Classical Rhetoric 101: An Introduction

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 14, 2010 · 78 comments

in Manly Knowledge

As many of you know, I read a lot of biographies on the lives of great men from history. The part of a man’s life I enjoy learning about the most is their education. What books did they read as young men that influenced them later on in life? Where did they travel? What classes did they take while at university? I’ll take notes on these things and try to incorporate their favorite books into my reading list or pick-up an audio course at the library that correlates to a subject they studied.

One thing I’ve noticed about my manly heroes is they all took courses in rhetoric at some point during their education. Intrigued by this commonality, I decided to look into why this was so. The answer was simple: rhetoric was an essential part of a liberal education from the days of Aristotle all the way up to the early 20th century.  A well-educated man was expected to write and speak effectively and persuasively and students devoted several years to studying how to do so.

But in the early part of the 20th century, a shift in education occurred. Degrees which prepared students for specific careers replaced a classical, liberal arts education. Today’s college students get just a semester of rhetoric training in their Freshman English Composition classes, and these courses often barely skim the subject.

Which is quite unfortunate.

Our economy and society in the West in general are becoming increasingly knowledge and information based; the ability to communicate effectively and persuasively is more essential to success than ever before. Yet we’re spending less and less time teaching our young people the very subject that will help them navigate this new world.

If you’re like many men today, you didn’t spend much time learning about the art of rhetoric growing up. So today we’re beginning a series called Classical Rhetoric 101. Designed to offer the essential basics on the subject, the series will help you bone up on this manly art. We will begin by laying out an argument for why you should be interested in studying rhetoric in the first place.

What Is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is simply the art of persuasion through effective speaking and writing.

For many in our modern world, the word “rhetoric” has a pejorative meaning. They see rhetoric as the manipulation of truth or associate it with an overly fastidious concern with how things are said over what is said. But from ancient times up through the early 20th century, men believed learning the art of rhetoric was a noble pursuit and considered it an essential element of a well-rounded education. They saw rhetoric as a vital tool to teach truth more effectively and as a weapon to protect themselves from those who argued unfairly and for nefarious purposes.

Why Study Rhetoric?

Magnifies your influence as a man. Every day you have dozens of interactions where you need to influence people – from the memo you write at work to the conversation with your kid on picking up after himself at home. Your ability to persuade others through language is key to your influence as an employee, friend, father, and citizen. Studying rhetoric will equip you with the linguistic tools to make you more persuasive in your dealings with others and thus expand your circle of influence.

Makes you a better citizen. Here in the US, we just had our midterm elections where many states voted for government officials and Congressional seats. Leading up to the election we were bombarded with campaign ads on TV and radio, opinion pieces in newspapers and on blogs, and a 24/7 stream of talking pundits on television. With so many different voices being blasted at voters, it was easy to get confused as to what was fact and what was “spin.”

Politicians and special interests groups pay experts in the art of rhetoric hundreds of thousands of dollars to help craft political messages and advertisements to persuade voters to cast their ballot for their side. If you want to be a well-informed voter and citizen, you must be fully cognizant of the tactics and techniques being used on you. Such knowledge empowers you to discern truth from B.S.

And as a citizen you have a right to voice your opinion on issues. Do so effectively by studying up on your rhetoric first.

Protects you from intellectual despotism. I had a classics professor that said, “Advertising is the tool of the despot.” That idea really stuck with me. Since ancient times, powerful men have used propaganda to maintain control over their subjects. According to my professor, advertising is just a benign name for propaganda. Both rely on emotional appeals to change our ideas and feelings about a cause, position, or product.

When we allow ourselves to be easily swayed by advertising, whether political or commercial, we give another person control over our minds. Studying rhetoric puts up a defensive shield around your brain (no tin foil necessary!), allowing you to see through the smoke and mirrors, filter out external messages and follow your own inner compass.

Makes you a savvy consumer. A mature man creates more than he consumes. Unfortunately, today’s man has to battle an onslaught of advertisements that tell him a man is defined by what he owns. Corporations spend billions of dollars on advertising to get you to buy their products. While Madison Avenue applies advances made in psychology and neurobiology to their ad campaigns, many of the persuasive techniques used by ad agencies have been around since the days of Aristotle. A knowledge of rhetoric guards a man’s mind and his pocketbook.

Empowers you for rigorous and constructive debate (and grants insight on what constitutes one). A man should know how to discuss and debate with vigor, intelligence, and civility. Sadly, many men today never learned this essential and awesomely manly skill. Just visit any blog or internet forum and you’ll see how debate and discussion has devolved into petty name calling and reductio ad Hitlerums. Learning the basics of rhetoric will give you the tools you need to take part in more constructive discussions on the web and in your daily life.

Additionally, having a firm understanding of rhetoric will help prevent you from getting sucked into flame wars. You’ll be able to spot when a troll is using logical fallacies or unsound arguments. Instead of wasting your time fruitlessly and frustratingly engaging one, you can go do more important things in your life.

Where We’re Going from Here

Over the next few months I’ll be publishing articles that will hopefully give you a nice introduction to the basic principles of classical rhetoric. In our Classical Rhetoric 101 Course, we’ll be covering:

  • A Brief History of Rhetoric
  • The Three Means of Persuasion
  • The Three Genres of Rhetoric
  • The Five Canons of Rhetoric
  • The Virtues of Style
  • A Brief Summary of Rhetorical Figures
  • Logical Fallacies

Classical Rhetoric 101 Series 
An Introduction
A Brief History
The Three Means of Persuasion
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Invention
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Arrangement
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Style
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Memory
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Delivery
Logical Fallacies
Bonus! 35 Greatest Speeches in History

{ 78 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christina Smead November 14, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Very good!!! I completely agree, rhetoric ought to be a part of everyone’s education! Thank you for writing this article! I’m looking forward to the rest!

Chris Smead

2 kowalski November 14, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Awesome topic! Having just recently graduated with a degree in history, I cannot wait to read the future articles. The modern U.S. public speaks and writes horribly!

3 Joshua Butcher November 14, 2010 at 11:30 pm

What a great topic! I teach rhetoric at a classical K-12 school, and I’ve also taught at the community college and university levels as a graduate student instructor. I am curious to know what sources you’ll be relying upon for your subsequent posts, if you don’t mind sharing them.

You might also be interested to know that in addition to the Freshman English Composition course, there is also the Freshman Public Speaking course, which is usually based in classical rhetoric. Communication students at major universities will also usually be required to take a course in the history and/or theory of rhetoric.

I’ll be looking forward to the future posts!

4 Dante November 14, 2010 at 11:34 pm

I was just thinking of learning more about this and here it is. It seems like people today need lessons in rhetoric more than ever, especially with the loss of social skills from technology in adolescents, yet it’s barely even spoken of. Everything seems so backwards now.

I look forward to reading the rest though. :)

5 Mikko Kemppe November 14, 2010 at 11:59 pm

I can’t wait to read the follow up articles to this. I think liberal education was reserved only for the priviledged class in the past. It was Jim Rohn who inspired me to read a book called: How To Read A Book, which talks about the Greatest Writings Ever Written. I wish I had more time to read them. Your article has inspired me to continue my study of rhetoric! Thanks!!

6 Steve Fuentes November 15, 2010 at 12:43 am

Well said!

It’s hard to respect someone’s opinion if they struggle to articulate what their opinion actually is. Rhetoric isn’t esteemed these days; in fact, in some circles, ignorance is seen as more of an attribute than good oratory skills. How sad this is…

7 Ed November 15, 2010 at 1:40 am

This course is going to be awesome; it’s a great idea Brett, thank you!

8 Robbo November 15, 2010 at 1:56 am

Of all the articles on this site, I think I’m looking forward to these the most. In fact I don’t think I can wait, so I’ll do some study of my own.

9 Olly November 15, 2010 at 2:08 am

For anyone who really decides to get into the deconstruction of logic, and general science, you can subscribe to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. These guys tackle pseudoscience and general science news, but also have a really interesting bit on Logical Fallacies at their website, .

10 Rob November 15, 2010 at 2:22 am

Awesome. Looking forward to reading it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left internet discussions and online forums because either a.) people were trolling & it was impossible to have a serious discussion or b.) I was unable to adequately explain myself. This is a great idea.

11 Matt H. November 15, 2010 at 2:30 am

I’ve studied rhetoric over the years, and one personage who I found fascinating was Cicero, among the greatest men who occupied the Roman Senate. It is said he could give a three hour speech and entertain his audience with his wit, humor, stories, and anecdotes so much that one would wish he would go on. Yet, he did all of this without notes and it only took him about thirty minutes to “memorize” his speech. In modern usage, his methods are known as the STEP system of speech preparation, which was taught at Baylor University and taught to me by my speech coach, Dr. Jeff Myers. If you wish to know more about this amazing system, look at Dr. Myers’ course Secrets of Great Communicators.

12 Titus Techera November 15, 2010 at 3:42 am

“They saw rhetoric as a vital tool to teach truth more effectively and as a weapon to protect themselves from those who argued unfairly and for nefarious purposes.”

The second part is obviously a problem created by rhetoric: clever speakers are practitioners of rhetoric. To say rhetoric can protect you from other rhetoricians is a doubtful propositions. I am not sure this is a good argument in favor of rhetoric.

As to teaching the truth effectively, one wonders why you need rhetoric: surely, a carpenter can teach others his craft, if they apprentice with him, without rhetoric. Surely, students of medicine go through long years of study without rhetoric. In fact, what knowledge does rhetoric add to any of these arts or sciences, which themselves do offer knowledge? Unless of course the rhetorician is also a carpenter and a doctor and God only knows what else…

13 yohann November 15, 2010 at 4:27 am

Great topic, I am looking forward for more article on the subject.
I hope you will put some literature reference that you judge interesting.

14 Phil November 15, 2010 at 5:23 am

Great idea and an essential skill. I just joined the debating society at my university (Durham, UK) and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s great to challenge your own ideas and think about what makes an argument strong, looking forward to the series.

15 Neil November 15, 2010 at 7:10 am

Great post! I look forward to seeing more on this topic.

These days, most people work in some for of service industry. What many forget is that they don’t provide a service for a living, they communicate. Sadly, so few are actually skilled at communication – it’s somehow a given that just because I can talk or write a complete sentence, I can communicate effectively.

We all need to take communication more seriously, rhetoric included (especially for those whose income is based on their ability to convince someone that they, or their product or service, is right).

Let’s start a Communication Movement, Brett!

16 Mato Tope November 15, 2010 at 7:15 am

Thanks Brett. A great introduction to what should be an fascinating series.

Regarding what you said at the beginning about modern teaching methods versus the classical, liberal arts education; I feel we have lost sight of what a university course was originally intended to achieve and would like to share with you the thoughts of Cardinal John Henry Newman;
“If then a practical end must be assigned to a university course, I say it is that of training good members of society. It is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world. It is an education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.
It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to bear with them.”

Keep up the good work.

17 Zack November 15, 2010 at 7:17 am

Your manliness astounds me!

18 Sam November 15, 2010 at 7:25 am

What about Categorical Syllogisms? They’re the basis of logical arguments… Might want to include them in there somewhere. Otherwise, good job. I’m an English major with a Philosophy minor, and I’ve already learned a lot about this (took a class in written and spoken rhetoric last year, and did debate for 2 years). It’s helped me so much in my writing skills, my argumentation, and just how I think. Personally, my favorite writing formula for persuasive papers is Aristotle’s Amplification formula… It’s an incredible way to organize your arguments. Although, I can’t find my notes on it so I don’t remember the exact way it was supposed to be organized, but I can still use the principles of argument he used.

Anyway, the point is rhetoric is incredibly useful. So I’ll be looking forward to these articles, even if they are just a review of what I already know :)

19 Sam November 15, 2010 at 7:31 am

Oh, also, I’m surprised you didn’t mention Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric. It’s a little more complex then just “the art of persuasion.” If I remember correctly (this might be slightly paraphrased) its something along the lines of: “Understanding, in a given situation, all of the available means of persuasion.” Slightly more complex then just understanding how to persuade. He means that you must be able, in a situation, to know which of the basic forms of persuasion are available to you, then being able to use these to make your point. You don’t necessarily have to understand EVERY SINGLE possible route of persuasion, but only the ones that are available and appropriate to the situation…

Just my contribution. Cheers.

20 B.J. November 15, 2010 at 7:49 am

I transcribe for a living, and believe me, I know how poorly many people speak — even people in the persuasion fields, e.g., lawyers! The course in rhetoric will be fun in itself, but I hope it will also counteract the bad influences that come into my head as I work.

21 Dan November 15, 2010 at 8:26 am

Thank you for a great topic. I’m looking forward to the series. Might I suggest you post a supportive reading list for those of us that are interested in going deeper.

22 John November 15, 2010 at 8:38 am

Completely agree – we have just delivered a paper to a blue chip international client on how the internet and social media is destroying how young people interact, engage and present. We need to get back to basics fast to save future generations.

23 John November 15, 2010 at 8:41 am

Nothing wrong with an education (“Vocational” some call it), that prepares you for a specific career. I’d rather my plumber be well-versed in the building code and well-versed in pipe-fitting, than be well-versed in rhetoric so he can dazzle me with his brilliant observations while my basement floods.

That being said, it’s nice to have a plumber or auto mechanic or carpenter who can communicate effectively IN ADDITION TO doing their job well. Writing up a service/repair job, a building proposal, or a system quotation for a customer need not be high-brow literature, but should be clear, complete, concise, and easy to read and understand.

The training to do one’s job is the cake, and the communication skills are just the frosting. Ideally, we’d strive for both. Scratching my head about a work order’s wording or spelling when the job was done right, is decidedly LESS frustrating than reading an eloquent repair order while the car continues vomiting a mix of petroleum fluids onto the pavement….. but reading the eloquent repair order for a job done right is the best of both worlds.

24 Brandon Pierce November 15, 2010 at 8:42 am

This is spectacular! I’ve been an unknowing student of rhetoric for a long time. I’ve always felt people were poor communicators, so I worked to hone my skills, particularly when writing. I just never realized that this set of skills had a name. I’m looking forward to this series so I can see how I can improve—as with any self-taught skill, I’m certain I have some fairly large voids that have yet to be identified.

25 Hermes November 15, 2010 at 9:14 am

Any good books to suggest?

26 Aaron November 15, 2010 at 9:28 am

Awesome, looking forward to it.

27 Andrew Kern November 15, 2010 at 9:39 am

Very exciting news! I believe this topic is far more needed than many of us might think for one simple reason: it is human. In our technological age we are perfectly happy to let technology do for us what would cultivate our human-ness if technology weren’t there.

But when technology replaces a human faculty, the human faculty atrophies.

Interesting that Cicero coined the term “humanitas” or humanities. He meant the arts that make us human, virtuous, manly.

Looking forward to learning more!

28 Ryan Boomershine November 15, 2010 at 9:57 am

Great job, Brett. I am the headmaster of a new school (our second year) in Nashville, TN. Our curriculum revolves around three key stages of learning: grammar, logic and rhetoric.

We’re all in at Keep it up.

29 Norcal Mike November 15, 2010 at 10:02 am

Excellent idea for a series, I can’t wait. There’s a book called Crucial Conversations, from which I’ve learned many tactics for handling important interactions where emotions are involved. It has helped me in my job (where the money and livelihood of others is at stake), as well as with my wife (where our money and livelihood is involved). Lots of tools packed into that skinny little book.

30 Ryan Boomershine November 15, 2010 at 10:04 am

Just saw that Andrew Kern posted before me. He’s doing the same stuff in NC.

31 John November 15, 2010 at 10:25 am

From Andrew Kern’s post,

“But when technology replaces a human faculty, the human faculty atrophies”

Well said. VERY well said. Applies to communication skills (per this conversation thread), as witnessed by the onslaught of the OMG’ing and LOL’ing with the BFF’s of the younger generation who sadly is mostly unable to express coherent thought with pen and paper.

Your comment is also quite appropriate in context of other skills – driving a manual transmission, being able to read a road map instead of a GPS screen, change a flat tire instead of calling AAA on your cell phone, being able to toss a few seeds in the ground in your backyard garden instead of eating all your food from the microwave or drive through window…. the list goes on. There could easily be an entire book or essay series about the “atrophy” you mention.

Again, well said and I agree wholeheartedly.

32 Bill Carter November 15, 2010 at 10:32 am

Please post some book recommendations for further reading.

33 Madhusudan Raj November 15, 2010 at 10:57 am

Wonderful topic! I look forward to attend all the classes of Classical Rhetoric 101.

34 Dennard November 15, 2010 at 11:10 am

I’m looking forward to this series, Brett and Kate. I reread Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” not too long ago and enjoyed it.

35 Rob November 15, 2010 at 11:22 am

In the History of Rhetoric article, please overview why we lack it in education currently. The brief paragraph about the modern turn towards science education leaves me wanting more.
I look forward to these articles. are there any books or other material you would suggest?

36 Erik November 15, 2010 at 11:33 am

This seems like a very interesting topic.
Does anybody know an awesome book I can pick up on the subject?

- Erik

37 george November 15, 2010 at 12:27 pm

I eagerly await for the first lesson.

38 Darl November 15, 2010 at 1:06 pm

I have already set up a mail folder specifically for this course.

39 Gerald November 15, 2010 at 1:34 pm

AWESOME! And here I thought we’d forgotton the “art of persuasion”. Consider that our whole world is created by words and yet we spend a few moments in time during our educational career even studying the subject or rhetoric!

40 Tom November 15, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Being one who is not well versed in the art of persuasion i am looking forward to learning more of this thing called rhetoric.

41 Patrick November 15, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Someone in the thread suggested where to start reading. I am sure we have enough interest and mental firepower here for a few suggestions. I would look at Aristotle’s treatise on Rhetoric. Another good place to learn is from reading Cicero. . His speeches, especially the Phillipics I think they are called, are priceless.

I hope some more recommendation can be made! :-)

42 Josh November 15, 2010 at 4:53 pm

I am most excited for logical fallacies, very useful, especially when elections are happening. Logic is truly transformational. A damn shame that it isn’t required in school any longer!

43 Maicon November 15, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Will be a very useful serie!

44 Adam November 15, 2010 at 6:36 pm

I’m a student at Evangel University in Springfield MO…
This year they implemented a new core curriculum for incoming freshman (myself included). As a part of that curriculum, each student must complete the course “Effective Communication” (Rhetoric 205). I just thought it was interesting that you would start this series, just as I am getting close to the end of that class. It is a very interesting subject, and if used correctly, could be very beneficial!

45 raitchi2 November 15, 2010 at 6:41 pm

Some of you might like this website:

46 Dave November 15, 2010 at 7:54 pm

This is awesome. Man, Brett, this website has done so much to lead me and encourage me to be a better man. Looking forward to the upcoming articles!

47 William Hoffknecht November 15, 2010 at 9:12 pm

This is a great article. I am a someone that loves the study of rhetoric and logic and I think that there is not enough importance placed on it. In today’s world of hardcore politics and huge advertisements it is more important than ever to understand what they are trying to say, how they are lying to you, and what the real message is. Thanks for this and I think you should expand on this topic even more.

48 Rob November 15, 2010 at 9:13 pm

My three boys all attend a classical K-12 school for this very reason: to learn to think well and to communicate clearly and persuasively. They are required to take two years of logic, they daily engage in debate over the ideas of the Great Authors of western civilization, they write a junior thesis and then culminate their high school year with a senior thesis of which they must defend publically before an audience as they are peppered by a small panel of faculty members and at least one outside expert. Veritas Academy — — where they attend is one of over 250 classical schools around the country.
Disclaimer: I work for Veritas!

49 Rob November 15, 2010 at 11:57 pm

Excelent idea. However, I’m pretty sure by invoking the argumentum ad Hitlerum,you automatically lose by Godwin’s law.
- R

50 SpuffinMaster November 16, 2010 at 10:07 am

Please don’t forget to mention Kenneth Burke. The man is a self-taught genius and provided the foundation for some of the most successful means of rhetorical criticism in use today. All of life’s a stage, and Dr. Burke tapped into this flawlessly.

If you haven’t already, read some of his work.


A Mass Media Literacy and Rhetorical Criticism Student

51 SpuffinMaster November 16, 2010 at 10:10 am

“Men seek for vocabularies that are reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. And any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality.”

Kenneth Burke

52 Dave November 16, 2010 at 10:15 am

Thanks Brett, I’m looking forward to the posts. I’ll echo some of the other comments which would like to see a bibliography for further study. Keep up the good work.

53 Ray - Pure Spontaneity November 16, 2010 at 12:02 pm

University’s these days offer no advantage to a young man. Difficulty comes to students when they attend a university looking for a career, and they find nothing but competing departments with incoherent pitches for the student to weigh. Most professors care only about their distinct areas, and therefore they are only interested in gains for themselves or there departments. Thus, a student looking for true guidance to further his potential as a human being, not being swayed by the sales pitches, is ignored. The complete lack of rhetoric teaching and exploration of great minds has put the education system in a crisis that it doesn’t even know it has.

54 Drew November 16, 2010 at 1:57 pm

I actually received my bachelor degree in Rhetoric from Wabash College. Wabash is a small liberal Arts College in Indiana which is one of only 3 all male institutions left in the country (Wabash is famous for only having one rule which governs its student body “A student is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off the campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen.” This rule is known as the gentleman’s rule).

At Wabash there is entire Rhetoric department. There we learned that today’s definition is highly influenced by Plato who did argue basically the Rhetoric contained little Truth and merely a form to gain influence. However, other great philosophers had different definitions of what rhetoric was (eg. Quintilian stated that rhetoric was the good man speaking well and adding a moral aspect to the definition). It wasn’t until we as a mass society accepted Plato’s definition to be the most popular that this became our definition of Rhetoric.

At Wabash took classes entitled: Classical Rhetoric, Contemporary Rhetoric, Legal and Political Debate, Persuasion, Gender and Rhetoric, Rhetoric of the News Media, Rhetorical Criticism, and interestingly enough Rhetoric 101. Actually articles that have already been written on this site (eg. The 3 Archetypes of American Manliness) I have sent to my former professors because this type of knowledge is critical in being able to critique and understand any type of spoken or written rhetoric (particularly for the gender and rhetoric class). Funny enough they had all read Michael Kimmel’s book and truly enjoyed your summary. We even studied rhetorical aspects of architecture?

I also saw some people already quoting Kenneth Burke in the comments and I am SUPER happy to see that. He is a pioneer in the field. I would also encourage the study of William Birgance. He is also considered a true pioneer of the modern rhetorical study. I would also be happy to reach out to any of my former professors on behalf of AoM (or get you guys in touch) if you see any benefit in talking with them. Like I said Wabash is a small institution so getting is touch with people is pretty easy. I am truly looking forward to future articles.

55 Julian November 16, 2010 at 4:18 pm

“Idea of a University” by Cardinal Newman is one of the best essays on the purpose of a liberal arts education. I have just finished my medical school training, and it amazes me of how inane the conversations of students are. They are very proficient in the art of medicine but are as ignorant of everything else as anyone else. A true education trains you for a life lived well in all ways. This link covers some of the pointers:
Also Schopenhauer, On Men of Learning is another essay. Educational reform induced by John Dewey and American Pragmatism has ruined the state of education. Education has become basically career training, although there are a few Jesuit institutions that still form a complete Man. A classical education covers Logic, Rhetoric, and Grammar, and teaches you how to think and communicate.

56 Andrew Kern November 16, 2010 at 6:54 pm

I’m amazed by this response and very encouraged.

I want to respond very briefly in defense of Plato’s approach to rhetoric, though I don’t deny that it is easy to understand him to be saying rhetoric is nothing but the art of manipulation, or, as our Wabash friend, Drew, put it, a “form to gain influence.”

In the Phaedrus he develops a very sophisticated definition and, I would contend, defense of rhetoric-rightly-used. He even ends the dialogue by singing the praises of his supposed rival, the great ancient rhetoric master Isokrates.

He defines rhetoric as “the art of leading the soul.” That, I would suggest, lifts it higher than merely “the art of persuasion,” as Aristotle defined it in at least one place. But it also underscores the dangers of rhetoric, which seem to be an essential ingredient of its proper study.

After all, how do you lead another soul, and who are you to do so?! And yet we have to, or be silent.

So Socrates argues, or Plato through him, that what he calls dialectic is more important than rhetoric because it is the art of perceiving the truth, on which sound rhetoric is totally dependent. If we order rhetoric to dialectic, if we order our attempts to lead others souls, to the higher goal of seeking the truth, then rhetoric is not debased, but is even more exalted.

On the other hand, if we put the art of leading souls above the art of seeking the truth, then we have debased both of them.

I confess that I am rather fond of Socrates, so maybe I’m defending him more than he deserves, but I’m so happy to find a forum that talks about Pragmatism ruining education, about rhetoric as a manly art, etc. etc. that I have to participate just for the fun of it. Even if I didn’t have anything to say, I’d probably say something just to keep such a great conversation going.

That would be my rhetorical ploy.

Thank you, Brett!

57 Philip November 16, 2010 at 8:39 pm

I’ll be looking forward to this. You’ve made a good case in the AOM book about proper internet etiquette and rhetoric lessons will build on that to make us the smarter and better men.

You mentioned trolls and I think this older NY Times magazine article about web trolls may be useful on what not to do and how to avoid the pitfalls of feeding trolls.

58 Rob November 17, 2010 at 1:07 am

I attend Hampden-Sydney college. One of three all male institutions left in the U.S. and the tenth oldest college in the nation. We are required to take two years or rhetoric and classics as part of our general education. I can tell you that we put huge amounts of time into short essays only to have our argument torn to shreds by the professor. The rhetoric professors do not know how to form the letter “A”.

59 Eudaimonia November 17, 2010 at 1:20 am

Would it not be better to get at the heart of the matter and study principles of thinking (aka logic) instead?

60 Frank November 17, 2010 at 3:01 am

I entirely agree with Eudaimonia. Rhetoric may be the art of persuasion, but there is a sharp distinction between proof and persuasion. What men should study far more than rhetoric is logic, which, if given sufficient study, should arm one with all the thinking skills one needs to craft a coherent argument and see through the fallacious rhetoric of others. One should be able to present ideas in such a cogent manner that the simple force of logic is left to do the work of persuasion. Even more foundational, what every man really needs to nurture is a love of truth, and rhetoric, all too often, focuses on mere persuasion, regardless of truth or reason (as can be witnessed in advertising and political campaigning).

61 Fernando November 17, 2010 at 6:10 am

This is great! I’m looking forward to the upcoming articles. Thanks.

62 Drew November 17, 2010 at 10:38 am

I simply would like to follow-up my previous post by saying that I am extremely happy to see this article starting so many intellectual conversations about rhetoric, philosophy, logic, grammer, etc. Its reminding me of my college days when we would have faculty dinners at the fraternity house and after dinner pour a few glasses of your favorite spirit (or conversation lubrication as Dr. Blix called it) sit in the cigar room, and depate/discuss the world as we knew it.

I would also like to address Andrew Kern who very much nailed it on the head when discussing Plato’s work. In my moment of excitement for the article I did not not articulate very well my thoughts or knowledge in regards to rhetoric and its classic vs. modern understanding. I think my post could best be summarized as “word vomit”. In one post I tried to summaries so many aspects of the topic that I did none of them justice. I also threw in random punctuation and poor tense structure. hahaha!

I would also like to say to Andrew that your defense of Plato is in the very spirit of the topic and though I agree with you input above, I look forward to other debates and discussions in the future.

63 Steven November 17, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Hitler used rhetoric. If you use rhetoric, you’re just like Hitler.

Is that how it works?

64 Capitolism November 18, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Father Schall, a professor at Georgetown University, tells his classes, “If you’ve read Plato just once, you haven’t really read Plato.” Keeping that in mind, I decided to pick up Plato again, and re-read the Gorgias.

The Gorgias begins ominously, with Callicles, an ambitious young Athenian politician, stating, “Your arrival, Socrates, is the kind they recommend for a war or a battle.”* Indeed, for much of the dialogue, Socrates and Callicles wage a verbal war about oratory, morality, justice, political ambition, and the right way to live.

The dialogue initially centers on oratory, and this topic is where this review will focus. Socrates engages Gorgias, an eminent teacher of oratory in Athens, on his trade. Gorgias champions oratory because of “its ability to convince by means of speech…and to convince the masses.” Socrates, through his many discussions in Athens, has become wary of oratory. He has observed that most orators use their powers “before a popular audience not by instructing but by convincing.” In short, the “orator need have no knowledge of the truth about things; it is enough for him to have discovered a knack of convincing the ignorant that he knows more than the experts.”

Many people will say that philosophy has no practical use. (Callicles makes this claim later in the dialogue.) But this line of questioning caught my attention as and I began thinking about modern business. Salespeople and marketers, especially, play the role of modern-day orators, and Socrates’ cross-examination has lessons and warnings for them.

Working in sales and sales consulting for seven years, I can attest that many of them (but not all) work through convincing and persuasion. Most salespeople, in my experience, possess little more than a rudimentary understanding of their customers’ businesses, needs and challenges. Many of them know little more than what’s written on the marketing collateral about the products they sell. And yet many of them sell their extremely well, convincing customers to buy or at least try the product.

Even more to Socrates’ point, many salespeople sell products they don’t believe in. The adage in sales is that you have to believe in the product you sell. Contrary to that maxim, many salespeople succeed in sales despite not believing in the product.

Taking Socrates’ argument to these modern-day orators, he would question whether they do right or wrong by such actions. He would caution them in selling products that customers do not need or that they do not themselves believe in. He would even suggest they are putting their souls at risk when they do so. Most businesspeople do not think their work affects their souls, or others’, in their daily routines. Plato’s rejoinder to that complacency warrants their careful reconsideration.

* All quotations from Plato, Gorgias, trans. Walter Hamilton, Penguin Books, 1960.

65 N.R. November 20, 2010 at 12:42 am

Great! I’ve been meaning to study rhetoric more deeply and what better resource than one of my favorite sites?

66 Dave November 20, 2010 at 9:57 am

Wonderful topic!

I noted some posters’ view that the study of logic was more important. I disagree, but only to the point of equality: Rhetoric without logic is dangerous. Logic without rhetoric is useless. Doctors with horrible “bedside manner” are legendary. What good is a master mechanic if he can’t tell you what’s wrong with your car? Or, maybe worse (or is it?) – the shyster who convinces your widowed grandmother that she needs to change her car’s oil filter booster?

Sad, isn’t it, that “modern education” fails so miserably on both counts.

Funny that I would read this article today. Yesterday I found myself in a distant town, with nothing to do for an hour. I made myself comfortable at a convenient Starbucks and pulled out one of several articles that I keep with me for these circumstances. In this case I selected one of the finest and most critical pieces of rhetoric ever given: Churchill’s “This was their finest hour” speech.

While you have to have some understanding of WWII history to fully understand what he’s addressing, Churchill still has so much to tell us that is important today. Indeed, the second paragraph is nothing less than a terrible indictment of much of what is going on in the United States this very day. That transcendent quality makes it one of the greatest speeches of all time.

67 Michael November 21, 2010 at 12:43 am

It’s encouraging to see people taking their cues from the classics.

68 robyn yager November 21, 2010 at 11:44 pm

I love this. I’m excited to read your articles coming up!

69 PeterPansDad November 23, 2010 at 10:25 am

Can we have a list of suggested reading to accompany the series?

70 Patrick Kniesler November 23, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Its twice as bad as you say when it comes to modern education. Not only do institutions skimp on the rhetoric and argument construction, but they offer advertising and marketing classes which aren’t shy about nefarious advertising.

71 Jacob Freeman November 27, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Too much knowledge is a burden to the soul. Too little is the path to slavery.

72 climbstrong November 28, 2010 at 5:22 pm

I’m impressed with men who can accurately and succinctly articulate their position, and as a guy who has a hard time doing so, i’d always wished i’d had to take classes in rhetoric. this will be an interesting series; thank you for taking the time to put it together.

73 Andrej Škraba November 29, 2010 at 2:27 am

Great! Looking forward on reading more about my favourite topic :)

74 Scott December 1, 2010 at 2:42 am

I own and administrate a motorcycle forum with over 13000 members. Our love of all things motorcycle brings us together, but invariably the conversations turn to politics and religion. We have an “Off-Topic” section for such discussions. When I first started the site I decided that I would not allow the discussions on my site to devolve to the level that is seen on so many forums these days. First and foremost, I require that my users engage each other in a civil manner and do not allow the use of foul and vulgar language. As might be expected, many of the users REALLY struggle to meet this standard. Sadly, I have come to believe that the majority of people (not just those on my site) lack the ability to argue using logic and principles and to refrain from personal attacks. The VAST majority of my time is spent trying to get people to raise the level of discourse, to engage the ideas and not attack the person, and to present their arguments in a clear and logical manner. Despite the fact that many of my users are college educated and successful professionals, those that are able to write well are a tiny minority. However, I do still get comments from many of our users along the lines that they really appreciate that I maintain a high expectation from our users in terms of their behavior towards each other. In a sea of sites where free for all emotional flame fests seem to be the norm, they find it refreshing to visit a site where that is not accepted.

I too look forward to the rest of these essays. I will most certainly be sharing them with the members of my forum in the hope that all of us might benefit from them.

75 Jacob Freeman December 7, 2010 at 11:46 am

Simplify your environment, remove clutter and expand your mind. He who owns little is little-owned.

76 JR December 9, 2010 at 3:41 pm

It’s rather fortuitous that AOM decided to cover this topic since I’m searching for Grad programs in Rhetoric myself (leaning towards the University of Texas-Austin).

Anyway there’s a blog that I think some of you guys may find helpful: The person who runs the site (Jay Heinrichs) also wrote a book on Rhetoric- “Thank You for Arguing”. It’s straight forward and gives advice that most people would find helpful. Enjoy!

77 Julie August 7, 2013 at 12:03 am

Great topic. Interesting that the very thing we need isn’t being taught. Too many people today simply don’t want to think, much less, engage in an intelligent debate.

78 Jeff March 28, 2014 at 12:23 am

“Politicians and special interests groups pay experts in the art of rhetoric hundreds of thousands of dollars to help craft political messages and advertisements to persuade voters to cast their ballot for their side. If you want to be a well-informed voter ” or if you want o be experts that get paid. ahahha. Very nice job on this article Man.

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