Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men. — Plato
“This is the most valuable thing I’ve ever learned,” “I wish I’d known about this sooner,” and “you gave me super powers” are typical reactions I get after teaching people about Rhetoric. The reactions I get before that, however, usually amount to “What is Rhetoric?”
What is Rhetoric?
Simplifying what I’ve written and taught elsewhere:
Rhetoric is the discourse, rules, and practice of how persuasion, communication, and affect work.
All of that is news to most people, but Rhetoric is actually very old. It’s arguably the first discipline we ever developed, and the one that lead to the rest of them. It’s also something that’s readily understood by example, despite the history if it in part being a battle over defining it and its place in the world.
Rhetoric has become how a good number of us make a living. Salesmen are a familiar example — being paid entirely for their ability to urge as many people as possible buy something from them and no other — but it doesn’t begin or end there. Lawyers compete to buy the most expensive suit by scrutinizing texts, making arguments, and communicating with client and court. Writers of any form seek out the best combination of words to illicit ideas, emotions, and at times actions from readers, all while engaging with the attempts of others to do the same. Teaching at its best is using words and images to cultivate learning. Illustrators and animators arrange lines and color on a page to invest paper with a compelling illusion of life and motion. Managers use and analyze words, actions, and images to arrange people. Marketers do their best to cultivate that whole dance to desired ends. If they’re to ever be elected, a politician’s entire career is rooted in Rhetoric. Everyone’s career requires networking. Even the lucrative concept of celebrity is a Rhetorical invention, for better or worse.
Knowledge work in general is Rhetorically inclined. Much of what we now do professionally is entirely concerned with affecting other people in desired ways towards predictable ends through a combination of making it happen, managing it, and marketing it. At the top of any field, the highest climbers always have access to the best Rhetoric — whether it be their own, or hired help like me.
Rhetoric also rules our personal affairs. Our dating lives live and and die on our ability to court the emotions and decisions of one another in hopes of living Rhetorically ever after. The parenting we often do thereafter is a Rhetorical dance between adult and child that molds either party into heroes or villains. In our off hours, we spend an unnerving amount of time engaging in any number of Rhetorically constructed mediums now backed by the billion dollar belief that presenting things to us in a certain way will cause us react in predictably profitable ways. Even religion, culture, and philosophy operate and transmit themselves entirely through Rhetoric — whether we’re sharing sacred stories, reflecting on them, or attempting to analyze away the entire enterprise while wearing a fedora.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say all human relationships are laced together with Rhetoric, and fall apart without it. Most of our waking hours are now spent in inherently Rhetorical activities, making it a more prominent part of our lives than ever before.
Common mediums like speaking and writing are typical tools in any endeavor, but Rhetoric lies in the use of mediums, not any one medium itself. Rhetoric is only associated with either of them because of how ubiquitous and accessible they are. Whether we laugh, cry, type, film, or draw, we’re practicing Rhetoric. Rhetoric is the endeavor, and includes any means.
Rhetoric, in general, is all of that. A Rhetorician is someone who studies that. A Rhetor is someone who studies, practices, and applies that.
What is Good Rhetor?
Our ability to understand, apply, and defend ourselves against Rhetoric isn’t inborn or static. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but none of us are born with the knowledge or skills required to do any of that. All of Rhetoric is learned.
Our Rhetorical abilities are entirely determined by what we know and what we do.
This site is about what to know, and what to do, to become a Good Rhetor. Whether you use that power for fame, fortune, or fulfillment, ideally, you’ll do something good with it.
About the Author
Steven Rhyse is a writer, artist, and consultant that spends a great deal of time capitalizing the word Rhetoric, lifting heavy objects, and running with dogs. His clients range from marketing-leading companies to startups, small business owners, and individuals. Business, entertainment, and academia are where he hones most of his craft. Though he works internationally, he’s based in the Bay Area, operating out of his alma matter at the University of California, Berkeley.
He’s considered a leading authority on the topic of Rhetoric.
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