Rhetoric: The ancient art of persuasion

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Communication tools to inspire and motivate.

Rhetoric has a bad reputation. It’s often used as an insult to suggest speech which is intended to deceive. In connection with the speech of politicians it implies they’re misrepresenting the facts. We associate rhetoric with propaganda, not truth.

There is some basis for this reputation. But to place a negative spin on rhetoric is itself a rhetorical device. We can’t avoid rhetoric, it surrounds us.

Whenever you try and persuade someone with logic, or values, or emotion, you’re using rhetorical tools. We can use tools for good or bad purposes. We can use rhetoric to motivate and inspire, but we can also use it deceive.

It’s reputation as a form of deception is unfortunate, because rhetoric has an ancient and noble pedigree. It originated in ancient Greece where it was considered an essential skill of leadership.

The word “rhetoric” comes from the Greek rhetorikos, meaning oratory. Rhetoric is the skill of statesmanship, eloquence and compromise, a form of practical wisdom.

Rhetoric is used to win arguments, not fights. You win a fight when you defeat your opponent. You win an argument when you persuade someone of your point of view.

The goal of rhetoric isn’t to triumph over others, but to reach agreement. When you persuade someone, they voluntarily come over to your side and agree with you.

Then why do so many of us think rhetoric is persuasion by deception rather than with our willing consent?

Rhetoric and Sophistry

The defamation of rhetoric started in ancient Greece with the Sophists. The word sophist is from the Greek sophos meaning a wise man. The sophists were itinerant teachers. In exchange for money, they gave wealthy Greeks an education in arete (virtue or excellence). One of the topics taught by the Sophists was rhetoric.

The Sophists however, fell into disrepute. Plato and Aristotle were critical of their methods and their teachings. The word sophistry has come to mean the deliberate use of fallacious reasoning, intellectual charlatanism and unscrupulous ethics.

The primary reason the sophists gained a negative reputation was for their teaching of Eristic. Eristic was a form of argumentation designed to win lawsuits. In practice this meant they were sometimes teaching how to make the unjust appear just.

They also taught the young men to be skeptical of the traditional religious and ethical traditions, but without putting anything new in place of the teachings they unsettled. Since they were also itinerant and accepted payment, these characteristics combined to produce a negative perception of the Sophists.

Tools of Effective Communication

But despite the negative perception of the Sophists, rhetoric is a communication tool. We can use tools for many different purposes. When a writer is deciding how to best communicate to their audience, they use rhetorical tools whether they’re explicitly aware of it or not.

Whenever anyone is trying to influence another person to think a certain way, feel a certain way, or do a certain thing, they’re using rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of using words to elicit something from the reader: to change their mind, to inspire them, to make them feel something, or motivate them to act.

Rhetoric’s three modes of persuasion

Logos is an appeal to logic, using data and facts to persuade.

Ethos is an appeal to character. It uses the speaker’s personality, credentials and reputation to appear trustworthy. An audience is more likely to believe a trustworthy person.

Pathos is an appeal to emotion. You can persuade someone to your way of thinking with logic, but if you want to persuade them to act, pathos has the power to move people.

These three modes form the elements of effective persuasion. They convince us with logic of the truth, assure us the speaker is trustworthy and move us to do something about it.

And there is no reason to think any of that necessarily involves deception.

Did Abraham Lincoln intend to deceive when he said:

“…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Rhetorical device antistrophe: Repeating one (or more) words at the end of a phrase or sentence

Did John F. Kennedy intend to deceive when he said:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Rhetorical device hyperbole: exaggeration for emphasis but not intended literally

Did Martin Luther King Jnr intend to deceive when he said:

“We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Rhetorical device simile: comparing two unlike things using the words “like” or “as”

Did Barack Obama intend to deceive when he said:

“In the struggle for peace and justice, we cannot walk alone. In the struggle for opportunity and equality, we cannot walk alone. In the struggle to heal this nation and repair this world, we cannot walk alone”

Rhetorical device symploce: Repeating one (or more) words at the beginning and end of successive sentences

Did John F. Kennedy intend to deceive when he said:

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”

Rhetorical device chiasmus: The reversal of the latter of two parallel sentences

And did Martin Luther King Jnr intend to deceive when in his final speech he said:

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there.

Rhetorical device gradatio: a progressive advance toward a climax

Rhetoric is a powerful tool which can stir people’s emotions, inspire them to lofty ideals and motivate them to actions to achieve them. It’s a valuable tool for leadership, agreement and co-operation in any situation. Please make sure you use it for good and not evil.

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