What Is Rhetoric?

Alan Rankin

Rhetoric is persuasive communication. That is, it is any form of speech or writing that is intended to convince an audience of a particular point of view rather than to simply convey information. The principles of rhetoric were codified by Aristotle and other Greek philosophers in ancient times. These principles are still followed by modern speakers in the fields of speech and debate. In a broader sense, rhetoric can refer to the effective use of language in any form of discourse.

Students who understand rhetoric have an easier time following contemporary political and ethical debates.
Students who understand rhetoric have an easier time following contemporary political and ethical debates.

The term “rhetoric” has many definitions. The earliest definitions were set by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his influential 4th-century treatise on the subject. For the Greek and later Roman civilizations, the principles of persuasive speech were of paramount importance. Early ruling bodies, such as the Athenian Assembly of Greece and the Roman Senate, decided critical issues as a result of such speech and debate. Aristotle’s work on the subject survived the collapse of Greek civilization and has been studied ever since by scholars of the topic, called rhetoricians.

Adolph Hitler's verbal rhetoric swayed public opinion in Nazi Germany.
Adolph Hitler's verbal rhetoric swayed public opinion in Nazi Germany.

In essence, rhetoric is an art form. Those who master this art are more likely to convince listeners of their points of view, whatever they may be. To this end, rhetoricians will employ a wide variety of literary techniques, including metaphor, hyperbole, or allegory. They may also use argumentative techniques such as logic, emotional manipulation, or personal charm to win over the audience. Aristotle referred to these latter techniques as logos, pathos, and ethos, respectively.

Aristotle helped formalize the idea of rhetoric.
Aristotle helped formalize the idea of rhetoric.

Rhetoric is widely used in many fields of human endeavor. Politicians may employ numerous rhetorical techniques to overcome opponents or champion a particular cause or endeavor. Members of the clergy in many faiths must master rhetorical skills to minister to their congregations. Attorneys employ these same skills to persuade juries and judges in courtrooms. The field of advertising is famous for its mastery of persuasive techniques to sell products and services to consumers.

Note that in none of these fields is it necessary for the conveyed message to be true, accurate, or beneficial. The art of rhetoric applies only to the delivery of the information, not its interior context. Indeed, many speakers throughout history have used these techniques to persuade audiences to commit actions that were deadly to themselves or others. Examples include the mass murderers Charles Manson and Jim Jones and the infamous Nazi leader Adolph Hitler. Rhetoric is a powerful tool and, like any tool, it must be used responsibly.

Politicians might use rhetorical appeals based on their experience or authority on a subject.
Politicians might use rhetorical appeals based on their experience or authority on a subject.

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Discussion Comments

KoiwiGal

@irontoenail - The difficulty being that it's very difficult to find teachers who are going to be completely objective when they teach kids how to deal with politicians. Most of them won't be able to help putting some kind of bias into the discussion, which I don't think is a good idea. I think that's why rhetoric is usually taught formally at the college level.

Of course, rhetoric can be taught at high school level if it's done properly, but if not it could be worse than if it was not done at all, in my opinion.

irontoenail

I think everyone should study the principles of rhetoric. You might think you won't need to use them in your own life, and that might even be true although I think they could come in handy for most people.

But it's important to know them in order to understand how other people are manipulating you. I don't think that things like advertising should be completely stopped, I just think people should be educated so that they can make real decisions without being unduly influenced because they are ignorant of rhetorical devices.

And when it comes to the speeches of politicians and so forth, it's vital for people to understand the message underneath the bravado. It's something that I think should be taught early on in high school.

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