RHETORIC WAS UNDERSTOOD by Aristotle to include those many, often refined, techniques of argumentation unavoidable in domains of life, such as politics and law, where persuasion is necessary but conclusive demonstration is unavailable. It is unavoidable, significant and there are good and bad forms of it. As Samuel Goldwyn might observe, however, we’ve passed a lot of water since then. Today, “rhetoric” is almost always spoken of pejoratively, and more often than not, dismissively: words without weight (“empty rhetoric”), which add nothing but adornment (“mere rhetoric”). If, in Australia, it is already suspicious to be eloquent, it is unpardonable to be rhetorical.
What I have in mind is somewhere between the refined and the corrupt. The sorts of rhetoric I discuss here are significant, but none of them is to be recommended. Certainly, they are all about persuasion. I’m not a fan of them, but they’re not “mere” hot air, or sweet words, or just style as opposed to substance. Indeed, they’re not mere anything and they are far from empty. They have their role and significance in public debate.
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