The Great Conversation: Rhetoric

By Matt McKeown

It is time to restore rhetoric to an esteemed place in our curricula.

Rhetoric has, for the last hundred years or so, been having some bad press. To be a rhetor (a student or practitioner of rhetoric) is to be a showman, a sophist, even a con artist; the techniques of persuasion have been so habitually separated from logic and wisdom, it’s assumed that rhetoric is persuasion through bad reasons for bad purposes. But in truth, the art of persuasion is as necessary for good arguments as it is for bad ones, and merits study accordingly.

Rhetoric was a central subject in the Medieval university: Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as the counterpart of logic, the flesh to its bones, held sway. He divided rhetoric into three subspecies: forensic rhetoric, concerned with past events and with declaring guilt or innocence in court; epideictic rhetoric, concerned with the present state of affairs and with celebrating or censuring public persons; and deliberative rhetoric, concerned with decisions about the future and addressed to assemblies like guilds or parliaments. In all three cases, the point of rhetoric was to persuade people to view facts and probabilities in a certain way, and to have proper emotional and ethical responses to them. Rhetoric concerns the transition from belief to action.

Rhetoric in its truest sense seeks to perfect men by showing them better versions of themselves, links in that chain extending up toward the ideal.

The techniques of rhetoric, sometimes referred to as the “common topics” (as in Aristotle’s Topics), were once as stock as the list of valid syllogisms. Rhetorical arguments may be derived by definition, by comparison, by relationship, by circumstances, or by testimony. In themselves, the topics are not good or bad: being correct about the facts and honest in how he uses them is what makes a rhetor good or bad.

But rhetoric is relevant to more than practical persuasion. Most of us do not have to defend ourselves in court or propose resolutions to Congress, or even do much public speaking. Studying rhetoric helps us understand those who do, of course; but rhetoric also relates to literature and poetry. This is in part because literature may depict rhetoric, as in many of Shakespeare’s plays. But it is also because one of the purposes of rhetoric (and one of the things that makes it vulnerable to misuse) is, like poetry, to make language beautiful. Nothing moves the soul like beauty, and rhetoric would be worth studying for that reason alone, even if it had no additional usefulness.

Suggested reading:
Plato, Gorgias
Aristotle, Rhetoric
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning
Richard Weaver, Language Is Sermonic


If you enjoyed this post, try one of our profiles of the names on our author bank, from Confucius to Kafka. Or take a look at this piece of the relationship between Catholic education and the tradition of the liberal arts.

Published on 15th May, 2020.

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