What Is the Role of Rhetoric in Society?

Debra Barnhart

Definitions of the word rhetoric abound, but it is often defined as the art of effective, persuasive formal communication, either written or spoken. The scope and role of rhetoric in society has been a topic of discussion since ancient Greece. In the past rhetorical language was thought to be the domain of a select group of influential people in society, but mass communication has opened up deliberation and persuasive language to everyone. Some modern experts have broadened the definition of rhetoric to include any form of communication and say that rhetoric permeates every interaction.

Students who understand rhetoric have an easier time following contemporary political and ethical debates.
Students who understand rhetoric have an easier time following contemporary political and ethical debates.

The word rhetoric derives from two Greek words that mean "oratorical" and "public speaker." Plato felt that the role of rhetoric in society was largely restricted to politics and the public arena; however, his pupil, Aristotle, thought the art of persuasive communication impacted many fields besides just politics. Aristotle developed the five canons of rhetoric: invention of a persuasive argument, arrangement of language, development of a communication style, memorization of the key persuasive points, and effective delivery of the speech. According to Aristotle, the character of the speaker, the logic of the argument, and the emotional state of the audience could all contribute to the power of rhetorical speech.

Greek philosopher Plato believed the role of rhetoric in society was restricted to politics and the public sphere.
Greek philosopher Plato believed the role of rhetoric in society was restricted to politics and the public sphere.

The role of rhetoric in society has changed remarkably since ancient Greece. Once the domain of a select few, such as politicians, lawyers and educators, rhetoric is now omnipresent due to mass media. The rapid growth of communication from written print like books and newspapers to the development of television, radio and computers has changed the function of rhetoric in society entirely. This is especially true since the advent of the Internet and social media sites that make multiple viewpoints available from every angle. Increasingly, people are bombarded with different points of view.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined five canons of rhetoric.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined five canons of rhetoric.

Some modern theorists bring a broader definition to the word rhetoric, claiming that anytime someone communicates it is a form of rhetoric. This theory implies that when people use language they are always trying to persuade or shape opinion. EIt implies that even when a person is casually spending time with a friend his or her conversation is intended to communicate a perception or point of view. If a person communicates simply because he or she wants to be accepted or needs human companionship, it is a form of persuasion. Some definitions of rhetoric have gotten so obscure as to even include non-verbal communication.

Many experts and non-experts alike agree that language shapes a person's very notion of reality. Oftentimes what does not have a word association does not exist, and language allows people to categorize and process the information they receive through the senses. Without the ability to place perceptions into categories, a person's brain would be on overload. If rhetoric is any form of communication, it is obvious that it forms the very underpinning of and society and life.

Politicians might use rhetorical appeals based on their experience or authority on a subject.
Politicians might use rhetorical appeals based on their experience or authority on a subject.

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Discussion Comments

DevenSet

One famous example of the role of rhetoric in society is when Bill Clinton explained that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman..." He was trying to persuade everyone that he did not do what he was accused of doing. His rhetoric was purposefully vague.

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