According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rhetoric is “the art of using language so as to persuade or influence others; the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in order that he may express himself with eloquence.” Good use of rhetoric involves the application of specific rhetorical devices (metaphor, simile, alliteration etc.) in order to convey the speaker’s ideas in a more convincing and stylistically pleasing manner, thus increasing the probability of gaining a favorable response from the audience.
Francis Bacon offers a slightly different variation in his discussion of rhetoric that adds to the definition saying: “The duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.” What Francis Bacon meant by this is that rhetoric is the presentation of an argument that inspires people to act virtuously, with “reason” for the “better moving of the will”. Of course, this is not contained within the dictionary definition of rhetoric, yet Bacon’s addition is crucial because it addresses how rhetoric should be employed.
He is contending that rhetoric must be used in accordance with good moral sense and that is why he supplies the need to improve the human capability of “applying reason to the imagination” and the obligation to improve the “better moving of the will” when commenting on rhetoric. For “the will to move” simply means to act in a certain manner.
Those who use rhetoric have been criticized for persuading audiences with their fancy wordplay and overly inflated style, while ignoring the need for meaningful moral content. Therefore, it is clear that effective rhetoric alone is not sufficient for making a truly great speech, nor is it wholly dispensable; a truly outstanding speech must weld effective use of rhetoric with solid moral reasoning.
The events of World War II are a perfect example of how excellent rhetoric, devoid of sound moral content, can be used for hideous ends, persuading ordinary men to do the unthinkable. Adolf Hitler is the most infamous example of this, for although undeniably a master of rhetoric, he is also considered to be one of the most evil and reprehensible men of all time. Hitler expertly employed rhetorical devices such as metaphors and analogies to strengthen his speeches.
For example, in his speech to officer cadets on December 18, 1940 he describes the Nazi conquest as analogous to a great athlete attaining his rightful “trophy cup” and his racist ideology in accordance with Darwinian “natural selection”: “Truly, this earth is a trophy cup for the industrious man. And this rightly so, in the service of natural selection. He who does not possess the force to secure his Lebensraum in this world, and, if necessary, to enlarge it, does not deserve to possess the necessities of life. He must step aside and allow stronger peoples to pass him by”. (English Volume III: 1939-1940) He delivered powerful rhetorical devices with his emphatic voice to inspire nationalism and reactionary politics in the nation, plunging Germany into a totalitarian abyss.
The case of Adolf Hitler serves as a compelling argument against those who would evaluate a speaker based on rhetorical effectiveness alone. To do so would be to privilege form over content, favoring rhetorical use over the moral content behind such impressive and seductive words. Conversely, Winston Churchill, the prime minister of England during World War II, is widely regarded as one of the greatest speakers of the 20th century and a master of rhetoric as well.
On the afternoon of June 18, 1940, Churchill gave one of his most memorable and important speeches to the House of Commons, in support of England’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany. (Bungay) The basic message of the speech was: we are going to be attacked, so for our own good we have to resist, so lets get on with it. Although the content may seem simple and straightforward, the way Churchill conveyed the message was tremendously eloquent and chock-full of rhetorical devices. Specifically, Churchill used Staccato lines which are short lines or phrases delivered in rapid succession, such as “I came, I saw, I conquered”. Churchill used this specific rhetorical device in his speeches with devastating effectiveness, for example: “But time is short. Every month that passes adds to the length and the perils of the journey that will have to be made.
United we stand. Divided we fall. Divided, the dark ages return. United, we can save and guide the world.” (Churchill) One must note that Churchill was a great orator because he combined outstanding rhetorical skill with an uncompromising moral dignity; had he lacked these qualities the future of democracy and freethinking would have been very dim indeed. Although Churchill was advocating war, i.e. encouraging violence, this violence was justified because it was a defensive response to an unjust form of violence (Nazi invasion).
This is clear when one considers that it is morally justifiable for a person to defend themselves in a violent manner when an attacker comes at them with a knife. Furthermore sometimes an act of violence is often required to prevent a far greater injustice, as in the case of Hitler, where it would have been perfectly justified to assassinate him in order to prevent the genocide of 5 million Jews. In conclusion, effective use of rhetoric is not sufficient criteria with which to judge the overall worth of a speech or written form of rhetoric.
Rhetoric must be supported by a reasoned content and a solid moral foundation. However, this is not to discount the value of good rhetoric when writing a speech. Ultimately, rhetoric is a crucial element in any great speech. It is what allows the speaker to bridge the gap between the podium and the audience and tap into the hearts and minds of the listener. Rhetoric is a tool that can be used for good or ill, much like a hammer can be used to build a house or give someone a concussion.