Language and Rhetoric
The word ‘rhetoric’ was born in Ancient Greece and is closely associated with a group called the ‘Sophists’ who were pre-Socratic philosophers of 5th Century BCE that taught rhetoric as means of persuading or convincing others to agree with you, regardless of the validity or moral worth of your argument. This was opposed by Plato and Socrates, among others, who that that this kind of skill with words in the absence of moral virtue or a logical position could be very dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.
The real advances in rhetoric, however, came with Aristotle who examined persuasive speeches in his treatise ‘The Art of Rhetoric’ to see how they managed to convince people so effectively. He identified three key elements of a good speech:
Quintillian was a Roman rhetorician (43-100 CE)
who held the Chair of Rhetoric in
This is the opening of the speech, wherein the speaker outlines the substance and purpose of their argument (logos), and should provide reasons for the audience to believe in the speaker (their ethos).
Brutus and Marc Antony’s speeches in Act III Sc ii, ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’
Brutus: Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my cause, and be
silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine
honour, that you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses,
that you may the better judge. If there be any in this
assembly, any dear friend of Caesar's, to him I say, that Brutus' love to
Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against
Caesar, this is my answer: --Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Marc Anthony: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to
bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones; So let it be with
Caesar. The noble Brutus Hath told you Caesar was
ambitious: If it were so, it was a grievous fault, And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it. Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest-- For
Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all
honourable men-- Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral. He was my friend,
faithful and just to me: But Brutus says he was ambitious; And
Brutus is an honourable man. He hath brought many captives home to
Contrast the way in which each speaker addresses the crowd
and tries to convince them of his points: where
Antony develops his rhetoric through the scene and the speech provides excellent examples of the use of different elements of rhetoric, from the opening appeals to listen (made on three ‘levels’ – ‘friends’ who should listen to another friend, ‘Romans’ who as citizens of that state should hear what another citizen has to say, ‘countrymen’ who can trust the word of a compatriot) through the sarcastic descriptions of Brutus and the conspirators as ‘noble’ and ‘honourable’, inviting the later disagreements from the crowd, to the three rhetorical questions designed to attack the substance of Brutus’ speech at the beginning of the scene.
By the end, the crowd is a mob bent on avenging Caesar,
Although the speech is a famous example of the use of
emotionally charged rhetoric, it does not just rely on the pathos of arguments
Henry V’s speech before Harfleur in Act III Sc i
Once more unto the breach, dear
friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our
English dead. In peace there's nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and
humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action
of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature
with hard-favour'd rage; Then lend the eye a terrible
aspect; Let pry through the portage of the head Like the brass cannon; let the
brow o'erwhelm it As fearfully as doth a galled rock O'erhang and jutty his confounded
base, Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean. Now
set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, Hold hard the breath and bend up
every spirit To his full height. On,
on, you noblest English. Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof! Fathers that, like so
many Alexanders, Have in these parts from morn till
even fought And sheathed their swords for lack of
argument: Dishonour not your mothers; now attest That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you. Be copy now to men of grosser
blood, And teach them how to war. And you, good
yeoman, Whose limbs were made in
Again, we can see in the speech the appeals to emotion and position common to these types of speeches. From the opening rally cry to fight on or be reduced to using the corpses of their fallen comrades to repair the battlements, the stirring description of the warrior readying for battle, and the appeals to honour family, country, king and god, the entire speech is shot through with strong examples of the elements of rhetoric.
Dr Martin Luther King – I have a dream
… And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
The repetitive nature of the structure of each of Dr King’s points lend the speech a sermon-like quality (he was a preacher and church minister) while the powerful images created form a strong emotional appeal. In a similar way, the campaign speeches of in 2008 of then presidential candidate Barack Obama (of which numerous examples are available online from various sources) appealed to hope and aspiration in a way that prioritises the rhetorical flourish of the speaker.
The Dangers of Rhetoric
Everyone needs to be aware of rhetoric, not just so that we can use it but so that we can be aware of how it may be used against us. One common political tool that we all need to be aware of is the use of stereotyping to create false oppositions between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
A binary opposition occurs when people are divided into two mutually exclusive groups, for example ‘rich and poor’ or ‘black and white’. This splits society along clear lines and allows the other side to be blamed for all of our problems. Extremist groups or those seeking to advance extremist positions are most likely to create these binary divisions for obvious reasons
A good example of this is in Bush’s 2001 address to the joint session of Congress: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” Statements like this create false binaries – the idea that there are only two sides in an argument and these must be in direct opposition, and mutually exclusive. This is a ‘false’ binary because it is often untrue: there is often more than one group that can exist in between the polarised extremes.
The identification of the ‘other’ as a specific group who are easily identified, means that the cause of the misfortune can be addressed directly at them. This means we can avoid having to deal with the more uncomfortable idea that sometimes, things just happen, or the cause might be outside our control or even understanding
The ideas of rhetoric formed thousands of years ago still have great relevance for argumentation and communication theory today. As societies grow, develop and change, the emphasis placed on various rhetorical elements also shifts, as it does when considering discourse in different arena. The student of language and rhetoric, and communication needs to be able to identify what is appropriate rhetoric when, and to be able to critically analyse this approach in others, and awareness of the continuing relevance of these ideas is crucial to that understanding.