Let’s not slander Rhetoric(a)


Rhetorica hovers as a young man receives rhetorical instruction in this late Renaissance image from the Netherlands.   Source: Cornelis Cort [1533-1578] nach Frans Floris: Die sieben Freien Künste: Rhetorica.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who sighs at all the abuse hurled at dame Rhetorica lately in the media. It’s downright slander and abuse of a beneficent art.

I am not complaining that there’s a lot of bad rhetoric going on in the world. Of course there always is, and perhaps there’s been a lot more bad rhetoric around us lately than there has been since World War II, and it’s driving more people to remark on how bad the bad rhetoric is.

I’m complaining that while this bad rhetoric is occurring, it’s counterproductive and wrongheaded to blame rhetoric itself and drag the art and use and NAME of rhetoric through the mud in headline after headline.

I have subscribed to a Google Alert for “rhetorical.” Today, September 3, here are some of the phrases used in headlines:

  • Nicolas Sarkozy’s absurd zero-sum rhetoric on Calais shows how quickly Europe is falling apart (Telegraph.co.uk)
  • After The Olympics, Women Should Earn More Considering The Sexist Rhetoric And Ignored Talent (Forbes)
  • The Clinton campaign’s slippery rhetoric on Trump’s ‘immigrant’ plans (Washington Post)
  • G20 to go long on rhetoric, short on economic policy: experts (Yahoo news)
  • EC spokesperson on “escalation of rhetoric” in Balkans (B92)

The negative contexts and adjectives surrounding the word “rhetoric” continually throw dirt on the reputation of this glorious art. Rhetoric can be zero-sum, sexist, slippery, and lack policy.

Can you find the word “rhetoric” used with positive adjectives?  You could pile up dozens more negative adjectives than positive ones by googling rhetoric today.

However, it’s even more troubling to see the naked word “rhetoric” used without any qualifying negative adjective, as if rhetoric alone was something essentially bad and ugly. The final example in the list above is one instance of slandering rhetoric itself, as if merely “escalating rhetoric” means escalating tension and disagreement toward violence.

Let’s stop slandering Rhetorica. Let’s renew her reputation, beauty, strength and glory. I believe we need her more than ever today. 

Meet Dame Rhetorica, founder of cities

In the Western world, our earliest extant writings about the arts of rhetoric have been traced back to the fifth century BC, in ancient Greece. Rhetorical theory, history, criticism continued to be written in ancient Rome and in early Christian Europe. Resting on this tradition, from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, Rhetoric was portrayed as one of the great “Seven Liberal Arts” — the seven foundational topics of education.

Grammar, logic and rhetoric comprised the Trivium (3) of Arts, and arithmetic, astronomy, geography, and music were the Quadrivium (4) of Sciences in the curriculum of people studying at secondary and postsecondary levels. It was assumed that everyone who could afford and access formal education needed to learn all the liberal arts; you didn’t just major in math and avoid the rest.

Rhetoric was built on the arts of grammar and logic. Rhetoric was meant to civilize human discourse on controversial topics, and not only to persuade, but to inform and delight.

Rhetorica in textbooks, art, and public architecture was often portrayed as a powerful female wielding flowers and/or jewels to denote the beauty and delight of rhetoric, and often she carried a sword or sceptre to designate the power of rhetoric.

Ironically, though Rhetorica and her sisters, the other liberal arts, were portrayed in female form, men, not women, were usually the ones learning and deploying Rhetoric as leaders in society, but the female form signified something to be desired by such eminent men, and in a chivalric fashion, an art to be honored and protected.


Rhetorica presiding over great writers and rhetoricians with her lily (the flowers of eloquence) and her sword. From Castelein’s Art of Rhetoric, 1555



Rhetorica portrayed on the exterior of a civic building in Lemgo, Germany.


Rhetorica was also associated with Hermes/Mercury, the communicator of the ancient Greek and Roman gods, and thus she often carried Mercury’s staff (the staff of snakes that has been appropriated by medicine today). See her wielding the snake staff in the image in the header of my blog, and in the first image under the title of this blog post.

Alas, how the reputation of Dame Rhetorica has changed, and her name is now a term of abuse rather than honour.

First let’s get this straight: What is rhetoric?

As a rhetorician, I can tell you that the teachings of rhetoric from ancient times to the present proclaim the opposite of the headlines today.  Rhetoric is a necessary and useful art. Good rhetoric exists in reality and in our ideals, and it ought to be understood, taught and praised.

Historical texts tells us that the art of rhetoric founds cities (See the ancient Greek writer Isocrates’ “Hymn to Logos” or praise of rhetoric) and enables people to embrace changes that are good for society (see Cicero’s introduction to De Inventione, his book on how to discover arguments for oratory). According to Cicero, rhetoric is so powerful that it can persuade strong and wealthy citizens to voluntarily risk their lives and fortunes to support the greater good. Like becoming soldiers, and paying taxes.

Let’s look some official definitions of rhetoric — historical definitions, prior to the denigration of rhetoric in the 20th & 21st centuries. (Source: American Rhetoric website, “Scholarly Definitions of Rhetoric” page)

  • Plato:

[Rhetoric] is the “art of enchanting the soul.” (The art of winning the soul by discourse.)

My note: Plato taught ethical rhetoric in his dialogue Phaedrus; he didn’t just attack bad political rhetoric in his dialogue Gorgias. It might help if we studied both these dialogues as we ponder the use of communication in politics today!

  • Aristotle:

Rhetoric is “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.”

My note: Aristotle’s definition is the practical, technical and neutral definition of the art that is often used in rhetoric courses at college. His work called Rhetoric collected his thoughts on the subject.

  • Cicero:

Rhetoric is one great art comprised of five lesser arts: inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronunciatio.” Rhetoric is “speech designed to persuade.”

My note: He identified the 5 canons of rhetoric that are used in the process of crafting rhetoric: invention [discovery of ideas/arguments], arrangement, style, memory and delivery.

Cicero’s rhetorical works were influential for centuries. In his own day, he did everything he could to raise the reputation of rhetoric in his society by his words, deeds and writings. He was a statesman who attained the highest position of leadership in his nation (Consul), and he was a philosopher who studied Greek rhetoric and put it to practice in his own Roman legal and political oratory.

The assassination of Cicero and grizly display of his dismembered head and hands on the speaker’s platform put an end to the era of a democratic Roman Republic ruled by means of rhetorical debate, and coincided with the birth of the Roman Empire ruled by triumvirs and emperors.

  • Quintilian:

“Rhetoric is the art of speaking well” or “…good man speaking well.”

My note: To Quintilian, a later Roman rhetorician writing under the rule of Emperors, rhetoric is not just about persuasion… it’s about speech in general, and being a good person while speaking, and doing it well and for ethical purposes.

  • Francis Bacon:

The duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.

My note: Writing in the early 1600s at the dawn of science and enlightenment, Bacon identified “reason” (not emotion, not fear) as the agent of rhetoric, “imagination” as an intermediate step in rhetoric, and the moving of the human “will” as the aim or object of rhetoric.

How can you move someone’s will to do something good, like help others in need? Bacon would reply, use reason to excite their imagination.]

  • George Campbell:

“[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.”

My note: Writing in the mid 1700s during the Scottish Enlightenment in dialogue with David Hume and Adam Smith, Campbell saw that rhetoric is essential to education and instruction itself, “to enlighten the understanding,” which shows that rhetoric is necessary in science and in teaching people truths, not just in public speeches and writings by leaders.

As for these definitions, it’s important to remember that these people were not just unusual writers at the fringes of their culture. They were not just proposing and dictating, but describing the rhetorical culture they saw around them.  Of course, critiques of rhetoric were voiced, but they did not drown out the positive voices. Rhetoric was built into the very fabric of secondary and advanced education, and it was largely considered positively an essential study for any leader, civil servant, preacher, teacher, or public writer.

Why the use of the word “rhetoric” matters

I believe that to a great degree our society’s relentless and counterproductive slander against Dame Rhetorica goes hand in hand with widespread ignorance of the “good” art of rhetoric, and has contributed to the increasing misuse of rhetoric itself.

Some might say that it’s vice-versa: only the misuse of rhetoric has contributed to its bad reputation. Not so convincing.

Rhetoric has always been misused, from ancient times (read Plato and Isocrates and Demosthenes), and people knew this well. Despite this fact, nations, schools, scholars, writers, and leaders have nevertheless looked up to Rhetorica and her arts for instruction in how to lead and communicate effectively and ethically.

How can the cause and effect work the other way?  Can ignorance and denigration of an art lead to its misuse?  Yes.  If you don’t know how to use a tool well, or you’ve been told by your society it’s mainly used for negative things, you might be disposed to use it for ill purposes.  At best, you might use it ignorantly, clumsily or blindly, harming other people or yourself without meaning to.  The same goes for our rhetoric: our words, symbols, claims and reasoning are tools of civic action.

Language influences thought and action. For example, when a city uses words like “policeman” and “alderman” to name these roles, it is implying that these roles are normally and properly held by men, not women. Repeating verbal associations over and over does a strange sort of magic: over time it makes them into social realities and assumptions, and these wrong assumptions erode identities, roles and values. But language can be revised or renewed, and culture changes hand in hand with language.

For similarly good social purposes, I would like to see the word “rhetoric” revived to mean what it used to mean: a useful and good civic art that ought to be honored, nurtured and protected, not abused. Rhetoric is not by nature “mere” or “inflammatory” or “empty.” Rhetoric is also beautiful, powerful, useful, essential, and instructive.

Rhetoric is everywhere and it holds together the fabric of our everyday interactions. Its wise use, especially in times of crisis, makes people worthy of honour, and healthy rhetoric used at every level of society every day is what makes communities great.

How to re-establish good rhetoric … and good societies

Can we try to respond to bad rhetoric without using any rhetoric at all?  Hm, that would either require silence on our part … then bad rhetoric gets the last word and echoes on unopposed. Or it would require force, which would shut down free speech.

Here are some practical suggestions:

  • First, let’s stop slandering rhetoric. This continual slander is at the source of many of our society’s rhetorical diseases.

If you care about your health, you will not continually harm your body. Likewise, if you care about healthy rhetoric in society, you cannot support the continual  denigration of the word and concept of rhetoric.

We should once again acknowledge, as civilizations, that good rhetoric is needed to make cities and nations great, not just that bad rhetoric is their downfall.

Certainly, bad rhetoric goes hand in hand with decay of society or bad government. But it’s not productive to perpetuate the increasing belief that all rhetoric as bad.  It’s like saying all science is bad because it was used to create the nuclear bomb. It shuts down science. Blaming rhetoric in general lumps good rhetoric together with the bad.

The counterpart of minimizing the slander of rhetoric is the next action:

  • Let’s use the word “rhetoric” and related vocabulary positively 

Let’s more frequently use phrases like “affirming rhetoric” or “civil rhetoric” or “encouraging rhetoric.” This may make headway to reverse some of the overwhelming mudslinging and attacks of rhetoric that have gone on for too long.

Let’s make more use of a positive synonym for “good rhetoric” that is currently so underutilized and misunderstood: “eloquence.”

Let’s stop making good rhetoric invisible and rarely mentionable as “rhetoric,” since this allows bad rhetoric to claim all the limelight.

There is nothing essentially confusing about calling both good rhetoric and bad rhetoric as varieties of “rhetoric,” it just entails and builds a change in our culture’s attitude toward rhetoric. Similar changes have already been successfully enacted in other aspects of language and culture, such as the way we refer to people of other cultures, women, etc.

  • Let’s practice well-reasoned and fair rhetorical criticism. 

Rhetorical criticism is essential for a healthy society.  We need to continually exercise our discernment regarding what exactly distinguishes good rhetoric from demagoguery and fearmongering.  What distinguishes the rhetoric of harassment or bigotry?  How can you distinguish a joke from slander? What is wrong about a statement’s words, style, and delivery, as well as its arguments, and its aims and effects?

If we are going to critique anyone’s bad rhetoric and improve political rhetoric, let’s admit that we are using rhetoric itself to critique rhetoric. If you point a finger, you have four fingers pointing back at you. Make sure you analyze your own rhetoric while analyzing someone else’s.

We need to engage in richer justifications for rhetorical criticism arguments. Adjectives for rhetoric can be mere name-calling.  We’re no better than they are if we can’t justify our criticism about what makes their particular use of rhetoric harmful or inappropriate. When a person says “that’s [empty/ inflammatory/ ___] rhetoric,” how about saying what exactly about its rhetoric makes it so?  How can you prove your claims about the nature of their rhetoric?  Give evidence from their words (quote them) or hard data from the situation surrounding their rhetoric.

There could be so many ways rhetoric can go wrong, not just intrinsically in terms of its words and arguments, but in terms of its relation to its situations and various audiences. Is the person making promises they are not socially or economically capable of fulfilling, or are they using words without defining them?  

It might actually be a mixture of good and bad rhetoric we are critiquing. We might discover, if we are open-minded, that what we thought was bad rhetoric is actually partly enlightening or has a good intention.

Maybe your argument against someone’s rhetoric is based on the fact that you don’t personally agree with the premises (values or beliefs) underlying their rhetoric, and you may need to consider that your values are not part of their culture, and you just need to live at a tolerable distance from each other and try to maintain peace that way if you can’t agree on fundamentals. 

  • In formal education and everyday life, let’s actively study the art of rhetoric and promote its study throughout society and across people’s entire lifetimes.

There’s an essential public good involved in formal educational courses that teach the art of communication: writing, speech, argumentation, logic on topics of public or collective importance. Encourage all students to study rhetoric, not just arts majors but people studying sciences and professional fields.

Consider teaching students gradually from grade school how to write and speak good arguments on civic topics. There is an ancient set of rhetorical exercises that was used to bring up citizens through secondary to advanced education, step by step, and it was called the Progymnasmata… look into it.

Good rhetorical skills and values can also be taught outside of formal education as well, through mentorship, good models, and analytical discussion of good and bad examples of communication in everyday life and leadership.

Acknowledge that “rhetorical education” needs to happen continually and well, everywhere, every day as people persuade each other into good (or better) ways of communicating with each other. Mothers and fathers teach children to say please and thank you, and don’t interrupt. But somehow people forget those lessons in new situations. Those lessons must continually be reapplied to new circumstances when children grow up and get jobs and become CEOs or mayors.

Fund research and criticism in rhetoric at universities and give prizes for good book-length publications on rhetoric. We don’t just need journalists to write short articles of rhetorical criticism of individual political speeches, we also need in-depth examinations of changes in our broad use of rhetoric across languages, cultures, and time.

  • In practice, let’s make our rhetoric civic, inclusive, healthy, and based on sound philosophies and values.

This does require us occasionally to get philosophical, and think of the cultural values underpinning what we think of as good rhetoric, what is acceptable as evidence, what is considered civil and polite in delivery and word use. We do need to examine our own and others’ “rhetorical philosophy” now and then. Besides, it’s important to remind ourselves of why we value good rhetoric and what we believe about it.  It’s too easy to forget our society’s fundamental values when competing interests and tempting prospects lure, tempting us to redesign the debate and forum to unfairly exclude our competitors or alternative voices and views.

What is the best way of uprooting evil or abusive rhetoric, without shutting down free speech?  Countering it with good rhetoric.  Effective comebacks and counterarguments require good rhetoric and should rise above any unethical tactics.  Don’t just talk back to the bad rhetor and attack them, but address citizens and persuade them to think differently.

Crafting good rhetoric takes strategic work and research. It takes time and knowledge of economic, physical, social and cultural contexts. This is why leaders have executive committees and cities have councils. Many hands and heads make lighter work, and good advice when followed prevents many ills. 

As we enable good rhetoric to flourish, so our families, cities, cultures and civilizations will flourish.


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