What is Rhetoric?
Rhetoric is the study of effective speaking and writing. And the art of persuasion. And many other things.
In its long and vigorous history rhetoric has enjoyed many definitions, accommodated differing purposes, and varied widely in what it included. And yet, for most of its history it has maintained its fundamental character as a discipline for training students 1) to perceive how language is at work orally and in writing, and 2) to become proficient in applying the resources of language in their own speaking and writing.
Discerning how language is working in others’ or one’s own writing and speaking, one must (artificially) divide form and content, what is being said and how this is said. Because rhetoric examines so attentively the how of language, the methods and means of communication, it has sometimes been discounted as something only concerned with style or appearances, and not with the quality or content of communication. For many (such as Plato) rhetoric deals with the superficial at best, the deceptive at worst (“mere rhetoric”), when one might better attend to matters of substance, truth, or reason as attempted in dialectic or philosophy or religion.
Rhetoric has sometimes lived down to its critics, but as set forth from antiquity, rhetoric was a comprehensive art just as much concerned with what one could say as how one might say it. Indeed, a basic premise for rhetoric is the indivisibility of means from meaning; how one says something conveys meaning as much as what one says. Rhetoric studies the effectiveness of language comprehensively, including its emotional impact , as much as its propositional content. To see how language and thought worked together, however, it has first been necessary to artificially divide content and form.
Content and Form
Rhetoric requires understanding a fundamental division between what is communicated through language and how this is communicated.
Aristotle phrased this as the difference between logos (the logical content of a speech) and lexis (the style and delivery of a speech). Roman authors such as Quintilian would make the same distinction by dividing consideration of things or substance, res, from consideration of verbal expression, verba.
In the Renaissance, Erasmus of Rotterdam reiterated this foundational dichotomy for rhetorical analysis by titling his most famous textbook “On the Abundance of Verbal Expression and Ideas” (De copia verborum ac rerum). This division has been one that has been codified within rhetorical pedagogy, reinforced, for example, by students being required in the Renaissance (according to Juan Luis Vives) to keep notebooks divided into form and content.
Within rhetorical pedagogy it was the practice of imitation that most required students to analyze form and content. They were asked to observe a model closely and then to copy the form but supply new content; or to copy the content but supply a new form. Such imitations occurred on every level of speech and language, and forced students to assess what exactly a given form did to bring about a given meaning or effect.
The divide between form and content is always an artificial and conditional one, since ultimately attempting to make this division reveals the fundamentally indivisible nature of verbal expression and ideas. For example, when students were asked to perform translations as rhetorical exercises, they analyzed their compositions in terms of approximations, since it is impossible to completely capture the meaning and effect of a thought expressed in any terms other than its original words.
This division is based on a view of language as something more than simply a mechanistic device for transcribing or delivering thought. With the sophists of ancient Greece rhetoricians have shared a profound respect for how language affects not just audiences, but thought processes.
One way to understand the overlapping nature of logos and lexis, res and verba, invention and style, is through the word “ornament.” To our modern sensibilities this suggests a superficial, inessential decoration–something that might be pleasing but which is not truly necessary. The etymology of this word is ornare, a Latin verb meaning “to equip.” The ornaments of war, for example, are weapons and soldiers. The ornaments of rhetoric are not extraneous; they are the equipment required to achieve the intended meaning or effect.
Thus, rhetoricians divided form and content not to place content above form, but to highlight the interdependence of language and meaning, argument and ornament, thought and its expression. It means that linguistic forms are not merely instrumental, but fundamental—not only to persuasion, but to thought itself.
This division is highly problematic, since thought and ideas (res) have been prioritized over language (verba) since at least the time of Plato in the west. Indeed, language is a fundamentally social and contingent creature, subject to change and development in ways that metaphysical absolutes are not. For rhetoricians to insist that words and their expression are on par with the ideals and ideas of abstract philosophy has put rhetoric at odds with religion, philosophy, and science at times.
Nevertheless, rhetoric requires attending to the contingencies and contexts of specific moments in time and the dynamics of human belief and interaction within those settings.
Why Do I Need to Think Rhetorically?
A rhetorical analysis asks you to “examine the interactions between a text, an author, and an audience.” However, before you can begin the analysis you must first understand the historical context of the text and the rhetorical situation.
To locate a text’s historical context, you must determine where in history the text is situated—was it written in the past five years? Ten? One hundred? You should think about how that might affect the information being delivered. Once you determine the background of the text, you should determine the rhetorical situation (i.e. who, what, when, where, why). The following questions may help:
- What is the topic of the text?
- Who is the author? What are the author’s credentials, what sort of experiences has he or she had? How do his or her credentials, or lack of, connect (or not) with the topic of the text?
- Who is the target audience? Who did the author have in mind when he or she created the text?
- Who is the unintended audience? Are they related in anyway to the target audience?
- What was the occasion, historical context, or setting? What was happening during the time period when the text was produced? Where was the text distributed or published?
- How does the topic relate to the author, audience, and occasion?
- What is the author’s purpose? Why did he or she create the text?
- In what medium was the text originally produced?
Meaning can change based on when, where, and why a text was produced and meaning can change depending on who reads the text. Rhetorical situations affect the meaning of a text because it may have been written for a specific audience, in a specific place, and during a specific time. An important part of the rhetorical situation is audience and since many of the articles were not written with you, a college student in a college writing class, in mind, the meaning you interpret or recognize might be different from the author’s original target audience. For example, if you read an article about higher education written in 2016, then you, the reader, are connected with and understand the context of the topic. However, if you were asked to read a text about higher education written in 1876, you would probably have a hard time understanding and connecting to it because you are not the target audience and the text’s context (or rhetorical situation) has changed.
Further, the occasion for writing might be very different, too. Articles or scholarly works that are at least five years old or older, may include out of date references and may not represent relevant or accurate information (e.g. think of the change regarding gay marriage in the past few years). Older works require that you investigate significant historical moments or changes that have occurred since the writing of text.
Targeted audience, occasion, and the date, site, and medium of publication will all affect the way you, the reader, read a text. Therefore, it is your duty as a thoughtful reader to research these aspects in order to fully understand and conceptualize the text’s rhetorical situation. Furthermore, even though you might not be a member of the targeted audience or perhaps might not have even been alive during the production of a text, that does not mean that you cannot recognize rhetorical moves within it.
- Adaptation of “What is Rhetoric” by Melanie Gagich licensed under CC BY NC SA.
- Content adapted from “What is Rhetoric” in the Silva licensed CC BY 3.0.
- Adapted from “Content and Form” in the Silva licensed CC BY 3.0.
- Video ArgueLab. “What is Rhetoric?” YouTube, March 24, 2015, What Is Rhetoric?
- Quote from Murphy, James J. and Richard A. Katula. A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric, 2nd Edition. Hermagoras Press, 1994.