and complicated the ideas of these two great thinkers. Many subsequent philosophers through medieval times, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and modernity have broadened out the discipline, providing their views on rhetoric as it relates to politics, education, religion, civic society, psychology and semantics. What’s more, scholars now recognize and appreciate more diverse sources of rhetorical theory and practice, especially regarding race and sex.

What Can Rhetoric Do For Us Now?

Rhetoric’s comeback cannot have come at a better time. In 21st-century America, the eclecticism of values, attitudes and beliefs makes it all the more important that we convey these things as clearly as possible to each other. Tribalism—the tendency to associate only with those who share similar values, attitudes and beliefs—may very well be the result of a lack of rhetorical know-how.

Next, I plan to discuss how rhetoric can help us remedy our societal ills of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Rhetoric may not be a panacea for society’s ills, but I believe it to be a very good initial step toward healing them.

This is the first of a two-part series on the importance of rhetoric. In the above essay, Erec Smith discusses the development of rhetoric and the debates over its proper uses. In a second essay, he will explain why this ancient art is more relevant than ever.  

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