Is Rhetoric dead?
â€œFriends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears,â€ etc. etc. etc. We all know the story behind that one. Marc Antony, the deck stacked completely against him, wielding only the power of his own voice. He swayed the masses of Rome and completely turned the tide against Caesarâ€™s assassins. Antony (as Shakespeare tells us) preformed this incredible feat, saving his career and possibly his life, using only the power of rhetoric.
The art of rhetoric has been studied and practiced for millennia. The ancient Greeks and Romans understood its significance, and instructed their young boys in it. In fact, in the original seven â€œliberal artsâ€ developed in medieval universities, rhetoric was one of the first subjects taught. Rhetoric has held a central and important role in Western education up through the 19th century. Even more impressive than the academic credentials of rhetoric is the storied history it has of shaping the course of human events. From Pericles speaking to the people of Athens, to Daniel Oâ€™Connell holding â€œmonster meetingsâ€ of 100,000-plus Irish men, to Patrick Henry demanding liberty or death, to Martin Luther King Jr. proclaiming his dream, the power of menâ€™s (and womenâ€™s) voices have created history and shaped the world. Rhetoric has shown that it has the ability to mobilize and inspire people to accomplish incredible things which they would otherwise not have done. There is no doubt about it: the practice of rhetoric in the hands of (or rather the mouth of) a skilled orator is a terribly powerful tool.
Like all powerful tools, however, we must be careful with and wary of them. While it is easy to come up with examples of times in which oratory molded the world for the better, it is also similarly easy to cite examples when rhetoric created terrible consequences. Consider the rise of the Nazi party under the leadership of the incredible orator Adolf Hitler. No one would make the argument that Hitler single-handedly created National Socialism; there were colossal social, economic, and political factors which contributed to the situation. However, it would be reasonable to say that Hitlerâ€“and specifically the tremendous speeches he gaveâ€“catalyzed the movement. It is a classic example of the terrible power that rhetoric holds and the horrific outcomes that it can create. Rhetoric is undoubtedly something to be wary of.
In todayâ€™s day and age, however, I feel that rhetoric in the classical sense is largely dead. Sure, plenty of speeches are given, especially by politicians, but they pale in comparison to those made by great orators of the past. Contemporary rhetoric seems to be aimed at scoring a shallow sound bite on the evening news and playing to the lowest common denominator; not at advancing intelligent ideals through elegant, powerful and moving speech. Part of the reason for this may be the so-called age of YouTube, in which politicians have to constantly be on guard from making even the smallest gaffe lest it gets turned into a viral internet video. Perhaps our society of mass media is one that no longer appreciates great oratory. In any case, for the most part we seem to be living in an age of bland and uninspired rhetoric.
Gone are the days of Webster replying to Hayne on the Senate floor, gone are the days of Williams Jennings Bryanâ€™s cross of gold. Instead we are left with Vice President Biden stumbling over one offensive gaffe after another, Sarah Palin blathering on about Joe the Plumber, and Howard Deanâ€™s ever popular â€œbbyyyaaa!â€ The United States is in the midst of an age of incredible difficulty. One would hope that this difficulty would be responded to with powerful and graceful rhetoric, yet I feel that for the most part this has not been the case. President Obama may be the one exception to that rule. No one, Democrat or Republican, could dispute that he gives excellent and incredibly moving speeches. Yet I still find it hard to equate the Presidentâ€™s oratory to truly great rhetoric. In a battle between Obamaâ€™s â€œhope,â€ and Churchillâ€™s â€œnever surrender,â€ Iâ€™d bet on Winston any day of the week. As I said before, itâ€™s not like America is lacking the conflict or challenges to spawn impressive rhetoric; we just seem to be lacking truly great orators.
One thing I am not trying to say here is that rhetoric will solve all of our problems. Rhetoric can only take you so far; it must be coupled with intelligent policy and truly hard work in order for any positive outcome to emerge. In fact, empty rhetoricâ€“or worse, rhetoric aimed at the wrong purposesâ€“is something to be incredibly wary of. What I am arguing is that history has proven that rhetoric, in the right hands, can be a very powerful tool for good. I am trying to say that in addition to sound policy and hard work, America could benefit from some good old-fashioned rhetoric.