November 14, 2010

Manly Knowledge

Classical Rhetoric 101: An Introduction

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


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