The Rhetorical Tradition

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COMS 4302-Chapter 1-

The Rhetorical Tradition

Chapter 1

Rhetoric concerns itself with language and how we use it. Should be used to make ideas clear, concise, and cogent—and bring concepts to life in vivid ways. To make issues salient or important for people. Ultimately rhetoric seeks to influence and persuade people.
The rhetorical perspective aims on social truths; those created and tested by people in groups who seek to influence social and political decisions.
What is Rhetoric?
Originated with Aristotle; the “father of speech communication” and writer of the first so-called textbook Rhetoric.
He focused on finding “social truths” that were contingent upon or dependent upon the cultural values, the situation or context surrounding the event, and the nature of the issue. He called this area of study “rhetoric.”
Social truths look at problems—the gap that exists between what we think out to be (our values) and what currently exists. It is this gap between what we want and what exists that gives rise for our need to use language effectively. To change attitudes and ultimately action to our way of thinking. Why are we influenced by some arguments but not by others? There are many factors that affect us, but one thing is certain—is eclectic—there is no one way to be successful.
Rhetoric, however, does not deceive, nor does it coerce. The rhetorician should use logic and evidence to reach conclusions. When pressure builds and the stakes are high, a communicator may fall prey to coercion by emphasizing only one side, leaving out facts an audience needs to know, twisting evidence or distorting reality. When the communicator removes the “freedom of choice” he or she ceases to be a rhetorician and becomes little more than a propaganda machine for a cause.
In sum, rhetoric is the study of what is persuasive. It concerns itself with social truths, addressed to others, justified by reasons that reflect cultural norms or values. And it examines all the symbols (those beyond words alone) by which influence occurs.

  • Chapter1 highlights some of the many rhetorical accomplishments from historical figures in this academic discipline.

  • Earliest of rhetorical traditions emerged from ancient Greece.

  • The Romans refined and added to early rhetorical theory.

  • In order to fully understand the rhetorical traditions of a people; you must know the culture of the country/people.

  • Communication flourishes in environments that honor and respect freedom of speech and thought. It has never been intended to be a form of coercion in which choice is removed from the audience. The great rhetorical communicators of the past and present use communication in honorable, ethical ways to motivate, persuade, and influence of the actions of others.

Early Writings—3000 B.C. oldest text on speaking; significance being that 5,000 years ago we had some interest in communication and speaking. But for the most part, any real or meaningful attempt at using communication like we use it today would have been scarce, at best.
Greek Period

  • First works that of Corax ; “the art of rhetoric” designed to help the average person in court. Tisias authored the first manual on public speaking. Both considered the first to show how to organize a message and loosely suggested the elements of an introduction, body, and conclusion.

  • The term Sophists--modern day carries negative connotation of being deceitful but originally was a teacher. They were possibly good people whose teachings were abused and resulted in manipulative communication practices.

  • Protagoras of Abdara—the father of debate taught that every issue has two sides and each needs to be fairly debated. His concept of “commonplaces” is now days thoughts to a way of using language or imagery that relates to and is adapted to your audience. Those speakers who share such a commonplace with their audience tend to be much more persuasive than those who do not.

  • Leontini—rhetorician who recognized the importance of generating emotion in persuasion.

  • Gorgias—contribution was to style and how language was to be used to create the desired effect.

  • Isocrates—perhaps even more important than Aristotle; highly ethical sophist; first to recognize the value of a well-rounded education (liberal arts) for communicators.

  • Plato—contribution focused on holding high standards of rhetorical communication; substance was vital, not mere flattery. Served as Aristotle’s mentor.

  • Aristotle—recognized as making the most significant contribution to rhetorical theory. Became known in many circles as the Father of Speech Communication. Addressed the role of speaker, audience, and the speech, itself in his test known as Rhetoric. Argued that proofs are based on ethos, pathos, and logos. Also is provided the foundation for the five canons of rhetoric upon which fundamental speech criticism rests: invention, disposition (arrangement), style, delivery, and memory. His theory of persuasion centered on the belief that absolute truth is unobtainable so all arguments must be based on probabilities. And that such probability depended upon knowing your audience (adaptation) so you decide what evidence to present. Finally, he claimed rhetoric was amoral; could be used or abused; but unethical people are less likely to be successful that moral people. In short, much of his theory is still the foundation in communication principles today.

The Roman Period

  • The book called Rhetorica ad Herennium was significant from this era due to its focus on the style, delivery, and memory canons of rhetoric. While it was not heavy in theory as we know it, it did serve somewhat of a handbook or a “how to” booklet for speech giving. Critics called it overly simple, but it appeared to be widely used by Roman orators.

  • Cicero—best known not for developing new rhetorical theories, but rather for refining and clarifying those developed by the Greeks. Also believed that communicators needed extensive knowledge to be effective; proponent of a liberal arts approach. His views were widely embraced by those of this period in history. To the best of our knowledge, Cicero was later murdered by the order of Roman emperor Octavian since he was thought to be loyal to Marc Antony.

  • Quintilian—second only to Cicero in influence. A teacher of rhetoric; supporter of the element of ethos for speakers, with his oft quoted phrase “a good man speaking well” meaning that the audience needs to perceive the speaker as credible and trustworthy. His contribution was more practical—the teacher’s concern for his student.

  • The Romans coined the term “decorum”—meaning character-based agreeability. It means to fit in, to be suitable for your audience. In argument, as in evolution, survival belongs to the fittest. It follows the audience’s rules; not your own. Decorum tells your audience, “Do as I say and as I do.” The speaker should sound like the collective voice of his or her audience. To show proper decorum, the speaker should act the way the audience expects them to act. Which means you don’t necessarily look and sound just like your audience. You look, speak, dress, and behave like a person in your position is expected to behave. Even though the Romans arrived at this conclusion thousands of years ago, we have many self-help books that advance the same argument today. Be prepared to fail in persuasion over and over again if you ignore this concept. In short, you cannot be indecorous and persuasive at the same time. The two are mutually exclusive.

3rd Century to the Renaissance—

  • The school of rhetoric had split into two streams; sophist and political. The political school of thought was more practical in its application but was overshadowed by the Sophists and consequently faded away.

  • Augustine was perhaps the only significant name of this era. Ideas centered on how preachers should address or impact their congregations; use of persuasion rather than overly flamboyant language. Essentially rhetoric marched in placed until the Renaissance when further development occurred.

The Renaissance

  • Key name was Sir Francis Bacon; implying that rhetoric is a function of applying reason to our imaginations; he also included writing as part of the rhetorical function (not just speaking). One of earliest to recognize and stress the need to avoid faulty reasoning errors through erroneous inferences. Maybe one the earliest psychologists.

The Colonial Period

  • Matter over manner or rather substance over form was recognized as critical for the message’s success. Key name in this belief was Fenelon who advocated a natural sense; that gestures should be a natural extension of speaking; not carefully scripted and performed. The other side or the elocutionist movement believed that certain natural laws governed humans and speaking behavior was part of those laws. Consequently, gesturing should be taught in strict scientific fashion. This lead to a very artificial system of gesturing yet still has small pockets of proponents even today. Now days it is largely accepted that gesturing is a natural, human act and that know formalized training is needed or even desired (Iverson).

  • Other key names were: Campbell, who amongst other contributions, claimed that rhetoric can “enlighten the understanding, please the imagination, move the passions, or influence the will.” Blair believed that effective rhetoric was measured by good taste and proper behavior by the speaker more than any response by the audience. Whateley focused on the logical elements of rhetoric; emphasizing the need for speaker ethos that can only be perceived by the audience. Adams, the first American rhetorician, but made no advances in the field beyond his political contributions.

The 20th Century

  • Key names are James Winans…founded what was known as the Speech Communication Association whose name evolved into the National Communication Association. Key writings centered on delivery and proper conversational speaking style for public address.

  • Kenneth Burke was very influential in a variety of areas; perhaps foremost was his emphasis on speaker identification with the audience. Not enough to merely analyze the audience but vital for the speaker to address issues in a way that speaker-audience can relate in a meaningful manner. Easier said than done. . Modern communication theorist, Kenneth Burke, said in 1950 that ‘You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.”

  • The social science perspective began to take a predominate role; clearly a linkage was emerging between the communication and psychology academic disciplines. And in the latter part of this century rhetorical criticism began to branch into a variety of perspectives ranging from post-modernists, to feminists, genre, fantasy theme analysis, etc.

History in Perspective

The degree to which you are able to master intellectually the process of communication with other human beings will be the degree to which you expand your potential to succeed as a citizen of a Western society.” Historically, rhetoric has been written and influenced by white males. That is in the process of changing as opportunities and education have opened up for a much wider group of people. New questions will be asked and new perspectives have started and will continue to be addressed.

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