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The Nature of Rhetoric

Plato's definition of rhetoric is still bright and suggestive; namely: 'Rhetoric is the art of persuading the minds of men.' Rhetoric is commonly regarded as a pretentious, superfine, or ornate way of presenting an argument; whereas rhetoric merely means the art of speaking to a purpose. A rhetorician originally meant a public speaker, whose object was orally to influence opinion in courts, in council, or in public meetings. The highest effort of public speaking is seen when the object of the speaker is to persuade the minds of men to accept some great principle, or adopt some just policy in public affairs.

There were two Herberts of mark in literature—George (1581) and Edward (1593). Edward is commonly spoken of as Lord Herbert of Cherbury. It is he who likens rhetoric to ‘a diamond which is of small use until it is cut and polished, when its angles send forth flashes of light which arrest and delight every eye.'

By reasoning we satisfy ourselves, by rhetoric we satisfy others. The rhetorician is commonly, but unwisely, considered most perfect who carries his point by whatever means. 'Men like to see the man who is a match for events, and equal to any exigency.' But it is plain we must make some distinction as to the manner in which a point is to be carried. We may as well say that a man may carry the point of life by any means, that is fill his pockets by any means, as influence men by any means. A low appeal to the passions we call claptrap. Dr. Johnson, who put morality into his definitions, said, 'Oratory is the power of beating down your adversaries' arguments, and putting better in their places.'
It implies force and individuality of mind when a man desires to reason out things for himself. Most men prefer to be told what to think; they are perplexed, and find themselves lost in a maze of feeling, prejudice and interests; they cannot see far, nor appreciate what is near. They might have a commanding view of the field of difficulty from an eminence, but eminences are not to be attained without exertion, and most men are disinclined to exertion. They are therefore grateful to anyone who will climb the mount and tell them what he sees. But if he can do more—can tell them not only what they should do and why they should do it—he opens their minds, satisfies their judgment, and inspires them with a new and, let us hope with Dr. Johnson, a right purpose. He who satisfies by right reason the conscience of others, commands them without fraud or force. He teaches no unmanly subjection of the understanding; he neither invokes nor needs submission to authority; he represents the only leadership consistent with progress—the leadership of ideas commended by reason. Such are the just aims of honest rhetoric.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).
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