Rhetoric (Can’t Raise the Dead)




The first time I heard the term rhetoric would have been a spring evening in 2004. I’d recently discovered a fondness for emo music, for blaring guitars, vocals that wavered between soft croons to blistering screams, and lyrics with a depth that nearly two decades later I find myself struggling to grasp. I discovered Thrice through a friend’s older brother. “It’s different,” he said. “It hits different.” I went home, downloaded Artist In The Ambulance, and fell in love with concepts that are still foreign to me. 

Rhetoric can’t raise the dead, I’m sick of always talking

When there’s no change

Rhetoric can’t raise the dead, I’m sick of empty words

Let’s lead, and not follow

Through these lines, I was taught the idea that rhetoric is words, with or without an action behind them. I teach English now, try to help high school students cultivate an understanding of parts of speech, narrative structure, literary criticism, and rhetorical devices. I show them the parts to a whole that I still do not fully understand myself. What is rhetoric? Is that a rhetorical question? With the history of rhetoric having so many curves to it according to Foss, I genuinely do not believe that it is. 

Rhetoric as a concept is itself fluid, flowing steadily through time, amorphous, having a definition that has changed innumerable times over the course of history. Rhetoric and its definition has been shaped by the ridged minds of those who have attempted to conquer the idea of it. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all held differing views on the subject than the Sophists of their time, and this trend of contention over this term would continue well beyond them, through the medieval period, the renaissance, and into modern times, and as times changed, so has the flow of the river. 

The idea presented by Foss is that rhetoric is “the uniquely human ability to use symbols to communicate with one another.” This definition interests me for the diverse array of works that are able to fall under this umbrella. It’s no longer just about the written word, but the connotation behind all messages, the deeper meaning behind life and all of its artforms, the call to action or appreciation in the subtexts and margins of every book, in the breath between notes of every song, the negative space in every painted image.

I think today, with the rise of internet and other avenues of technology, this may be the best definition of rhetoric thus far, as with the increase in means of communication and an increase in the speed at which messages can be sent and received, it has become all the more easier to lose track of any ounce of symbolism behind the symbols themselves. Rhetoric can’t raise the dead, but perhaps it can help us appreciate life that much more.



One response to “Rhetoric (Can’t Raise the Dead)”

  1. Chris Friend Avatar

    Rhetoric won’t raise the dead, but it is used to define who is and is not dead. I’m thinking here of the Terry Sciavo case. She was left brain-dead after a heart attack. Her husband wanted to let her die; her parents resisted. Legal rhetoric determined her status, her future, and her longevity.

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