Rhetoric? What’s That?

“So, what’s your degree in?”

“Rhetoric and Composition.”

*blank stare*

“It’s an English degree.”

“Oh. What is rhetoric, exactly?”

If you are a Rhet Comp person then this is a question that you get often. What is rhetoric? I don’t blame people for asking; I didn’t really know myself until I majored in it. I never would have thought it was something you could major in. My graduate career began in English Lit. I switched after only one semester (and one Lit class). Most rhetoric people have their own definition or way to explain the definition of rhetoric if they are able to explain what it is at all. A rhetorician’s definition of rhetoric also depends on his/her own research and how teachers have influenced him/her. A classicist might have a different definition than someone who studies online communities; but then again they might not.

A safe route to go is quoting Rhetoric (or On Rhetoric) by Aristotle in which he states: “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing, in any given case, the available means of persuasion.” Personally, I think this is a limited definition. It focuses rhetoric on a person’s abilities rather than the inherent rhetorical value of most things. To see inherent rhetorical value in most anything is a modern sense of rhetoric.

I like to borrow from Cicero. Cicero describes rhetoric as anything intended to delight or persuade.  Although he is  speaking about an orator (or rhetor) and not necessarily rhetoric itself, I think this sentiment more easily translates to a wider definition of rhetoric. When people ask me “What is rhetoric, exactly?”, I tell them it is anything intended to delight or persuade: art installations, novels, movies, and architecture, for example. Advertisements are inherently rhetorical as is a conversation you have with a friend who is giddily excited about the new person he/she is dating. They are all intended to delight or persuade their audience and can therefore be considered rhetorical. On some level, I think most things in the world are rhetorical. Even this blog post.

Are you persuaded?

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