A rhetorical rant

Something is amiss in contemporary Australian discourse. In large part, I put it down to the absence of formal training in rhetoric in our modern university system. By ‘rhetoric’ I mean the art or discipline of discourse (spoken or written) so as to inform, persuade or motivate an audience. Rhetoric is inescapable in the modern world: in the daily news, in advertising, in the endless arguments of our politicians. But it is not restricted only to the public and political realms. We all use language to persuade others on a daily basis: in raising our children; competing for employment; discussing important matters with our spouses; negotiating with real-estate agents; defending ourselves at law; selling products; and representing organisations. None of this is “mere rhetoric”. It is an essential skill for daily life.

Formal training in classical rhetoric produces two highly desirable results: first, it makes us better readers and listeners, and second, it makes us better writers and speakers. If we have a sound knowledge of rhetorical techniques, we are better equipped to persuade by means of an appeal to reason, ethics or emotion. Conversely, if we are well trained in these techniques, we recognise when these skills are being properly utilised by others and, even more importantly, when they are being utilised for an insidious purpose (to disguise a weak argument, to generate propaganda, or to deceive and confuse).

In the ancient world, classical rhetoric was primarily concerned with persuasive discourse. Classical orators set out to persuade an audience to think or act in a particular way. Formal rhetorical training taught students three essential skills: first, how to argue (including how to define a topic, how to identify and develop arguments, and how to recognise fallacies and false reasoning). Secondly, it taught how to arrange material in a logical and persuasive manner (using an introduction, statement of fact, confirmation, refutation and conclusion). Thirdly, it taught how to use stylistic devices for the best rhetorical impact (including sentence length, figures of speech, schemes and tropes). It also taught matters related to training the memory, effective delivery and presentation.

For two thousand years, the study of rhetoric was a central part of the school curriculum but alas, it is no longer. No longer is rhetoric a necessary part of training for the aspiring politician, lawyer or public figure. If ever there was a case for the resurgence of the study of rhetoric, that case is now. In Australia at least, the quality of public discourse is, I believe, at an all time low. “Like” has crept in as a new, inadvertent and completely meaningless form of anaphora (the repetition of a word at the beginning of successive clauses). Politicians struggle to express themselves, desperately spurting out meaningless one-liners and catchphrases like fish on land struggling to breathe. People communicate complex emotional responses through emoticons and truncated and childish abbreviations such as “LOL” and “WTF”. Without rhetorical skills, our arguments are weak and incoherent; our public speakers fail to grab, and hold, our attention; and we are lost in an endless stream of pallid words that lack persuasion and purpose.

One might argue that rhetorical training is irrelevant in a world where communication is instant and open to all, regardless of training or professional status. On the contrary, in such a world we are at greater risk of being engulfed by a veritable tsunami of mediocre discourse. If we want to make our mark in such a world, if we want to stand apart in our persuasive ability and skill, then we desperately need the wisdom that the ancient orators have imparted to us and we need it now.

Bring back the study of classical rhetoric! Our students will benefit. Our people will benefit. Our society will benefit.

 

  1. A great read for beginners on this topic: E. Corbett and R. Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (4th ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.

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