Rhetoric: Definitions and Observations

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The term rhetoric has various meanings.

  1. The study and practice of effective communication.
  2. The study of the effects of texts on audiences.
  3. The art of persuasion.
  4. A pejorative term for insincere eloquence intended to win points and manipulate others.

Adjective: rhetorical.

Etymology: From the Greek, "I say"

Pronunciation: RET-err-ik

Traditionally, the point of studying rhetoric has been to develop what Quintilian called facilitas, the capacity to produce appropriate and effective language in any situation.

Definitions and Observations

Multiple Meanings of Rhetoric

  • "Using the term 'rhetoric' . . . involves some potential ambiguity. 'Rhetoric' is a relatively unique term in that it functions simultaneously as a term of abuse in ordinary language ('mere rhetoric'), as a conceptual system ('Aristotle's Rhetoric'), as a distinct stance toward discourse production ('the rhetorical tradition'), and as a characteristic set of arguments ('Reagan's rhetoric')." (James Arnt Aune, Rhetoric and Marxism. Westview Press, 1994)
  • "In one view, rhetoric is the art of ornament; in the other, the art of persuasion. Rhetoric as ornament stresses the manner of presentation; rhetoric as persuasion stresses the matter, the content . . .."
    (William A. Covino, The Art of Wondering: A Revisionist Return to the History of Rhetoric. Boynton/Cook, 1988)
  • "Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men." (Plato)
  • "Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." (Aristotle, Rhetoric)
  • "Rhetoric is the art of speaking well." (Quintilian)
  • "Elegance depends partly on the use of words established in suitable authors, partly on their right application, partly on their right combination in phrases." (Erasmus)
  • "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend." (Francis Bacon, "Of Studies")
  • "[Rhetoric] is that art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end. The four ends of discourse are to enlighten the understanding, please the imagination, move the passion, and influence the will." (George Campbell)
  • "'Rhetoric' . . . refers but to 'the use of language in such a way as to produce a desired impression upon the hearer or reader.'" (Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement, 1952)

Rhetoric and Poetic

  • "That Aristotle's survey of human expression included a Poetic as well as a Rhetoric is our chief witness to a division oftener implied in ancient criticism than stated explicitly. Rhetoric meant to the ancient world the art of instructing and moving men in their affairs; poetic the art of sharpening and expanding their vision. To borrow a French phrase, the one is composition of ideas; the other, composition of images. In the one field life is discussed; in the other it is presented. The type of the one is a public address, moving us to assent and action; the type of the other is a play, showing us in action moving to an end of character. The one argues and urges; the other represents. Though both appeal to imagination, the method of rhetoric is logical; the method of poetic, as well as its detail, is imaginative. To put the contrast with broad simplicity, a speech moves by paragraphs; a play moves by scenes. A paragraph is a logical stage in a progress of ideas; a scene is an emotional stage in a progress controlled by imagination."
    (Charles Sears Baldwin, Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic. Macmillan, 1924)
  • "[Rhetoric is] probably the oldest form of 'literary criticism' in the world . . .. Rhetoric, which was the received form of critical analysis all the way from ancient society to the 18th century, examined the way discourses are constructed in order to achieve certain effects. It was not worried about whether its objects of enquiry were speaking or writing, poetry or philosophy, fiction or historiography: its horizon was nothing less than the field of discursive practices in society as a whole, and its particular interest lay in grasping such practices as forms of power and performance. . . . It saw speaking and writing not merely as textual objects, to be aesthetically contemplated or endlessly deconstructed, but as forms of activity inseparable from the wider social relations between writers and readers, orators and audiences, and as largely unintelligible outside the social purposes and conditions in which they were embedded."
    (Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction. University of Minnesota Press, 1983)

Further Observations on Rhetoric

  • "When you hear words like 'parenthesis,' 'apology,' 'colon,' 'comma,' or 'period'; when someone talks about a 'commonplace' or 'using a figure of speech,' you're hearing terms from rhetoric. When you listen to the most bumbling tribute at a retirement party or the most inspiring halftime talk from a football coach, you are hearing rhetoric--and the basic ways in which it works have not changed a jot since Cicero saw off that treacherous fink Catiline. What has changed is that, where for hundreds of years rhetoric was at the center of Western education, it has now all but vanished as an area of study--divvied up like postwar Berlin between linguistics, psychology, and literary criticism."
    (Sam Leith, Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama. Basic Books, 2012)
  • "[W]e must never lose sight of the order of values as the ultimate sanction of rhetoric. No one can live a life of direction and purpose without some scheme of values. A rhetoric confronts us with choices involving values, the rhetorician is a preacher to us, noble if he tries to direct our passion toward noble ends and base if he uses our passion to confuse and degrade us."
    (Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric. Henry Regnery, 1970)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Rhetoric: Definitions and Observations." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/rhetoric-definition-1692058. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Rhetoric: Definitions and Observations. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rhetoric-definition-1692058 Nordquist, Richard. "Rhetoric: Definitions and Observations." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rhetoric-definition-1692058 (accessed May 28, 2023).