What is rhetoric and why is it important?


Put simply, rhetoric is the art of persuasion. It is present in every aspect of our lives (when cajoling a prospective partner to join you for dinner, when asking to borrow your parents’ car, when convincing a child to go to bed, or when campaigning to remain in/leave the European Union).

Recently, rhetoric has come to be used in a pejorative sense; however, it has not always had negative associations. It is often prefixed by terms such as ‘empty’ to describe the often equivocating, glib answers that politicians provide to seemingly straightforward questions.

It is important to know that rhetoric is much more than merely a style of speaking, and it is not an innately negative phenomenon. In terms of the formalisation of the study of rhetoric, we owe much to the ancient Greek philosophers.

The development of rhetoric is often traced to two Sicilian figures names Corax and Tisias. The story goes that Corax (Greek: Crow) was an orator of great renown – he represented people in judicial disputes and was among the first to devise a system whereby the art of persuasion could be understood. Being aware of Corax’s fame and fortune (as he was paid for his efforts), Tisias was keen to learn the skills of rhetoric so that he too could turn his hand to legal representation. As such, Tisias approached Corax with a proposition, saying: ‘teach me the skills of rhetoric and I’ll pay you for the course after I’ve succeeded at my first trial’. The pair agreed on these terms. Later, however, there was a dispute when Tisias refused to pay Corax , saying that Corax’s teaching was so inept and incompetent that Tisias had failed to learn a thing. The dispute made its way into the ancient Greek court. Both Corax and Tisias had to prepare their arguments.

Tisias, bringing the case, put forward the following argument: he should not have to pay Corax for the course because the teaching was so poor. If he should fail to convince the court that he was right, then they should also find in his favour as his poor performance would be evidence of his lack of skills in rhetoric – and proof that Corax was a rubbish teacher. If Tisias managed to convince the court (and display rhetorical skills necessary to convince them) then his argument went that these skills would have been developed in spite of Corax’s teaching rather than because of it.

On the contrary, the basis for Corax’s argument was that if Tisia lost, it was down to his own incompetence and if he won, it demonstrated that Corax’s lessons had been effective. As it happened, the case was rubbished and thrown out but the story serves to highlight that rhetoric as a discipline can be traced at least this far in the past. As well as this, it shows that as a subject, rhetoric could be divided, taught, studied and learned. Indeed, this study of rhetoric used to make up part of a classical education. The syllabus was known as the trivium – and comprised formalised lessons in three main areas: grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Although the formal and commonplace teaching of rhetoric had stopped by the time that I was old enough to attend school, that doesn’t mean that the phenomenon has any less prevalence or importance in our lives. Indeed, the study of rhetoric today may be more important than at any previous point in our history. It is everywhere. In the information age of 24-hour news coverage, where arguments can be condensed to 140 characters on Twitter or memeified, rhetorical understanding is, in effect, information literacy. I don’t think that it’s hyperbole to state that our democracy depends on such literacy. As well as equipping you with the skills necessary to deconstruct and evaluate arguments, rhetorical literacy enables you to build your own convincing arguments: a skill that will serve you well both in and beyond university.

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