"Let me ask you, with what is rhetoric concerned?" - Socrates
This website has been designed to serve two purposes:
To provide clear explanations and useful academic resources for students of rhetoric and the general public.
To help dispel popular (mis)conceptions of rhetoric as a synonym for flim-flam and obfuscation.
On this first page you will find a few quotations from recent news articles illustrating how the word "rhetoric' is often (mis)used in popular discourse as well as a brief introduction to one of the world's oldest academic disciplines: rhetoric studies.
"I did a search recently on how many bills have the word "killing" in the title, like the "Repeal of the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." Almost no legislation in 20 years used the word. ... Am I implying that the title of the repeal bill contributed to some climate of violence? No -- it's just rhetoricthat pols are going to shy away from again."
David Weigel (Slate columnist), January, 2011 (From a column entitled "Poll: Americans Don't Blame 'Political Tone' for Tucson Killings")
"'Small Government" Talk is Just Rhetoric"
E. J. Dione (Washington Post columnist), January , 2011 (headline of a column in which he criticizes Congressional Republicans).
"Nancy Pelosi said they're going to stick to the highest ethical standards. Obama has said he would; Clinton said he would. It's just rhetoric. It's just campaign rhetoric. We know they don't really mean it. Just like don't really mean much of what they say during the campaign. It's just breathtaking to watch this."
Rush Limbaugh, January, 2009
"Well, let me tell you something ... I know the toll of this war and what I know is that what our troops deserve is not just rhetoric. They deserve a new plan."
Barack Obama, May, 2007
"They want somebody who's going to give them solutions, not just rhetoric."
Hillary Clinton (explaining why she won the Nevada presidential primary), January, 2008
"These people have records, not just rhetoric."
Ralph Nader (expressing his admiration for presidential candidates Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich), February, 2007
"The man that brought the wall down... how many people he freed through that show of force. He didn't do it alone. He would be the first one to say so. In fact, he would deny it. He would put somebody else far ahead of him in terms of having created that freedom. But when you walk through those streets today and you talk to those people and in all of those countries, they know the force of President Ronald Reagan and they know when he said, `Gorbachev, you tear this wall down' that that was not just rhetoric. That wall came down."
Senator Paul Coverdell (Georgia), January, 1998
"There are real opportunities. Republican governors across the country have the responsibility for leading their states day by day. It's not just talk. It's not just rhetoric. We can actually show with our actions conservative principles work."
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (commenting on GOP opportunities following the election of Barack Obama), November, 2008
"Words, of course, are just rhetoric unless backed by action. But President Obama at least sees ahead a fresh path, one that once again aligns the nation's innate strengths with its ideals."
The Toledo Blade, January, 2009 (editorial response to President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address)
"I was impressed by the speech. It was motivating. Inspiring. Not just rhetoric but from deep within his soul. But it was a little warm in there, wasn't it?"
Clarissa Poole, California state office worker, August, 2009 (after attending a Democrtic Party rally near Sacramento at which Barack Obama was the featured speaker)
Plato and AristotlePrime Minister Margaret Thatcher President Barack ObamaHermes; Greek god of messages, literature, wit, commerce, and oratory
What is Rhetoric?
Rhetoric is an ancient discipline concerned with public discourse. Those who study rhetoric are interested in all aspects of linguistic persuasion and identification... including, but certainly not limited to, grandiose oratory. However, as the quotations listed above suggest, in contemporary usage the word "rhetoric" is often taken to mean just that: insubstantial, insincere, or even deceptive public address.
This site provides several resources for those interested in moving beyond superficial understandings in order to learn more about rhetoric and about the wide range of topics included in contemporary rhetoric studies. To that end, the site includes: a list of academic definitions; lists of important journals and books; and links to rhetoric related websites.
To get things started, Wayne Booth has provided a useful description of rhetorical studies and a particularly lucent explanation for why we have so many definitions of "rhetoric" in rhetoric studies:
"Any confident claim about the importance of rhetorical studies requires as a first step some sorting of diverse definitions. No one definition will ever pin rhetoric down. As Aristotle insisted in the first major work about it – The Art of Rhetoric – rhetoric has no specific territory or subject matter of its own, since it is found everywhere. But it is important to escape the reductions of rhetoric to the non-truth or even anti-truth kinds. The term must always include both the verbal visual garbage flooding our lives and the tools for cleaning things up."
Wayne Booth (The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication, p. 3)