Rhetoric: Not as Negative as You Might Think

angry politicianGetting to know a new dental hygienist, she asked about my career. I told her I’ve retired from teaching, among other things, Rhetoric. “Rhetoric?” she paused. “What is that, anyway?” That’s the question I get a lot. I opened my mouth to answer, and couldn’t get the words out for the dental torture devices she shoved in my mouth.

So what is Rhetoric, anyway? Isn’t it just a lot of negative political double-talk? I get a lot of puzzled looks from people who have only heard Rhetoric referred to in a negative light–especially in our politically-charged atmosphere today.

Way back when Aristotle (384-322 BC) was writing and postulating on the nature of the world, he observed how people tried to persuade one another. He didn’t invent the art of persuasion; he observed and organized the concept and gave it a name: Rhetoric.

Aristotle’s lifelong pursuit seems to have been organizing, categorizing, labeling,  commenting upon, and teaching different aspects of the world as he knew it.  Scholars assembled his body of works, known as the Corpus Aristotelicum. Most scholars today dispute the inclusion of quite a few lesser works and argue that what is contained in the Corpus may actually be written in the style of Aristotle by students in his schools. Much of the Corpus, though, is indisputably his, and is classified in five categories: Logic; Metaphysics; Physics; Ethics and Politics; and Rhetoric and Poetics.

It doesn’t take long to realize that we are all engineered to argue; spend one day with a three-year-old or a middle school student and see what I mean.  Aristotle, far from wanting to encourage a child to argue, instead directs the more mature student “to discern the real and the apparent means of persuasion” (Aristotle, Rhetoric Book 1).

In the classical tradition, the student of Rhetoric will have had an education in Logic, which sets a solid foundation on which to build his persuasive discourse. Aristotle’s thoughts on Logic confirm that fact: Aristotelian logic centers on the syllogism, which is (in very simple terms) an argument composed of two premises and a conclusion.

How do we get from Aristotle’s Logic to the definition of Rhetoric? If we, like him, consider it in terms of a scientific approach, then Rhetoric is the science of persuasion. He breaks down persuasive discourse in order to analyze it.

Similarly, our course of Rhetoric today does break down the component parts of Rhetoric in order to analyze its effectiveness. And the study of it, as detailed in Biblical Worldview Rhetoric (Second Edition coming soon), also explores and imitates the artful side of Rhetoric. We’ll look at the art of persuasion in another post.

But going back to one of our original questions: isn’t Rhetoric just a lot of negativity? It can be, most definitely. Sometimes it accuses, other times it defends, and very often it celebrates or remembers. For every angry, accusatory political discourse, I can show you several poignant, uplifting, inspirational ones. Rhetoric doesn’t have to be negative; it must always be persuasive.


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Filed under Uncategorized, Biblical Worldview, Rhetoric, Classical Education

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