What exactly is rhetoric?

The Mirriam-Webster online dictionary offers two definitions of rhetoric:

 

  1. the art or skill of speaking or writing formally and effectively especially as a way to persuade or influence people

  2. language that is intended to influence people and that may not be honest or reasonable

As the second definition demonstrates, many people have a negative idea about rhetoric, dismissing it as manipulation or trickery.

For example, consider how often politicians are accused of using difficult language (such as jargon or double speak) to deceive or confuse the public about current issues. While it is true that language can indeed be used to trick others, there is more to rhetoric than its bad reputation reveals.

 

It is difficult to give any single, clear-cut definition of the term, but the overall objective of rhetoric is to engage in purposeful communication through the effective use of language. In plain terms, rhetoric is the art of using the right words to persuade an audience to believe or accept your message. 

As first-year Editing/Writing/Media students, rhetoric is one of several courses required as part of your academic curriculum. However, rhetoric is an essential skill in every field, not only those directly related to communication.  Every subject (from math and science to cooking and pet care) requires writing and speaking skills in order to communicate the specific ideas and knowledge of that specific topic. 

Why is this important?

In order to overcome the negative stigma of rhetoric, it is important that more people in our society understand what it is and how it works. Once informed, we can better recognize how and when rhetoric is being used on us, examine the effect it has on our perceptions and decisions, and consider how we use it in everyday, personal interactions.

 

To gain a basic understanding of rhetoric, let's go back to the Classical Greek age, when rhetoric was first given its name and taught as a distinct subject. We will examine three major Athenian schools of thought from that time, beginning with the Sophists, moving chronologically to the Platonists, and finally to the Aristotilians.