Rhetoric and Its Duty in the Public Space

The study of rhetoric needs to be extended past academia in order to ensure active and engaged citizens. The importance of everyone understanding rhetoric, from their own use of rhetorical styles to examining others and practicing rhetorical listening, is so that citizens can better understand and better participate in public discourse that can offer solutions to societal issues. When reading Rhetoric by Aristotle he states, “Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic. Accordingly all men make use, more or less, of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others. Ordinary people do this either at random or through practice and from acquired habit. Both ways being possible, the subject can plainly be handled systematically, for it is possible to inquire the reason why some speakers succeed through practice and others spontaneously; and every one will at once agree that such an inquiry is the function of an art.”[1] When referring “men”, it is easy to assume that Aristotle was referring to citizens who were at the time only white male. Bringing the discussion of rhetoric and its importance to current times, citizens can be extended to mean either natural born citizens or those who require U.S. citizenship. In using this definition, the purpose of rhetoric is to form and to shape the minds of citizens so that they can critically engage themselves in public discussions. The goal is to rightfully serve the duties ascribed to being a citizen by being a part of discussions that move a government, a nation, forward. Referring to Aristotle again he states, “Again, (4) it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs. And if it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.”[2] If that was the purpose of rhetoric now, what has caused it to change? We use and study rhetoric in academia, in specific parts of academia, with hopes of encouraging these few students to use what they learn to become better thinkers in whatever fields they go into. If we go back to the purpose of rhetoric, then we may have failed. These few that are taught or can discuss rhetoric do not account for the entire group of this nation’s citizens, thus these few can not move a nation forward – not by themselves. This is why it is critical to move the discussion and teaching of rhetoric beyond the walls of higher education, where a very few are even introduced to the subject. We need to implement the discussion and teaching to every citizen so that they can properly perform their civic duties and so that they can properly engage with the rhetorical debates that surround them in their government, and so that they can properly analyze arguments surrounding them. It can lead to wiser choices on political leaders and choices and issues that effect society.

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