Cover image for Five Chapters on Rhetoric: Character, Action, Things, Nothing, and Art By Michael S. Kochin

Five Chapters on Rhetoric

Character, Action, Things, Nothing, and Art

Michael S. Kochin


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184 pages
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Five Chapters on Rhetoric

Character, Action, Things, Nothing, and Art

Michael S. Kochin

“Kochin demonstrates the importance of classical rhetoric in making sense of contemporary politics. The book is highly accessible to an audience unfamiliar with rhetorical studies, and the analytic framework will force rhetoricians to rethink their own assumptions about their art and its relationship to truth. The book deserves a wide audience across rhetoric and communication, English, political science, and sociology.”


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Michael Kochin’s radical exploration of rhetoric is built around five fundamental concepts that illuminate how rhetoric functions in the public sphere. To speak persuasively is to bring new things into existence—to create a political movement out of a crowd, or an army out of a mob.

Five Chapters on Rhetoric explores our path to things through our judgments of character and action. It shows how speech and writing are used to defend the fabric of social life from things or facts. Finally, Kochin shows how the art of rhetoric aids us in clarifying things when we speak to communicate, and helps protect us from their terrible clarity when we speak to maintain our connections to others.

Kochin weaves together rhetorical criticism, classical rhetoric, science studies, public relations, and political communication into a compelling overview both of persuasive strategies in contemporary politics and of the nature and scope of rhetorical studies.

“Kochin demonstrates the importance of classical rhetoric in making sense of contemporary politics. The book is highly accessible to an audience unfamiliar with rhetorical studies, and the analytic framework will force rhetoricians to rethink their own assumptions about their art and its relationship to truth. The book deserves a wide audience across rhetoric and communication, English, political science, and sociology.”
“Political theory and rhetoric are close cousins, even if neither particularly wants to admit its own paternity. Political theorists ought then to pay close attention to Kochin’s new book. Students of rhetoric will also find themselves enlightened in ways they may not expect. Kochin’s effort is of signal importance for teaching us how to keep the descendants of philosophy sitting down to, if not the same dinner, at least one from the same kitchen.”
“This is a significant book that cuts, neatly and insightfully, across the various disciplinary literatures around rhetoric and persuasion. The author opens new pathways for social scientists, humanists, and professionals to think together about rhetoric and persuasion. It’s heartening to see a book grounded in a classical perspective on rhetoric incorporate not only the social science persuasion literature, but public relations as well.”
“Is it possible to say something new about one of the oldest topics of political philosophy, the question of rhetoric? Michael Kochin’s penetrating book proves that it is. He does so by taking seriously a whole range of sources on political speech, communication, and persuasion, from Aristotle and Demosthenes to social science on the nature of public opinion to Bruno Latour’s sociology of knowledge, and by reflecting on the topic in unusual depth. His book is original and it has a provocative simplicity.”

Michael S. Kochin is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at Tel Aviv University and has held visiting appointments at Toronto, Princeton, and Yale. He is the author of Gender and Rhetoric in Plato’s Political Thought (2002), which was named an Outstanding Academic Title by Choice.




1. Character

2. Action

3. Things

4. Nothing

5. Art

Postscript: How to Begin to Analyze a Speech

Select Bibliography



The fundamental elements of public persuasion might appear most clearly in a public speech that lays out the principles of public speaking. To find such a speech we would do well to look back to an age when public speaking and rhetorical education were more highly esteemed than they are today and sift through the speeches and writings of those who were considered by the educated taste of those times to be the most eloquent and persuasive speakers. Following these principles, we might light on the noted English advocate Lord Brougham’s essay on Demosthenes or the youthful Winston Churchill’s short sketch “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric.” But for a concise statement of the central truths of persuasion we can do no better than the address “Adams and Jefferson” by Daniel Webster or, as he was known to contemporaries enthralled by his oratory, “Godlike” Daniel Webster.

Webster, at that point a former New Hampshire congressman and leading member of the Boston bar, was chosen to eulogize John Adams and Thomas Jefferson at a memorial meeting in Faneuil Hall on 2 August 1826, less than a month after their deaths on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1826. To present the life and public character of John Adams, Webster invented a speech Adams might have given in the debate on the question of independence in the Continental Congress. Webster had to invent a speech to put in Adams’s mouth, since even by Webster’s time the great speeches of the revolutionary period, most of which had never been written down, had largely been lost to memory. Jefferson’s public character had less need of Webster’s powers of invention, since Jefferson could claim the central political act of the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence—as Webster himself says in the speech “the merit of this paper is Mr. Jefferson’s.”

By inventing a speech that Webster claims to be exemplary of Adams, Webster is effectively, and principally, praising himself. Webster shows Adams to be a master of true eloquence in a speech that displays, at its glittering surface, Webster’s own eloquence. But Webster’s preface to his fictive Adamsian speech provides a theory of rhetoric in itself:

The eloquence of Mr. Adams resembled his general character, and formed, indeed, a part of it. It was bold, manly, and energetic; and such the crisis required. When public bodies are to be addressed on momentous occasions, when great interests are at stake, and strong passions excited, nothing is valuable in speech farther than as it is connected with high intellectual and moral endowments. Clearness, force, and earnestness are the qualities which produce conviction. True eloquence, indeed, does not consist in speech. It cannot be brought from far. Labor and Learning may toil for it, but they will toil in vain. Words and phrases may be marshaled in every way, but they cannot compass it. It must exist in the man, in the subject, and in the occasion. Affected passion, intense expression, the pomp of declamation, all may aspire to it; they cannot reach it. It comes, if it comes at all, like the outbreaking of a fountain from the earth, or the bursting forth of volcanic fires, with spontaneous, original, native force. The graces taught in the schools, the costly ornaments and studied contrivances of speech, shock and disgust men, when their own lives, and the fate of their wives, their children, and their country, hang on the decision of the hour. Then words have lost their power, rhetoric is vain, and all elaborate oratory contemptible. Then patriotism is eloquent; then self-devotion is eloquent. The clear conception, outrunning the deductions of logic, the high purpose, the firm resolve, the dauntless spirit, speaking on the tongue, beaming from the eye, informing every feature and urging the whole man onward, right onward to his object—this, this is eloquence; or rather, it is something greater and higher than all eloquence,—it is action, noble, sublime, godlike action.

Webster shows how this true eloquence results not merely in words or speeches but in action. We judge a speech, Webster teaches, by the character of the speaker as displayed in the speech, when we perceive the speaker’s “clear conception,” “high purpose,” “firm resolve,” and “dauntless spirit.” There is an art of rhetoric taught in the schools; this Adams had surely mastered in his years of formal education, but school rhetoric in itself yields only “vain oratory.” Not all oratory is vain: in eulogizing Adams and praising himself, Webster aims to teach us the difference between vain oratory—mere human words—and true eloquence—godlike action.

True eloquence is rare because most human things are determined in their courses by preexisting relationships rather than by communicated information; as the sociologist of science Bruno Latour writes, it is only at certain moments that “the strength of a word may sway alliances and demonstrate something, where very, very rarely everything else being equal, someone speaks and persuades.” Yet through speech and writing, and through conscious reflection on the available means of persuasion, we can reweave community and thus reconfigure the world and our relations within it. We talk to maintain a relation, and we talk to communicate something to those with whom we share a relation.

To sustain our social lives we frequently refuse to assess the statements made to us. “That’s interesting,” we reply to the crank at the cocktail party. A large part of my work in this study will be to determine the extent to which speech and writing are used to protect human relationships from the threat of ever-changing facts and circumstances. As Goethe wrote, “We politely misunderstand others so that they shall misunderstand us in return.” Human relations are complex, mutable, subject to decay over time, and therefore fragile. Goethe’s point is that we preserve these complex relations by refusing to judge one another by the truth or significance of our statements.

The most extreme example of abstaining from judgment in order to mend the fraying bonds that connect us with each other can be found in the psychotherapeutic setting. In Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood, the main character visits the patients in a liberally administered mental hospital:

“What do you people talk about?” I asked Reiko, who seemed not quite to get my meaning.

“What do we talk about? Just ordinary things. What happened today, or books we’ve read, or tomorrow’s weather, you know. Don’t tell me you’re wondering if people jump to their feet and shout stuff like ‘It’ll rain tomorrow if a polar bear eats the stars tonight!’”

“No, no, of course not,” I said. “I was just wondering what all these quiet conversations were about.”

“It’s a quiet place, so people talk quietly,” said Naoko. She made a neat pile of fish bones at the edge of her plate and dabbed at her mouth with a handkerchief. “There’s no need to raise your voice here. You don’t have to convince anybody of anything, and you don’t have to attract anyone’s attention.”

This is an example of conversation without any communicative interest whatsoever; the human interest in saying something of relevance to our quotidian concerns is dissipated by the rules and structure the asylum provides. But this complete suspension of interested motives for talking is only possible in an asylum cut off from the world, whose patients are not self-governing in their relation to the outside world. For those of us outside the asylum, in terms of our life lived in language, the way that the patients go on in Murakami’s novel is a form of death, sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent. Max Horkheimer has suggested that we look to philosophy “to keep the course of humanity from resembling the meaningless round of the asylum inmates’ recreation hour.” In this book, I look not to philosophy as such, as Horkheimer suggests, but to our collective project of living together freely in the world. I look to politics and to the fundamental structures of persuasion that enable this project to be genuinely shared, that enable the project to be more than the manipulation of the many by the few or the one.

To understand the concept of communicative interest we must understand how something particular, some fact or proposal, emerges to prominence out of the mush of “information.” How, as Walter Lippmann asked, can “news . . . separate itself from the ocean of possible truth”? Our encounter with the facts, ordered and congealed out of the ocean of possible truth, is mediated. A genuinely disinterested party, one who had no interest in what use its audience made of the facts, would have to have no interest even in his or her own reputation as a reliable provider of relevant facts and so would be of no use to his or her audience. We therefore have no choice but to get our information from interested and thus biased sources, and we must endeavor to discount the interest motivating that mediation.

A source can refuse to take a line openly; this is how the source lets the facts speak for themselves. Yet the information one presents should already be filtered by the interests of those to whom one is presenting it. Otherwise one will not merely be discounted, as happens to Lippmann’s biased speaker—rather, as happens frequently to all speakers, one will be ignored.

To explore the public sphere or the common, I focus on two fields of examples of the common: political rhetoric and scientific communication. Political rhetoric is illustrative because the public speaker lives “in the greatest fame and in the middle of the light of public things,” as Quintilian wrote. Both the scientific and the political communities are instantiations of the common—that is, structures through which speakers and writers persuade and are persuaded. For our purposes in this book what is fundamental about political institutions is that in them we hold officials accountable for their official acts, in the paradigmatic case by constituting deliberative assemblies with legislative powers. What is fundamental about modern science as an example of the common is that it has been enormously successful not only in organizing communities of the human and the nonhuman, as Bruno Latour has emphasized throughout his work, but also in organizing communication about things among men and women.

The central institutions of modern science are the learned journal and the independent scientific association, both realized together in the Royal Society, founded in London in 1660. David Landes writes of Chinese science that what distinguishes its history more than anything else from that of Western science is that the scientific and technical results achieved in China in one place and time were not communicated or handed over in any organized fashion to contemporaneous or subsequent inquirers. The same results were repeatedly recreated; though some Chinese investigators were doubtless giants, in Newton’s phrase, all stood on their own two feet. It is this institutional network that we must understand, as Charles Peirce argues, if we are to see how the concrete life of both the scientist and the politician is lived within their respective institutions of communication: “But if I am asked to what the wonderful success of modern science is due, I shall suggest that to gain the secret of that, it is necessary to consider science as living, and therefore not as knowledge already acquired but as the concrete life of the men who are working to find out the truth. Given a body of men devoting the sum of their energies to refuting their present errors, doing away with their present ignorance, and that not so much for themselves as for future generations, and all other requisites for the ascertainment of truth are insured by that one.” Taking Peirce’s remarks to heart, we can then appreciate how facts and artifacts are produced in these institutions. I offer the modern scientific community as an example of the common not out of any desire to debunk science but rather to put forward the institutions of modern science as structures of communication from whose very successes we have much to learn.

Rhetoric is systematic thought about how to move the audience to act or move it to refrain from acting. Within the institutions of public life and scientific research, I focus on what rhetoric can contribute to two different modes of organizing knowledge for action, the knowledge diffusion model and the knowledge mobilization model.

The knowledge diffusion model is expounded by the pioneer theorist of public relations, Edward Bernays, in his conception of propaganda or “public relations.” Although Bernays’s writings are not new, they have not been superseded: since Bernays had to argue for the use of new and controversial techniques of advertising, marketing, and public relations, his defense of these techniques is clearer than most of what has appeared in the subsequent literature teaching or criticizing the practices that Bernays had a key role in introducing.

In Bernays’s story, there is knowledge among the few of facts and of interests—their own interests and the interests of others. “The politician understands the public. He knows what the public wants and what the public will accept.” The public, however, is not initially equipped with self-knowledge, so the politician’s understanding of facts and of interests has to be spread or propagated: one has to make the public understand both what it itself wants and what it itself can obtain. The principal obstacle to this propagation Bernays calls “social inertia,” illustrated by Richard Steele’s observation about Bernays’s fellow progressive, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “[Roosevelt] saw public attitudes not as a mandate for initiatives generated outside the White House, but as potential obstacles to courses he had already decided upon.” To minimize the inertia in the implementation of policy, the public relations expert must be consulted in the formation of policy. Expert knowledge dictates the policy goals “in themselves,” but these goals must be modified by public relations considerations. These public relations considerations are shaped by opinion polls. Using polls, the few that act can anticipate the effect of their actions. It is true that “in the interest of public relations, a client’s policies and practices might have to be changed fundamentally” in order to “affect circumstances before they happen to make news.” Bernays distinguishes his profession of public relations from the “zany world of press agentry” that preceded it by noting that “it is the public relations counselor’s client’s basic policy and practice that should be the determining factor in winning public understanding and support.” The task of the public relations counsel is to advise the client on the proper manner of presenting the client’s “basic policy and practices.”

On Bernays’s account of public relations, the client’s goals are formulated before the policy, and the policy is formulated before the public relations counsel is required to come up with a plan for presenting it. The role of the public relations expert is “engineering consent” to the policy. For Bernays, “objectives and goals are predicated on a coincidence of public and private interest,” but his formulation assumes that interests are already formed and that this coincidence of public and private interest is perceived by the few whose peculiar interests are at stake rather than produced by the many acting on and with the few. Through the techniques of public relations, we can locate “opinion leaders,” Bernays says, those whose opinions today determine the opinions of the public tomorrow. Policy is then implemented by reaching out to the opinion leaders and through them to public at large. The intended audience for the propaganda, in Bernays’s conception, has no role in formulating goals, in deciding on policies to achieve those goals, or in assessing achievements.

Bernays is thinking in terms of the example of the Catholic Church, which at one time, he claims, determined “all thinking,” and of his uncle Sigmund Freud’s program for the propagation of psychoanalysis. But the central application for Bernays’s understanding of public relations is marketing a product. Generally, the product is designed or invented and then must be marketed. Even if the product is designed at the same time that the market for it is being investigated, the company’s goal, making money from selling products, is nonetheless fixed.

Here we can see why Bernays’s concept of propaganda cannot comprehend all of the possibilities for persuasion in politics. The concept of the public requires that there are no fixed goals of the sort that could be described as policy goals. The only determined goal of the public is to continue in existence through time, while goals and projects come and go.

Yet Bernays’s knowledge diffusion model can, notwithstanding its fundamental misunderstanding of the public or the common, successfully be imposed on a society. That is precisely why Ronald Reagan’s old joke about the most frightening eleven words in the English language is so funny: “I am from the government and I am here to help,” or as David Mamet glosses it: “I am going to suggest solutions to problems in which I’m not only uninvolved but to which I feel superior.” I am going to help my way, the way I have formulated before I propagate my plan to the public, with the assistance, as necessary, of public relations professionals. This preformulated policy I am going to propagate is, of course, what I take to be the right policy. Yet I am led to that policy not only by the case I have built for its merits but also because I “see like a state,” to use James Scott’s phrase.

When the state learns to “see like a state,” soon there is nothing to see except what can be seen from the state’s perspective. Scott is concerned with conflict between state-imposed planning and “local knowledge,” the wisdom, experience, and practical know-how that the targets of the state-imposed scheme have accumulated and to which they appeal in order to satisfy their needs. The fact that there is local knowledge contributes to our sense that something has been lost when we see a state-imposed “solution” that has failed to contribute to human betterment. There can be local knowledge, but there can also be the erosion of local knowledge. If the centralization of knowledge were simply an illusion, the Leviathan would be far less fearsome: the knowledge diffusion model indeed succeeds in making knowledge flow, in imposing knowledge developed at the center on the periphery. It is fitting that Bernays was so fond of the term “propaganda,” because what is ominous about the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith—Propaganda Fide—is precisely the ability of the center to impose what it knows on the periphery, whether that knowledge is valid or useful under local conditions or not.

The knowledge diffusion model is just one way of organizing social knowledge, however. Bernays himself describes the knowledge diffusion model in terms of the “two-way street.” On Bernays’s account the public interest is but the distributed private knowledge of private interests, which the public relations expert can integrate. These private opinions of private interests are taken by the public relations expert as infallible in their sphere. The public relations expert simply integrates the private opinions of private interests with the private interest of his client, aiming to anticipate public reaction to the client’s various possibilities of action. The expert thereby formulates the client’s policy properly before selling that policy to the public, so that he or she can allow basic policy and practice to be the determining factor in winning public understanding and support. Bernays gives the prescription in simple language: “Finding out what people like and doing more of it, then finding out what people don’t like and doing less of it.” In following this prescription, one does not communicate with survey respondents but rather merely deals with their moods the way that a farmer would adjust his feed mix to minimize the complaints of a sick cow.

But consider a knowledge mobilization model, instead of Bernays’s knowledge diffusion model. Think of an audience as a mob that wishes to become an army: each must somehow contribute his own force to the collective, and the force must therefore be mobilized or directed in order to effect change. Knowledge, in Bernays’s account, is transmitted through a politics of issues rather than of personalities; in the mobilization model, on the other hand, knowledge is transmitted by mobilizing the knowers. The utopian limit of knowledge mobilization is set out by Hannah Arendt in her account of the council system in On Revolution, in which people move with their knowledge from the local to the regional to the national level. Through knowledge mobilization knowledge can be used collectively, not just for the collective, or in the interest of the collective, but by the collective. Through knowledge mobilization, knowing and doing, as Arendt says, remain united.

On the knowledge mobilization model the politician seeks an understanding of policy through his or her operations within political institutions, just as the scientist seeks understanding through his or her operations within scientific institutions. This book makes use of sociology of science precisely because the social reality of science provides a well-studied model of a knowledge mobilization network and because science is a clear case where persons not only are put in the know and mobilized by the network but also are brought to labs, trained, and exported to other labs. Scientific knowledge is thus created and distributed throughout the network: it is not merely diffused through it from center to periphery. I appeal to this clear case to explain the unclear case of public life: because the social structure of science is well studied, the rhetorical concepts I want to explicate are more clearly visible in it. Yet at the same time we must remain aware of the ways in which the contemporary social structure of science fails to realize a knowledge mobilization model and thus fails to instantiate what Steve Fuller has called “a civic republican theory of knowledge management.”

The metaphor of mobilization is enlightening because to speak persuasively is “to effect social agreements that never before existed,” just as the citizen army emerges as a new thing out of the mob drilled to constitute it. Insofar as things are socially constituted, that is to say constituted by social agreement, to speak persuasively is to bring new things into existence. I explore how persuasive speech produces things, how persuasive speech reweaves our relations to others, and how a conscious art of persuasion contributes to that verbal productivity and reweaving in words. Bernays has given a clear and in many respects unsurpassed account of how a conscious art of persuasion can be put to work in diffusing knowledge. I aim to understand the role of an art of rhetoric in mobilizing knowledge.

Our quest for such an understanding of rhetoric as an aid to the mobilization of knowledge is built around five fundamental concepts that illuminate the possibilities and limitations of persuasive communication. The first chapter discusses character and what in Aristotelian rhetoric is called “ethical proof,” or the argument for the truth of what is communicated based on the reliable character of the speaker. Insofar as most of what we know we learn from others, whether from their speech or from their writings, virtually all of our knowledge about actions and facts is mediated by our judgment of the character of those who communicate with us. Our judgment of those from whom we propose to learn depends on our judgment of their actions, which forms the subject of the second chapter. I explore the standards of judging action as they appear in the greatest surviving speech from the Athenian democracy, the speech On the Crown of Demosthenes. On the Crown not only defends Demosthenes’ actions in counseling resistance to Philip of Macedon but sets out canons for assessing action, canons according to which Demosthenes demands that he himself be judged. In the third chapter, “Things,” I explore the ways speakers persuade us of their knowledge of things by deploying concrete illustrations and making specific factual claims.

Chapters 1–3 explain how persuasive speech mobilizes audiences by making claims and presenting demands, but we also need to understand how speech is used to preserve the communities of trust necessary for claims to be presented, judged, and put into action. The fourth chapter, “Nothing,” will illuminate how we speak sweet nothings, that is, how we talk so as to sustain human relations in the face of changes in our view of things. Thus we weave and reweave the web of human relations so that it will not be unraveled easily when we form new judgments and learn new facts.

Finally, the last chapter, “Art,” analyzes the central features of the conscious art of persuasion, the art of rhetoric, in the light of the preceding analyses of saying something (chapters 1–3) and saying nothing (chapter 4). The simplest possible way to understand the power of rhetoric is in terms of the notion that speech itself has power over thought and action distinct from the power of things or reasons. Rhetoric is thus the art of applying this special power of speech consciously and therefore more effectively. Such an understanding was presented originally by the Greek rhetorical master Gorgias, who argues for the unique powers of his art by claiming that the effect of speech can be understood as the effect of a rarefied body emitted from the speaker that has an impact on the listener. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates grants to the rhetorician an art sovereign over appearances and denies that public speech can show things as they are. Socrates thus accepts a fundamental premise of Gorgias’s account: both Socrates and Gorgias contend that speech is some kind of thing, a kind of body for Gorgias, a kind of appearance for Socrates, and both therefore deny that speech is a mode of presenting or communicating things.

Only by rejecting both Gorgias’s claim that rhetoric is sovereign over embodied speech and Socrates’ reply that rhetoric may indeed be all powerful but only over appearances can I clear the ground for an understanding of what rhetoric can and cannot do for us. Rhetoric, the conscious art of persuasion, offers us limited but significant assistance in clarifying things for us. We can also put rhetoric to work to protect the relationships that make communication possible from the power of things or facts to subvert them.

Two rhetorical concepts I am not going to discuss thematically are argument (enthymeme) and the appeal to the emotions. From Aristotle to Chaïm Perelman and Jeffrey Walker rhetorical theorists have written an enormous amount about enthymeme. Yet it is often forgotten that when you wish to move your audience to action, setting forth explicitly your premises, your inferences, and your conclusions often causes incredulity to creep back from your conclusions to your premises. Aristotle says that examples are no less persuasive than arguments, but here we will take the side of Russell H. Conwell, the man who built Temple University from his proceeds on the lecture circuit: “People are more impressed by illustrations than by argument.”

Arguments make the things argued for unclear or dubitable, where assertion or illustration makes things manifest or, even better, self-evident. Argument has acquired much of its luster illegitimately, because rhetorical theorists have failed to clarify the difference between argument and factual assertion, between the rational and the reasonable. It is far more important that our actions be justified in the light of the facts, that they be reasonable, than that they be justified in the light of our beliefs, that they be rational. Yet arguing is a substitute for providing facts—argument, as Jay Heinrich points out, “allows us to skip the facts when we have to.” Moreover, for arguments, changing beliefs is an end in itself, whereas for rhetoric, changing beliefs is only a means to the end of making the audience more prone to do what the speaker desires. On those occasions when inference is necessary, the speaker should to the extent possible make his or her audience do the inferring.

When do we resort to argument? Aristotle claims that arguments excite the audience more than do examples, but real speeches heavy on arguments seem to aim to present the speaker as calm, serious, and knowledgeable. In public life, one argues typically not to prove the claim for which one is arguing but to show that one shares the common prejudices or values that appear in the presuppositions and conclusions of one’s argument and to demonstrate mastery of the subject matter by displaying relevant knowledge in coherently organized detail. Lincoln, appearing before a sophisticated New York Republican audience in his February 1860 Cooper Union address, displays his conservative commitment to constitutional government and his radical commitment to slavery restriction with a view to slavery extinction. Lincoln displays these judgments he shares with his audience by giving a detailed argument purporting to show that a majority of the members of the Philadelphia convention believed that putting slavery in the course of eventual extinction by preventing its territorial expansion was both desirable and compatible with the constitutional limitations on federal power. Lincoln does not need to convince his audience of the merits or constitutionality of slavery restriction—he needs to convince them that he is solid on slavery restriction and at the same time concerned (and competent) to manage slavery with a view to its eventual extinction in a manner compatible with the Constitution. The knowledge, commitments, and sobriety of Lincoln’s speech revealed him to possess the traits of character Americans then and now describe as “presidential.” To quote Michael Leff and Gerald Mohrmann, Lincoln “presents himself as the voice of Republicanism," that is to say, "the text constructs Lincoln as persona for his party.” Arguing is thus a way of presenting things to show one’s character, and in that fashion I analyze arguments in public life in chapter 1 and in chapter 3.

I do not discuss the appeal to the emotions because there is nothing distinctive and positive that passions as varied as lust, sorrow, and anger share, though these are all passions we speakers of contemporary English would call “emotions.” Since emotion is a junk category, the rhetorical concept of an appeal to the emotions lumps together unrelated rhetorical devices.

The notion that there is a fundamental distinction between techniques of persuading with argument and techniques of moving the emotions was apparently introduced into rhetorical theory by Cicero. Contemporary historians of the rhetorical tradition and its influence, such as Brian Vickers and Quentin Skinner, have by and large not recognized that the concept of emotional appeal with which they are working is distinctively Ciceronian. Aristotle’s original category of pathos in rhetoric at least defines emotion more narrowly, describing the passions for rhetorical purposes as “those, which changing, alter us in respect of our judgments (kriseis), that is, those judgments upon which pleasure and pain attend, such as anger, pity, fear, and however many others are of this sort, and the ones opposed to these.”

But whatever may have been Aristotle’s concept of pathos, the received concept of emotional appeal (dominant from Descartes and Locke through the beginning phases of academic psychology, and strongly present in the rhetorical theorist most heavily influenced by academic psychology, Kenneth Burke) presumes that there is a world of emotionally insignificant bodies in motion onto which we willfully impose emotional loadings or perspectives. This presumption is, I contend, falsifies the rhetorical phenomena: things are presented to us, at least originally, as raising or subduing our feelings; Cicero himself, though he thinks that there are distinctive verbal tools for raising emotions, admits in addition that things themselves (res) work on the passions. We can see things as devoid of impact on our feelings only by bracketing the impact we immediately feel.

William Grimaldi, commenting on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, writes “in men the presence of ideas carries with it the presence of emotions.” That means that belief and the usual modern concept of “emotion,” or even the narrower Aristotelian concept of passion, are abstracted from some more basic unity—it is that unity, which we might call a judgment (Aristotle’s krisis), that is of principal concern in thinking about rhetoric. Accordingly, as I contend in chapter 3, a speaker stirs up anger, by pointing to or depicting the things that stir up anger; fear, by presenting fearful things; or avarice by presenting opportunities for gain.

This inquiry, in sum, illuminates the human path to things through our judgments of character and action. It shows how speech and writing are used to defend the fabric of social life from things or facts. It explores the fundamental practices of public life, what Susan Wells has called “the conditions under which, in contemporary societies, things manage to get said at all.” Once we see what these conditions are, we can think about them and consider whether they need to be shored up against the other areas of our lives together or whether they need to be altered to suit changes in other areas of our lives together. Finally, I show how conscious reflection on the means of persuasion, or the art of rhetoric, aids us in not only in clarifying things but also in protecting our relations from the vicissitudes of things. The two kinds of rhetoric are two modes for dealing with the future. Communicating things is an attempt to present and thus anticipate the unseeable possibilities of the future, while saying nothing is an attempt to guard existing human relations and institutions against the uncertain possibilities of the future.

Some of the rhetorical moments we will explore are well known, while others were famous in their time and place but have since been obscured. To remember and rethink these lost words, and these lost deeds, is to renew our understanding of the elements from which we weave our life together.

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