What is Rhetoric?

What is the first thing you picture when you hear the word rhetoric? Most people I asked recently had one of two images in mind. At best, people thought of a compelling commercial. At the worst, people envisioned a slick politician either manipulating an audience through smooth talk or lying outright.

As a matter of fact, these bad images are corruptions of true rhetoric. True rhetoric aims to persuade others of the truth. False forms of rhetoric include propaganda, brainwashing, demagoguery, and double speak, all of which abound in our culture today. Understanding the true nature of rhetoric requires us to first banish these distortions.

What did rhetoric originally mean?
The original word is the Greek rhetorike, which can roughly be translated “the art of speech or of a speaker.” This original sense of the word involved three attributes:

  • An appreciation of the true, the good, and the beautiful
  • The ability to speak eloquently and persuasively
  • A virtuous character

It may seem strange to us that the ancient mind connected virtuous living with one’s ability to speak. In Rome, in the first century AD, Quintilian taught and wrote about rhetoric in his book Institutio Oratia. Here, he coined one famous definition of rhetoric as “the art of a good man speaking well.”

Why don’t we have true rhetoric today?
In addition to the bad images people have about listening to rhetoric, there are two other problems with public speaking. One is the fear that many people have about public speaking. The other is the lack of emphasis on speaking in education today. In previous eras, students were required to recite poetry or history or math facts at school exhibitions. Older textbooks gave solid instruction in organizing thoughts and in public delivery, from voice volume to body language. Whether they liked it or not, these students were exposed to public speaking.

Today’s news talks about poor communication skills as one of the greatest deficits facing college students today. Besides the age-old fear of public speaking, these students live in an era of virtual communications like texting and email. This means that face-to-face communications pose an even greater challenge. My husband and I have both conducted job interviews with recent college graduates which gave evidence of their lack of practice speaking.

After seeing this need, my husband and I chose to have our children involved in rhetorical activities from a young age. One way our children practice rhetoric is through Classical Conversations, a local homeschool community. Our children practice presentations every week from age 4 to age 18. All students need opportunities to practice rhetoric in front of their peers and elders. In summer 2015, a new book by Leigh Bortins, The Conversation, will be released. This work addresses both the importance of giving students a rhetorical education and practical tips to make it work at home.

What kinds of speech are included in rhetoric?
The art of rhetoric blossomed during the golden age of Greek democracy. It continues to be important in countries with representative governments. After all, shouldn’t all citizens be able to make informed decisions and to persuade others? In his book Rhetoric, Aristotle talks about three different kinds of speech that should be known to the educated person: political or deliberative speech, forensic speech, and ceremonial speech.

Political speech is concerned with future events. This is the kind of speech used today in the House and Senate. With students, it is most often associated with team policy debate or persuasive essays.

Forensic speech is concerned with past events. This is the kind of speech used in courtrooms. With students, forensic speech is most often associated with Mock Trial and Moot Court.

Ceremonial speech is concerned with praising or blaming individuals for their character and actions. In earlier times, students might be assigned a theme in which they praised a particular virtue or a historical figure who exemplified a particular virtue. Today, ceremonial speech is most often conducted at weddings, funerals, and graduations.

Why should we revive the dying art of rhetoric?
My young son once complained about having to give an oral presentation to his class in our homeschool community. “Daddy, this is a waste of time. When am I ever going to do this in REAL LIFE?” This led to a long conversation with my husband about his daily presentations with clients in his financial planning business. At the time, I was the state manager for a nationwide homeschool group. I, too, could have shared a few “real life” speaking stories about my work with parents who wanted to home educate.

The truth is that all kinds of people use rhetoric everyday. The auto mechanic uses rhetoric when he persuades you to follow his advice for repairing the car. The doctor uses rhetoric when she persuades you to take a course of treatment. Politicians use rhetoric to persuade you to vote a particular way.

In other words, rhetoric is all around us. Even if we are not going to be speakers ourselves, we will surely need to judge speech at some point. “Should I believe the claims in the prescription drug commercial?” “Were the claims of the recent news story accurate?” We can all benefit from honing our thinking and speaking skills.

How can we revive the dying art of rhetoric? 
Students and adults need opportunities to practice different kinds of speaking. One simple way to do this can be practicing at the family dinner table. Children and adults alike can share about their day and what they have learned. Those who want to make it more formal can ask family members to stand while giving their daily recitation. Families can also play storytelling games in which each person is required to contribute a sentence to the plot.

Students and adults can practice discussing current events around the dinner table or in the living room. Local speech and debate clubs often host tournaments that are open to the public. Families can observe these events together and discuss what they have learned. Families could attend a homeowner’s association meeting or a town hall meeting together. Local universities often bring in nationwide leaders to deliver speeches. Families can enhance their study of rhetoric by planning to have dessert and coffee afterward to discuss what they have heard.

As Dorothy Sayers concludes in her 1947 speech “The Lost Tools of Learning,” everyone needs training in rhetoric:
For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery or words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.

Author: Jennifer Courtney

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