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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