Is Rhetoric Worth Learning?

A lot of what we talk about on this site is, effectively, how to speak well. How to communicate in a way that leads people to believe truer things.

I rarely see it pointed out that, for many centuries, this used to be called rhetoric and was taught as part of a liberal arts education.

I didn’t have a classical liberal arts education, so I’m still in the process of trying to learn what rhetoric is, and whether there really is a “science” of rhetoric that STEM-educated people like myself are missing. Certainly, some parts of the classical curriculum, like syllogistic logic, seem pretty basic, while others, like memorization, may be less relevant in the modern day.

However, there’s definitely a “level above mine.”

I’ve had a piece of my writing edited by the staff of a major magazine; they restructured the rhythm and pacing and added vivid turns of phrase, while keeping all the important content in place. I still haven’t worked out exactly how they did it, or what principles lie behind the changes, but suddenly it sounded like a more graceful, alive voice was making my argument.

That’s elocutio.

I’ve seen a law professor speak in exactly 17 minutes of perfectly organized paragraphs, extemporaneously in a debate, while his opponent got confused as to the structure of the argument and wound up lamely repeating a single point that didn’t refute the whole thesis.

That’s dispositio.

I recently watched The Ten Commandments, and Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner’s resonant voices and dignified, expansive gestures are beautiful in a way I’ve hardly ever seen anyone in my generation allow themselves to be.

That’s pronuntiatio.

On LessWrong, people often make a hard distinction between being correct and being persuasive; one is rational while the other is “dark arts.” That’s a real tension in rhetoric, and it’s as old as Plato. But it’s also been traditional in the West to combine the study of persuasiveness and the study of logical argument as a single subject, and there might be a sense in which that’s reasonable. An argument is both something that one understands individually, and a format for communicating between people.

From a societal perspective, making any kind of improvement, at any scale above literally one-man jobs, depends on both correctness and persuasiveness. If you want to achieve an outcome, you fail if you propose the wrong method and if you can’t persuade anyone of the right method. And you can’t just figure out the right plan first and figure out how to “sell” it later—the process of figuring out the right plan usually requires collaboration along the way. Speaking up about what should be done is an unavoidable element of actually doing it, in most cases. I’m not sure it’s the right move to treat the “steak” and the “sizzle” as totally separate.

I’m curious what people have learned, from liberal arts or elsewhere, about rhetoric and its component skills. Do you think there’s something to learn from classical rhetoric about how to persuade and argue?

Some of the things I think go into talking well:

Emotional Skills

  • How to be aware of other people’s points of view without merging with them

  • How to dare to use a loud, clear voice or definite language

  • How to restrain yourself from anger or upset

  • How to take unflattering comments or disagreement in stride

  • How to retain focus and interest on the denotative content of an argument

  • How to resist impulses to evade the issue or make misleading points

Ethical Skills

  • How to speak from experience about value-laden concepts (moral imperatives and virtues)

Cognitive Skills

  • How to construct a logically valid argument

  • How to understand another person’s perspective

Writing Skills

  • Vividness

  • Rhythm and variation in sound

  • Organization

  • Figures of speech

Physical Skills

  • Pitch variation

  • Voice support

  • Articulation

  • Speaking speed

  • Posture

  • Gesture

Where have you learned to do any of these things better?

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