Shifts in Rhetoric

Has the art of persuasion shifted throughout time and among various cultures?  Discuss four different cultures and/or time periods.

[this was a working draft for my exam]

The metacritical use of language to persuade and influence has been occurring for centuries.  Our most formal and traditional theories and treatises on “rhetoric” come from Ancient Greece and Rome.  Rhetoricians such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintillian (just to name a few), make up what ????? calls the “traditional tradition” of Rhetoric—the tradition that still plays the central role in Western rhetorical studies.  But, as these studies in the West continue to become more inclusive, we are able to analyze “rhetoric” on a larger and more diverse landscape.  Because of this we can compare and contrast rhetorics from differing places, cultures, and time periods, and begin to formulate notions of how the art of persuasion has shifted throughout time.  There is no doubt that rhetoric, defined here broadly as the art of persuasion, has morphed in different cultures and times, and these “shifts” will be analyzed in this essay using the rhetorics of Enheduanna, Confucius, the Sophists, and some rhetors of the “New World.”

Though the traditional works of Ancient Greek and Roman rhetors will not be directly included in their own section (a conscious choice), their work serves as the traditional model from which these other rhetorics are compared to in many instances.  This is not to say that these traditional rhetorics are superior, but that they still constitute the core of Western rhetorical studies so, for instance, when I speak on the non-aggressive nature of Confucian/Chinese rhetoric, that is (almost unconsciously) in direct comparison to the more aggressive Western model.  But before I get to Confucian/Chinese rhetoric, let me begin with Enheduanna.

Enheduanna is an ancient Mesopotamian priestess and poet writing over four thousand years ago, ca. 2300 BC.  To begin with, considering she is an ancient woman rhetorician, her rhetoric constitutes a shift in what has historically been a male-dominated enterprise—the public and written art of persuasion.  This is especially significant considering she was writing long before the “fathers” of Western rhetoric, Plato and Aristotle.  Enheduanna’s writings thus constitute a shift in the long held notion that rhetoric’s origins begin in Ancient Greece and Western and Eurocentric assumptions, as stated by Roberta Binkley, “which focus on the origination of rhetoric in the Greek classical period of the late 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E.” (47).  The importance of this shift cannot be downplayed considering Western rhetorical scholars seem to be “little informed by [the] realization” that the Greeks “were influenced by early Near Eastern civilizations in a myriad of ways” and that because of this neglect “the Other, particularly the geographic other, become intellectually suspect” (54).

Another shift is in form.  While prose has dominated Rhetoric for centuries, Enhduanna wrote poetry and hymns, her most famous being to the goddess Inanna.  While poetry was a staple of Ancient times, her writing does represent a shift from contemporary rhetoric.  Today we certainly have poets and musicians who can persuade through poetry and poetic forms but “serious” rhetoricians write in prose.  When we discuss “shifts” in the art of persuasion, we must be aware of what the shift is a shift from.  In this case, as stated above, the use of poetry as a vehicle for persuasion was not uncommon in ancient times and among different cultures beyond ancient times.  But, as compared to modern times, and certainly the modern field of Rhetoric, Enheduanna’s writings certainly do comprise an important shift in form.  Poetry is not only a form scholarly rhetoricians do not usually employ, but is a form highly ignored when looking for subject matter to use in analysis.   A look at contemporary journals of Rhetoric shows little interest in writing about poets/poetry (though there is some).  And while her religiosity was also important, the use of religion to persuade was, and is, so common throughout history, I chose to leave it out here as a major shift.  Thus, in her persuasive writing as a woman and poet, Enheduanna has helped shift notions of origins of rhetoric and of what constitutes important rhetorical form.  Because of this, Enheduanna has deservedly gained ground in the field of Rhetoric.

Next, in our discussion of shifts in the art of persuasion, we come to Confucius who, for brevity, will also represent Chinese rhetoric.  Confucian rhetoric represents an interesting dynamic in rhetorical practices, a “shift” if you will, in a number of ways.  First, aggressive persuasion and argumentation are looked down upon in Chinese rhetoric.  Silence and remonstration are more suitable means.  “In The Analects (of Confucius), one should be slow to speak and [not] be relenting in attempts to engage or convince another” (Lyon 139).  Reaching consensus, through bouts of persuasion, is also not of utmost importance, as it is in traditional Western rhetoric.  Here Arabella Lyon continues by stating, “order is aesthetic rather than legal, and so social order is modeled on an interrelationship of human and nature/heaven, not on autonomous human construction” (139).  This non-aggressive “remonstrative” approach to dialogue/persuasion is quite different than Western traditional models which place high value on strong persuasive rhetorical acts and on swaying opinion in the political and legal arenas.

Secondly, for Confucius, deeds are much more valuable than words/speech, and especially glibness.  While we do see attacks on glibness by Plato as well, we cannot forget that Plato used persuasive tools and “high rhetoric” in attempting to persuade people to agree with his ideologies.  What we see in Confucian rhetoric is an explicit mistrust of speech and persuasion and an elevation of silence and action.  For Confucius, “Human character is revealed in our worldly acts, not in the articulation of ideas and plans, not in senseless shouting, pontification, or manipulating of others.  Deeds exceed speeches” (Lyon 137).  This notion is a major shift from the emphasis put on rhetorical and persuasive powers in the West.  And while much more could be said concerning the characteristics of Confucian/Chinese rhetoric let us move on to another rhetoric, that of the Sophists.

The Sophists, oft-attacked as purveyors of empty and glib speech (notably by Plato), have gained credibility in contemporary rhetorical scholarship.  The Sophists’ views on discourse and persuasion are an important shift in historical rhetoric.  The Sophists emphasized epistemological instability, subjectivity, truth as a social construct (using a modern phrase), and kairos, or “rhetorical situatedness.”  When we move beyond the terministic screen of Plato’s dialogues, the traditional aid used to study the Sophists, we see them in a more complex manner.  As described by Bruce McComiskey in Gorgias and the New Sophistic Rhetoric, “Gorgias’ epistemology is relativistic, and his corresponding rhetorical methodology works to seize the opportune moment (kairos) in which certain kinds of language can be used to unite subjective consciousnesses into a communal desire for action” (18).  All these represent important differences/shifts from the postitivistic and foundational epistemology of Platonic and much Western thought and rhetoric—an epistemology that emphasizes immutable Truth (with a capital T).

There are two other important shifts represented by the Sophists.  One includes the fact that they thought learning rhetoric should not only be for the chosen few of society.  Though they charged for their teachings, the Sophists felt that rhetoric was an important tool for all to have and thus were open to teaching their ways to a much larger and more diverse audience.  This was an important piece to the burgeoning democracy at the time, one which Plato actually resisted.   Also, the Sophists were “engaged in a wide range of intellectual and social activities” (Jarrett 13), which was/is different than many ancient and contemporary scholars.  This “wide ranging” intellect strengthened ones ability to persuade and, importantly, emphasized the existence of multiple perspectives and the communal and relativistic nature of truth.  All of these were/are important shifts in the historical art of persuasion.  A shift that has gained popularity in postmodern and contemporary rhetorical scholarship.

Finally, we come to the rhetoric of the New World.  More specifically, let us examine the rhetoric of Colonial Spanish America.  The important “shift” represented in this strand of rhetoric is the fact that, in this case, the art of persuasion was directly and highly bound up with evangelization.  Though brute force, the threat of violence, and direct violence certainly played a role in the conversion efforts of Christian Europeans on the natives of the Americas, rhetorical efforts played a major role in the conversion process.  While this historical example of rhetorical efforts in evangelization is certainly not the only one, it does represent a major moment when Western rhetorical practices came to be used on a non-Western population.  Don Paul Abbott, in Rhetoric in the New World, points to the complexity of this rhetorical evangelization: “in the New World…rhetoric intermingled with evangelization, imperialism, anthropology, and ethnography…  Rhetoric, the ancient art of persuasion, provided a rationale and a direction for accomplishing this enormous evangelical endeavor” (2).  This strong emphasis on evangelization represents an important shift in rhetorical practices.

This rhetoric also points to a shift when considering scholarship in the field of Rhetoric.  While any attempt at solid rhetorical research and work can be difficult, analysis of Spanish colonial rhetoric adds important and complex dimensions.  “Modern scholars of the Spanish colonial experience have had to address problems of orality, literacy, translation, representation, and symbolization.  Although not always recognized as such, these problems are fundamentally rhetorical” (2).  This multi-faceted approach seems essential for good analysis of rhetoric from this important historical situation.  This fact, along with the central role of evangelization, make rhetoric of this time and place an important shifting point in rhetorical history.  Works such as Diego Valadés’ Rhetorica Christiana, Garcilaso de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries of the Incas, José de Arriaga’s Rhetoris Christiani, and scholarship like that done by Abbott, illustrate these important characteristics and shifts.

Ultimately, no one rhetoric is entirely unique.  The art of persuasion has been part of human communicative practices probably since man could grunt in different tones.  But each of the rhetorics discussed here do highlight important differences and shifts among them, and as compared to traditional Western rhetoric.  The feminist poetry of Enheduanna, the Confucian de-emphasis of aggressive persuasion, the relativistic approach to truth of the Sophists, and the evangelical rhetorical acts of rhetors in Colonial Spanish America, all represent different approaches to the grand and historical art of persuasion.  Each represents a dynamic piece to this thing we call Rhetoric.

WORKS CITED