Rhetoric is one of those academic words that has migrated into the popular vocabulary and is frequently used as if it can be defined as “empty words.”
For example, in the aftermath of the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, statements threatening violence and death were defended and excused as “mere rhetoric,” “political rhetoric,” “passionate rhetoric,” and “hyperbole.” Examples include such exhortations as “Burn down DC,” “Hang Mike Pence,” “Kill Nancy Pelosi,” and “Bring your AR-15s.”
What, exactly, is “rhetoric”?
In academic terms, rhetoric is one of the Seven Liberal Arts, the curriculum taught in medieval universities. Rhetoric was one of three disciplines taught at the lower level. This group of three, called the trivium, included the linked studies of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Mastery of these three aspects of thinking was required to understand the quadrivium—the four other liberal arts of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy.
Grammar, which teaches the mechanics of language, is the basic component of thought.
Logic teaches how to use language to distinguish between sound arguments and fallacious ones. Rhetoric combines Grammar and Logic to persuade and instruct the listener or reader. Ideally, the art of rhetoric is meant to convey wisdom to the listener or reader, but in practice, rhetoric can be a pernicious tool of persuasion.
John Locke referred to rhetoric as “that powerful instrument of error and deceit.”
Literary theorist Kenneth Burke thought that “the most characteristic concern of rhetoric” was “the manipulation of men’s beliefs for political ends.”
American rhetorician Lloyd Bitzer wrote that “rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action.”
Aristotle described three main forms of rhetoric: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos.
Ethos is an appeal based on the character of the speaker. Logos is appeal based on logic or reason. Pathos is appeal based on emotion.
These days, “rhetoric” is probably most commonly associated with the language of politicians and activists, but every aspect of our culture makes use of rhetoric to persuade people to do or avoid doing something, to trust or to question.
An example of rhetoric in which Ethos is the chief component is this BBC assertion:
We are independent, impartial and honest. We are committed to achieving the highest standards of accuracy and impartiality and strive to avoid knowingly or materially misleading our audiences.—British Broadcasting Company
Here is an example of rhetoric that appeals to Logic:
It is time for legalization and regulation of the marijuana industry to reduce the strain on the criminal justice community, reduce the violence along the Mexican border, and create a new source of tax revenue by learning from other states such as Colorado and Washington.—Paper arguing for legalization of marijuana in Texas.
In these days of visual media, rhetoric is not only a verbal tool, but a visual one as well.
Rhetorical Pathos is exemplified by the ASPCA television ads depicting neglected and abused dogs and cats while a whining voice-over describes their sufferings and pleads with viewers to commit to a monthly donation.
However it is used, rhetoric is an indispensable aspect of communication.Something Sir Philip Sydney once wrote is relevant here. He was talking about differences between good and bad poetry, but the metaphor can apply to rhetoric:
With a sword thou may kill thy father, and with a sword thou may defend thy prince and country.
Rhetoric is a tool. The speaker decides whether to use it for good or ill. When the tool becomes a weapon, defining rhetoric becomes a question for the justice system.