As Gutenberg’s rhetoric teacher, I listen closely to political campaigns. I do not listen expecting to be edified but to remind myself how far rhetoric has fallen and what happens when reasonable debate falters.

Rhetoric, traditionally, is the study and practice of reasoned persuasion. In the ancient world, the study of rhetoric was a cornerstone of the intellectual life, but it has been neglected, and the effects are beginning to show. When a democracy cannot settle disputes through reasoned debate, disputes are settled through power.

American political campaigns are no longer arenas for reasoned debate, but a façade for the accumulation of power. Upon her election in 2008, Nancy Pelosi announced her goal as Speaker of the House: elect more Democrats. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, after the 2010 Republican victories, announced his goal: prevent the Democratic president’s reelection.

This is what we have come to: Absent the ability or desire to persuade others through reason, politicians persuade with money, advertising, and glamour. Is it any wonder young people prefer their political news from comedians? A recent survey showed that the top news sources for young people are The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. Given the absurdity of the climate, what can they do but laugh?

The situation is intolerable, and, thankfully, prominent people are proposing solutions that encourage politicians to quit bickering. For example, Lieutenant General Russel Honoré proposed sending congress to boot camp for a lesson in shared sacrifice. Another proposal recommends forcing congress to sequester on gridlocked legislation until they learn to compromise.

I am skeptical, however, that these solutions will solve the problem. Dogmatism is not the primary problem, and cooperation—though sorely lacking—is not often the best solution. Legislators propose thousands of bills every year, and many are (how  do I say this gently?)—inane. While working as a congressional intern in Washington D.C., I remember a bill proposing to combat violent crime by taxing bullets. It was difficult to imagine a gang member saying, “Fellas, I can’t do the drive-by; my accountant would kill me.” The solution to the Taxing Bullets for America Bill is not compromise, but dogmatic opposition.

Our problem is not that we argue too much. A healthy democracy ought to argue vigorously and frequently. Indeed, the American Founders constructed a government driven by reasoned debate; they intended reasoned argument to steer every committee meeting, congressional assembly, and judicial hearing. Yet the Founders were also convinced that men’s hearts were wicked. Thus they planted the legislative process thick with restraints like filibusters, procedural rules, checks and balances. Law-making proceeds at a glacial pace to (hopefully) cool the passions that so often derail reasoned debate.

The problem is not too much ideology or too much argument. Rather, the problem is that our arguments do not result in persuasion. Our arguments offer, in the words of Shakespeare, “more light than heat, extinct in both.” Last year, for example, every newscast seemed to cover some new punch in the global warming debate. Did one side convince the other? No, both sides simply gave up from exhaustion.

Why are our arguments so fruitless? I could offer a multitude of reasons, such as the modern media’s preference for sound-bites, Americans’ shorter attention spans, and advertising’s wearying effect on our sense of judgment. But rather than retread beaten ground, let me offer three less discussed reasons for why our arguments go nowhere. Then I will suggest a solution.

The first reason: A culture war has been clanging since the late sixties. Democrats and Republicans are not merely rival political platforms; they are rival worldviews. Balanced budgets, education models, and gay marriage are surface arguments about a deeper debate over deeper questions: What is a human being? Is there an Ultimate Judge? What can government accomplish? Our political debates are really worldview debates with each worldview holding tightly to its own beliefs, vocabularies, and goals. No wonder persuasion seems impossible.

A second reason our arguments go nowhere: “We” do not know “them.” A few years ago a friend confessed that she didn’t know anyone who voted for George Bush a second time. When Bush was reelected she thought, “Maybe my friend-pool is a bit homogenous.” She is not alone. The Washington Post recently reported:

Americans say they enjoy living in diverse communities. But research shows that they increasingly cluster among those who are just like themselves, especially on the one attribute that ties the others together: political affiliation.

Our grouping according to political affiliation is a testament to the power and pervasiveness of the culture war. Nearly every aspect of contemporary life—from education to automobiles—is divided into political categories. You homeschool your children? You are a conservative. You drive a Prius? You are a liberal. Who wants to justify everyday convictions to unsympathetic neighbors? Life is easier when we dwell with neighbors, churches, and friends that share our convictions. This tendency not to know “them” is perfectly understandable, but it also contributes to our dysfunction.

A third reason (and the focus of this essay) why our arguments lack fruit: We simply do not know how to persuade or be persuaded. I am not suggesting we are a grossly illogical culture, yet we view persuasion with great suspicion. We are skeptical that we can persuade. More importantly, we are skeptical of allowing ourselves to be persuaded.

This skepticism seems especially prevalent among young people, in part because persuasion is an undeveloped skill. In one sense, persuasion is like market-haggling. Imagine a woman, untrained, who steps for the first time into an open-air bazaar. She is bombarded with appeals for carpets, pearls, earrings, bracelets, tableware, and silks. She hears prices, offers, promises, and bargains. Being untrained, these appeals sound like a senseless commotion. She cannot tell the difference between a bargain and a bluster. Skepticism, given this situation, seems quite sensible.

This is a central challenge for many younger people: Given the commotion of the market—and a lack of skill—skepticism is sensible and safe. But anyone hoping to find value cannot merely retreat from the market. She must be willing to listen, argue, persuade, and be persuaded. Reintroducing classical rhetoric into schools would help lessen skepticism.


Classic Rhetoric

What exactly is classical rhetoric? In the ancient and medieval worlds, she was a queen of the arts. Rhetoric asked, “What is a good argument and why?” Her domain was all of life because we construct and consider dozens of arguments every day about everyday life.

Rhetoric was queen, but she fell from grace. The measure of her fall is reflected in today’s use of the word “rhetoric.” To be “rhetorical” means roughly “to blow hot air.” A man who is “speaking rhetorically” is a man who is “lying.” In the words of prominent twentieth-century literary critic I. A. Richards, the study of rhetoric is “sales-talk selling sales-talk.”

How did rhetoric go from queen of the arts to a banished stepsister? Her ouster began in the seventeenth century when many of the arts adopted analytical science (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) as their model. For example, governance quit being the art of managing the affairs of state and became political science.

By adopting the sciences as a model, the art of everyday argument suffered. Why? Because the analytical sciences traffic in precise words with precise definitions. For example, the words ‘mammal’, ‘cell’, and ‘protoplasm’ have very specific definitions for a biologist. But everyday words are less precise and more dynamic. The word ‘freedom’, for example, has a broad, malleable definition even among political scientists. The strict methodology of the analytical sciences requires specific definitions that are too restricting for everyday debate.

Aristotle, the father of both analytical logic and rhetoric, recognized a profound difference between analytical sciences and everyday rhetoric. He described the differences between the two:

  1. Analytics focus on syllogisms within specialized disciplines like biology. Conclusions are produced from premises. For example:
    • Premise A: All mammals are warm-blooded.
    • Premise B: All dogs are mammals.
    • Conclusion: All dogs are warm-blooded.

    Rhetoric also uses syllogisms leading toward a conclusion, but its terms are less precise and likewise its conclusions.

  2. Analytics’ conclusions are believed true regardless of audience consent.

    Rhetoric’s goal is the persuasion of an audience.

  3. Analytics’ conclusions are assumed to be certain.1

    Rhetoric’s conclusions are assumed to be probable.

Both the analytical sciences and rhetoric rely on logic. But because rhetoric’s domain (everyday life) is more dynamic and messy, it cannot achieve the certainty of more formalized disciplines. Thus, instead of certainty, rhetoric aims for probability. Example: Can you prove a free society needs a free press to remain free? No. Can you show that to be probable? Yes. Can you prove bureaucracy stifles creativity? No. Can you show it to be likely? Yes.

Aristotle warned against making rhetoric a science, but it happened anyway. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Renaissance philosopher Peter Ramus asserted that analytical science was the only method that “presides over mathematics, philosophy, opinions, and human conduct” (Ramus, Dialectique, p.50, 25). During the Enlightenment, more and more of the human arts sought to follow the methods of the analytical sciences.

By the twentieth century, rhetoric was a scorned discipline. The grand art of rationally persuading and being persuaded, became a dirty discipline. The queen had been dethroned and locked from the castle. Until recently.

Rhetoric is experiencing a renewal in schools across the country. Dozens of rhetoric journals are now being published by colleges and universities. And a classical education movement—which places rhetoric as a pedagogical centerpiece—is gaining momentum among private and home schools.

But anyone interested in rehabbing rhetoric need not look at trends to be inspired. The best inspiration comes from great rhetoricians in our past. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King were both classical rhetoricians. Both men inherited a country split in violent disagreement and, through rhetoric, both persuaded some men to change their minds. How? Both Lincoln and King followed a pattern described by Aristotle.

1) Both began with what they shared with their opponents.

Lincoln and King knew something today’s politicians do not—their opponents. Neither man preached merely to the converted; both understood their opponents and could appeal to them. Lincoln’s first inaugural address, a masterpiece, was offered on the brink of the Civil War. He began, not by recounting the points of disagreement between the Union and the Confederacy, but with a point of agreement—namely, that he did not intend to

…interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) was written to white pastors from Alabama. These pastors shared with King a respect for the Christian Scriptures. Thus, King’s letter opens with citations from the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul.

After beginning with points of agreement, Lincoln and King proceeded to their argument.

2) Both focused on the primary problem, not the periphery.

Lincoln and King both honed their arguments on the central issue of contention. For Lincoln, the central issue was simple:

One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.

King likewise directly names the central contention: His fellow pastors rejected him because they considered his demonstrations “unwise and untimely,” the work of an “outside agitator.”

3) Both used a variety of arguments to support his thesis.

Lincoln’s objective in his first inaugural address was to convince his hearers to preserve the union. He first cites the first principles of American government. The United States is not really a “government,” he says, but a contract between states that ought not be broken unless all states agree. To support his argument, Lincoln appeals to authorities shared by all the states: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.

Second, Lincoln urges his hearers to preserve the Union for practical reasons. To break the union in half is simply not feasible because of the close proximity of the two halves. A husband and wife “may be divorced and [leave] the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this.”

King also uses a variety of arguments to support his thesis. His detractors wanted him to “just stay home” rather than cause problems in Birmingham. To counter their argument, King points to the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul who left their hometowns to carry their messages. Likewise must King carry his message beyond his hometown.

Then King rebuts his detractors using logic. He accuses them of “confirmation bias”; they deplore his demonstrations but “fail to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.” In other words, they cite evidence that supports their belief (that King caused bad conditions for Birmingham) while ignoring evidence that refutes their beliefs (that Birmingham caused bad conditions for black Americans).

The bulk of both Lincoln’s inaugural address and King’s letter consist of argumentation. Their arguments employ the full gamut of rhetorical tools—first principles, logic, analogies, and appeals to common authorities.

4) Each called for specific action.

Lincoln urges the South to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject” and to cause no bloodshed or violence. King asks for the white pastors to preach to their congregations that “integration is morally right” and “the Negro is your brother.”

5) Each reminded his audience about what they hope to be.

Lincoln’s inaugural address is peppered with beautiful phrases that appeal to what every American longed for: “a more perfect Union”; “fraternal sympathies and affections”; “bonds of affection”; “not enemies, but friends”; “the better angels of our nature.”

King also appeals to his fellow pastors to be like the believers in the early church:

In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”


Rhetoric as a Moral Task

Lincoln and King are reminders of the power of argument—that convincing is not the same as advertising, that persuasion is not the same as indoctrination.

They also remind us that persuasion is not merely a skill but a moral task. A speaker’s character, Aristotle emphasizes, shapes his hearer’s inclination to trust. Lincoln’s reputation—even among enemies—was as a man of integrity (thus the nickname, “Honest Abe”). King’s reputation was also well-known. His reply to fire-hose oppression was peaceful non-violence.

Lincoln and King can inspire us to remember the power of persuasion. But they also come with a warning. Despite the power of their words, the rightness of their causes, and their profound impact on this country, both Lincoln and King failed to achieve their specific goals. The Civil War erupted six weeks after Lincoln’s address, and King’s cause was never aided by Alabama’s white pastors.

Their failure confirms a central tenet of the Scriptures: Men are deceitful beyond reason. Even the most persuasive words cannot cure this deceit. We suppress the truth in wickedness (Romans 1:18); our ears are dull of hearing (Matthew 13:15); the hearts of men are deceitful above all measure (Jeremiah 17:9).

Christ often prefaced his arguments with admonitions like “Let him who has ears, hear,” “Let him who has eyes, see.” Only God can supply ears to hear and eyes to see truth, and we do not know to whom God has given them. Our task is simply to seek and to speak the truth through words, to be persuaded and to try to persuade others of the truth. Lincoln and King did just this. Despite speaking to crooked men, they continued to argue and remained undaunted because, as King said, “right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”



1Taken from Chaim Perelman’s The Realm of Reason; Aristotle’s discussion of the differences are found in his Topics and Rhetoric.