Perhaps due to the profoundly unsavory and generally depressing state of politics today, a term like “rhetoric” has taken on a quite negative meaning. We use it in an almost derogatory sense, forgetting that rhetoric is one of those things that is neither inherently evil, nor inherently good. Rhetoric is merely: “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.” Our word rhetoric comes from the Greek rhētorikē, or “art of oratory.”
Now do not be mistaken, rhetoric has been used with devastating effect as a tool for evil. But that is all it is. A tool. It doesn’t have any magical properties, nor inherently evil properties, unless you allow it to. Adolf Hitler is an example of how rhetoric can be employed with cruel and terrifying effect: for a warped and evil cause, against entire races of people, and for the incitation of war. But to reason that a tool is evil merely because it has been at times used for evil is fallacious.
Throughout history there are many examples of rhetoric being used to very good effect while employed in quite righteous causes. Indeed, it is quite a pity that rhetoric is not rigorously taught in the public school. What passes for “English” now at a high school level would quite likely have been laughed at one hundred or more years ago. One has merely to think of say a speech made by a politician recently, especially a younger one. You cannot think of one, can you? Even as far as content goes, there is little that is memorable in modern oratory, and there is even less stylistically that is memorable. However, it is quite likely that you would at least recognize, if not know from memory, some lines from oratory—from rhetoric—of times past.
Winston Churchill is an extraordinary example of a person employing rhetoric to extraordinary effect. His command of the English language was impressive, and is matched by few. His oratory was just as impressive. His ways of conveying ideas, and of crafting phrases, were and are memorable to say the least. Of Churchill’s skills, John F. Kennedy said: “In dark days and darker nights, when Britain stood alone, and most men save Englishmen despaired of England’s life, he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. The incandescent quality of his words illuminated the courage of his countrymen.”
Especially when speaking of oratory, one rarely thinks of anyone recently sending it into battle. And if so, then certainly not in a good nor admirable way. Yet with practice this can be done. It is a skill that can be learned, should be learned. Churchill had gifts certainly. But the honing of those gifts came with practice and work, and use. The ability to mobilize the English language was not something he was born with. Nor is it something anyone could be strictly said to be born with. Yet what if he had not honed this skill?
Churchill’s oratory, just as much as his tenacity, carried the English through the Second World War. He imbued his own confidence into his people. He also imbued his own tenacity and stubbornness into them, or at least fanned into flame the spark that was already there. Much of this was accomplished through his practiced skill with rhetoric. He wrote all his own speeches, and spent as much time on single phrases in some instances as some modern speechwriters would spend on the entirety of a speech.
Tremendous results and good can be accomplished with the skilled and artful deployment of language. Yet increasingly we neglect any real rigorous teaching of this art. We would rather produce business men and mathematicians and inventors then warriors with language. Yet we forget the usefulness and value of such a skill no matter one’s profession. We would do well to remember it again, and to remember its past employment in great deeds and accomplishments. It is time that we taught and mobilized our language once again.