A Critical Discourse on Rhetoric
Rhetoric is the theory and practice of eloquence, whether spoken or written. Spoken rhetoric is oratory. Rhetoric defines the rules that should govern all prose composition or speech designed to influence the judgment or the feelings of people. In a narrower sense, rhetoric is concerned with a consideration of the fundamental principles according to which oratorical discourses are composed: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery (Encyclopaedia Encarta). Rhetoric is a technical discipline with a long history dating back to the classical Greek society. In other words, rhetoric is an ancient field of argumentation and discourse; the art of making a persuasive argument to change the beliefs of another person. Many works have been produced on rhetoric; many definitions have been accumulated over the years. To have an insightful knowledge of what Rhetoric means therefore, this paper attempts to bring into live different definitions put forward by different scholars on the discipline and specifically critique one of the most authoritative treatises on rhetoric: Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Moreover, rhetoric is considered a controversial discipline. For instance, Plato considers it “immoral, dangerous, and unworthy of serious study (“Rhetoric” Wikipedia),” this study shall also critique this assertion by affirming, as Aristotle opines, that rhetoric is a neutral/dialectic field. The study shall conclude with a proper application of the theoretical explanations provided in the paper.
To have a coherent discussion, the paper shall be divided into three sections. The first section, titled “Perspectives on Rhetoric” shall highlight different definitions put forward by different scholars, the second section titled “On Aristotle and Rhetoric” reviews Aristotle’s work on rhetoric while the third and last section titled “Rhetoric: A Practical Approach” examines some advert samples to further explain and substantiate arguments made in the previous sections.
Perspectives on Rhetoric
According to Steven Mailloux (1989), rhetoric is the political effectivity of trope and argument in culture. It comprises figurative language and persuasive action. In his own view, Charles Bazerman (1988) sees rhetoric as the study of how people use language and other symbols to realise human goals and carry out human activities. It is ultimately a practical study offering people great control over their symbolic activity. Kelvin Delouca defines rhetoric as the mobilisation of signs for the articulation of identities, ideologies, consciousness, communities, publics, and cultures. One of the most short and precise definitions is the one given by Cherwitz and Hikins. In their opinion, rhetoric is the art of describing reality through language. It is an effort to understand how humans, in various capacities and in a variety of situations, describe reality through language.
According to Christian Kock, rhetoric is a practical subject, that it is normative. It teaches one not only to do certain things with words, but also these things well with words. Kock furthers by comparing rhetoric with Critical Discourse Analysis. He affirms that rhetoric shares with Critical Discourse Analysis the wish to look very closely at utterances in the public sphere and to analyse what they do and how they do it. Knoblauch, from another perspective, asserts that rhetoric deals with questions surrounding any study of language: the relation between language and the world, the relation between discourse and knowledge, the heuristic and communicative functions of verbal expression, the roles of situation and audience in shaping utterance, the social and ethical aspects of discourse, and so on.
Roland Barthes (1964-1965) defines rhetoric from the classical sense of the word. According to him, rhetoric is the art of persuasion, a body of rules and recipes whose implementation makes it possible to convince the hearer of the discourse (and later the reader of the work), even if what he is to be convinced of is not true. One of the most comprehensive definitions of rhetoric is the one provided by Patricia Bizzel and Bruce Herzberg (2001). According to them, rhetoric has a number of overlapping meanings: the practice of oratory; the study of the strategies of effective oratory; the use of language, written or spoken, to inform or persuade; the study of the persuasive effects of language; the study of the relation between language and knowledge; the classification and use of tropes and figures; and, of course, the use of empty promises and half-truths as a form of propaganda.
From the foregoing, it can be comprehensively summarised that rhetoric is the art of using language in a specific manner to achieve a specific purpose. It is a manner of using language in a creatively manipulative way to shape the reaction of the audience towards the speaker’s wish.
On Aristotle and Rhetoric
Aristotle’s Rhetoric1 is one of the most authoritative and comprehensive texts on rhetoric. In fact it is opined that “all subsequent rhetorical theory is but a series of responses to issues raised by Aristotle’s Rhetoric (Gross. Alan G and Arthur E. Walzer, ix).” Aristotle’s Rhetoric is divided into three namely; Book I, Book II, and Book III. Book I presents a general overview and the technical definition of rhetoric. According to Aristotle, rhetorical study is concerned with the modes of persuasion. Rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic. It may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. In this section, Aristotle also discusses some importance of rhetoric. Rhetoric makes it possible for speakers to enhance the credibility of their speeches. It also makes it possible for speakers to produce conviction in the audience and clarifies what the facts are.
Aristotle divides rhetoric into three genres—political (deliberative), forensic, and the ceremonial oratory of display (epideictic). According to him, “Political speaking urges us either to do or not to do something…forensic speaking either attacks or defends somebody... the ceremonial oratory of display either praises or censures somebody (15).” Deliberative/political genre is one that takes place in assembly. The speaker here advises the audience to do something or warns against doing something. Speeches under this genre border on: “ways and means, war and peace, national defence, imports and exports, and legislation (18).” Forensic oratory deals with what is or is not now true. There are some non-technical means of persuasion which are characteristic of forensic genre. They are “laws, witnesses, contracts, tortures, oaths (62).” Narration is crucial in forensic genre. Forensic style is more highly furnished. Political oratory is a more difficult task than forensic. It deals with the future. There is very little opening for narration, since nobody can narrate what has not happened yet. In describing the ceremonial oratory, Aristotle states:
Narration in ceremonial oratory is not continuous but intermittent. There must, of course, be some survey of the actions that form the subject-matter of the speech. The speech is a composition containing two parts. One of these is not provided by the orator’s art, viz. the actions themselves, of which the orator is in no sense author The other part is provided by his namely, the proof (where proof is needed) that the actions were done, the description of their quality or of their extent, or even all these three things together. (173)
Ceremonial oratory is the most literary for it is meant to be read, and very close to it is forensic oratory.
In Book II, Aristotle discusses speech and its constituents. A speech consists of three things: the speaker, the subject that is treated in the speech, and the listener to whom the speech is addressed. Technical means of persuasion (in persuasive speech/dialogue) resides in the character of the speaker, in the emotional state of the audience, and in the argument itself. Put differently, a speech consists of three parts namely ethos, pathos, and logos. Logos involves using logical arguments such as induction and deduction; pathos involves creating an emotional reaction in the audience; ethos involves projecting a trustworthy, authoritative or charismatic image. Aristotle further highlights two crucial things that a speech must contain. He asserts:
A speech has two parts. You must state your case, and you must prove it. You cannot either state your case and omit to prove it, or prove it without having first stated it; since any proof must be a proof of something, and the only use of a preliminary statement is the proof that follows it. Of these two parts the first part is called the Statement of the case, the second part the Argument, just as we distinguish between Enunciation and Demonstration. (166)
Book III contains informative guidelines on speech making and ordering (arrangement). Aristotle opines that that one must study three points in the process of speech making. These are; means of producing persuasion, the style, or language, to be used, and the proper arrangement of the various parts of the speech. To achieve all these, he discusses figures of speeches such as metaphor, simile, antithesis, parisosis, paromoeosis, and so on. Aristotle maintains that metaphor “gives style clearness, charm, and distinction as nothing else can: and it is not a thing whose use can be taught by one man to another (141).” Simile is also a metaphor, the difference is only in the way it is put; and just because it is longer it is less attractive. Besides, it does not say outright that “this” is “that”, and therefore the hearer is less interested in the idea. Antithesis stylises speech putting side by side opposing conclusions with the logic of proving one of them wrong. Parisosis is making the two members of a period equal in length while paromoeosis is making the extreme words of both members like each other.
Like we have earlier stated, the summary of all the rhetorical jargons discussed in Rhetoric is all about manipulating language to achieve desired results. This manipulative tendency in rhetoric is perhaps what makes some people to consider rhetoric a controversial and dubious study. They consider rhetoric as tools often used to manipulate people by playing with their emotion and omitting facts. This paper however refutes this argument by asserting, as Aristotle has already stated, that rhetoric is dialectic. Our interpretation of the dialectical nature of rhetoric in this study is that rhetoric can be used for good or bad purpose, depending on the intention of the speaker. It can cause great benefits as well as great harms. Therefore, one should not hastily conclude that rhetoric is only useful for who wants to outsmart their audience and conceal their real aims, since someone who wants to communicate the truth, someone who wants to establish what is just and right also needs the help of rhetoric when faced with a public audience. In fact, Aristotle sees rhetoric more from the positive side for he considers it the winning of an argument by persuasive marshalling of truth, rather than the swaying of an audience by an appeal to their emotions.
Rhetoric: a Practical Approach
Having broached so much on what rhetoric means according to different scholars (the most explored being Aristotle’s Rhetoric), the paper seeks, at this section, to exemplify earlier explanations in order that they may be fully substantiated. We shall examine the use of rhetoric in the language of advertisement. This, no doubt, is one of the areas where rhetoric is most employed. Advertisement is the art of creating awareness for goods and services in order to market them. So, in order to convince the buyers about the importance of such goods/service, the use of rhetoric is highly important. Let us consider this sample:
Build for Yourself a Paradise!
This advert sample, let us assume, is posted by a building contractor. The sentence, as short as it is has the capacity of playing upon the emotion of anybody that reads it. Every religious person believes in the existence of paradise which is only accessible to good people after death (in heaven). This advert, however, through the metaphorical use of the word “paradise,” seeks to manipulate this common belief by making them understand that they can use their money to buy themselves paradise. This is a rhetorical means which has been employed to direct people to contact the said contractor for quality building project. Whether or not the said contractor can actually build a paradise is not a concern in the field of rhetoric—perhaps it is, in the field of ethics. Let us consider another sample:
Study at SKD
This advert sample makes use of what one may call rhetoric of conciseness and expansiveness to create in people the conviction to opt for the institute’s service against others. It does so by appealing to the people that studying in the said institute will offer them quality experience that can make them relevant anywhere they are. This is what rhetoric entails—making use of language in a specific way for a specific purpose.
Thus far, we have discussed and cited different opinions and definitions put forward by scholars on rhetoric. We have also attempted a panoramic review of Aristotle’s authoritative and encompassing book on rhetoric, Rhetoric. We also argued critically that rhetoric is not an immoral field but a dialectical one. We concluded our analysis with a practical explanation of the concept of rhetoric.
There are different interpretations and titles of Aristotle’s work on rhetoric. However, the one used in this paper is interpreted by W. Rhys Roberts and titled Rhetoric.
Aristotle. Rhetoric (translated by Robert, W. Rhys). N. p. Web. 27 April. 2013.
“Aristotle’s Rhetoric.” Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 27 April. 2013.
Gross, Alan G and Arthur E. Walzer. Rereading Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Carbondale, IL (USA): Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
“Rhetoric”, Microsoft Encarta 2009 Encyclopaedia.
“Rhetoric.” Rhetoric (Aristotle)-Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 27 April. 2013.