We have explored a brief history of rhetoric, the basis for persuasion, from the time of Aristotle to the beginning of the twentieth century. This exploration is by no means complete, but it is intended to provide you with a particular understanding about rhetoric. From Aristotle to Saint Augustine, we see that rhetoric served a threefold purpose: first, it was a tool designed to develop and cultivate one’s mental faculties in order to be a “good citizen” who could serve the state well. And serving the state well meant having the ability to think well and to discover and develop sound arguments. Second, it gave a person the oratorical skills necessary to convince a decision-maker or decision-making body, that they should adhere to a particular argument. And third, all of this could only be attained if one had moral fiber—ethos—in both thought and character. These conditions were seminal for the classists in their pursuit of advancing the art of rhetoric. Eventually, new thoughts and trends distorted, altered, and at times, removed these conditions. The Greeks and Romans held one’s character to the highest degree, and no man could be rhetorically successful if they did not possess this quality.
Rhetoric brought us through the Middle Ages and St. Augustine as a unifying figure. The Renaissance gave us a rebirth of the Greek and Roman classical art of public speaking, a new breath for public discourse and education, and the emergence of humanist and rational thinkers. And we have learned that the art of public speaking was, for a short time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, used as a means for entertainment.
Today, persuasion has taken many forms, with rhetoric being just one of these forms. We know that people will say and do most anything to get their way, whether that be in politics, sales, religion, or advertising, and whether what they attempt to do is ethical or not. As you continue to read this on-line text, remember one fundamental premise: that public speaking, ultimately, is all about affecting human behavior; about getting people to do something they normally would not want to do. The key to public speaking is effectively answering the question, “How do I create a message that will connect with my audience?”
The design of Rhetoric is to remove those Prejudices that lie in the way of Truth, to Reduce the Passions to the Government of Reasons; to place our Subject in a Right Light, and excite our Hearers to a due consideration of it. ~ Mary Astell