A few months back it was interesting to hear constant references to North Korea’s ‘rhetoric’ in the news media. For example, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer urged North Korea to end its “bellicose rhetoric” and “provocative actions.” The Guardian reported on the contrast between a ‘shrill rhetoric’ which seemed to presage war and the calm atmosphere in North Korea’s capital.
These uses of the term ‘rhetoric’ convey the suspicion that North Korea’s public statements are idle threats which are probably really aimed at internal propaganda and power-consolidation by its young leader. North Korea is talking tough but will it actually do anything? In other contexts, the worry seems to be that the ‘rhetoric’ is indeed matched by ‘actions’ (the re-positioning of missile launchers etc.) but that it represents a deluded and distorted view of the world. ‘Rhetoric’ is also wheeled out as a designation when journalists or diplomats feel that certain public statements are especially manipulative, grandiose or deceptive. I’ve heard BBC reporters use the term to designate policy statements from the UK Coalition government which they suspect are eliding real differences of opinion within the administration.
If he were alive today, Plato would probably pleased to hear the term ‘rhetoric’ being used so negatively. In his dialogue, the Gorgias we have the earliest attested use of the Greek word rhetorike when Socrates refers to ‘the so-called “art” (techne) of rhetoric’. Socrates argues that sophists like Gorgias are wrong to claim that rhetoric is a discipline grounded in genuine knowledge and understanding. Instead, it is a form of ‘flattery’ aimed at the gratification and deception of its audience. Where Gorgias points out that it is the rhetorician, and not the doctor, who is most able to persuade a reluctant patient to take medicine that is unpleasant but necessary for his recovery. Socrates dwells on the fact that ‘rhetoric’ does not possess or impart knowledge of any particular subject area. The rhetorician does not know about diseases and what cures them. Nor does he know what is justice, the best way to run a city, how best to fight wars or how to successfully manage public finances. As a consequence, Athens suffers from being advised by sophist-trained politicians who are good at persuading the people and telling them what they want to hear – even though the laws and policies they are arguing for are not be the best ones for the city and even though those politicians (and much of their audience) are not competent in relevant areas of expertise.
Some scholars bemoan the extent to which the word ‘rhetoric’ seems to retain these negative Platonic associations, even in modern parlance. When defined as the means and modes by which we attempt to persuade each other, communicate grievances, make a case or enter into debate, ‘rhetoric’ becomes a much more positive notion. ‘How to argue well’ is a subject that can be taught and it necessarily involves the critical evaluation of arguments we receive. This (largely Aristotelian) definition can be developed so that ‘rhetoric’ is re-presented as a vital discourse of democracy, peaceful dispute settlement, equality under the law and citizen empowerment in the face of special interests. For me, though, the Platonic and Aristotelian views are two sides of the same coin. ‘Rhetoric’ and its dynamics can only be understood, properly monitored and used when we see that both views are always in play and in tension with each other – and these views are themselves often a vital part of a larger rhetoric. But the ‘rhetoric’ that lies behind definitions of ‘rhetoric’ will have to wait for another post.