Definition of Rhetoric

Rhetoric is the art of using language to persuade, motivate, or inform an audience via writing or speech. This is also known as the art of discourse. The goal of rhetoric is to move the audience to action through effective arguments. While rhetoric was originally seen as most important for political discourse, scholars who study it find examples of rhetoric in a wide range of fields, from fine art to fiction to architecture. Rhetoric is involved when communication is used to achieve a certain end.

The word rhetoric comes from the Greek word rhētorikós, which means “oratorical.” The root word is from the Greek verb erō, for “I say.”

Common Examples of Rhetoric

It is easy to find rhetoric examples in the everyday world, from political speeches to advertising. Strangely enough, these two fields have a common purpose, which is to convince the audience that they need something they may not have realized they needed. Here are some examples of rhetoric in political discourse:

  • “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” –John F. Kennedy, Inauguration speech
  • “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”—Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream speech
  • “It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. The hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta. The hope of a mill worker’s son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope! Hope in the face of difficulty! Hope in the face of uncertainty! The audacity of hope!”—Barack Obama, 2004 DNC keynote address

One common thread that runs through these three speeches is the strong message of optimism as a way to combat the feelings of despair the audience may have had. By selling their ideas through this optimism—whether equal rights or a John Kerry presidency—these three powerful orators channel the listeners’ emotions into action.

Significance of Rhetoric in Literature

Some rhetoricians understand the definition of rhetoric to include almost all of literature. They argue that every author is trying to construct a new world in every new work of literature, and is trying to convince the reader to partake in this fictive dream. Clearly, the scope of rhetoric is thus very wide. All readers must suspend disbelief to participate in the reading experience; even though not all literature is written to persuade readers to a particular action, there is an act of persuasion just in getting the reader to the text.

Some works of literature are more clearly related to the original use of rhetoric, however, by trying to convince the readers to feel a certain way about an issue. We will primarily examine examples of rhetoric below that maintain this application in literature.

Examples of Rhetoric in Literature

Example #1

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.    
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare    
As any she belied with false compare.

(“Sonnet 130” by William Shakespeare)

In “Sonnet 130” Shakespeare tries to make the reader understand why he loves his “mistress.” It is an interesting example of rhetoric in that Shakespeare does not try to convince the reader that this woman is beautiful or angelic. In fact, he persuades the reader only of the opposite qualities, that indeed she “reeks” and does not have rosy cheeks. However, he is so convincing of her unattractive qualities that the reader is led to believe the narrator is not swayed by superficial qualities and thus his love of her must be for deeper, more everlasting reasons.

Example #2

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.

(A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift)

Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a famous rhetoric example. He proposes that the people of Ireland begin eating poor children for meat, which solves both the hunger and poverty problems facing his country. Of course, this is not what Swift really believes, but instead a biting satire. The effectiveness of Swift’s prose is in how he mocks the heartlessness of the Irish government at that time by imitating their style. He lays out in a very rhetorical style his arguments, including the approximate number of children that could be sold for meat and the number of people they would feed. Swift also imagines what amount of money poor mothers and fathers could be paid for selling their children. In this imitation of the arguments government officials were making at that time, Swift exposes their cruelty.

Example #3

“Comrades,” he said, “I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napoleon has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be? Suppose you had decided to follow Snowball, with his moonshine of windmills– Snowball, who, as we now know, was no better than a criminal?”

(Animal Farm by George Orwell)

George Orwell wrote Animal Farm is a satire of the events that occurred during the Russian Revolution and the resulting cruel dictatorship of Stalin. Orwell effectively communicates his message by replacing the key players in the revolution with animals and shows how quickly things devolve on this imagined farm. The pig Napoleon stands in for Stalin, and in this excerpt Orwell uses the kind of rhetoric popular at the time. Though preaching equality, there is the unsettling message that the animals should not be making decisions for themselves. Orwell skewers the hypocritical message of the Soviet Union through this piece of rhetoric.

Test Your Knowledge of Rhetoric

1. Which of the following statements is the best rhetoric definition?
A. The use of language, through speech or writing, to persuade.
B. A statement that is empty and has no real meaning.
C. An act that only ancient Greek philosophers participated in.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. How are advertising and political speeches similar?
A. They are both full of lies.
B. Neither of them is very effective.
C. They both aim to persuade an audience member to want something.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the following rhetoric example from George Orwell’s Animal Farm:

A few days later, when the terror caused by the executions had died down, some of the animals remembered– or thought they remembered– that the Sixth Commandment decreed “No animal shall kill any other animal.” And though no one cared to mention it in the hearing of the pigs or the dogs, it was felt that the killings which had taken place did not square with this. Clover asked Benjamin to read her the Sixth Commandment, and when Benjamin, as usual, said that he refused to meddle in such matters, she fetched Muriel. Muriel read the Commandment for her. It ran: “No animal shall kill any other animal WITHOUT CAUSE.”

What is Orwell trying to convince the reader about?
A. Memory is faulty and the animals did not understand the original commandments.
B. Laws cannot be trusted from corrupt governments, because the governments will change the laws to fit their own needs.
C. It is okay to kill animals when there is an important reason to do so.

Answer to Question #3 Show