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partisan bitterness

Too Much Rhetoric? Or Not Enough?

When will we learn to argue without anger?

In the Western world, the art of persuasion (aka rhetoric), appeared first in ancient Athens. We might well ask, why did it emerge there and then, as opposed to another place and another time?

In his book, Words Like Loaded Pistols, Sam Leith argues that rhetoric blossomed first in Greece because that’s where democracy emerged. Prior to that, we didn’t need to argue or persuade or create ideas — at least not in the public sphere. We just accepted as true whatever the monarch said was true. There was no point in arguing. The monarch wasn’t going to budge.

Because Greeks allowed citizens from different walks of life to speak in the public forum, they were the first people who needed to manage ideas and arguments. In response, they developed the key concepts of rhetoric. They also established the idea that rhetoric was an essential element of good leadership. A leader needed to manage the passions of the moment by speaking logically, clearly, and persuasively.

Through the 19th century, well-educated people were thoroughly schooled in rhetoric as well as the related disciplines of logic and grammar. These were known as the trivium and they helped us manage public ideas. Debates, governed by the rules of rhetoric, helped us create new ideas. Thesis led to antithesis led to synthesis. We considered the trivium to be an essential foundation for good leadership. Leaders have to create ideas, explain ideas, and defend ideas. The trivium provided the tools.

Then in the 20th century, we decided that we didn’t need to teach these skills anymore. Leith argues that we came to see history as an impersonal, overwhelming, uncontrollable force in its own right. Why argue about it if we can’t control it? Courses in rhetoric — and leadership — withered away.

It’s interesting to look at rhetoric as an essential part of democracy. It’s not something to be scorned. It’s something to be promoted. I wonder if some of our partisan anger and divisiveness doesn’t result from the lack of rhetoric in our society. We don’t have too much rhetoric. Rather, we have too little. We have forgotten how to argue without anger.

I’m happy to see that rhetoric and persuasion classes are making a comeback in academia today.  Similarly, courses in leadership seem to be flowering again. Perhaps we can look forward to using disagreements to create new ideas rather than an anvil to destroy them.

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