Rhetoric is technique of using language effectively and persuasively in spoken or written form. It is an art of discourse, which studies and employs various methods to convince, influence or please an audience.
For instance, a person gets on your nerves, you start feeling irritated, and you say, “Why don’t you leave me alone?” By posing such a question, you do not ask for a reason. Instead, you simply want him to stop irritating you. Thus, you direct language in a particular way for effective communication or make use of rhetoric. Such type of a situation where you make use of rhetoric is called “rhetorical situation”.
Difference between Rhetorical Device and Figures of Speech
Rhetorical figures or devices are employed to achieve particular emphasis and effect. Rhetorical devices, however, are different from “figures of speech”. Wherever and whenever a figure of speech is used in written texts and speech, it alters meanings of words. For example, the metaphor used in the expression “He is a tiger,” is a complete altered form of a simple idea “He is brave.” Try to compare this example to the use of a rhetorical device in the example below:
“I am never ever going to rob anyone for you and never, never ever give in to your sinful wish.”
The repetition in the above example does lay emphasis on the statement but does not alter the sense of it.
Common Examples of Usage of Rhetoric
Below are a few examples on how rhetoric is employed by using various literary devices:
- How does this idiot got elected? – A rhetorical question to convince others that “idiot” does not deserve to be elected.
- Here comes the Helen of our school. – An allusion to “Helen of Troy” to emphasize beauty of a girl.
- I will die if you asked me to sing in front of my parents – A hyperbole to persuade others not to use force in doing something which is not liked
- All blonde-haired people are dumb. – Using a stereotype to develop a general opinion about a group.
Nevertheless, the difference between rhetorical devices and figures of speech is so minute that both share many of the devices. A figure of speech becomes a device in rhetoric when it is aimed at persuading the readers or listeners.
Example of Rhetoric in Literature
Let us try to analyze the use of rhetoric in some literary works:
1. John Milton, in his epic “Paradise Lost”, employs rhetoric frequently and to a great effect. To quote an example from Book V:
“advise him of his happy state—
Happiness in his power left free to will,
Left to his own free will, his will though free
The repetition of the phrase “free will” emphasize the theme of human creation which is making free choices, but the phrase “yet mutable” creates ambiguity that despite being free Adam had to be careful as a wrong act could make him lose his freedom.
2. John Donne addresses death in his “Death, be not Proud ( Holy Sonnet 10)” by saying:
Thou ‘art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy ‘or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
The rhetorical question “why swell’st thou then?” serves to play down on the horrific nature of death. He devalues death by calling it a “slave”, and that it keeps a despicable company of “poison, war, sickness” and seeks their support.
3. We see Walt Whitman in his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” use anaphora:
Flood-tide below me! I watch you, face to face;
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face.
Anaphora is a device where the same word or phrase is repeated after regular intervals to achieve a rhetorical effect.
Function of Rhetoric
Rhetoric, as explained above, is a tool for writers and orators which empower them to convince their readers and listeners about their point of views. The otherwise plain argument fails to make any impact. Often, we witness the literary devices being employed in religious sermons and political speeches to make comparisons, to evoke tender emotions, to censure rivals and all this is done to persuade listeners.
Advertisers give their ads a touch of rhetoric to boost up their sales by convincing people that their product is better than other products in the market. For instance, in an advertisement, a girl, after shampooing her hair says, “I can’t stop touching my hair”, an attempt to entice consumers through visual rhetoric to have soft and shiny hair like her.