3 Reasons You Should Care About Rhetoric

You can't escape rhetoric, so you might as well master it.

1/3/20243 min read

man speaking in front of crowd
man speaking in front of crowd

“For the genuine orator must have investigated and heard and read and discussed and handled and debated the whole of the contents of the life of mankind, inasmuch as that is the field of the orator’s activity, the subject matter of his study. [...] And if we bestow fluency of speech on persons devoid of those virtues, we shall not have made orators of them but shall have put weapons in the hands of madmen.” – Cicero

Rhetoric gets a bad rap nowadays but for a good reason. Few people know what it is.

Media refer to politicians’ “empty rhetoric.” If you state an argument with a bit of fervor, your opponent might tell the audience it was “just rhetoric” or “mere rhetoric.” But this much-maligned subject is one of the oldest academic disciplines with origins dating back to Mesopotamia.

Rhetoric is

the art of effective discourse, particularly persuasion.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as, “The faculty of observing, in any given case, the available means of persuasion.” (Modern scholars differ on the scope of rhetoric, but if you stick with ancient philosophers you’re bound to learn something important.) Here’s why you should care:

1. You can’t escape rhetoric.

Even if you try to avoid arguments you’re being bombarded by rhetoric hundreds of times a day. Marketers trying to sell you widgets. Politicians trying to convince you of ideas. Friends trying to get you to that club you hate. Rhetoric is everywhere. Someone is trying to persuade you of something at all times. (Even right now.) It’s important to study rhetoric so at the very least you can learn to defend against it.

2. Learning basic rhetoric will make you a better person.

Perhaps that’s a grandiose claim, but there’s at least a kernel of truth to it for everyone—and a lot of truth to it for many people. The first rule of rhetoric is: know your audience. If you’re going to convince someone, you have to know what will motivate them to change their mind. Do you appeal to their reason? Their emotions? Do you convince them you’re an expert? Rhetoric demands that you take an interest in people, that you study their desires and dreams and life philosophy. This is a skill that can’t help but improve your life.

Additionally, Aristotle hypothesized that the most persuasive rhetorical appeal is ethos or character. That is, your audience must genuinely believe you’re a good person and that you have their interest at heart. Ethos is difficult to fake. Even people who advocate bad ideas usually have good ethos because they believe in their ideas. They project honesty and credibility even if their reasoning is faulty.

So even if rhetoric itself doesn’t make you a better person, you’ll want to be a better person to be a successful rhetor.

3. Rhetoric can make you more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

Not interested in being a better person? Then this point is for you. (JK) Rhetoric is incredibly powerful. Knowing how to persuade can be the difference between a big raise or a cubicle in the basement, between a principled mayor in office or an unscrupulous politician dipping into the coffers. Some of history’s greatest leaders in politics, business, and art were students of rhetoric. Why not you?

But a word of caution on this point brought to you by Cicero. Rhetoric without virtue is a time bomb—both psychologically and in life. You may be able to persuade your way to the top, but you can’t fool reality. Eventually responsibility with catch up with you, and in the meantime your subconscious will kick you in the rear. You can’t fool yourself (entirely).

So while pursuing your new interest in rhetoric keep in mind all three points from this post and the wisdom of Cicero.