Adapted from a response K.M. Camper wrote to a reader’s question about the difference between “sophistry” and “rhetoric.”
The modern use of the word “rhetoric,” often pejorative, in phrases like “mere rhetoric,” implies superfluous stylistic flourishes or manipulation. I, of course, feel that this is a misapplication of the word. Throughout the centuries, several other definitions have been offered for the term “rhetoric,” which I feel are more appropriate. Aristotle gives us: “an ability in each [particular] case to see the available means of persuasion.” Cicero a couple of centuries later writes, “The function of eloquence [rhetoric] seems to be to speak in a manner suited to persuade an audience, the end is to persuade by speech.” I like these two definitions because together they provide an analytical and productive view of rhetoric. We can analyze others’ arguments and we can persuade them with our own.
Now, the history of the words rhetoric and sophistry is complex. The term “sophist” is older and first appears in Ancient Greece in the 5th century. It was first used for the 7 Older Sophists, a group of esteemed, historical wise men in Greece’s history. Itinerant teachers of speech seemed to have then used to the term for themselves because of its original prestige and association with wisdom. In the 4th century, Plato and Isocrates use it derisively against each other and their rivals. This shift in the connotation of the term may have resulted from the reputation the itinerant teachers of the 5th century gained for being morally relativistic, corrupting the youth, and charging exorbitant fees for their services. In the first century AD/CE, there arose what has been termed the Second Sophistic, which describes a movement of “sophists” who were concerned with declamation, or speeches that displayed the orator’s verbal prowess.
The term rhetoric too has a tumultuous and perhaps even more complicated history. The term was probably first coined in the 4th century by Plato and he used it in fairly dismissive way to differentiate two kinds of arts: rhetoric and philosophy. Ever since, rhetoricians have had to justify, to varying degrees, that they are not doing “mere rhetoric” or “sophistry.” However, for much of late antiquity into the Middle Ages, and even the Renaissance, rhetoric had a prominent and respected place in culture and education. Rhetoric seems to have fallen out of favor beginning during the Enlightenment period with the rise of scientific discourse and logic, resulting in its contemporary pejorative sense. It is often associated with mere ornamentation, or with manipulation.
So, I think that the history of those words explains their modern connotations. In a sense, it might be preferable if people used the term sophistry, rather than rhetoric, when they wanted to describe someone’s speech as flowery or manipulative — although as the historical context above demonstrates, this would not be entirely accurate, either. Regarding rhetoric’s relationship to “the truth”… I agree with Socrates that “rhetoric (just like any other activity) should only ever be used in the service of right.” But we all know, unfortunately, that’s not always the case.