What is “rhetoric”?

Aristotle, thinking about how the young are fond of laughter

The problem with the term “rhetoric” is that it’s gotten a bad rap. When someone accuses a politician of using rhetoric, they mean that he is using deliberately manipulative or false language to provoke a desired response. This does, in fact, fall under the purview of the term “rhetoric” as I (and other rhetoricians) use it, but that’s not the only thing rhetoric is. For the short answer, I turn to Aristotle (or Big Daddy A, as I like to call him) who defined rhetoric as “the art of persuasion.” Aristotle was all about categorizing the different ways people could be persuaded and from him we get terms like ethos, pathos, and logos to explain the appeals of an argument. Aristotle considered rhetoric to be a valuable part of democratic life because it allowed individuals to negotiate what was best for the city (unlike his predecessor Plato, who was one of the first to construct “rhetoric” as the opposite of “truth”).

Kenneth Burke with a statue of Kenneth Burke

The problem with Aristotle’s definition is that, for him, “persuasion” is always an explicit thing: an argument. A couple of millennia later, people started talking about all the things that aren’t necessarily arguments but still try to persuade us of something. Most commercials don’t provide an argument for why you should buy their product, but instead attempt to persuade you by showing you the life that you could have with their product at your side (or what bad things might happen if you don’t). Enter Kenneth Burke, who theorized that the key part of persuasion is not necessarily argument but identification, or what happens when you begin to understand yourself as holding the same values and wanting the same things as the person who is trying to persuade you. This vastly expands the scope of rhetoric. Others have continued to expand the notion of what rhetoric is, to the point where most rhetoricians accept that all human communication is, to some extent, rhetorical, or intended to persuade.

In this blog, “rhetoric” means any use of a symbol system (language, written text, images, colors, etc.) to persuade another. The goal of this persuasion may be specific (to get Han Solo to fly you to Alderaan, for instance) or more abstract (to convince another to see the world as you see it). This rhetoric may be performed by a specific individual or group in the form of a speech, piece of writing, or performance, or it may be free-floating in the world in the form of a common narrative or belief.



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