Rhetoric is a stage of learning in the trivium (i.e. the grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric stages.) But rhetoric can also mean the effective use of language to persuade people of the value of ideas. Plato called rhetoric “The use of soul leading by means of words.” Unfortunately, the word has come to denote insincere or manipulative speech in recent time, but in the traditional sense of the word, rhetoric was a noble art.
A person went through several stages before communicating their ideas to the public. The stages of rhetoric a person would go through are 1. invention (or gathering ideas) 2. arrangement 3.elocution or expression 4. memorization and 5. presentation.
People who have a sincere desire to find truth and who want to convince people without resorting to sophistry use rhetoric in this traditional sense. Rhetoric is hard work. At other times in our history, people were more educated in rhetoric than they are now and common people were much more capable of weighing the merits of another man’s ideas.
The speaker mentioned three masters of rhetoric in our history just to provide inspirational examples of how the use of language can influence people: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. When she mentioned Patrick Henry, of course, I thought of his famous speech that ends with the words, “…give me liberty or give me death!” That’s when I realized that Mr. Henry must have practiced this speech at home before delivering it in public. I don’t know why that hadn’t occurred to me before. But I had always imagined he came up with those superb words moments before he said them from his passion and zeal for independence as if his words were more sincere because they were impromtu. But that was a very ignorant assumption based on my lack of knowledge about traditional rhetoric. Of course, Henry wished to persuade people to choose independence, but he wasn’t insincere just because he went through all these stages of rhetoric before addressing his audience. He worked responsibly, by thinking the matter through beforehand, arranging his words, and figuring out the most persuasive way of delivering his ideas. Taking a second look at Henry’s speech through new eyes, I see a work of a master rhetorician, truly! And again I realized how little I know about all there is to know and how much the classical approach to education is enlightening me!