“That is just rhetoric!” someone shouted as a speaker made his final statement while another shouted “I am not falling for that!”
Are statements like these the perception and effects of rhetoric? There are many who view rhetoric as the act of persuading others and not in a good way either. In our culture, this is the main message we receive about rhetoric, but if this is not the case, what is rhetoric really?
Maybe you did not expect to see an article on rhetoric in this ‘31 Days of Playing with the Arts’ series. However, remember we said an art is anything that attends to the nature of the recipient, has principles of action and reason, and makes provision for the soul’s highest interest. In addition, we are talking about arts that allow us to participate in culture. Rhetoric is tied tightly to all of these elements and is, therefore, an art you can choose to develop. Rhetoric can be a way to participate in culture for yourself. I love learning about rhetoric and I still have so much to learn. Nevertheless, here are some ideas and connections I am already playing with in my own writing and teaching.
Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Rhetoric in and of itself is amoral. It cannot cause harm nor can it cause good. Rather, it is the person who uses rhetoric that can cause either harm or good. Rhetoric is a powerful tool to lead people to the truth. Likewise, rhetoric can be used to lead others astray.
|Mark Antony’s Speech over Julius Caesar’s dead body.|
Back in Ancient Greece when rhetoric was gaining popularity two of the well-known groups were the sophists and the philosophers. The sophists believed that there was no truth, that if there was truth one could not know it, and if one could know the truth, there would be no way to communicate it. Therefore in their use of rhetoric, the sophists would entertain and put themselves on display, almost like magicians. The performances usually resulted in fame and popularity for the sophist-rhetoricians. Many would seek out the sophists in order to learn from them. The philosophers, on the other hand, were interested in finding the highest good and the truth. Their discourse, therefore, reflected their goal. In the end, each man had to choose for himself where he would set his eyes.
Socrates, a philosopher of ancient Greece, was a master at seeking the truth. Plato, Socrates’ student, wrote down many of the dialogues Socrates had with others in pursuit of truth. They did not always get it right, but they did get quite a bit right. One particular dialogue was between Socrates and a man named Phaedrus. Phaedrus was a lover of speeches and an aspiring speaker. One day, outside the walls of Athens, Phaedrus gets Socrates attention and proceeds to share a speech with him. This speech then sets off a lengthy dialogue about love, rhetoric, and what Socrates calls ‘the kinds of soul.’
The idea about the kinds of soul is what was most intriguing to me during my first read through of The Phaedrus. Truly, it is a necessary thought, that when related to rightly, enables us to do good through rhetoric. The ‘kinds of soul’ could also be called the nature of a person.
|Painting by Panini Giovanni Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill|
When learning the art of rhetoric, we must travel two paths, the path of skill and the path of discernment.
The path of skill involves the five cannons of rhetoric called Invention, arrangement, elocution, memoria, and oration. These cannons contain the tools and ideas a rhetorician can pull from to formulate their discourse. Of course, there are many options and the study of these elements gives some direction about which ones are best to use in various circumstances. However, this is not enough for every situation.
Therefore, the path of discernment must also be encountered. There are two kinds of discernment, the kind we can come to through reason and the kind that only the Holy Spirit can lead us to. For the first, we can use our reason to think about the nature of the people and things all around us. For discernment that comes through reason we must become a student of people, a student of what it means to be human, and a student of the nature of things. For the later, we must solely rely on the Holy Spirit. Our ability to discern what a person needs to hear and how they need to hear it may largely depend on insight from the only One who can really know the heart of a man. Therefore, we must also continually consider the one thing needful and be quick to repent when the Lord shows us our sin. In addition, a person’s relationship with Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit in their life serves as their only guard in preventing them from using rhetoric for evil purposes.
Even with the dangers associated with rhetoric, I believe it is necessary that we study this art. Pursuing and leading others to the truth is more important than trying to keep this art from those who would pervert it. One day Jesus will come and make all things right until then I want to do the best I can in leading others to Him.
Ideas for Beginning
:: Begin learning about and practicing the five canons of rhetoric. The following resources are what I use.
1. The Lost Tools of Writing Level 1 and 2 by the CiRCE Institute
2. Office of Assertion by Scott Crider
3. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Corbett & Connors
4. Plato’s Dialogues (Esp. The Gorgias, The Meno, and The Phaedrus)
5. Articles and posts on www.circeinstitute.org
:: Begin learning about kinds of soul. (DISCLAIMER) I am still learning about this subject. The following ideas and resources are ones that seem to have most impacted the times I was able to discern something, and the times others have seemed to discern something in the rhetorical situation.
1. Go deeper in a relationship with Jesus Christ. (Without this, none of the rest matters)
2. Grow in understanding about what it means to be human, made in the image of God, and our position in Christ. The Bible, Literature, and a wonderful talk by Andrew Kern, A Contemplation of Nature, are great places to begin.
3. Read MANY great works of literature and ask should questions. Notice things on the surface. As you and your children do this, you are creating examples upon examples in your mind about various kinds of soul. It becomes a reference point for relating to other humans and circumstances. This is why books and sitcoms that mock reality and distort the truth are so destructive. Reading and discussing is an integral part of developing our abilities in discernment for ourselves and others.
Immerse yourself in this work and trust the Holy Spirit to lead you and others into all truth. God loves our children, friends, and family more than we ever could.
|This part is a member of our 31 Days of Playing with the Arts Series|