Rhetoric is not a word used in everyday speech, and some have suggested that with the advent of ChatGPT, composition and rhetoric may become lost arts. I think otherwise. Because we are created with an innate need to communicate and because, unlike the animal kingdom, we have developed language, rhetoric and writing will only be lost to the detriment of humanity.
Let’s think about rhetoric. Definitions vary. Webster’s calls it “the art of speaking or writing effectively,” and often refers to the rules developed by some ancient writers. Others simply call it verbal communication or discourse. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, considered it more like the capacity in any subject to utilize the available means of persuasion.
Persuasion by Power
Historically the development of Aristotle’s rhetoric grew out of experiments with democracy and the need to convince fellow citizens. The ancient east up to that time relied on the power and wisdom of the king to enact, interpret, and enforce laws and political practices. Egyptian Pharaohs had the prestige of being a god and their word was considered as much. Kings of Israel may have had the Law of Moses, but they were still viewed as the arbiters of judgment on matters of that law. In places like Babylon and Persia, it was a dangerous thing even to approach the king much less question his judgment. No need to persuade, power rested in the hands of the monarch.
Seeing the vitriol, anger, and violence today exhibited by certain groups when their way is not adopted has elevated, or should we say degraded, persuasion by power to another level. It becomes persuasion by intimidation, or if the government gets in on the action, persuasion by the point of the sword. It is the tried-and-true method of thugs and totalitarian regimes, but I repeat myself. Parents will also recognize similar behavior in their two-year-olds: temper tantrums as a means of manipulation. Some parents give in, but adults of a more intelligent mindset should not concede to such tactics.
The Personality of the Speaker
Aristotle recognized the importance of the speaker’s ethics in order to promote his views. In other words, a speaker’s ethical behavior loaned credibility to his words. However, many people reject this for a cult of personality. Some people have a certain ability to influence others simply by the strength of their personality, what we might call charisma. Their power comes not from the content of their ideas but the power of their ability to project that charisma. Charisma often overshadows behavioral flaws, and we become awed (ensnared?) by such a person’s ability to influence others.
Anyone of integrity who is in a position to influence others will avoid persuasion by power and personality. Of course, integrity is the operative word. As we move through reflections on persuasion and rhetoric in future posts, we must consider the long-term effects of persuasion done right. We will always need words to communicate our ideas and will always need people who don’t rely on power or personality to persuade us. And don’t let Chatbots fool you. Only a human mind can develop the better aspects of persuasion and rhetoric.
© 2023 Robert Weber, Words Done Right LLC