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The Art of Rhetoric

More often, people are faced with situations where they are supposed to convince others not only to listen to their ideas, but also to agree with them that what they are presenting is worthy believing in. Rhetoric, which is defined as an element of persuasion through language and a key component of philosophy, was popularized by sophists in the 5th century.

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Plato (a stuent of Socrates) argued that getting the truth was more important than presenting it. Gorgias, when interviewed by Socrates, defines rhetoric as the art of persuasion to win debates and continues to say that it is used to persuade multitudes on what is just and unjust. In his conversation with Gorgias, Socrates defines rhetoric as the art of persuasion that makes people believe in a given opinion but does not provide means of how people can comprehend the same opinion (Austin 485).

According to Plato, philosophy focuses on imparting knowledge to the audience while rhetoric focuses on gaining people’s belief instead of educating them. Those who misuse rhetoric should be held responsible for their actions, as put in Gorgias’ words: “For he was intended by his teacher to make good use of his instructions, but he abuses them. And therefore he is the person who ought to be held in detestation, banished, and put to death, and not his instructor” (Austin 486). However Plato does not agree with Gorgias and says that just like him (Plato) had immense experiences where discussions did not conclude in a mutual agreement, theirs had gone the same path. The reason for this according to Plato is Gorgias’ contradiction of his earlier word that everybody, including rhetoricians, should be criticized whenever they mislead people into believing anything that is a contradiction of the truth. He says, “For I imagine that there is no evil which a man can endure so great as an erroneous opinion about the matters of which we are speaking: and if you claim to be one of my sort, let us have the discussion out…” (Austin 487). This disagreement results from the fact that Plato believed in truth always and not only when it gives you an upper hand against your opponent.

According to Aristotle, current explanations about rhetoric are wanted in terms of constituents of the art and most theorists have chosen to dwell on some unnecessary issues. He continues to say, “These writers, however, say nothing about enthymemes, which are the substance of rhetoric persuasion, but deal mainly with non-essentials” (Austin 490). Aristotle criticizes the writers by saying further, “The only question which these writers here deal with is how to put the judge into a given frame of mind. About the orator’s proper modes of persuasion they have nothing to tell us; nothing, that is, about how to gain skill in enthymemes” (Austin 491).

According to Aristotle therefore, Plato’s perspective to the argument is not comprehensive and tends to focus on a small section of the subject and applies it in interpreting the entire subject. Aristotle’s position is that Plato focuses on how rhetoric could be misused to achieve selfish interest and forgets the fact that it could also be used to emphasize the truth and just. Rhetoric is less likely to be misused since most people who use it are applying it for important issues that affect their own lives. Aristotle enumerates importance of rhetoric which includes: its application to ensure truth and justice prevails in courts, convincing people to whom instructions may not be effective, its use by people to defend their opinions with use of speech and its help in demonstrating what is right and what is wrong. Rhetoric‘s success depends on the ability of the speaker to reason logically, evoke the emotions of the audience and convince the audience about his or her credibility (Austin 493).

Aristotle’s arguments are more consistent than those of Plato. He begins his argument with a common principle and gives real situations as examples to back up his argument. Under his perspective, triple classifications of persuasive appeal are revealed. These are pathos, logos and ethos which are emotional appeal, appeal to logic and appeal on the basis of speaker’s character respectively (Austin 489). The style in which an argument is presented, the method of communication and the audience which is being addressed highly determines what will be considered relevant and what will be discarded. He emphasizes that in real situation it is always easy to prove the truth and not even rhetoric can make lies to be true.

According to Aristotle, citizens are usually concerned with politics than forensic oratory. As a result, politicians are most often keen to talk about essentials because their target i.e. the voter will make a choice on the basis of their interests. Politicians therefore do not have to prove anything as long as what they are saying is relevant to voters’ interests. The case in forensic oratory is different because the speaker needs to appease the listener. The judge in this case has a duty of deciding affairs of other people. Speakers in forensic oratory therefore have to stick to provable aspects of the subject (Austin 491).

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Plato, on the other hand, did not believe that sophists cared about the truth of the logic they were presenting, but rather on how to convince their audience. It was Plato’s argument that philosophy, which rhetoric was inevitably a component, was based on use of reason and logic in building up an argument when defending a theory. He argues that the sophists’ rhetoric was concerned more with the methodology of presentation than the content of what was being presented (Griswold par 4). Plato agrees with Aristotle that rhetoric is important though it needs to be redefined so as to concentrate on substance first before mode of delivery of the proofs, but disputes that rhetoric can exist independent of dialect. The sentencing to death of Plato’s teacher, Socrates, due to the influence of sophists, is a catalyst for the negativity that Plato has towards rhetoric. In Socrates dialogue with Gorgias, Plato makes Gorgias agree that rhetoricians are concerned more about discourse. He says, “am glad to hear it: answer me in like manner about rhetoric: with what is rhetoric concerned? and Gorgas answers: with discourse”. This is evidence that Plato believes that Socrates was using rhetoric for selfish interests and not for the benefit of society.

On the other hand, Aristotle’s views as presented by Austin and Griswold are the same and both stress the fact that ethos, logos and pathos are vital for effectiveness of rhetoric. He places emphasis on both deductive and inductive reasoning in the article but focuses mainly on deductive reasoning only in the text book. On both literatures, Aristotle depicts that politics is one aspect in which rhetoric is a very important factor that determines its success.

Though Plato was right that some people may use rhetoric to put forward proofs that lack empirical evidence by persuading their audience through good and well organized speeches, it is worthless if one can have a fact but lack the language of convincing others about it. Rhetoric has been used positively in speeches and various situations to make people understand why the facts or theories being presented are true without misleading the audience, as Plato would want us to believe. Plato’s idea is also founded on the hatred he had towards the sponsors of the rhetoric idea, sophists, for having contributed to the sentencing of his teacher and, therefore, he lacks objectivity.

All this leads to the agreement that Aristotle’s argument is correct, since in all sectors of politics and economics one cannot disintegrate rhetoric from dialect. Given that dialect is major in determination of how research is conducted, and the common agreement between Aristotle and Plato that rhetoric and dialect are inseparable, then what can be done is to ensure fair presentation (Austin 491). For people to agree with one’s point, they need to be fully convinced that the researcher can coherently defend his/her proof with facts, and this can only be done both in speech or written argument and not by merely providing the facts.

It is difficult to argue ones point without persuading ones audience to think in the same way as the presenter of the point. Aristotle’s idea of logos, ethos and pathos usually find their way into everyday arguments by different people, where the orators are in many instances faced with the challenge of ensuring they do not disgust their audience (Austin 492). Many of the social issues that face the world mostly require that people are persuaded to reason in a way that will bring consensus rather than widening the rift, even if it means providing probabilities as opposed to possibilities which Plato would prefer. Aristotle is, therefore, much more correct in his arguments as compared to Plato, his teacher.

In Austin’s ‘Reading The World’, Plato uses the conversation between Socrates and Gorgias, who represent the sophists, to depict that rhetoric does not emphasize on the origin of the facts but rather on the mode of delivery. Plato believes that rhetoric can easily be misused by evil minded people to gain favor from the public, while in real sense, the evidence they are presenting may not be true per se.

In day to day operations, it has been hard to separate rhetoric from being applied, mostly when people are addressing given audiences in various situations. In most instances, the orators will study their audiences before choosing how or what style to use in order to catch their attention. In his famous speech, ‘I Have a Dream’, Martin Luther King Jr. uses pathos in building up his speech. He starts by reminding the audience of what their forefathers wanted, and then depicts how that has not been given space to prevail. King evokes the emotions of the audience by highlighting how they have suffered because of the segregation, and how their children will suffer even more if they do not act.

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He constructs his argument by involving the audience in reasoning together with him that what they were asking for was their right, the right which every American should have. In an application of logos King tells his audience: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the constitution and the declaration of independency, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” (Mis 16). This means that King is persuading his supporters by referring to history. He initiates thought by enabling them to think about the motivation of the law which was intended to safeguard citizen’s rights. By using this strategy, he educates supporters and non supporters that American fore fathers wanted a country where everyone as long as was American was to have his rights respected not only by the constitution but also in actions towards him. Such education was important because for King and his movement to make any meaningful change, the support of whites, was mandatory. This is what Aristotle would have referred to as appeal to logic and reasoning according to Aristotle.

King being a black himself uses that as a weapon to win his audience to agree with his moves of non violent revolutions. What he is presenting is not necessarily possible but he is able to persuade his audience that they can do it if they work together. By referring to history, he is trying to capture the trust of his supporters that his intention for citizens and the country in general are as good as to those who came before him. Remember, King was black and the country had not had another one like him before. He is basically trying to seal those loopholes where mistrust can enter his supporters because of his black origin. He also wants his supporters to believe in him. This is an example of how well rhetoric can be applied in real life.

His use of imagery to persuade is excellent. In his speech, he uses the bank of justice to refer to American judiciary. He observes that the bank was giving Negros an invalid check. This creates a picture in the mind of supporters that the government was willingly denying them their right. This points a finger at the divisive governance of America at that time. He appeals to his supporters’ emotions by declaring that they were not going to agree to such a raw deal from the government. King was very tactful and persuades his supporters to stay away from committing crime. He emphasizes that they should not be accused of wrongful doing in their pursuit of justice. He appeals to his supporters to demonstrate peacefully.

As he concludes his speech, he knew that his supporters really needed hope and assurance that something was going to change for the better. This is because a majority of them had gone through tribulations in the hands of the police and dissatisfied whites. He rhetorically calls for freedom to ring in various states of America like New Hampshire, New York etc (Mis 81).

In conclusion Aristotle’s perspective to rhetoric is more practical and logical than the argument put across by his teacher, Plato. He is able to give a two sided opinion of the subject and acknowledges that rhetoric is not always used for the wrong reasons (Ranney 113). He notes that rhetoric can be used to persuade people to make right decisions and actions, which most often is the case.

Works Cited

Austin, Michael. Reading the World: Ideas that Matter. New York: W.W. Norton and Company Limited, 2010.Print.

Griswold, Charles L. “Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition). Ed. Edward N. Zalta. 2012. Web.

Mis, Melody S. Meet Martin Luther King Junior. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2008. Print.

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Ranney, Frances J. Aristotle’s Ethics and Legal Rhetoric. Farnham: Ashgate publishing Ltd, 2005. Print.

Williams, James Dale. An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric: Essential Readings. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2009. Print.

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