No. 3051: RHETORIC

by Andy Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 3051

Today, do facts speak for themselves? The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Every day we're faced with people who want to persuade us: salesmen want our money, politicians want our vote, and our children want to stay up past their bedtime. We put up with it because, well, it's just part of life.

But to the ancient Greeks persuasion was more than a nuisance. It was a highly respected skill, something to be studied and perfected. The term used by the Greeks was rhetoric. Today, rhetoric means more than persuasive communication. It refers to persuasive communication thatís overly dramatic and frequently short on facts. To the Greeks, however, rhetoric simply meant persuasion, without the negative connotations.

Costume of the allegorical figure "Rhetoric". Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Greek education began with the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These three subjects were considered so important they were given their own name — the trivium, meaning "the three roads." While grammar and logic seem reasonable choices for the foundation of education, how did rhetoric wind up in the mix?

Rhetoric was popularized in the fifth century B.C. by the sophists. The sophists began as a respected group of educators paid to teach rhetoric as a practical skill — useful in a democratic society. But as sophist rhetoric evolved, it became more and more focused on winning an argument to the exclusion of all else. Today, we use the word sophistry to describe an argument that sounds good but is misleading or downright false.

Sophist rhetoric was attacked by Plato, who believed in arguments based on logic. To Plato, logical arguments led to truth, a far nobler goal than simply winning an argument.

But it was Plato's greatest student, Aristotle, who would fashion a respectable vision of rhetoric that would dominate western thinking for the next two thousand years. Like Plato, Aristotle firmly believed that logic was absolutely essential when constructing an argument. But he went further, emphasizing things like appealing to the emotion of listeners, good presentation skills, timing, and how the mood of an audience influences what they hear. Where Aristotle differentiated himself from the sophists was in his focus on the process of creating a persuasive argument rather than on winning at all costs.

Aristotle brilliantly clarifies his position in the very first sentence of his book The Art of Rhetoric, where he refers to rhetoric as the counterpart to Plato's logic. Logic is required to find truth, but rhetoric is necessary to communicate truth.

school of athens
Plato and Aristotle in "School of Athens". Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Here we see why rhetoric was viewed as so essential to Greek education. Persuasive communication isn't an unpleasant afterthought, it's a vital part of bringing ingenious ideas to life. For those of us accustomed to letting the facts to speak for themselves — especially scientists and engineers — thereís an important lesson to be learned from the Greek emphasis on rhetoric: how we communicate is as important as the message we carry.

Iím Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where weíre interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

This episode is an updated version of episode 1926.

Rhetoric. From the Wikipedia website Accessed February 26, 2016.

Trivium. From the Wikipedia website Accessed February 26, 2016.

This episode was first aired on March 4, 2016