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Reclaiming Rhetoric For The Modern Age

The Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (circa 95 - 55 BC)
Spencer Arnold
Getty Images
The Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (circa 95 - 55 BC)

I was fascinated a few years ago to learn the initial meaning in the Greek agora and among its citizens of "rhetoric." But first, what do we now mean by the term?

Alva wrote recently about cigarette packages carrying frightening images of the consequences of smoking. He described it as propaganda, meant to manipulate, not persuade with the truth. He makes a powerful case.

We now think of rhetoric as, essentially, propaganda. Rhetoric is used to overstate and, often, misrepresent a case. In Alva's good phrase, it is used to "manipulate." In today's sense, "rhetoric" is slightly malign, intentionally misleading, not to be trusted.

Hence my astonishment when I learned (a claim I assume is true) that in ancient Greece the meaning of rhetoric — and the reason it was taught widely in Greece and the Roman Empire — was quite different.

Citizens found themselves confronted with practical, real-life choices, where they did not have access to "all the facts," yet had to make a real decision in face of uncertainty. Rhetoric evolved as the "art" of reasonably persuading one's peers of a course of action in the face of uncertainty.

On learning this, two big issues snap into place for me. First, if not for these sensible reasons, why did the Greeks and Romans teach rhetoric with so much care? Presumably rhetoric was an aspect of responsible citizenship.

I'm reading now the wonderful new book The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt, about the rediscovery of the Roman poet Lucretius in 1417 by one Poggio Bracciolini. He was a papal scribe and more, perhaps in the German monastery of Fulda. The discovery did much to pitch the Western world into the flowering humanism of the Renaissance, after perhaps 700 or 800 years of intellectual confinement to the authority of the church.

The second big issue that hits me is this: why do we not teach rhetoric in the ancient sense now? I suspect the answer is the role of science since Newton. We truly believe that science will know and, as Alva wrote, we can be informed of the facts and use reason as our basis of judgement.

Rhetoric, in this worldview, has no civil job to do; just the facts, please.

But I think this view mistakes our real world today. We, like the ancient Greeks, often do not know "the facts" as they stand, or those that may become relevant.

Then, in face of this uncertainty, we, like the Greeks, still have to decide.

If so, it seems to me that rhetoric — in the sense of the ancient world — remains honorable and is part of our civic duty.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stuart Kauffman

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