What is Rhetoric?


Rhetoric - detail from Martin de Vos, "Allegory of the Seven Liberal Arts," Public Domain, Wikimedia.

“What is rhetoric?” you may ask.  There are many definitions available.  As a scholar of rhetoric, I offer my current definition.

Rhetoric is the study and practice of communication that persuades, informs, inspires, or entertains target audiences in order to change or reinforce beliefs, values, habits or actions.

Rhetoric is basically the strategic use of communication to accomplish purposes with target audiences.  It can be used for ethical and unethical purposes, but ought to be used for good ends and to enhance truthful and honest messages.

Rhetoric is defined by its function, not by a communication medium, topic, or social location.

  • Rhetoric is not limited to writing and speech, but occurs through all media and genres.  Rhetoric may be performed and appreciated in music and the arts, in greeting cards, Twitter posts, advertising, architecture, and elementary education.
  • Rhetoric is not restricted to politics and public discourse, but is potentially an aspect of communication on every topic and every social situation.  Therefore its strategies must also vary by situation and audience.
  • Rhetoric need not have an external, human audience. One could even say we persuade ourselves through our internal decision-making processes.  Spiritual practices often include divine persuasion and communion through prayer.

Rhetoric functions even where it is not announced or acknowledged, and is even used by those who deny it and defame it.

  • Most people practice rhetoric all the time without consciously applying it or studying it, just as we can all think without having to study philosophy or psychology.
  • Because “rhetoric” has often been portrayed as empty, false, argumentative, or manipulative, many people dismiss it, avoid it, or blame it for many ills in the world.  However, rhetoric, like many other human arts, achieve its greatest purpose when used to communicate and enhance truth, mutual understanding and beauty.
  • Sometimes communicators expressly deny that they are using rhetoric. However, the most powerful forms of rhetoric are those that hide their own strategies and intentions.
  • Many people accuse others of using rhetoric as if using it is not ethical or appropriate. However, even the condemnation of someone else’s rhetoric is itself an act of rhetoric persuading you to agree with their judgment.

Rhetorical study not only brings deeper understanding of strategic communication, but guides our practical use of it. Rhetoric is an art through which people learn to improve their own communication and adapt it to specific audiences and purposes. It also helps us learn to discern the excellence and weakness of our own and others’ rhetoric. Rhetorical study & education occurs through several means:

  • Individual, everyday practice and reflection on one’s own communication – We learn through painful trial and error and by reflecting on what we observe. We adjust our own rhetoric sometimes without even being aware of altering our strategies, and other times we use conscious effort.
  • Rhetorical enculturation and popular rhetorical advice – We can find examples and advice about effective or ineffective rhetoric in self-help books, magazine articles, and churches, among other places. Our society continually teaches people how to communicate in certain situations or to achieve certain purposes.
  • Formal study of rhetorical theory, criticism, history, and practice – This is usually facilitated through Rhetoric courses at an institution of higher education, or through a speaking or debate club or corporate workshop that incorporates the rhetorical tradition. University courses usually teach the “rhetorical tradition” represented by a canon of rhetorical theorists and famous orators/writers/leaders. They often engage students in applying rhetorical principles to their production of discourse in writing, speech, or other media.

Read more about rhetoric on Wikipedia’s Rhetoric Page.

10 thoughts on “What is Rhetoric?

  1. A nice difinition of rhetoric but it will be more usefull if you give the position or the order of rhethoric among other knowlege, as discourse, pracmatics and so fotrh. From Aris Munandar – State University of Surabaya – Indonesia

  2. Thanks for your comment Aris. Rhetoric has been defined in very many ways across history and in different cultures. It depends on what you are doing to say that a certain definition is “more useful.” Useful for doing what? I welcome you to post your own definition here or elsewhere. Your key terms sound to me like they are related to linguistics and socio-cultural theory, and I readily admit that my background is not in linguistics, which I find quite dry and technical.

    I value the combination of agency and language too much to objectify rhetoric as “discourse,” a term which often seems to be invoked in a Foucauldian sense as a linguistic-social-structural phenomenon (like a matrix) without any focus on an individual or collective rhetor with motives that shape discourse (would you call the agent of discourse a “discourser?” no, but in rhetoric one can call them a rhetor).

    Rhetoric is beyond the scope of any individual theorist to encapsulate or set boundaries upon, but rhetoricians produce rhetoric about rhetoric… our definitions are the territory that we see rhetoric claiming and flourishing within.

  3. Hi!

    A definition, like yours, is in fact a rhetorical figure that excludes some things (by some authors hidden in the dark), but do also include and clarify other things. What do You exclude, dear Edu*Rhetor? Let the sunshine in:-).

    Even though Your definition seem to be a good one, it seem to be a combination and more or less the same like James E. Herrick definition, that he mentions in his textbook “The theory and history of rhetoric” and with a familiar touch of the definition in the book “Persuasion-Social Influence, by Compliance Gaining, Robert H. Gass, & John S. Seiter. Inspired by them, are we?

  4. Hi,
    I need to write a kind of composition on “Political language versus rhetoric”. I should somehow analyse the connections between those two, so if you could somehow help me, I would be really happy and grateful.

  5. Hello meg. Sorry if I’m replying too late for your assignment. I think the terms will change their meaning depending on the context. Are you writing your composition in a political science class or a rhetoric/communication class? “Political language” in a neutral sense, could mean “language used by politicians” or “language used for political purposes.” In a negative sense, it could be used to criticize a person for improperly “politicizing” a topic that should not (according to someone) be seen or spoken of in a political light.

    I am also a little confused by the term “versus” in your theme “Political language versus rhetoric.” Who is telling you that there is a “versus” separating these concepts? I am glad that you asked in your question “I should somehow analyse the connections between those two…” Yes there are very strong connections between the two. How can one speak in a political fashion without using rhetoric? If rhetoric is about persuasion and argumentation, and if rhetoric is needed by leaders in order to articulate a vision, how can rhetoric not be a tool used by politicians, political analysts, and policy-makers? Consider the famous Roman orator Cicero, who became the head of the Roman republic (equivalent to a president). Was he not well known as a rhetorician? Cicero wrote dialogues and instruction books on rhetoric, as well as advice on how to run a political campaign. Cicero’s political speeches (the most famous being “against Catiline) became common texts studied by schoolboys who were learning about rhetoric and politics and history (and often Latin as well) all at the same time.

    I hope that helps!

  6. hi,…i am struggling how to start making rhetoric lines for my self an paraphrase it,..i find your theory and understanding of it is illuminating.

    all the best.

  7. i do not understand all the rthetoric going on here but it seems to me like it really just depends on what you are trying to express and or get across to your audience. Whether or not you are a politician or some writer writing an article about something you feel is interesting or just want to express a truth through the freedom of press. Epxlain to me what kind of rhetoric is useful to anyone when the truth is much easier even if it is hurtful.

  8. Thanks Julie for your comment. I agree that rhetoric will vary from situation to situation, and “it really just depends on what you are trying to express.” That’s what makes it so challenging; it’s not like a simple recipe. You ask at the end of your comment, “Explain to me what kind of rhetoric is useful to anyone when the truth is much easier even if it is hurtful.” I hope you aren’t implying that rhetoric is an alternative to telling the truth… ideally rhetoric should be used only with true, honest messages, and that is where I believe rhetoric achieves its glory and honor. When you have a message that is truthful but can be hurtful, you often need to think about your rhetorical strategy in order to obtain attention and convey that you have a person’s best interests at heart. Even the simplest “naked” expression of the truth, like “smoking can cause lung cancer,” can be rhetorically crafted and designed for particular situations and audiences.

  9. By far, this is the best definition of rhetoric that I’ve read. and i enjoyed reading it; furthermore, it

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