Aristotle defined rhetoric as an art of speaking, applicable to all human communication, without distinction of topic or purpose. (Cook) Over time, rhetoric became associated with politics, government and persuading people. Interestingly, another Greek philosopher, Plato, suspected rhetoric was rather an art of manipulation than of innocent communication. Whether or not rhetoric involves dishonest manipulation is a topic for a different thesis, but it can be agreed that rhetoric as such is not only an inherent part of presidential speeches, but is associated with a high degree of linguistic refinement, skillfulness and even enlightenment. And it is this degree of linguistic complexity, often perceived as declining, which seems to be the focus of attention these days. Though there cannot be a single or simple justification, Lim has shown in his extensive research that “American presidential rhetoric in the last century has become comprehensively more anti-intellectual, abstract, assertive, democratic, and conversational” (p. 348) In this thesis, similar research on a simpler scale will be conducted with all the corpus speeches and the linguistic and rhetorical levels will be compared.
As Benjamin notes, "the function of the President of the United States when Congress has been called together for a declaration of war address is not unlike that of a high priest in a ritual. His purpose is not necessarily to persuade, or deliberate, or to inform, but primarily to intone the words required in a democratic society faced with the necessity of waging war." (p. 73) It is that unique function of presidential rhetoric as a part of a performative speech act that provides the focus of this essay.