Senior Majors answer the question, “What is rhetoric?”




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On the first day of class in the Rhetoric Senior seminar, Rhetoric majors are asked to define rhetoric and discuss its potential for good and ill in society.  Below are the answers from three of sixteen students in the course this fall: Charles Goodman, Gary James, and Victor Nava


Charles Goodman ‘10

Rhetoric, in my opinion, is the art of argumentation and persuasion.  On the one hand, rhetoric enables one to know the proper techniques and skills necessary to be an effective public speaker (delivery, tone, etc.) while it also enables one to learn the most effective way to persuade one’s audience (establishing credibility, ethos, logos, pathos, etc.). Rhetoric also teaches one how to analyze a given artifact, break it down, and interpret the meaning and aim of the artifact in addition to stating the effectiveness of one’s rhetorical methods.

Rhetoric can unfortunately be manipulated for ill as well as for good in human society.  History has shown us time and time again that rhetoric can and will be used in all aspects for the sole purpose to persuade an audience towards the speaker’s point of view.  We have seen genius rhetorical speakers spread positions of peace such as Martin Luther King Jr. and we have also seen rhetoric being used to manipulate followers into evil actions like that of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s.

In my opinion, the only thing that can beat a solid rhetorical argument is a BETTER rhetorical argument.  That is really the only true way to beat someone else’s argument.  By finding the holes in one’s argument and having a solid and firm refutation, you may be able to open the eyes of those being led astray by the "evil sources.”

Gary James ‘10


To put it simply, rhetoric is the way humans interact with one another with all the tools at their disposal, from spoken and written language to image production and physical activities. This human interaction includes transmitting information, persuading, and advocating, and ceremonial acts. For example, rhetorical theorist Walter Fisher looks at the way stories function as arguments and include bases for reasoning that can inform, persuade, or advocate in a way many people can understand.

Rhetoric also has a powerful capacity for good and ill in society. History is a compilation of epic accounts of how rhetoric can be used to enslave and to liberate, to control and to inspire. Because humans – and the way we understand and respond to messages – are a key concern of rhetoric, people in power – like Hitler – have used it to rally hate for an entire group of people, the Jews, while leaders such as JFK or Ronald Reagan summoned it to uplift a people and convince them they can do things they never thought possible.

To combat the ills of rhetoric, more rhetoric is required. The utility of studying rhetoric is that it trains the mind to recognize how different messages can influence, sometimes deceptively, even well-educated and inquisitive people. So if everyone is exposed to the ways human interactions can influence thought and actions we would all be prepared to recognize and reject the ills of rhetoric. 

Victor Nava ‘10

I would define rhetoric along the same lines that I define literacy: a study of how artifacts function to create meaning. By this, I perceive rhetoric to be a critical form of study which not only examines the presentation of arguments within a given text (written, verbal, visual, etc), but also relates these arguments and hidden meanings to some form of social impact. Especially when living in an age of mass information and communication mediums, the interpretive skill of rhetoric to decode these messages becomes even more important and thus provides a new, contemporary interpretation of the term.

At the same time, especially here at Wabash, I would also contend that our interpretation of rhetoric carries a high emphasis on classical/historical perception; perceptions which lead to the notion of a “perfect orator” and make note of the five canons of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery). Simply put, these historical roots and techniques of public oration seek eloquence as their ultimate end and thus provide the art of public speaking a permanent place in rhetoric’s definition.

Rhetoric appears to be the only medium for any “good” or “ill” imposed upon a society. Without any methods of communication, messages (whether good or ill) will never have the opportunity to reach the number of people necessary to have any form of impact. Rhetoric provides the means of communication and thus acts as the only potential for social change.

As seen throughout history, rhetoric has the ability to spark wars, fuel social movements, impact human emotion, craft education, provide aesthetic oration, and move symbolic mountains composed of human culture.

First, I would default to classical interpretations of the term and argue that “evil rhetoric” isn’t rhetoric at all. Without an ethical orator (or crafter of communication) the basic premise of rhetoric isn’t fulfilled and thus can’t be called as such. Though rhetoric may appear to be vast and transcend any human rules of being, the emphasis on ethics acts as a reign on the widespread use of rhetoric for any means.

However, I understand that this may be the “scapegoat” answer and thus provide a second response to the notion of evil rhetoric: counter it with good rhetoric. Even if it is believed that rhetoric can be “evil,” it must not be forgotten that rhetoric is a human creation and can thus be deconstructed in a similar fashion. Evil rhetoric doesn’t mark the end of society. On the contrary, it invites the creation of more rhetoric which will aim to repair any damage done to society and prevent such evil rhetoric from being used in the future.


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One Response to Senior Majors answer the question, “What is rhetoric?”

  1. Grant Gussman says:

    This takes me back. Well done, guys. Enjoy senior year!