OK, you caught me being trite.
Rhetoric currently means many different things to many people. When I
ask the composition students I teach what this word means they usually
respond by saying they don't know, but they think it is the empty talk
of politicians. i.e. rhetoric = bullshit.
It is only within the last 100 years that rhetoric has lost its
meaning. Late in the last century rhetoric was schismed into logic,
speech, composition, psychology (of a kind), and sent off into the
academic departments we know now. From 500bce until then all those
contents were wrapped up into rhetoric of the kind rhetors and
rhetoricians know well. The rhetoric that deals with all the aspects
Phyllis points out, context, ideology, assumptions, etc. One cannot
discuss the power of language and begin to help students understand
that power and to be facile in its use without dealing with those
issues. Rhetoric is not simply the use of language to persuade, or a
balance of ethos, pathos, and logos, or tropes or commonplaces or any
of the bits and pieces of rhetoric we hear about somewhere. It is all
those things and so much more.
Could anyone, even the best rhetor, convince Jesse-baby to give up his
conservative ways? No, I don't believe they could. One of the
reasons Mr. Helms is not subject to convincing rhetoric is because he
did not arrive at his views through its use. Jesse believes what he
believes because he believes it, not because it makes any sense or is
in the ethical best interest of the society he is elected to serve.
(But then we get into a discussion of re-presentation the
Deconstructionist and POMOs like. But rhetoric is an issue there as
well.) Critical thinking is a central component of rhetoric. Jesse
believes what he believes because the Bible tells him so.
Someone not schooled in rhetoric who disagrees with him thinks Jesse
Helms is an idiot. A rhetorician knows why he is one and is very able
to articulate her reasons.
Through the understanding and use of rhetoric one can learn anything
and apply that knowledge. Without rhetoric it is tough to learn much
of anything but a bunch of "facts." Maybe this is part of what's
wrong with education in America?
For a much better discussion of the application and history of
rhetoric and its applications in the teaching of composition see:
"Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students" by Sharon Crowley.