PC as a Polis: Humanities Forum Hosts Professor Bartlett on Importance of Rhetoric

by npatano on April 21, 2022


“Rhetoric is a loaded gun,” a fitting metaphor included in Professor Robert Bartlett’s Humanities Forum in the Ruane Center for Humanities on March 27. Professor Bartlett is an award-winning professor and author from Boston College and Emory University. He specializes in ancient Greek political classic philosophy and discussed the power of persuasion with the Providence College student body by highlighting the importance of the Aristotelian Rhetoric.

Bartlett is exceptionally well-versed in Aristotle’s book, Rhetoric, as his principal area of research is classical political philosophy. This book, like many of Aristotle’s works, has been a crucial philosophical vessel, handed down through generations of brilliant minds. Bartlett spoke fluidly and passionately, utilizing Aristotle’s works to describe how the early philosopher laid out passions to speak to people. Even philosophers such as Hobbes say “he was the worst teacher, politician and ethicist, but his rhetoric was rare.”

Barlett enthusiastically reviewed the three kinds of essential Aristotelian rhetoric: deliberative, judicial, and display. He cohesively explained how these three kinds of rhetoric often have three types of use: the noble, the good, and the bad. Deliberative rhetoric is often used to pursue a future goal, either to persuade or shun. Judicial is often an accusation or defense of something usually concerned with past acts. Finally, display is seen in praise speeches and usually connects us to the present tense. He also goes over the modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos and logos, which are notions of Aristotelian rhetoric often taught in PC’s Development of Western Civilization program. These modes build a sense of trust and conviction, but that conviction is not proof. Here lies the danger of rhetoric, as Bartlett explains.

Bartlett transitions to the point that with this understanding of rhetoric, there is also power. Both lies and truth can persuade humans, which is the ultimate paradox. In echoing this message, Bartlett uses the metaphor of a gun. He states that proof itself is misleading—what is proof at its very core? Bartlett states, “If I can get you angry, I haven’t proved anything, but I have instilled in you a conviction that my policy is better.” Herein lies the danger of rhetoric. Rhetoric has an “odor,” as Bartlett describes, that attaches to a phrase, a taste of manipulation, perhaps. But, as Aristotle describes, we do need rhetoric, and it comes to defending what is faithful and just. Bartlett explains that if you think the cause you serve is right, you’re being naïve without rhetoric to provide proof. If you become alive because a speaker is trying to move you, you become more self-aware and equipped against rhetoric’s bullet.

         Bartlett used former U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech as a modern-day example of the power of rhetoric. Bartlett described the stark recovery associated with that speech in the 2008 primary. Before the speech, due to scandals involving his childhood reverend, it was viable to speculate that Obama had a strong for toward America. After the speech, that speculation was indisputably invalid. Instead, Obama’s rhetoric was powerful enough to provide proof of his love of the country in his 2008 bid for the U.S. presidential election.

         After the forum, there was a question-and-answer period. Having listened to Bartlett, I reflected on how there is a unanimous value in an individual who demonstrates actions and principles over words. Someone who is always there when needed, reliable yet flies under the radar. I asked, “Considering Aristotle’s view of rhetoric with persuasion, would he view an implicit and ‘short and sweet’ individual, who listens and speaks only when needed with strong rhetorical tactics in itself?” He agreed that it could be a rhetorical strategy to withhold using words. Bartlett stated, “keeping things simple is powerful because you are being selective with your usage. The denunciation of rhetoric, perhaps in a sense, is rhetorical. However, there can be something overblown to rhetoric.” The word overblown even alluded to his gun metaphor, quite a remark.

         Throughout this humanities forum, Bartlett used his widespread knowledge of Aristotelian rhetoric to emphasize its power and value in contemporary forms of U.S. dialogue, especially in political and academic spaces. After assessing Bartlett’s talk, we should all aim to understand the power of our loaded guns of language.