In Classical times, liberal education was separated into seven different categories. Among these seven disciplines were the respected fields of Grammar, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. But the seventh and final Liberal Art seems to have fallen out of practice as a reputable and important part of the liberal education. Rhetoric, perhaps by its very nature, has the potential to exact great good or great evil on the world. A powerful and persuasive orator can influence people and lead effectively, or s/he can corrupt beliefs and endanger their followers. That said, it is no wonder that so many people have raised an eyebrow when I have said I am a Rhetoric major. Invariably, I end up answering questions about what ‘Rhetoric’ is, what I will do with a degree in Rhetoric, and/or why I would want to study Rhetoric. Over the past 4 years, I have given several different answers to this question, but I suppose this short essay is my attempt to give one final, honest answer.
For whatever reason, I usually begin defining Rhetoric by explaining what it is not. It is not a discipline that trains its students to mislead, to deceive, to twist, or to spin the truth. It is not a discipline that focuses for four years on presentation skills and ‘pretty talking’. In short, it is not salesmanship. To be fair, there have been countless speakers throughout history who have used the power of persuasion to achieve questionable, immoral, or even evil ends. But they were not using Rhetoric.
The ancient Roman rhetorician Quintilian would agree with me on this point. To him, a speaker was not truly a rhetorician unless he was a, “good man speaking well”. Throughout his writings on the subject, Quintilian repeatedly insisted that the rhetorician must possess a high moral character. While Aristotle felt Quintilian’s definition was inadequate (insofar as it failed to account for those who would use Rhetoric to undesirable ends), Quintilian would simply have placed those speakers in a different class.
Another (and more well-known) classical thinker held a similar opinion to Quintilian. Marcus Tullius Cicero agreed that any good orator, to be a rhetorician, must behave and speak in a morally sound manner. He should not aim to deceive, nor should he mislead, either intentionally by twisting the truth, or unintentionally by speaking on subjects he did not fully understand.
One might summarize the views of Quintilian and Cicero thusly: “The rhetorician should speak, at all times, as a gentleman and as a responsible citizen”. I use this wording intentionally, because I am defining rhetoric here only as it is taught at Wabash College. The disciplines of Communications, Public Speaking, Persuasion, and countless others are taught at universities throughout the world. But just as the Gentleman’s Rule sets Wabash apart from other institutions, the Rhetoric I have studied these past few years has been something different—something better—than what students learn at other schools. I do not mean to suggest that students elsewhere necessarily learn to be deceitful, but I know for a fact that Wabash men learn Rhetoric as it should be taught—as a powerful tool, to be exercised responsibly, that helps us to understand the words and symbols that influence us on a daily basis, and to grow as gentlemen and responsible citizens ourselves.