The Foundations of Rhetoric
Rhetoric is a term that people use all the time, but not everyone knows what it means, in part because rhetoric has several different meanings. One sense of the word is speech that doesn't convey anything of substance. Politicians who make appealing, but ultimately false, promises to voters in campaign speeches, for example, are said to use “empty rhetoric. ” Then there are those books that purport to teach people how to write. Called “rhetorics, ” they represent another meaning of the term.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined rhetoric as “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Kennedy, 1991, p. 36). Developing this ability, however, typically involved studying the structure of effective arguments, psychology, proof, and so forth, as well as practicing how to deliver a speech. In this text, rhetoric is defined in two ways—first, as a field of study that examines the means by which speakers and writers influence states of mind and actions in other people; and second, the application of those means. Thus, the discussions that follow explore rhetoric as something that people study and something that they apply to influence others. This definition treats rhetoric as an intellectual discipline as well as an art, skill, or ability that people may possess and use.
Contemporary rhetoric is characterized by several specialties, such as public speaking and the history of rhetoric, but composition is by far the largest of these. The importance of composition is so great that many professionals today commonly refer to the field of rhetoric as “rhetoric and composition. ” Note, however, that those who specialize