What is rhetoric, and is it—as many claim—naught but a skill to persuade, to gain power over the minds of others to bend them to one’s own will? Rhetoric is associated, that is, with the politician, the lawyer, the television pundit and the streaming sophist. The art of rhetoric, it is claimed, consists in confusing and obscuring one’s true intents, making the untrue seem obvious and the unjust appear righteous. The accusations are not new; we find their like in, among other great works of antiquity, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria. Against these, the master rhetorician replies:
Doctors have made use of poisons, and those who wrongly assume the name of philosopher, have at times been apprehended in the gravest of crimes. Let us disdain of food; for often it is the cause of destroying our health. Never should we enter under a roof; for sometimes they collapse upon the inhabitants. Never let a sword be forged for a soldier; for perhaps that iron may be used by a robber.Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, lib.2, c.16: “…in medicis venena et in his, qui philosophorum nomine male utuntur, gravissima nonnunquam flagitia deprehensa sunt. Cibos aspernemur; attulerunt saepe valetudinis causa. Nunquam tecta subeamus; super habitatnes aliquando procumbunt. Non fabricetur militi gradius; potest uti eodem ferro latro.”
The very real evils that may be committed under the guise of rhetoric, that is, no more deserve the name than dialectical sophisms constitute logic. Truly, the skills of the rhetorician may be put to malicious ends—no different than those possessed by the doctor. Should we not learn to heal, because the same knowledge may be used to kill? Should we create no instruments of defense because they can also be used for offense? Should we not strengthen our bodies because our might can also be used to oppress the weak?
The study of rhetoric, then, is a study not only of defending ourselves against false accusations, slander, calumny, and other verbal assaults upon our character, but is further a study of making known the truth, so that it may speak for itself. If logic, which cannot be justly divorced from rhetoric, consists in learning the valid structures whereby one discovers truth for himself (by understanding the nature and action of thought), then rhetoric consists in the discovery of righteous means to persuade other to grasp those same truths.
Such will be at the core of our study, which is available to all Lyceum Institute members.
From Aristotle’s Rhetoric:
…it is strange if it is a shameful thing not to be able to come to one’s own aid with one’s body but not a shameful thing to be unable to do so by means of argument, which is to a greater degree a human being’s own than is the use of the body. And if someone using such a capacity of argument should do great harm, this, at least, is common to all good things—except virtue—and especially so in the case of the most useful things, such as strength, health, wealth, [and] generalship. For someone using these things justly would perform the greatest benefits—and unjustly, the greatest harm.
That rhetoric, then, does not belong to some one, definite subject matter, but is in this respect like dialectic, and that it is useful, are manifest. Manifest, too, is the fact that its task is not to persuade but rather to see the persuasive points that are available in each case, just as in all the other arts as well. For it does not belong to medicine to produce health but rather to advance health to the extent that a given case admits of it: even in the case of those unable to attain health, it is nonetheless possible to treat them in a fine manner.
In addition to these points, it is manifest also that it belongs to the same art [i.e., rhetoric] to see both what is persuasive and what appears to be persuasive, just as in the case of dialectic, too, which sees what is a syllogism and what appears to be a syllogism. For sophistry resides not in the capacity but rather in the choice involved [in how one puts that capacity to use]—except that here, [in rhetoric], one orator will act in accord with the science, another in accord with his choice, whereas in dialectic the sophist acts in accord with his choice, [and] the dialectician acts not in accord with his choice but in accord with the capacity in questionAristotle: The Art of Rhetoric, 1355a 38–1335b 22.
Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric (translated by Robert C. Bartlett).
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Edward Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (preference for 1st & 2nd editions).
Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (preference for the four-volume Loeb bilingual edition).