Rhetoric has taken on ugly connotations in our day. “Empty” is usually the word that precedes it, and we never hear about “full” or “substantial” rhetoric, much less “truthful” rhetoric. Why should we, who are concerned with truth, bother ourselves about pretty words? Why devote a cover article to it?
One good reason is that St. Paul tells us to: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). In other words, in trying to communicate the Gospel, we should be concerned not just with the truth but with how we present that truth.
I doubt that Tim Staples and Rosalind Moss consider themselves rhetoricians, but in fact they are masterful at it. Why would people turn up by the tens of thousands to hear them if they were not good speakers? We’ve all suffered through tedious lectures, talks, and homilies. It’s rarely the content that bores us; rather, it’s the inability to relate to the audience, to present the truth in a compelling and clear way. The ability to do so, in part, comes from the study of the art of rhetoric. All good speakers give great attention to it, even if they don’t use the word “rhetoric” when doing so. It is a skill that anyone can develop. (If you are looking to improve your public speaking ability, I recommend On Speaking Well by Peggy Noonan.)
Of course, most of us don’t stand up in front of crowds of thousands as Tim and Ros do. Most of us would rather have a root canal. But the same principle of rhetoric applies at the water cooler, the playground, and the homeowner’s association meeting: I need to speak the truth. What is the best way to do it? Serious Catholics are preoccupied with this question all the time.
We have another and perhaps more pressing reason to study rhetoric: It is being practiced on us all the time, first and foremost in advertising. Whether on television, billboards, radio, or Internet, we cannot get away from the constant barrage of those who are trying to persuade us to buy. They mostly do it by appealing to our appetites, in the guise of the Seven Deadly Sins: avarice, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, sloth, and (to a lesser degree) anger. The better we understand this form of (false) rhetoric, the better we are able to resist it.
As citizens, we also should be concerned about the state of public rhetoric. Russell Shaw touches on this topic in his article on page 18. The purpose of our right to free speech is to preserve the integrity of representative government through the intelligent exchange of ideas. Is that what is happening in the run-up to elections these days? If you are concerned with the state of public discourse, I highly recommend a powerful little book called Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. It is written by Josef Pieper, one of the great Catholic philosophers of the twentieth century. In it, he explains that when words are used without regard to truth, political tyranny is not far behind. Pieper knew whereof he spoke: He was one of the most vocal and effective opponents of the Nazi regime.