Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech and writing. Thus, rhetoric is the art of using words—as opposed to fists, knives, or bullets—to persuade other people to do what you want them to do. Rhetoric was an essential part of the classical liberal arts curriculum. The ancient Athenians valued the art of rhetoric because male Athenian citizens had to speak for themselves in public. The ancient Athenians held public assemblies in which the male citizens discussed and voted on decrees that affected every aspect of Athenian life. The ancient Romans also valued the art of rhetoric because it helped prepare young men from privileged families for a career in the Senate, where a group of privileged men made decisions that affected the entire empire.

Rhetoric and Democracy

The classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric has traditionally been valued by societies with a democratic or republican form of government, which are governed by elected officials. In a truly democratic society, these subjects would be taught to everyone. In an unequal society, they are reserved for the privileged. In a dictatorship, they are generally suppressed. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell created a nightmarish vision of a society in which the ruling political party made logical thought impossible by stripping language of meaning. As a result, ordinary people could not think clearly or make themselves understood. Thus, they were unable to rise up to free themselves.
A society can have a functional democracy only if a critical mass of the population understands the basic principles of rhetoric. These skills are important for speakers and writers. They are also important for members of the audience, who must decide whether to believe what they are told and whether to follow the course of action that is being promoted.

When people think of the art of persuasion, they often think of advertising and public relations. Advertising and public relations are the ways in which the wealthy try to influence the general public. However, leaders of grassroots movements can also use rhetoric in an attempt to influence public opinion. When I tried to think of prominent people who had done that, the first three names that came to my mind were Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Sadly, I realized that all three men were eventually assassinated. Yet their words continue to inspire people to the present day.

Rhetoric in Personal Life

Individual human beings need to use the art of persuasion on a daily basis in everyday life. Whenever you need to persuade some other human being to do what you want, you need to use rhetoric. Unfortunately, when people have poor skills in rhetoric, they may have problems in their social life and even in their family life. Friendships are destroyed and family relationships are poisoned by ugly and pointless conversations, often about irrelevancies. Misunderstandings often arise from verbal disputes, which means that each person misunderstands what the other person is trying to say. Often, people resort to ugly debating tactics out of ignorance. In particular, the “red herring” logical fallacies are not only misleading, they can be downright obnoxious. In short, our social fabric is torn and tattered because people have never been taught how to be reasonable.

The Means of Persuasion

The students of the Greek philosopher Aristotle compiled a famous book on rhetoric.

The classic textbook on rhetoric was compiled by the students of the philosopher Aristotle. Even today, many people feel that the later writings on the subjects are mere “footnotes to Aristotle.”

The students of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle compiled the world’s most famous textbook on rhetoric. Why should everyone study rhetoric? The answer to that question can be found at the beginning of Book I of Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic [i.e., logic]. Both alike are concerned with such things as come, more or less, within the general ken of all men and belong to no definite science. Accordingly all men make use, more or less, of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others. Ordinary people do this either at random or through practice and from acquired habit. Both ways being possible, the subject can plainly be handled systematically, for it is possible to inquire the reason why some speakers succeed through practice and others spontaneously; and every one will at once agree that such an inquiry is the function of an art.

Aristotle wrote that there are three means of persuasion:

  • Logos means logic and evidence.
  • Pathos means emotion.
  • Ethos means character, such as the reputation of a speaker.

Logos is the only means of persuasion that is supposed to carry weight in a scientific discussion, which is intended to establish the facts. Once you have established the facts, you may need to decide what to do about those facts. For that, you need to rely on your feelings (pathos) as well as on logos. Ethos is not supposed to carry any weight in a scientific discussion. In practice, however, we must often rely on other people’s word. We must rely on their knowledge and judgement. If a person is knowledgeable and wise and honest, you can often take them at their word. The key is to become a good judge of character.

Rhetoric and Civility

Many parents in the United States teach their children that it is impolite to talk about politics (or religion, or money, or sex). The unfortunate result is that many Americans grow up ignorant of how to have a productive and possibly even pleasant conversation about any important topic. Instead, many children are taught ugly debating tactics, sometimes as part of their religious education. Increasingly, these ugly debating tactics are being promoted by radio and television personalities and over the Internet. The result has been an increase in incivility.’

The word civility means polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior. Originally, however, it meant training in the liberal arts and humanities. Those studies provide the skills that one needs in order to make and appreciate reasonable arguments. The current climate of incivility in the United States today is a predictable result of the suppression of the classical liberal arts and the humanities in our public schools. If we want to create a truly democratic society, we must reform education. We must start by teaching grammar in grammar school.