#7 The meaning of “Rhetoric”

No matter which society or civilization we look at, progress/big changes have always stemmed from having rallied people behind a cause/system/individual/group of individuals. The causes in themselves might be controversial; Sometimes motivated by selfishness, self-righteousness, stereotypes, and animosity. So what makes it work then? How do certain individuals/group of individuals get the rest to rally behind their ideas or causes?

This is an old question with a constant answer known as “rhetoric”. A lot of people, philosophers, and writers among others have had a lot to say about rhetoric. The constant in most definition being  “making use of words in a convincing/persuasive manner”.

Below are some interesting elements about the history of the word:

  • The word Rhetoric has its ancestral roots in Greece
  • It transitioned to the Latin language and Old French before landing in the English vocabulary.
  • Plato of ancient Greece said rhetoric is “The art of winning the soul by discourse”
  • His student Aristotle said, ” it is the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”
  • The Roman Marcus Fabius Quintilianus who became a rhetorician after having studied rhetoric (because that was a thing back then) said that rhetoric is “the art of speaking well”.
  • Naturally, we observe rhetoric being used popularly usually with a negative connotation to describe someone “using pretty, meaningless word to impress and persuade” (especially in politics)
  • While rhetoric is about words and can be used applied to all medium of communication, back in the days the most popular and prominent form of communication was oration.
  • Aristotle wrote a whole book on oratory rhetoric known as “Treatise on rhetoric” (available through public domain).

You could read it, or you could save the trouble by watching the main concepts condensed and explained in the video below:

So, of course, examples of rhetorics are found everywhere every day. Next time you hear anyone, be it a leader, teacher, activist or politician making a speech and you feel moved/convinced or you see people being persuaded. Ask yourself this, “To what end is rhetoric being used? Is this a charlatan at work? Is this a manipulator seeking selfish privileges? Is this a hateful bigotted individual seeking to create his idea of a perfect self-righteous world? Is this a genuine person seeking to bring forth change for the betterment of something be it society, education, medicine, culture, environment?”

Rhetoric is a tool that wields a lot of power and has been used both to emancipate and manipulate, to do good and to do bad. If history has taught us anything, it is that as a collective force we are able to accomplish great things but also a lot of evil, misguided, bad and cruel actions.

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