The word “rhetoric” derives from the Greek word ??????? which actually refers to a lecturer or teacher; the modern word orator is an etymological relative. In its broadest sense today, rhetoric refers to the “art of persuasion” through the use of language. “Classical” rhetoric however is somewhat different from modern rhetoric however; in fact, the word “rhetoric” today can even have negative connotations because of corrupt political leaders who continually engage in “doublespeak” and a compromised, prostituted media beholden to big-money corporate interests that no longer engages in anything resembling meaningful discourse.
In the Classical (i. e. , Hellenistic) tradition, rhetoric originated among the Greek Sophist school, although the poet Homer attributed skill in oratory to many of the main characters in the Iliad; Odysseus and Achilles, whom Phoenix taught to be “a speaker of words,” were both noted for their power of persuasion (Kennedy, 1999). With the development of democracy among the ????? this skill became important among statesmen and law speakers. In this sense, it was similar to modern debating skills; however, unlike today, emotional ad hominem attacks upon one’s opponent was not only acceptable, but encouraged.
What today is known as “mud-slinging” was quite common, and even encouraged, since, like his counterparts in the athletic games and on the battlefield, an orator was expected to gain status by defeating his opponent (6). The earliest Sophist orators were itinerant teachers, whose stated goal was to expose their students to virtue. At once the first humanists as well as the first agnostics, they claimed that basic goodness was a trait that could be learned by anyone, not simply a quality that one was “born” with .
They also questioned the nature of religion, as well as the inherent superiority of Greek culture and society (29-31). Socrates took the process a step farther, believing that self-improvement and the improvement of a society depended on more than simply hearing about virtue. His writings were intended to be exercises – models that students would imitate and from which they would learn. In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle wrote that rhetoric was the “antistrophe,” or response to dialectic. Whereas dialectic was a tool for discourse in theoretical matters, rhetoric was used for more concrete purposes.
These were matters of the law and legislation, the realm of what we today would call politics. Aristotle categorized rhetorical methods that have been well-studied by today’s political candidates (24-25). The first of these is ethos, the influence of one’s audience through the speaker’s credibility and perceived character. A notable example is seen when, in pandering to the “Religious Right,” many neo-conservatives invoke Jesus and Christianity in their rhetoric, although virtually none of them practice such values in their personal lives.
Pathos – essentially emotional manipulation – is also a method in which today’s hard-right extremists are exceptionally skilled. An example here would be the Terri Schiavo fiasco, or the arguments used in discussions regarding abortion or stem-cell research. Logos involves the use of reason and logic, using concrete examples or deductive reasoning; this is something at which today’s liberals and progressives are far more skilled. The Romans were great admirers of all things Greek; it was fairly common for wealthier Roman families to have a Greek tutor for their sons.
Roman rhetoric, like Roman society, tended to focus more on the practical than the theoretical. Latin rhetoric had its roots in the school of Rhodes, where sons of noble Roman families were often sent for their education. The most influential rhetoricians on Roman times were Cicero and Quintilian. The work Ad Herennium (commonly attributed to Cicero) ultimately became one of the basic textbooks on the subject of rhetoric along with De Inventione, and remained so throughout the Middle Ages.
One of the early Christian rhetorician was Augustine of Hippo, who prior to his conversion had been a teacher of the subject. His work, De Doctrina Christiana, became the foundation of “homiletics,” which is the use of the principles of rhetoric in preaching sermons (174-175). As Europe emerged from what is often called “The Dark Ages,” the study of rhetoric became a part of what we would consider “lower division studies” at the universities that were arising at the time in centers such as Oxford and Paris.
Along with logic (dialectic) and grammar, it formed the trivium, or preparatory course of studies (43). The study of rhetoric was highly structured; students learned through repetitive exercises in which they were expected to come up with discourses on subjects related to history or the law. Along with the rediscovery of science and ancient literature, the Renaissance saw the rise of interest in classical rhetoric – partially as a reaction by the new humanists against medieval “faith-based” logic and rhetoric. Starting in the late 15th century C. E.
, there was increased interest in and study of classical Latin rhetoric and grammar, along with a desire to restore Latin as an international language in its Classical form (239). The basic text on rhetoric during this period was De Duplici Copia Verborum et Rerum by Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch humanist as well as a theologian (245). Another highly influential rhetorician of the Renaissance was Juan Luis Vives, who fled the Spanish Inquisition in 1509, and eventually became a lecturer at Oxford University and a tutor to Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII.
Despite the efforts of Erasmus and Vives, vernacular rhetoric – that which used locally spoken languages such as English, French and German – rose in popularity during the 16th century. Richard Rainholde’s Foundacion of Rhetorike, published in 1563, was one of the earliest English-language texts on the subject (249). Rhetoric began to lose ground in the curriculum in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Petrus Ramus, a Parisian scholar, proposed that the study of rhetoric be confined to style, delivery and memory (250-251).
Ramus inspired many followers, including Omer Talon, John Brimsley and others. By the mid-17th Century, Ramist rhetoric was the main method used by Protestant academics. The influence of Classicist Latin rhetoric was kept alive in Roman Catholic schools and universities, however. Modern vernacular rhetoric has its origins at Harvard College, and was heavily influenced by English writers and philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Evelyn and Thomas Sprat, who believed in unadorned, plain language as opposed to “fine speaking.
” John Dryden, who gave his name to the Restoration Period of English history, was the force behind a new, uniquely English style of rhetoric in which the use of English, rather than foreign or Latinate words was preferred (260). The beginning of the 20th century saw a revival in the study of rhetoric due to the increased importance of persuasive language in the face of communication and media technology capable of reaching hundreds of thousands of people almost instantaneously – namely the telegraph and the radio.
As consumerism became an enduring fixture in American culture, advertising, photography and film also contributed to rhetoric’s descent from the ivory towers of academia into the lives of ordinary laypersons via Madison Avenue and Wall Street as well as Hollywood. This is sometimes called “secondary orality,” and has led to the development of theories of rhetoric drawn from the study of linguistics and semiotics (291).
Rhetoric has been used and abused by several generations of politicians around the world, particularly since the “Reagan Revolution,” in which rhetoric was used to convince the American people that “government” (of, for and by the People) was somehow “bad. ” Sadly, the majority of the American people – relatively unsophisticated and lacking critical thinking skills – bought into rhetorical manipulation of language and symbolism into accepting the sell-out of their nation and their democracy to huge, multi-national corporate interests.
While some use is made by English teachers in order to provide a practical framework for teaching basic compositional skills, the main use of rhetoric today is manipulate public opinion and perception. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet (a development which Orwell could not have foreseen and which has largely replaced today’s ineffectual and co-opted mainstream media as a reliable source for authentic news and intelligent opinion), much of this propagandistic and manipulative use of rhetoric – often called “framing” – is being exposed.
Progressive authors such as Jerry Feldman and Thom Hartmann address this phenomenon in books, on websites and on progressive radio. In the current socio-political climate, it is worth recalling that Classical literature – a vehicle for rhetoric – contained a good amount of social criticism, even to the point of condemning democracy (Plato), the Roman oligarchy (Tacitus) and justifying slavery (Aristotle).
The word “rhetoric” today may have the negative connotations of empty speeches, but the fact is that it is neither positive nor negative. Rhetoric is simply a tool for getting ideas across. How such a tool is used, and how it is responded to, ultimately lies with individuals.
Kennedy, Geroge. Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition From Ancient to Modern Times. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999)