What is "Rhetoric"?

Recently, I sent a group of students out to ask that question. Each student asked 10 people to define rhetoric--and each student returned with 10 completely different answers.

Not surprisingly, more than half of the answers had negative connotations. People who are deceived and lured by hype are sometimes described as having "succumbed to the rhetoric." If politicians make promises they don't keep, those promises are likely to be criticized as "empty campaign rhetoric." While it's true that rhetoric can have negative connotations--that is, rhetorical skills can be used to deceive or to sway people unethically--these conceptions of rhetoric are misleading and fail even to scratch the surface of what rhetoric is all about.

During the 4th century B.C., Aristotle wrote the Rhetoric in which he defined rhetoric as discovering all available means of persuasion on a topic. Thus, for Aristotle, rhetoric has a clear persuasive function, but also an epistemic function--it serves as a way to discover what is known and what can be known about a subject. Every time we use language--in speech or in writing--we engage in a rhetorical act. Another way of saying this would be to say that all communication is rhetorical. Whenever we use language, we have an intention--a message to communicate or a goal to achieve. All of us behave rhetorically every time we use language. In fact, a useful modern definition of rhetoric is simply the intentional use of language to influence an audience.

Aristotle and other classical rhetoricians, both Greek and Roman, worked to codify rhetoric, to identify its parts and its functions. Much of our modern understanding of rhetoric is derived from these classical sources. Even the incredible impact of technology on ways we speak and write can still be understood and analyzed beginning from this classical foundation. Part of this classical heritage is our understanding of the 5 canons of rhetoric:

The Latin term inventio means "invention" or "discovery." Invention is a process of systematically discovering arguments about a given topic. This topic exploration spans a wide variety of methods including research. In modern writing instruction, we usually refer to this part of the writing process as "prewriting."
The classical rhetoricians referred to this canon as dispositio, meaning "disposition" or "arrangement." Arrangment is the process of arranging the parts of a discourse in the order that will be most effective to achieve the rhetorical goal or intention. We often refer to this as "structure" or "organization."
Because of their focus on spoken delivery, classical rhetoricians referred to style as elocutio. Style is an elusive quality and, therefore, difficult to define. We can, however identify particular elements of style: word choice (diction), sentence and paragraph length and arrangment, use of imagery and metaphor, etc.
This canon gets the least emphasis in modern rhetorical studies. In Aristotle and Plato's day, each copy of a text had to be created by hand, and paper and ink were much harder to come by. Plato, in fact, distrusted writing because he believed that it became a crutch, allowing rhetors to depend on the written text rather than on developing their mental skills. Classical rhetoricians stressed memory, what they called memoria and used several mnemonic devices to help them remember the parts of an oration. We tend to rely on notes--or PowerPoint slides!
Classical rhetoricians focused mostly on oral presentation when they talked about delivery and referred to it as pronuntiatio. We, however, have lots of options they didn't have, especially since the World Wide Web allows us to self-publish text which includes color, graphics, and other visual elements as part of the message we communicate.

One useful way for us to think about rhetoric now is to understand that every rhetorical act--every use of language--occurs within a rhetorical context which includes at least 4 elements:
The speaker or writer's goal--the effect you want to have on a specific audience.
The specific person or group of people you are addressing.
The method of delivery--newspaper, flyer, radio or television broadcast, poster, letter, speech, academic paper, etc.
The topic of the rhetorical discourse.

To be an effective speaker or writer, you must begin by analyzing the rhetorical context of your discourse: Why are you speaking or writing? To whom? How will your message be delivered or received? What is your message about? These factors exert significant impact on what you will say or write and how you will say or write it. Suppose, for example, that you want to quit a job you currently have and take a new job. You might explain your reasons to your friends and/or your parents quite differently than you would to your current boss. Maybe you'd tell your friends and parents that you just hate the job or that you don't get paid enough, or that you think your boss is an idiot. You would probably express yourself quite differently to your boss if he/she asked for your reasons--especially if you wanted a job reference for your next employer! This is just one example of how factors in the rhetorical context work together to influence what is written or said and how.

Within the rhetorical context, we, as speakers and writers, make three types of appeals to our audience:

Ethos Ethos is the Greek word from which we get our word "ethics." Ethos is all about your credibility, reliability, and authority as a speaker or writer. Essentially, ethos is your reputation with your audience and the strategies you use to convince your audience that you should be believed or taken seriously. For the Greeks, who put a great deal of emphasis on citizenship, ethos had a lot to do with a rhetor's status in the community. In fact, Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician, defined ethos as "A good man speaking well." For Quintilian, being a "good man" was equally as important as having the ability to "speak well." Ethos focuses on you as the speaker or writer.
Logos Logos sounds a lot like our word "logic," and that's a good way to think about logos. Logos focuses on the text itself--the data, examples, statistics, facts, reasoning, etc. which are part of your message. We often refer to the logos portion of writing as "support material." Naturally, a speaker or writer who uses poor or faulty data to try to support a claim or convince an audience compromises his/her ethos. In other words, these rhetorical appeals don't exist in isolation; they are closely interrelated. Nonetheless, when we talk about logos, we're focusing primarily on the text or the message that's being delivered.
Pathos Our modern English word which is closest to pathos is the word "pathetic." We tend to use the word "pathetic" to describe something that is pitiful, stupid, or sorry, but the root of the word--"path"--actually means "feeling or suffering." We derive quite a few medical and psychological terms from this root (e.g., pathology, pathologist, psychopath, etc.) because those terms have to do with what human beings feel and/or suffer. Pathos is all about appealing to feelings or emotions. Thus, the focus of pathos is on the audience.

Aristotle believed that the most significant of the appeals was ethos--that someone will be believed because of his/her reputation or charisma even if the facts of the message are weak. This may explain why people who run for office undergo extensive training on how to relate to people--to develop public charisma. Aristotle believed that ideally, people would be persuaded by logos, but he acknowledged that most people are more swayed by what we feel and care about than by what we believe to be factual. A skilled writer understands that all three appeals work together within a specific rhetorical context--and uses all of them to accomplish his rhetorical aim.

Now that we do so much of our reading and writing online, we're paying a lot more attention to the fact that the visual elements of a text are equally as important as the language of the text in communicating meaning. These are the two tools that speakers and writers use to make the three rhetorical appeals: Language and image.

As we work through this course together, what we're really doing is learning about rhetoric. Primarily, we'll be talking about rhetoric as it applies to writing, but you should know that everything we're discussing about writing applies to speaking as well. We live in a world of written text. When you need something for yourself or your family at home, or when you need or want something on the job, the response you're likely to hear is, "Give me something in writing." The person who understands rhetoric and who perfects his or her rhetorical skills is the person who is most likely to get what is needed or wanted. When you study rhetoric--as you are in this class--you're perfecting skills that will impact every area of your life and work.