In Defense of Rhetoric

By Wilson, Andrew B. | Executive Speeches, August-September 2003 | Go to article overview

In Defense of Rhetoric


Wilson, Andrew B., Executive Speeches


Dear fellow speechwriters.

Dear storytellers and searchers for meaning in turbulent times.

Long ago, when prohibition was a hot issue in the state of Mississippi, Judge Noah S. Sweat Jr. gave a speech that took a "stand" on whisky. It won instant recognition as one of the classics of oratory.

I'm sure some of you know the speech very well. With great drollery, Judge Sweat came down hard on both sides of the issue of whether he was for or against whiskey.

"If when you say whiskey," he began, "you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge ..." and here he put together a string of colorful metaphors lambasting the evils of excessive consumption. If that is what you mean, he declared, he was against it. However, he countered, "if when you say whiskey, you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine ..." and this time he was equally brilliant and extravagant in employing rhetoric to extol the benefits of moderate consumption in the company of friends. If that is what you mean, the judge said, he was for it. "This is my stand," he concluded. "I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise."

Inspired by this fearless feat of fence straddling, I propose to tackle a topic that is no less controversial (and intoxicating) than whiskey. I speak of rhetoric itself. Plato condemned it. Aristotle, his pupil, spoke in its defense. The debate over rhetoric has raged back and forth ever since.

Taking a cue from Judge Sweat, I will tell you how I feel about rhetoric.

   If when you say rhetoric, you mean windy effusions
   and empty promises ... or the crafty logic
   that makes the lesser argument appear the better;
   if you mean thoughts that are low but words
   that are sweet and pleasing to the ear ... the
   honeyed whispers of the seducer ... and the unctuous
   urgings of the snake-oil salesman; if you
   mean the overblown and flowery speech that
   puts an expectant audience to sleep ... or the
   use of words to evade the need for action; still
   more, if you mean the lowest form of oratory ...
   bigoted and incendiary speech that ... dethrones
   reason ... incites men to violence ... and sets
   tribe against tribe, race against race, and religion
   against religion; then, certainly, I am
   against it.

   But ... if when you say rhetoric, you mean the
   well turned phrase and the well constructed
   speech; the after-dinner toast that creates merriment
   and cheer at the close of an evening ... or
   the witty and heartfelt eulogy that undoes
   death ... making a loved one seem vividly alive
   and present; if you mean the ability to render
   complex issues in clear and simple language...
   to breathe poetry into policy ... and create a
   sense of urgency; if you mean the gentle art of
   charming an audience and sending ripples of
   laughter through a crowded ballroom; still more,
   if you mean the highest form of oratory ... powerful
   and passionate language that elevates the
   heart and frees the mind, that unites good people
   behind a just cause, that lights the fire of liberty
   ... and inspires us to overcome insurmountable
   odds and fight against wickedness and injustice;
   well, then, certainly, I am for it.

At this point in his speech, Judge Sweat rested his case, without really taking sides. But I am not finished, and I do not intend to remain impartial.

Rhetoric is no longer admired. It is no longer studied. It has sunk to the bottom of the barrel, linguistically speaking--as a word that is now used almost exclusively in a pejorative sense. I believe that rhetoric deserves a fuller defense--both from an historical and a present-day perspective.

Quintilian, the Roman rhetorician, argued that only people of good moral character were capable of the highest achievement in rhetoric and oratory. Quintilian--you may think--was an ass, a pompous fool. That would explain why a modern critic poked fun at him, saying, in rhyming couplet--

Quintilian, in mild elation,
Pondered a peroration. … 

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