The world needs more rhetoric.
Yes, you read that correctly. Politics needs more rhetoric. Journalism needs more rhetoric. Social media needs more rhetoric. Our daily discourse needs more rhetoric.
Disagree? You’re not alone.
Many would argue the modern world needs less rhetoric, not more. Often cited as a major reason for today’s outrage culture, rhetoric has become a dirty word. It’s what you wield to keyboard-punch someone on Twitter. It’s how politicians utter hundreds of words while saying absolutely nothing. It’s kerosene for igniting violence and hate.
So why would I argue that society needs more rhetoric? Because in a noisy world, where loud voices vie for everyone’s attention, good rhetoric can cut through the clutter. Those who’ve mastered the art of rhetoric are, for good or for ill, the ones getting heard in the noise.
Persuasion, Flattery, or More?
Though rhetoric has been around for thousands of years, the term means different things to different people.
Some view rhetoric as persuasion: delivering the right words in the right way to the right audience, to get what you want. This understanding is often traced to Aristotle: “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”
Rhetoricians leverage language to their advantage, Aristotle argued. Politicians persuade the masses with impassioned speeches. Advertisers convince consumers. Carefully worded press releases pluck the gossamer strings of language.
The problem with reducing rhetoric to mere persuasion, however, is that this can be used for deceit, heresy, and falsehood. A masterful rhetorician can persuade people with lies.
Socrates was concerned about this abuse. He thought rhetoric was like cooking. Both cooks and rhetoricians whip together ingredients, serve it up, and hope people enjoy it. With enough sauce, a cook may be able to serve rancid meat to unsuspecting diners. Similarly, rhetoric may be used to disguise rancid logic and serve it up in a delightful way.
Rhetoric is like cooking. . . . With enough sauce, a cook may be able to serve rancid meat to unsuspecting diners.
In one of Plato’s dialogues, The Gorgias, Socrates describes two types of rhetoric: “One, which is mere flattery and disgraceful declamation; the other, which is noble and aims at the training and improvement of the souls of the citizens, and strives to say what is best, whether welcome or unwelcome, to the audience.”
Socrates then asks Callicles, “Have you ever known such a rhetoric; or if you have, and can point out any rhetorician who is of this stamp, who is he?” Callicles responds: “But, indeed, I am afraid that I cannot tell you of any such among the orators who are at present living.”
Neither Socrates nor Callicles could come up with a single person who fit this ideal form of rhetoric. According to them, no rhetorician had ever sought to improve others by speaking what is best, with a concern for truth rather than applause.
Clearly, they hadn’t met one person.
Saying What’s Best
Jesus fits Socrates’s definition of the ideal rhetorician. His public speaking was persuasive and authoritative; his language clear and accessible; his teaching illustrative and profound. Jesus knew exactly when to mention Abraham, when to speak an impassioned word, and when to deploy a logical argument.
Nevertheless, his rhetoric went beyond delightful speech and persuasive sermons. Jesus was not primarily concerned with conforming his words to hearers’ ears, but with conforming his words to God’s truth.
Jesus was not primarily concerned with conforming his words to a hearer’s ears; rather, Jesus was concerned with conforming his words to the eternal truth of God.
Jesus said what is best, and improved his hearers, by proclaiming good news (Luke 8:1). Yes, his words were persuasive, authoritative, and memorable. Yet more importantly, they were good and true.
Case for Christian Rhetoric
Early Christians such as Paul, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian used the tools of rhetoric to gain a hearing in a hostile culture. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr wrote, “For in these pages we do not come before you with flattery, or as if making a speech to win your favor, but asking you to give judgment according to strict and exact inquiry.” This is what Socrates had in mind: truth, not flattery.
Rather than run from rhetoric, Christians ought to redeem it. Not only is this possible, but it is also vital in a world increasingly hostile to Christian faith. Modern Christians would do well to consider three ways rhetoric might be used today.
1. True > Persuasive
If rhetoric is primarily about saying what’s best by saying what’s true, then rhetoric would be a welcome addition to our daily discourse. In this sense, the world needs more rhetoric—and sooner rather than later: “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Whether face-to-face or on social media, we must constantly reflect on the truthfulness of our words.
2. Persuasive ≠ Lying
Persuading isn’t a sin. Sure, it can be fueled by lust, greed, and power, but it can also be undergirded by God’s truth and love, as in the example of Paul in Corinth: “He reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). There is nothing wrong with intentionally seeking to persuade others. Our persuasive efforts must be aimed at God’s truth and love, however, not power and personal gain.
3. Audience + Context
Paul shifted his approach in order to fit a particular audience and context: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Effective communication requires us to slow down and discern the nuances of a particular rhetorical setting and audience. Who or what is persuasive for this particular audience? How might I gain or lose a hearing in this setting? How can I best communicate the gospel of Jesus in this context? These are helpful questions to ask in both digital and non-digital discourse.
If rhetoric is about packaging falsehood with pretty words, then it is useless to followers of Jesus. But if rhetoric is about speaking what is best and what is true—persuasively—then it can and must be leveraged by God’s people in a noisy age.