Rhetoric

Rhetoric is often defined only by its negative uses. People talk about "empty rhetoric" as though the words were synonymous, that anything like useful or meaningful rhetoric is an oxymoron. If your only experience with rhetoric is in the speeches of American politicians, such an attitude is justified, but when considered in its Classical context, rhetoric is an essential tool (in some ways, the essential tool) for any successful communicator.

Students in the Roman Empire and Medieval Europe were introduced to the art of communication through the progymnasmata, a series of fourteen skills to be learned by students on their way to public careers. This stage was preparatory to guided speech-writing, which in turn preceded unguided oratory—students learned theory first, then its application, and finally were sent to work on their own.

The original rhetors, or speech-instructors, were known as Sophists. Their goal was to educate young noblemen in the art of virtue using philosophy and rhetoric as guides. Unfortunately for their subsequent reputation, the Sophists charged a fee for this service, leading Plato to condemn them as liars and quack philosophers. Today, a sophism is an argument employed specifically for deceptive ends, and sophistry and rhetoric both have a bad name.

Leaders in the Classical Christian education movement are working hard to reclaim rhetoric as a valid academic subject and as an important skill for Christian communicators. It is not, they claim, simply a way to wrangle words and sound smart without any foundational substance. It is the art of constructing valid arguments and presenting them in a clear, compelling and engaging way.

As the third element in the Classical liberal arts trivium (after grammar and logic), rhetoric synthesizes its predecessors into one effective unit. Some educators take a more relaxed approach, not delineating clearly between rhetoric and essay-writing or public speaking. Others approach it more formally, presenting each of the rhetorical tropes (figures of speech) and requiring students to be able to use each one in original compositions.

The courses we prefer take a more moderate approach, offering both the formal fundamentals and their everyday application. Some focus on writing, others on public speaking; the best cover both. Above all, a good rhetoric course emphasizes the purpose of rhetoric—to communicate truth and wisdom—while de-emphasizing its misuse (as merely a clever word-game).

Every student of rhetoric needs to start from the same point, however—with guided rhetorical analysis. In order to write a compelling speech or essay, one must first be able to identify the rhetorical tools in the works of others, evaluate their effectiveness, and understand the relationship between language and logic.

Because the return to rhetoric instruction is still in its early stages, there aren't that many programs available. We've tried to select those with a specifically Christian orientation, though that's not always possible, especially for older students. What we have managed is to avoid any rhetoric courses that promote the manipulation of language over regard for the truth, and to offer only those which focus on communication rather than mere cleverness.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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Trivium Tables: Rhetoric
from Classical Conversations
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Wakeful Words
by Jen Greenholt
from Classical Conversations
for 6th-12th grade
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