Rhetoric on Itself
So, what is rhetoric? when we think of rhetoric in this day and age, we think of politicians, thirty-second sound bites, “that depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”, and so on. Because rhetoric has fallen on hard times, we typically associate it with overblown bombast. But while propaganda and bombast may be forms of rhetoric, they actually abuse it. Propaganda and bombast are pretend rhetoric, an imitation of the true art.
So, what is rhetoric? Gorgias called it the art of persuasion. Socrates called it a form of flattery. When Aristotle wrote his monumental work on Rhetoric, he attempted to avoid the criticisms of Plato and Socrates, calling rhetoric the counterpart to dialectic. All men use dialectic (logic), and all men use rhetoric (the expression of logic). Thus, Aristotle defined Rhetoric as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.
Aristotle’s definition seems to describe rhetoric in a theoretical sense. A rhetorician (student of rhetoric) learns to observe the available means of persuasion. He learns to examine his audience to know how he should approach them on the given topic. He learns to pay attention to himself, and how his audience will perceive him. He wants to be credible. He wants his audience to listen to what he has to say. He learns to find the arguments that can and will persuade his audience, and he uses them. He learns how to present those arguments clearly and effectively. In other words, Rhetoric as a formal subject teaches exactly what Aristotle described in his definition.
Practically speaking, there is a sense in which all men are rhetors (users of rhetoric). All men speak, all men seek to persuade. Rhetoric then, in a practical sense, is the art of speaking clearly and effectively (For a thorough discussion of this definition, see Douglas Wilson, Repairing the Ruins (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1996), p.177ff).
The truth is, both definitions correctly identify the true art of rhetoric. All men speak. All men attempt to persuade. All men look for the available means of persuasion. In other words, all men look at the situation and try to find the best way to get their point across. Is Aristotle’s definition correct? Is Wilson’s definition correct? The answer is yes, and both are useful as well.
Would it be correct then to say that rhetoric is persuasion? No, rhetoric does its best to persuade, but it may or may not. A rhetor observes all the available means of persuasion, and then employs the approach that seems best, the approach that gives him the better chance to persuade his audience. He then uses that approach to present his ideas clearly and effectively.
In other words, rhetoric improves your chances at persuasion, just as the right golf club might improve your chances at a hole-in-one. Rhetoric used rightly will improve your ability to persuade, will help you speak clearly and effectively, and will improve your ability to listen and discern arguments.