Rhetoric, an Introduction

Where Rhetoric Comes From

The study of rhetoric is as old as time itself...well, maybe not that old, but it has a long history in Western tradition. Although its study probably came from Africa, Western civilization lays claim to its founding. We normally consider Corax of Sicily to be the "founder" of the study of rhetoric. He and his student Tisias probably wrote the first rhetoric textbooks. Here are some early rhetoric highlights:

  • Syracuse, Sicily around 465 B.C.E.

  • Revolution overthrew the island's dictators

  • A democracy was established

  • Citizens had to defend themselves in court

  • Corax is credited with establishing a systematic study of rhetoric

  • Categorized orations--an intro, an argument (present evidence), and a conclusion

Some of the More Well-Known Figures in Ancient Rhetoric

The Greeks rhetorical influence is studied to this day. Here are some names you've probably heard:

  • Gorgias (490-385 B.C.E.)
    -Sophist from Sicily who moved to Athens
    -Established one of the first schools of rhetoric in Athens
    -Successful rhetoric over moral integrity

  • Socrates (470-399 B.C.E.)
    -'Founder' of the study of Philosophy
    -It's dialectic,* boggie, woggie, woggie: the Socratic Method

  • Plato** (427-347 B.C.E.)
    -Faithful student of Socrates
    -Founded the Athenian Academy
    -Rejected relative knowledge and sophistic (as in sophistry not sophistication) emphasis on form
    -Aimed for Truth, Justice, and the American...I mean, Athenian Way

  • Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.)
    -Not-so-faithful student of Plato
    -The great organizer...wasn't as concerned with moral implications; instead, he was concerned with defining and classifying the parts of rhetoric.
    -On Rhetoric: reason above flashiness and playing with emotions

  • Major Aristotelian quotes:

    • Aristotle defines rhetoric:
      "Let rhetoric be [defined as] an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion" (1.2.1).
    • Rhetoric and Science:
      "[There is persuasion] through character whenever the speech is spoken in such a way as to make the speaker worthy of credence; for we believe fair-minded people to a greater extent and more quickly [than we do others] on all subjects in general and completely so in cases where there is not exact knowledge but room for doubt." (Aristotle 1.2.4)***

  • Aristotelian rhetoric (p. 7):

    • Deliberative: deliberate about a future action in the best interests of the state.
    • Judicial (forensic): prosecution or defense in court.
    • Epideictic: speeches of praise or blame on someone or thing: often ceremonial but not seeking immediate action.

Now, the above list isn't exhaustive or representative; it's simply introductory. The Romans borrowed much of the Greeks rhetorical traditions and study, but we won't get into that in this class. The study of rhetoric and philosophy is quite daunting but highly rewarding. I encourage all of you to delve deeper into rhetoric and philosophy. At a basic level, these fields analyze and contemplate what makes us uniquely human--our ability to think. What else makes us uniquely human? Technology.

Several Terms to Know

Again, the following list isn't exhaustive, just introductory. The terms below are major terms for rhetoric:

  • Ethos: the presentation of one's character

  • Pathos: appeal to emotions

  • Logos: appeal to reason or logic

  • Syllogism: an argument consisting of a Major Premise, a Minor Premise, and a Conclusion

    All men are mortal;
    Socrates is a man;
    Therefore, Socrates is mortal.****

Rhetoric is often associated with oratory, but we study it in writing as well. In fact, Plato didn't like writing because he felt it would hurt one's memory. If something was written down, one wouldn't have to commit the information to memory; therefore, one's memory would diminish (96).*****

Why the Negative Connotation Associated with Rhetoric

You'd think that with such a rich history, rhetoric would be introduced to students long before college. Well, it is, but not necessary as a pillar of Western Civilization. The term comes up when politicians or their critics denounce an opponent's speech as empty; therefore, "rhetoric" is often associated popularly with "empty speech," non-contributing verbiage, or fluff.

But the study of rhetoric is much more complicated. Just as each discipline has its own epistemology, each discipline's communication has a rhetoric. And rhetoric isn't limited simply to disciplines: Movements, Social Norms, Technology, Science, Religion, etc. have a rhetoric. I often define such analyses into "rhetorics of..." as common factors surrounding the power or belief in a particular area. In other words, beliefs, attitudes, values, and practices are rhetorics of prevailing social ideology: One's acceptance of cultural "truth" is based largely on one's immersion into the culture's myths and beliefs.

For instance, what's the rhetoric behind Hollywood movies that end in marriage and/or babies? Well, getting married and having children is a major cultural practice, so that gets "played out" in films. Additionally, women are often consider babymakers in search of a man to donate the necessary ingredient, so female characters in Hollywood films have traditionally not been complete until they marry and have children or somehow fulfill a woman's "proper" role according to prevailing attitudes. Because our culture (remember, this is a generalization) favors families as opposed to singles, the rhetoric of our entertainment--the power behind acceptance or enjoyments of a film--often conforms to cultural values.

Language and Hegemony

Ok, I know what you're thinking: Isn't rhetoric just BS...empty political speech? While empty political speech is a definition of rhetoric, it's too reductive a definition for enlightened college students such as yourselves. Rhetoric is much more involved than the unfortunate popular definition. For this class (and others) you should have a broader view of rhetoric. I like to define rhetoric as "what builds meaning into something." That something can be an object, belief, event, or system, but, whatever it is, meaning is attached personally and culturally.

Take the following words for example: Communism and Feminism. Both have denotations and connotations. The denotative definitions (from the dictionary) are below.

  • Communism: an economic system based on total equality and ownership of the means of production.
  • Feminism: a philosophy recognizing and attempting to change women's subodinate status in patriarchal society; a philosophy promoting the equality of all people.

Connotations are the feelings, allusions, and values a group (such as a culture) associates with certain words. Likewise, conscious and unconscious rhetoric describes what gives messages (even visual ones) their meaning--explicitly and implicitly.



* Not to be confused with the Hegelian Dialectic

** Not to be confused with Pluto or Pluto.

*** Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George A. 
      Kennedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

**** But Socrates has been known to travel through time.

***** Plato. Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII. Trans. Walter Hamilton.
         London: Penguin, 1973.

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