Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Rhetorical Task of Style

Style is one of the five rhetorical tasks laid out in the rhetorical handbooks (See my previous post on the five rhetorical tasks)

Style, more than any other aspect of rhetoric, is attacked the most.  I think that style is at the heart of the negative connotations that rhetoric has in our society.  One can give a stylistically elegant and rousing speech that keeps the audience entertained and engaged, while saying almost nothing.  Yet, does that make style evil?  Just because style can be used to mask ignorance, or lies, or half truths, does not mean that rhetorical style cannot be used for good purposes as well (see my post on the neutrality of rhetoric).

The third task of rhetoric, style, includes guidelines an orator should follow in order to make his or her speech/composition rhetorically powerful.  There are four virtues of style according to Quintilian and Ps-Cicero: (1) correctness, (2) clarity, (3) ornamentation, and (4) propriety. 

The virtue of correctness deals with grammar and syntax.  The rhetor should make sure that he uses correct grammar, correct syntax, correct words.  In short, the rhetor should be a competent writer. 

Clarity is a very important aspect of rhetoric because if your argument is not clear, it will not be heard or heeded. The following is a quote from Quintilian regarding the stylistic virtue of clarity:
For we must never forget that the attention of the judge is not always so keen that he will dispel obscurities without assistance, and bring the light of his intelligence to bear on the dark places of our speech. On the contrary, he will have many other thoughts to distract him unless what we say is so clear that our words will thrust themselves into his mind even when he is not giving us his attention, just as the sunlight forces itself upon the eyes. Therefore our aim must be not to put him in a position to understand our argument, but to force him to understand it (Inst. Or. 8.2.23-24).
Ornamentation is the virtue of style that deals with the pleasantness of the sound of the speech.  Figures of speech fall under the category of ornamentation. Of all of the areas of rhetoric, this one raises the most concern.  It is with ornamentation that the rhetor can really pull the wool over the eyes of the audience and wow them with his or her skills while not really making an argument.  Shouldn't people just try to get the facts across without dressing up their language?  Can ornamented speech be used for good as well as ill?  I hope so, because biblical writers use ornamented language all of the time (see my recurring post series the Friday Figure).  Ornamentation should not be thought of as mere flourish or window dressing.  At times, an appropriate figure of speech can highlight an important point that might otherwise have been missed.  As Quintilian writes:
But rhetorical ornament contributes not a little to the furtherance of our case as well.  For when our audience find it a pleasure to listen, their attention and their readiness to believe what they hear are both alike increased (Inst. Or. 8.3.5).
The last virtue of style is propriety or appropriateness.  Is the form of the speech appropriate to the context?  Does the level of style match the content?  If the content is of some lofty issue, the style should be lofty.  If of the mundane, a more plain style should be used.  Only a hearer can judge the appropriateness of any given speech.

All of these virtues of style can be used to make sure that an argument gains a fair hearing. Therefore, even though style can sometimes be used to impede the pursuit of truth, it can also lay it bare.

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