Our FYC program writes and publishes their own textbook every year. This year, they asked me to write a short introduction addressing what rhetoric is and why one might study it. Here's my answer (probably rife with errors, it could use some quality revising).
Why Study Rhetoric?
I have been tasked with the question “why study rhetoric?” Crafting a response to this question is in fact tricky, because “rhetoric” has referred to different things in different eras. In today’s popular parlance, the term is often analogous with “bullshit,” to grab the title of Harry G. Frankfurt’s recent sequel to his earlier book, On Truth. “That’s just empty rhetoric” the pundits say in response to the politician’s apology. But this perks me to ask: “is there full rhetoric?”
In what follows I will answer this question by briefly sketching the art of rhetoric’s complex history. My history is in no way comprehensive—I hope to give a long view of a very complicated, and conflicted, intellectual conversation about the purpose of education, people, and language.
Few people are aware that, until only about 200 years ago, rhetorical training comprised the first three years of higher education (and practically all of elementary and secondary education). But , even though it was the focus of education, “rhetoric” hasn’t been one stable thing for the last 2,500 years. In fact, what I hope to tease out in this brief historical overview is how rhetoric’s uses change in connection to an era’s dominant information-communication technologies.
What is Rhetoric?
I’ll claim that there are three different historic uses of rhetoric—each corresponding to a different era and communicative media (progressively: orality, literacy, and post-literacy or electracy). In the era of orality, before written language, rhetoric operated primarily in terms of persuasion. The job of the rhetorician involved captivating and purposing human attention, either to remember history, celebrate achievements, encourage change, or consider legal matters. In the era of literacy, rhetoric formally concerned itself with interpretation (what is called hermeneutics). The job of the rhetorician involved carefully reading texts and engagingly sharing the products of that reading. Religion, history, and law where no longer contained is stories and speeches—now they found their homes in letters and books. The rhetorician was tasked with writing, reading, and interpreting these new technologies. In the contemporary electrate era, rhetoric emphasizes the importance of ethics, focusing on responsibility and relations. Under this developing rhetoric, the task of the rhetorician is to analyze social systems and maximize opportunities for engagement, sharing, and diversity. These aims, I would argue, are affordances made possible by digital connectivity (through radios, telephones, televisions, computers, mobile phones and whatever comes next).
How Far We Going Back? Way Back…
Rhetoric’s first major appearance in the West was in ancient Greece. Ironically, our knowledge of this time period comes almost exclusively from books, since the Athens of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Gorgias represents the moment when orality and literacy operated side by side. Most famous of the Greek thinkers on rhetoric was Aristotle. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, had famously castigated rhetoric as manipulation and trickery, arguing that if philosophy is medicine for the mind, then rhetoric is merely baked goods—quite tasty, but ultimately unhealthy. Rhetoric, Plato asserted, kept people trapped in a cave, in which they could not differentiate between good and evil, truth and falsity.
Aristotle’s response to his teacher was a bit pragmatic: sure, in a perfect world, we could do without rhetoric. But in a real world, one composed of human necessities and desires, permeated with joys and fears, rhetoric is a necessary evil. Aristotle argues that philosophy focuses on discerning matters of absolute truth and falsity, while rhetoric explores “greyer” issues of probability and possibility. Contrary to Plato’s ideal, matters of politics are almost always “grey” matters; therefore, we need rhetoric to help navigate the inevitable ambiguities of complex, social problems. Furthermore rhetoric, for Aristotle, is inoculation against maliciousness and trickery. It forefronts the obligation of all citizens to protect themselves against corruption in order to maintain a healthy civic body.
Aristotle’s rhetoric attuned students to two major elements of public persuasion: the appeals and the topoi. Aristotle identified three primary appeals and attached each to a particular performance. Logos, an emphasis on logical argument, pertained mostly to deliberative, or what we might call political, matters. Ethos, the study of communal values and individual character, was the principal material for juridical rhetoric. Finally, pathos, the fostering of human emotion, most concerned epideictic, or ceremonial rhetoric. Topoi, which literally translates as “places,” refers to Aristotle’s system for finding common argumentative positions and propositions, and learning how to situate a set of circumstances within these inventive parameters. Aristotle’s topics might seem elementary today (generate a definition, make a comparison, highlight a contradiction, etc), but these elements were first explored in writing in Ancient Greece and revolutionized public discourse.
While, historically, Aristotle and Plato loom as the largest figures in classical rhetoric and philosophy, it is important to highlight that they were not the dominant intellectual figures in their own era. Sophistry, recent scholarship has shown, represented a far more robust intellectual movement than Plato’s representation. It is unknown how much of Aristotle’s rhetoric was in fact plagiarized from the (illiterate?) sophists who preceded him (unlike Plato and Aristotle, the sophists didn’t seem to believe in writing things down; it might be that, as dedicated oralists, they distrusted writing as cold and distant from human memory). For the sophists, rhetoric didn’t simply describe a real world existing independent of language; rather, rhetoric—by focusing human attention and energy—produced the world. Independent of language and human energy, the world does not exist. Humans, through their interactions with each other, with objects and technologies, with animals and plants and sunshine and coal and words and images and jellyfish, call worth the world in which they dwell. As such—contra Plato—there is no philosophical “Truth” to be found outside of the realm of human judgment and language, no Ideal realm opposed to this one, no outside to our “cave.”
Plato, Aristotle, and the sophists greatly influence the practice of rhetoric in the Roman Republic. In Cicero’s Rome, one might argue, rhetoric reached its high point, since the entire education system was designed around rhetorical training and performance, preparing students for the rigors of participating in the Roman Senate. Consider Quintilian’s response to Plato’s castigation of rhetoric:
Under such a mode of reasoning, neither will generals, nor magistrates, nor medicine, nor even wisdom itself, be of any utility; […] in the hands of physicians poisons have been found; and among those who abuse the name of philosophy have been occasionally detected of the most horrible crimes. We must reject food, for it has often given rise to ill health; we must never go under roofs, for they sometimes fall upon those who dwell beneath them; a sword must not be forged for a soldier, for a rubber may use the same weapon. Who does not know that fire and water, without which life cannot exist, and (that I may not confine myself to things of earth,) that the sun and moon, the chief of the celestial luminaries, sometimes produce hurtful effects? […] And so, although the weapons of eloquence are powerful for good or ill, it is unfair to count as evil something which it is possible to use for good” Institutes of Oratory II.xvi.9- 10).
Rather than thinking of rhetoric as even a necessary evil, Quintilian’s analogies suggest that it is a vital, necessary good (and, like many things that are good for us, it becomes poisonous if misused).
A more contemporary development for persuasive rhetorical theory is Kenneth Burke’s notion of identification. Nutshell: any act of persuasion requires a rhetor to create an identity that can be shared between speaker and audience. Very often, “I can’t agree with that idea” is a function of a deeper, subconscious “I can’t be that person.” Thus, 20th century rhetoric has dedicated significant attention to how rhetorical performances create habitable identities. Much of contemporary advertising, politics, art, and culture hinges upon crafting, connecting, challenging, and collecting our different identities.
From the Ear to the Eye
The second movement in rhetoric might be as old as the first—although I would want to properly mark its inauguration in the work of St. Augustine of Hippo. Unlike Aristotle’s Greece or Quintilian’s Rome, Augustine’s Holy Roman Empire was a feudal monarchy rather than a democracy or republic. There was little reason for the populace to learn rhetorical persuasion, since the day’s political and social organization offered few opportunities for deliberative engagement. But the rapid increase in literacy—particularly the increasing centrality of the Bible in legal, political, and social life—called for robust training in textual interpretation. It is quite difficult for anyone living in the 21st century to imagine a time when reading was considered a technology, but it was an unwieldy complex technology for the majority of people in the middle ages.
Augustine tackled these problems by formalizing methods for textual analysis. He took the tools for audience analysis developed by oral-persuasive rhetoric and applied them to reading texts. His focus was on resolving ambiguities and conflicting passages. This version of rhetoric would be called “hermeneutic” and is particularly invested in the development of literacy. The printed word calls for close interpretation in a way that orality does not (Ong)—allowing for critical reflection, abstraction, and intense precision. Augustine’s rhetorical system was not only designed to help priests deal with conflicts in biblical meaning but also drew on persuasive rhetoric to help priests engagingly deliver their interpretations to their parishioners. The Humanities reading strategies are all descendents of St. Augustine of Hippo’s early treatises on signs, language, and human feeling.
The emphasis on interpretation and reading developed by Augustine is amplified in the Enlightenment. While the development of the study of vernacular literatures (such as English, Italian, and French) call for robust interpretive tools, the scientific foundations of the Enlightenment call for a form of rigid argumentative reading and writing (to facilitate the sharing of new knowledge across universities, countries, and continents). Enlightenment rhetoric develops an emphasis on clarity of expression and structural procedures (such as the thesis) that remain fundamental expectations for scholarly writing to this day.
The emphasis of hermeneutic rhetorics transform significantly in the 20th century. Rather than searching for the one, ultimately True reading of a text, scholars began investing attention into multiple readings of a text, noting that all reading involves a degree of writing by the reader. Theorist Roland Barthes refers to this as wreading a text. This pluralist shift in interpretation is generally referred to as a facet of postmodernism, which can be hastily described as an increased distrust of objectivity, an interest in diversity, and an aversion to essentialist, binary systems of classification (i.e., right vs. wrong, man vs. woman, white vs. black). Ironically, rhetoric finds itself back in an Aristotelian/sophistic world of grey ambiguities.
From the I to the Alliance (and, hey, there is an I in alliance)
The third and final rhetorical movement I want to cover develops out of this subjective wreaderly approach to hermeneutics. It attempts to move beyond “human centric” activity—one that begins to pay attention to how ecologies produce humans as much as humans produce environments. In a sense, this introduction is a function of this third movement, since one of my presuppositions concerns the relation between the media we use and the ideas we explore (such that using writing generated an entirely new set of intellectual concerns, using computers and the Internet will generate new questions). It is factually accurate to say that, once upon a time, humans created television. From this third perspective, however, I would argue that it is equally accurate, today, to say that televisions create humans.
This third movement, still in its infancy, strictly concerns itself with neither persuasion or hermeneutics. Rather, it concerns maintaining ethics, in the sense that it seeks to ensure that humans learn to attune themselves to all the voices, objects, and forces that permeate decisions. Given the increase in complexity of political, economic, social, and educational institutional systems, we require new ways, and attitudes, of ensuring all voices receive representation. This third rhetoric, that which I am naming ethical rhetoric, a rhetoric of alterity, ensures that all entities are accounted, represented, and—most importantly (and what distinguishes this somewhat from hermeneutic activity) are offered the opportunity to respond. Others have called this rhetoric dispensation learning how to listen. In my remaining space below, I would like to focus on one theorist of this new rhetorical movement.
Sociologist Bruno Latour’s 21st century work addresses the growing disconnect between academic research and political problems. Latour sees this disconnect as a rhetorical problem attributable to the rise of the 19th century research University (itself created in the image of Plato’s metaphor of the Cave). The research University positioned itself outside of the realm of politics, as an institution seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake. This protected the research university and its faculty from religious or political persecution. However, it also distanced the university from political activity, since to be an academic meant to be something of a hermit, holed up in a library or laboratory and far from public forums.
Latour’s work advocates a resurgence in Greek and Roman notions of rhetoric to combat this disconnect. His emphasis is on the importance of fostering alliances between ideas, people, and things (since, for Latour, something is real only to the extent that other entities recognize its reality). Latour insists that Plato was wrong—there is no outside to the Cave, there is no such things as an abstract, Ideal truth beyond the realm of human decision making. For Latour, rhetorical training isn’t simply a matter of dragging the unenlightened to the Truth. Rather, it is a matter of collecting participants in one place to work out what will be accepted as true. The differences might sound subtle, but they have incredible impacts on how we view the relations between higher education, rhetorical training, and political activism.
Rhetorical scholarship in this third movement retains persuasion (how to foster partnerships) and hermeneutics (how to read social systems) and adds to it an emphasis on inclusion, participation, and responsiveness. It focuses less on the products of an individual I, and more on the possibilities contained within any collection of we’s. If orality focused on persuasion, and if literacy focused on interpretation, then it is the radio, television, and especially the Internet that has peaked rhetoricians interest in ethics, alliances, networks, and relations.
So, Why Study Rhetoric?
I’m still not sure there’s any single answer to this question. In closing, I would suggest that you might be interested in studying rhetoric if you want to influence social decision-making, improve your ability to read, analyze, and respond to arguments, and/or combat tyranny and social oppression. And that, I believe, is no meager “bullshit.”