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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?

We may so choose: but, on the one hand, this choice results in a vulnerability that ought truly to be seen as shameful. As another master of antiquity tells us:

…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.

Aristotle: The Art of Rhetoric, 1355a 38–b 3.

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.

Primary textbooks: Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric (translated by Robert C. Bartlett).

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Primary textbooks: Edward Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (preference for 1st & 2nd editions).

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Trivium courses are included in every level of membership for the Lyceum Institute. See enrollment options here.

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