The Power of Rhetoric

For all those worried about whether The Speech we just heard was simply Rhetoric, some thoughts by another master speaker about the art of using words. Lewis is here talking primarily about Poetry, but what he says about Rhetoric seems worth bearing in mind today:

"I do not think (and no great civilization has ever thought) that the art of the rhetorician is necessarily vile. It is in itself noble, though of course, like most arts, it can be wickedly used. I do not think that Rhetoric and Poetry are distinguished by manipulation of an audience in the one and, in the other, a pure self expression, regarded as its own end, and indifferent to any audience. Both these arts, in my opinion, definitely aim at doing something to an audience. And both do it by using language to control what already exists in our minds. The differentia of Rhetoric is that it wishes to produce in our minds some practical resolve (to condemn Warren Hastings or to declare war on Philip) and it does this by calling the passions to the aid of reason. It is honestly practiced when the orator honestly believes that the thing which he calls the passions to support is reason, and usefully practised when this belief of his is in fact correct. It is mischievously practised when that which he summons the passions to aid is, in fact, unreason, and dishonestly practised when he himself knows that it is unreason. The proper use is lawful and necessary because, as Aristotle points out, intellect of itself 'moves nothing': the transition from thinking to doing, in nearly all men at nearly all moments, needs to be assisted by appropriate states of feeling." --C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942), p. 53.

Are we now roused to action? As President Obama said, it's up to us.


  1. I apologize for not being the best with words but, I hear it in the speech given by Kennedy, Bush 2 and lastly Obama. I don't like politics. 'Lets pull up our britches and work and work out what needs to be done and its gonna be tough with a case of bullets to bite' is what needed to be least by someone else.

  2. Communities need leaders to inspire them to work together for projects larger than maintaining their own families and homes. What you say needed to be said is what I heard President Obama say yesterday. We may not like "politics" in the sense of the negotiations that it involves, including working with people with whom we (sometimes viscerally) disagree, but all "politics" really means is the process by which we come to decisions in our society about what we, as a polity, should do. In a monarchy, only the king (ostensibly) makes the decisions; in a democracy, it is "the People" who makes the decisions, but, arguably, we exist as a people only so long as we have leaders who can articulate that vision for us as a whole. Again, this is very much what I hear President Obama attempting to do.

  3. At least Obama can JUSTIFY his rhetoric, if I've spoken correctly. However, a part of what got US into this mess was also rhetoric. Though no means of justification was ever shown. Its sad. I never really thought that the government was there to pander to me anyhow. So, any loss of gratuity towards me won't be anything I'd miss.
    thanks for letting my comment through :-)

  4. "However, a part of what got US into this mess was also rhetoric."

    Very true. This is why I find what Lewis says helpful: rhetoric is only usefully practiced when what the speaker says is supported by reason (i.e. when what the speaker honestly believes to be true actually is). It is mischievously practiced when it is used to summon the passions for the sake of unreason, and dishonestly practiced when the speaker knows he is doing this. It is not rhetoric per se that got us into our current mess, but, to use Lewis's terms, rhetoric mischievously and dishonestly used.

  5. Better put then me. I was sure that I understood what Lewis had written.

    I think back and recall that I had thought rhetoric meant "blowin' smoke -----"

    None the less the airwaves and programs on television .. independantly are filled with optimism and inspiration. I'll try not to say hope :)


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