Rhetoric at CLRC


he art of rhetoric - of speaking, eloquence, and persuasion - is described by John Quincy Adams as one of the indispensable gifts and responsibilities of a free people.

"Since eloquence is in itself so powerful a weapon, and since by the depravity of mankind this weapon must, and often will be brandished for guilty purposes, its exercise, with equal or superior skill, becomes but the more indispensable to the cause of virtue. To forbid the sincere Christian, the honest advocate, the genuine patriot, the practice of oratorical arts, would be like a modern nation, which should deny to itself the use of gunpowder, and march, with nothing but bows and arrows, to meet the thunder of an invader’s artillery."* - John Quincy Adams 6th President of the United States

Rhetoric, properly understood, is an art, or as Aristotle would say, a “techne.” For this reason, the cultivation of effective rhetoric requires both the understanding of its theory as well as careful attention to the practice and imitation of its forms.

Plato and Aristotle both observed that this art has enormous power, in fact, Socrates calls rhetoric the art of “soul-leading.” Souls can, of course, be led every which way, depending on the rhetorical powers holding sway over them. The famous sophist Protagoras is even said to have boasted that he could  teach his students to “make the worse case appear the better” to gain personal advantages. For Socrates and Plato the point of rhetoric was to influence people toward the good in both thought and action.

Rhetoric and sophistry continue to vie for our assent – whether in the marketplace, in the lecture hall, from the pulpit, or through the millions of pixelated streams we step into daily. Learning this art well allows students both to develop their own rhetorical faculties and to be more critical of rhetorical motives, thereby discerning the virtuous rhetor from the vicious sophist.

CLRC Rhetoric courses train students in this critical art through the study of foundational treatises on rhetoric, and examples of some of the best orators in the Classical, Medieval, and Modern eras.  Students learn how rhetoric functions as the basis of much written and spoken communication. Careful analysis and thoughtful discussion help students not only to hone their own written and spoken rhetorical skills but also to identify how falsehoods may be easily disguised as truths.

*You’ll find more of John Quincy Adams’ lecture here – delivered while he was Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University.