Most historians would agree that the arts and sciences of persuasion – also known as rhetoric – originated with the Greeks approximately 2,500 years ago. Why there? Why not the Egyptians or the Phoenicians or the Chinese? And why then? What was going on in Greece that necessitated new rules for communication?
The simple answer is a single word: democracy. The Greeks invented democracy. For the first time in the history of the world, people needed to persuade each other without force or violence. So the Greeks had to invent rhetoric.
Prior to democracy, people didn’t need to disagree in any organized way. We simply followed the leader. We agreed with the monarch. We converted to the emperor’s religion. We believed in the gods that the priests proclaimed. If we disagreed, we were ignored or banished or killed. Simple enough.
With the advent of democracy, public life grew messy. We could no longer say, “You will believe this because the emperor believes it.” Rather, we had to persuade. The basic argument was simple, “You should believe this because it provides advantages.” We needed rules and pointers for making such arguments successfully. Socrates and Aristotle (and many others) rose to the challenge and invented rhetoric.
Democracy, then, is about disagreement. We recognize that we will disagree. Indeed, we recognize that we should disagree. The trick is to disagree without anger or violence. We seek to persuade, not to subdue. In fact, here’s a simple test of how democratic a society is:
What proportion of the population agrees with the following statement?
“Of course, we’re going to disagree. But we’ve agreed to resolve our disagreements without violence.”
It seems like a simple test. But we overlook it at our peril. Societies that can’t pass this test (and many can’t) are forever doomed to civil strife, violence, disruption, and dysfunction.
The chief function of rhetoric is to teach us to argue without anger. The fundamental questions of rhetoric pervade both our public and private lives. How can I persuade someone to see a different perspective? How can I persuade someone to agree with me? How can we forge a common vision?
Up through the 19th century, educated people were well versed in rhetoric. All institutions of higher education taught the trivium, which consisted of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Having mastered the trivium, students could progress to the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium provided the platform upon which everything else rested.
In the 20th century, we saw the rise of mass communications, government sponsored propaganda, widespread public relations campaigns, and social media. Ironically, we also decided that we no longer needed to teach rhetoric. We considered it manipulative. To insult an idea, we called it “empty rhetoric”.
But rhetoric also helps us defend ourselves against mass manipulation, which flourished in the 20th century and continues to flourish today. (Indeed, in the 21st century, we seem to want to hone it to an even finer point). We sacrificed our defenses at the very moment that manipulation surged forward. Having no defenses, we became angrier and less tolerant.
What to do? The first step is to revive the arts of persuasion and critical thinking. Essentially, we need to revive the trivium. By doing so, we’ll be better able to argue without anger and to withstand the effects of mass manipulation. Reviving rhetoric won’t solve the world’s problems. But it will give us a tool to resolve problems – without violence and 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.