A question of rhetoric

A question of rhetoric

Of all the most widely known sciences, the art of speaking, rhetoric, remains the least understood despite its wide usage. Misunderstood because its significance has been reduced to the common, or, because the arguments made in its name are either made by those who do not understand it, rhetoric has thus remained a field unacknowledged over the years. From the speeches of Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, to the arguments of such great philosophers as Plato and Aristotle, the understanding of the essence Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic.

“Both alike are concerned with such things as come, more or less, within the general ken of all men and belong to no definite science. 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 in question (the gist of the concerned debate) can plainly be handled systematically, or simply in laymen terms. The reason for this is because it is possible to inquire the reason why some speakers succeed through practice and others spontaneously when it comes to the mastery of rhetoric. Those that go out in pursuit of the mastery of rhetoric will at once agree that such an inquiry (the rhetorical question) is the function of the art of speaking.

Like everything else, rhetoric has had to go through certain processes of evolution over the years and the framers of the current treatises on rhetoric have constructed their own forms of interpretation which are but a small portion of that art. The modes of persuasion are the only true constituents of the art: everything else is merely accessory. These writers, however, say nothing about enthymemes, which are the substance of rhetorical persuasion, but deal mainly with non-essentials. 

An enthymeme is described in the Wordweb digital dictionary as “an argument consisting of only two propositions, an antecedent and consequent deduced from it; a syllogism with one premise omitted; as, We are dependent; therefore we should be humble. Here the major proposition is suppressed. The complete syllogism would be, Dependent creatures should be humble; we are dependent creatures; therefore we should be humble.” Herein lies the basis to simple logic and the principles related to the causality of entities, behaviours and tendencies.

There is always a reason why things are as they are, why they behave as they do, and how they ended up where they are; there is just no automatic when it comes to the real understanding of how things are: there is always a cause for the given quality.

The basic character of the advocate or the politician speaking for the sake of arousing of prejudice, pity, anger, and similar emotions has nothing to do with the essential facts that make up the true essence of rhetoric. The episode of persuasion in lobby speech by the politician or the presentation of the argument by the lawyer in court is merely a personal appeal to the man who is judging the case or the audience of political fanatics at a rally listening to the arguments presented.

Consequently, if some of the rules for trials or political speaking that are now part of everyday speak in some states in the world would be changed, most of those people we hear speaking would have nothing to say. If states were well-governed states and rules governing episodes where the art of persuasion were applied everywhere, and people were held to their word, the politician defended by excuses would have nothing to say.

People speak as they please and go on to refute their utterances simply due to the fact that there are no rules or laws governing public acts of rhetoric for the sake of the politician achieving their political goals and ends. What happens in a lot of cases is that those that openly criticise the protected lies are persecuted. It may be because the art of speaking has somehow been divorced from the more important aspect that should be its result: deed. We speak without doing and delivering on the promises we make in our speeches simply because there are no consequences careless talk. 

All of us without doubt think that the laws of any state should prescribe the basic rules of public speaking, but some would not agree. This is because modern parliament has drifted far from the early court of Areopagus in ancient Greece where the politician had an audience of the ordinary citizens to listen to their arguments. The modern parliament has become the domain of the few that actually divorce themselves in act from the public that elected them into parliament on the day when they take their oath.

The old court and the presence of the general public served the purpose of giving a level of practicality to the speakers arguing in the court on the Athenian hill. The presence of the citizens in this council of politicians had the effect that the speakers were forced to watch their thoughts and this led to the forbidding of talk about non-essentials as we find in modern political arguments in parliament. The presence of the common people amongst the politicians in parliament, if adopted in modern times would prove to be sound law and custom.

Those that speak would at least be more careful with their words when it came to addressing the concerns of the masses. The mudslinging one finds in parliaments these days for the sake of arousing feelings of polarity amongst the citizens of the state is not the right way to go about  using what we call rhetoric when it is in fact not. What we have in modern politics is just closed discussion between individuals serving their goals and interests and not those of the ballot casters.

The strictness with which court procedure is run may be due to the quoted fact that, “is not right to pervert the judge by moving him to anger or envy or pity one might as well warp a carpenter’s rule before using it. Again, a litigant has clearly nothing to do but to show that the alleged fact is so or is not so, that it has or has not happened.” The issue of whether a thing is important or unimportant, just or unjust, is the sole reserve of the judge. The judge must be an individual willing to refuse to take his instructions from the litigants in the case. 

The judge must be able to decide if all the points of the law have been defined according to their statutes. Instances where the law seems to fail should be rightly questioned by relevant legal authorities and not in the moot courts of public opinion as seems to be the case where lawmaking authorities have been captured by the ruling sector of society. Well-drawn laws in themselves define all the points they possibly can and leave as few as may be to the decision of the judges. Where judgements seem flawed, it is not up to the layman but the relevant authority to see to it that such judgements are rectified. 

The reality we face as Africa is finding one man, or a few men, who are sensible persons that are capable of legislating and administering justice. This is due to the fact that it is easier to find common sense in a small group than it is to find it in a large number of people of varied opinions. It should be understood that it takes long periods of consideration to make laws and the decisions made on their basis in the courts are given at short notice. This naturally makes it hard for those who try the case (the judges) to satisfy the claims of justice and expediency.

The most important reason of all is that the decision of the lawgiver is not particular but prospective and general, one can guess the reason to be based on the premise that it is not safe to adopt an absolute stance when in it comes to making judgements in court. The attitude that members of the public adopt when it comes to discussing decisions in court is the attitude of the ultimate judge that is both jury and executioner that finds it their duty to decide on absolutely cases brought before them.

Such individuals have allowed themselves to be so much influenced by feelings of friendship or hatred or self-interest that they lose any clear vision of the truth and have their judgement obscured by considerations of personal pleasure or pain. It therefore means in general that the judgement of the case should be the reserve of only the judge and colleagues and not the layman public. Judges should also be allowed to decide as few things as possible to avoid blunders that may lead to their integrity being questioned by the unlearned public.

There are always questions as to whether something has happened or has not happened, will be or will not be, is or is not. This is natural behaviour in humankind; we possess the faculty of curiosity in our minds that is always questioning things. This is natural behaviour, but there are certain instances where the right answers and procedures must of necessity be left to those who know, since the layman cannot foresee the results due to inexperience.

It is evident that we have become victims in a continent where those who lay down rules about matters salient to the running of society lack either the knowledge of vital social issues, or, they are just concerned about their personal interests. Such behaviour is the result of the ignorance of the contents of the speeches made promised when the political era began. The introduction and the narration, or any of the other divisions of a speech on this continent merely theorize about non-essentials as if they belonged to the art of speaking.

Politicians and lobbyists actually speak without commitment to their goals set in the promises, and the only question with which these speakers at the political rallies deal with is how to put the electing public into a given frame of mind suitable for their end in parliament. About the orator’s proper modes of persuasion there seems to be nothing to be discussed, that is, and there is no effort on the part of the speaker to gain skill in being competent enough to be logical and practical at the end of the day.

One can therefore conclude that, the act of persuasion on different platforms should apply in the same systematic manner in the different spheres where rhetoric forms the core of the speech episode. The principles that apply to political oratory should be able to apply to forensic oratory. The former is considered a nobler business perhaps because it began the whole process of rhetoric and may be considered fitter for the citizen concerned with the harmonious running of a state.

It is maybe more important than that which concerns the relations of private individuals, and the reason for this is that in political oratory there is more inducement to talk about nonessentials due to the wide nature of the whole process of politics.
“Political oratory is less given to unscrupulous practices than forensic, because it treats of wider issues. In a political debate the man who is forming a judgement is making a decision about his own vital interests. There is no need, therefore, to prove anything except that the facts are what the supporter of a measure maintains they are.”

In forensic oratory adopted by law as a field this is not enough; to conciliate the listener is what pays here. In a court-case, other people’s affairs are what is to be decided upon, and the judges should be intent on judging between the litigants and not surrendering to them. This is one of the reasons why irrelevant speaking is forbidden in the law-courts, it may not be the case in the court of public assembly where everyone is left to their own device and opinion. 

Rhetorical study is concerned with the act of persuasion, which in itself a sort of demonstration, since we are most fully persuaded when we consider a thing to have been demonstrated. The orator’s demonstration is, therefore, that he who is best able to see how and from what elements the two sides to an argument are produced will also be best skilled in providing logical answers. This means that he should further learn what the subject-matter is and in what respects it differs from what is considered logical.

The true and the approximately true are apprehended by the same mental faculty and the man who makes a good guess at truth is likely to make a good guess at probabilities. The literary writer is often in search of the truth, and however philosophical or mundane, can always foretell the end result. We need to adopt an attitude that questions the rhetorical speeches of our leaders if we are to make any meaningful progress in our different societies and states.

Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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