The Dangers of Rhetoric

February 2, 2012
By monkeyfeet BRONZE, Fort Collins, Colorado
monkeyfeet BRONZE, Fort Collins, Colorado
3 articles 1 photo 1 comment

Favorite Quote:
"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds" --Bob Marley

Rhetoric. Ever heard of it? Well, you should have because it is being used to manipulate you every day! Rhetoric appears in many things, from commercials to political speakers, and by studying it you will never again be one of the helpless, average citizens whose brains are deceived by trickery in words. What is it? Well, rhetoric, not speech class or debate team, is the ability to use persuasive language, for good or evil.

Rhetoric is often considered a ‘classical inheritance’, as it has been studied since the time of the ancient Greeks. Philosophers such as Socrates and Plato wrote about rhetoric and the caution needed regarding it. Although rhetoric can, indeed, illuminate truth, it appears more often in today’s society as a deceiver of truth, and this is what the ancients wrote about. Socrates believed that “either the orator adheres to the truth…or the orator takes persuasion as his end and subordinates everything else.” He believed that truthfulness and goodness cannot coincide with the use of rhetoric and persuasion, for once someone strays from truth, he begins to manipulate and treat everything else as means for his own personal end, thus ‘subordinating’ both the truth and the good. He distorts reality. Plato had similar beliefs, for he believed that “rhetoric aims to delight without caring what is good for the soul or state.” Plato believed, just as Socrates and Locke did, that an orator who uses rhetoric attempts to gain popularity and subordinates everything else. He does not care whatsoever about what is good for the soul or state, that is, truth. Without truth, people are tricked into buying unnecessary products and voting for misrepresented leaders.

Socrates, Plato, and Locke were not the only philosophers who came upon this realization, for Pascal also deemed language as a double-edged blade, meaning that it can be used both for moral and immoral deeds. Socrates and Plato were quite fearful of its evil potential, but ideally, rhetoric could be used to lead others to truth. One could use it for solely good purposes, not selfish individual ones. This is the second reason to study rhetoric: to persuade others of truth. That reason, along with the fact that one will recognize rhetoric after studying it, make for two good reasons to take such a class. It is also possible that rhetoric can even help one better understand his or her own thoughts. This is because rhetoric is the study of language, and one thinks using language, so by understanding rhetoric and language, one better understands his thoughts.

To better understand rhetoric, one must learn its basic structure. Aristotle divided rhetoric into three parts: invention, disposition, and expression. By invention, he meant the framework issue and how the orator presents his concept. By disposition, he meant the ordering of the material, and by expression, he meant the arrangement of language. Tropes and schemes are examples of ‘artful deviations’ from the ordinary use or arrangement of words. They can prove quite persuasive when used correctly. Modes of appeal are other ways in which the speaker attempts to be persuasive. They are typically divided into logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos is the ability to reason logically, and is usually the most trusted of the three, for it uses common sense and logic, unlike ethos and pathos. Ethos is the specific custom of a culture, and is used to understand human goodness in its various forms. It is dangerous, however, when it is used to make one feel isolated from a culture’s norms. Pathos is the appeal to emotions. It is used to understand the emotions fully, from their causes to the way in which people are excited. Rhetoric is dangerous when logos is left out of speech because the audience becomes easily swayed into believing things which logos would otherwise prove. When logos is lacking, Pascal appears correct in his belief that “men are controlled more by whim than by reason.”

Josef Pieper, a philosopher and theologian, was quite aware of the abuse of language and wrote about it in his Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. Pieper, like the German philosopher Hegel, feared that rhetoric would be used to mislead people “to the conviction that everything can be justified if we look hard enough for reasons” ( Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, p. 8). This fear is well-founded with examples strewn across history, such as Lenin and Stalin convincing people that their actions were moral, and thousands of people followed and believed them. What Pieper really attacks is the use of sophism, the deceptive part of rhetoric. He finds it, along with flattery, despicable, for it is ‘shielding’ people from the truth while ultimately harming them by misrepresenting reality.

The renowned author, George Orwell, agrees with Pieper regarding “the slovenliness of our language” which allows for such deceptiveness to occur (Politics and the English Language, p. 954). Orwell focuses on the many different types of deception, from ‘operators’, or ‘verbal false limbs’, to ‘pretentious diction’. One common use of trickery that Orwell loathes is the misuse of important words without exact definitions, such as ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, or ‘democracy’. Orators often use these words, skewing and straying from agreed upon definitions, which they then omit to explain to the audience. The audience is left with a different impression on an idea because of a speech that is less than truthful.

As shown by these examples, the knowledge and the use of rhetoric prove extremely useful in recognizing scams. One may argue that rhetoric is a waste of time, but once truly studied, rhetoric proves both convenient and advantageous in many situations daily. Rhetoric is important to study because it gives one a sense of knowledge otherwise not found. It helps people find truth and observe reality as it truly is, not as it is made out to be by sophists. It is essential to ‘the good’.

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This article has 1 comment.

Meow said...
on Sep. 29 2014 at 11:58 pm
Nice use of rhetoric.


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