Fourth Edition, November 2011
257: Best Essays in Rhetorical Theory
2nd Place Winner
The Many Definitions and Great Functions of Rhetoric:
A Poetic and Pragmatic Art Form that Moves the World
Throughout history, those critical of rhetoric have dismissed it as a craft of empty talk. Perhaps most famously, Plato condemned rhetorical discourse as “foul” and “ugly” within his 4th-century dialogue entitled Gorgias. Centuries later, John Locke advanced such negative critiques of the practice, claiming that accepting rhetors is the same as allowing men to act as “perfect cheats” who “insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment” (Herrick 2). But as James Herrick, Roderick Hart, and Suzanne Daughton have maintained, rhetoric is an art form capable of tremendous mind-altering and opinion-forming powers. At its best, rhetoric is “ordinary language done extraordinarily” (Hart & Daughton 8), a productive function insofar as it is “deployed when it can make a difference” (Hart & Daughton 9). Indeed, rhetoric makes its powerful impact on society every day, changing the world for the better.
In “An Overview of Rhetoric,” Herrick noted the tarnished image rhetoric has struggled with due to the criticism of respected historical names. However, he also details the transformation of the craft’s popularity thanks to the positive views of leading 20th-century figures like Wayne Booth and Richard McKeon. Booth wrote that “rhetoric holds ‘entire dominion over all verbal pursuits. Logic, dialectic, grammar, philosophy, history, poetry, all are rhetoric’” (Herrick 2). McKeon called rhetoric “a universal and architectonic art” that “organizes and gives structure to the other arts and disciplines… it is a kind of master discipline” (Herrick 2). These prominent individuals recognized the vital and often-fundamental usages of rhetorical discourse, understanding the principle that scholarly writer George Kennedy later identified – the fact that rhetoric is within us. Everyday life requires the ability to influence or persuade others, or even just alter their perceptions or perspectives. Kennedy maintained that “when we express emotions and thoughts to other people” through signs or symbols such as language, “with the goal of influencing (persuading) them, we are engaged in rhetoric” (Herrick 5).
Because of rhetoric’s historical links with persuasion attempts, and techniques for gaining compliance, the form has retained a collective Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reputation among scholars. Herrick says that analyzing rhetoric requires the ability to ask imperative questions, like “does rhetoric aim to act as ‘a neutral tool for bringing about agreements, or an immoral activity that ends in manipulation and deception’?” (Herrick 3). I believe that its primary function is revealed more in the former than the latter. Rhetoric serves as an essential form of human nature, and a universal practice necessary to the continual advancement of the modern world.
Throughout the progression of life, individuals use rhetoric to convey emotions, dictate meaning, persuade others, and better their lives and the lives of those around them. Consider a child communicating with their parent to get their way, resulting in inevitable compromise when the parent mirrors the rhetorical discourse. Imagine the same individual years later, presenting an argument in a school presentation, or even later, defending a thesis in graduate school. Perhaps he or she begins engaging in romantic relationships, which so unavoidably entail open lines of communication and influence upon one another. Maybe this individual ends up holding an important business position, strategically negotiating deals and investments through international board meetings. These are mere examples of rhetoric, as each instance involves planned actions, adaptations to the audience, shaping by human motives, and the central pursuit of persuasion. Basically, as Herrick defines it, rhetoric is “the systematic study and intentional practice of effective expression” (Herrick 7).
Hart and Daughton wrote that throughout history, great rhetoric has been poetic as well as pragmatic. But it does not simply involve diurnal scribbles and poetic verses. It quite frequently involves “careful attention to the messages of daily life” (Hart & Daughton 2). One must recognize the importance of kairos (the right time or opportunity) and heed rhetorical artifacts, the leftovers of rhetorical acts that serve as records that remain and can be reexamined after discourse. This further bolsters the sturdy belief that rhetoric can serve not only as a pedestrian art form, but also as a socially-bettering medium of communication. Great rhetoric – regardless of underlying themes or central aims – successfully expresses one’s thoughts and emotions, and also “draws on our most basic human commonalities and uses simple language with elegance” (Hart & Daughton 6).
Focusing on such principles, consider the role of arguably the greatest rhetor of the current era, President Barack Obama. He must analyze situations, understand his constraints, adapt to his audiences, and convey policy recommendations and kairotic discourse. All the while, he must pose and defend an exigence, a controlling and organizing principle Bitzer described as “an imperfection marked by urgency… a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done… an exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse” (Bitzer 6-7). Obama’s speeches mainly function as pragmatic forms of rhetoric, because they offer answers to the questions of the nation. But in a poetic way, his rhetoric also asks new questions, exploring them with the audience as a sort of public mediation of thought and action. The presidential role exemplifies the duality of effective rhetoric.
Rhetoric does not manipulate audiences, but rather offers them choices. It aims not to exploit, but rather to help the listener or reader explore the rhetor’s perspective. The rhetor must narrow the audience’s options for making these choices, so ethos (the rhetor’s character), pathos (the rhetor’s appeal to the audience’s emotions), and logos (the rhetor’s appeal to logic) are all imperative to the effectiveness of delivery. “The user of rhetoric peddles choices, even though most people naturally resist making choices unless forced to do so. And if forced to do so, people also naturally resist having their search for a solution constrained by someone else” (Hart & Daughton 7). The rhetor must “help” by offering choices, examples, or endorsements without appearing gauche, overbearing, or unworthy of the audience’s support.
Rhetoric is a cooperative art, because it requires the rhetor and audience to come together in a joint effort. “It cannot be done in solitude… by sharing communication, both rhetors and audiences open themselves up to each other’s influence” (Hart & Daughton 8). Great rhetoric caters to the core values and recognizes the central constraints of the audience. This makes each piece of rhetorical discourse temporary, because the ever-changing world requires an ever-evolving and adapting sense of language and dialect from the rhetor. As Lloyd Bitzer said, “rhetoric is only deployed when it can make a difference” (Hart & Daughton 9). But if the audience does not shape the delivery, the conveyance will suffer – and even if the rhetorical situation is perfectly considered, and the discourse carefully crafted, it cannot change the way the entire globe thinks.
However, rhetoric does better the global society because it “helps us learn what other people think and also learn our own minds about things” (Hart & Daughton 9). Rhetorical discourse uncovers an individual’s internal truths and personal perspectives. And by conveying a message, and communicating one’s knowledge, both the rhetor and the audience learn about their own life, as well as each other’s role in life. By helping the collective members of society adapt to each other, and aiding a better understanding between the world’s diverse cohabitants, rhetoric further assists the act of peddling new choices for positive change. Again, rhetoric exhibits its sheer power.
Plato recognized in Gorgias that “language is a powerful force for moving people to action,” going “so far as to say that language could work on a person’s spirit as powerfully as drugs worked on the body. He taught his students that language could bewitch people, could jolt them out of their everyday awareness into a new awareness from which they could see things differently — hence its persuasive force” (Crowley & Hawhee 23). Why, then, did Plato refuse to accept rhetoric’s definitive power amongst persuasive discourse?
With the communication of the last five pages of analysis, utilization of research as support, and developed theories of my personal definitions of rhetoric, I have personally engaged with you, the reader, through the art of rhetoric. I have established a reliable situated ethos, because my character and credibility has hopefully already been verified as positive in class and throughout my academic career. I have also constructed this paper by employing invented ethos, by structuring my arguments with support from literary and rhetorical figures as well as everyday instances and examples. I have utilized the all-important appeal to the reader’s emotions, pathos, by drawing on the common values of the everyday individual — analyzing rhetoric through the scope of one’s life progression, their president or leader, and the world around them. And of course, I have appealed to the logic (logos) of the reader by forming and conveying my beliefs based on what I have read, researched, and learned through studies and classroom dialogue. By communicating my views with you, I have engaged in my own form of rhetorical discourse, and have undoubtedly changed the way you think in many ways. This, again, is the fascinating art of rhetoric.
Rhetoric empowers writers and public speakers, and elongates the time that those writers and speakers draw upon. With every word they create, and affect audiences with, the world moves. The people of the world change with the everyday use of rhetoric. And if such change continues to include successfully convincing others to make positive choices, rhetoric will retain its ultimate power by continually facilitating education, adaptation, compromise, and coexistence throughout audiences across the globe.
Bitzer, L. (1966). The rhetorical situation. Pennsylvania: PSU Free Press
Crowley, S., & Hawhee, D. (2009). Ancient rhetorics for contemporary students (fourth edition).
New York: Pearson Longman.
Daughton, S., & Hart, Roderick. (2005). Modern rhetorical criticism (third edition).
Herrick, J. (2001). The history and theory of rhetoric: an introduction (second edition).
Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Jasinki, J. (2001). Sourcebook on rhetoric: key concepts in contemporary rhetorical studies.
Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.
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