Rhetoric is the art of public speaking, or, more generally, of using language to persuade others. It was an important part of Western education till the 1800s, though by that time it had become a shadow of its former self.
The glory days of rhetoric were in Greek and Roman times when court cases and making laws were settled by vote. Being able to speak in front of others and persuade them of your point of view became an important skill. Not just a skill, an art that was taught. Some even made their living by teaching rhetoric, like Augustine.
For Aristotle there were three things you had to do to get the public round to your side:
- ethos (character): you have to get them to believe that you are someone they can trust, someone who knows what they are talking about. Failing that, they will not take you seriously.
- logos (reason): you need facts and reason to persuade them that what you say is true. You do not have to reason from what is certain, as in science. Reasoning from what is likely is good enough.
- pathos (passion): you must appeal to their deeper feelings. Facts and reason are not enough – you must also speak to their hearts.
You have to be trusted and you have to speak to both the head and the heart. Aristotle shows how to use language to do all this in his book, Rhetoric. Rhetoric is a study in language and human nature.
Cicero took this further and Quintillian further still. Quintillian wrote what became the book on rhetoric in the West for 2000 years: Institutio Oratoria. It is a how-to book of writing and delivering speeches. He takes you through it all step by step.
After the fall of Rome, the West was ruled by kings. Public speaking was no longer important except in church. In time rhetoric was applied to letter writing and became little more than ornament. Rhetoric no longer saw language as a means of thought, as a road to philosophy and the big questions of life, as it was with Plato and the trivium of the Middle Ages. It was just a way to dress up what you had to say.
It was in this sad state that rhetoric has come down to us and so now it has fallen out of our schoolbooks altogether and has become little more than a byword for empty talk.
Yet once again we live in a time where persuading the public has become important. Presidents and companies need to persuade the public and language is still their chief means of doing so. But where is rhetoric now?
Human nature has not changed since Aristotle, so most of what he says is still true. But media has changed: ads and sound bites are now the means of moving men’s minds, not grand speeches in the Quintillian style. On television, time is money, so we live in the world of a five-year-old boy where nothing lasts longer than an 11-minute episode of Spongebob. Not quite what Cicero and Quintillian had in mind.