What is rhetoric?

Rhetoric has accumulated three definitions over the centuries: the art of persuasion, the art of decoration, and the art of composition.  According to Leo Rockas, the classical Greek rhetoricians held to the first definition, the medieval and Renaissance ones held to the second, and the modern ones held to the third (ix).  Confusing, no?

One can’t eliminate the confusion; one can only understand it and try to clarify what someone else means by “rhetoric.”   It may be easiest to attack the confusion first at the middle (ages) definition: the art of decorating or of ornamenting language.  The only vestiges of this definition are found in phrases like “that’s a bunch of rhetoric” – i.e., a bunch of pretty language that means nothing.  This second definition is decidedly not what the rhetoricians and other authors we’ll read mean by rhetoric.

The first and third definitions are the ones in serious use today.  Teachers and professors seem to fall into one of two groups: one that views rhetoric as either the art of persuasion, and the other that views rhetoric as the art of composing speech and written language.  For instance, a current, influential textbook entitled Everything’s an Argument by Andrea Lunsford and two other writers (whom I’ll refer to hereafter collectively as “Lunsford”) defines rhetoric in the classic sense: “the art of persuasion” (1045).  On the other hand, one of our textbooks, The Norton Sampler, defines rhetoric in the modern sense: “The art of using language effectively in speech and in writing” (529).

Here’s why the difference matters.  Moderns, such as Thomas Cooley (The Norton Sampler’s author), relegate argument to a single, albeit large, mode of rhetoric.  Argument, for them, is an equal partner with description, narration, and exposition.  But for a classicist such as Lunsford, everything’s an argument. (Hence the name of her textbook!)

Cooley acknowledges that “in a sense, all writing aims to present an argument because the writer is always trying to convince readers that what he or she says deserves to be heard” (15), but he’d rather confine the term “argument” or “persuasion” to when the reader or hearer can easily see an argument’s bones: its appeals to the reader’s or hearer’s reason, emotions, and sense of ethics (376).  It’s easy to see an argument in an editorial or a lawyer’s closing argument, for example, so Cooley would say that the writer or lawyer is writing or speaking primarily in the argument mode (as opposed to the narrative or expository modes).

Lunsford the classicist and Cooley the modern would therefore analyze Annie Dillard’s personal essay “from Holy the Firm in different ways.  Cooley sees a bit of the argument mode at work in the essay, but he sees mostly a mixture of narrative and descriptive modes working harder there.  Lunsford, however, would see Dillard’s essay chiefly as an argument for an all-consuming devotion to the calling of writing, and she would relegate the modes to a discussion of the style employed in expressing that argument.

We’ve lived under the modern view – the Cooley view, we could call it – for most of our public schooling.  We’ve been learning to recognize and to write in the four chief modes of rhetoric (description, narration, exposition, and argument) since second grade.  Even when we started analyzing writing in ninth grade, we called it “literary analysis,” and we wrote “literary analysis essays.”  Since then, of course, we’ve learned some things about rhetoric in the classical sense: the appeals to reason, emotion, and ethics, for instance.

But in AP Language and Composition, we’ll make almost a full transition to the classic idea of rhetoric.

What does that transition mean for us in AP Lang?  It means we’ll do rhetorical analyses of essays and other writings instead of literary analyses.  We’ll use a lot of the same forms of analysis that we have in the past: sound devices, word choice, figurative language, and syntax, for instance – but the more literary form of analysis will take a back seat to an analysis of the rhetorical appeals and the forms of argument.

To use another metaphor, we’ll use some of the same tools we’ve used for years, but the toolshed will look a lot different because we’ll add new tools, rearrange the old tools among them, and even re-label some of the old tools.  Welcome to rhetorical analysis!

Rhetoric > Rhetorical Analysis > Style

So, from this point on, unless I say otherwise, when I say “rhetoric,” I mean what Aristotle and the rest of the classical world meant: the art of persuasion.  When we study how someone writes or says something (the sound devices, the diction, etc.), we are studying a subset of rhetorical analysis sometimes called “style.” (Or as Lunsford puts it, “style in arguments.”)  Style is still very important, but most of the analysis we’ll do this year will involve the substance of argument as much as – or even more than – its style.

Rhetorical analysis is “an examination of how well the components of an argument work together to persuade or move an audience” (Lunsford 1045).

In rhetoric, style refers to how the argument is dressed.  Style is not an argument’s components, but its presentation.