The Real-Life Matrix
Rhetoric is the art of influence, friendship and eloquence, of ready wit and irrefutable logic. And it harnesses the most powerful of social forces, argument.
Whether you sense it or not, argument surrounds you. It plays with your emotions, changes your attitude, talks you into a decision and goads you to buy things. Argument lies behind political labeling, advertising, jargon, voices, gestures and guilt trips; it forms a real-life Matrix, the supreme software that drives our social lives. And rhetoric serves as argument’s decoder. By teaching the tricks we use to persuade one another, the art of persuasion reveals the Matrix in all its manipulative glory.
The ancients considered rhetoric the essential skill of leadership—knowledge so important that they placed it at the center of higher education. It taught them how to speak and write persuasively, produce something to say on every occasion, and make people like them when they spoke. After the ancient Greeks invented it, rhetoric helped create the world’s first democracies. It trained Roman orators like Julius Caesar and Marcus Tullius Cicero and gave the Bible its finest language. It even inspired William Shakespeare. Every one of America’s founders studied rhetoric, and they used its doctrines to write the Constitution.
Rhetoric faded in academia during the 1800s, when social scientists dismissed the notion that an individual could stand up to the inexorable forces of history. Who wants to teach leadership when academia doesn’t believe in leaders? At the same time, English lit replaced the classics, and ancient thought fell out of vogue. Nonetheless, a few remarkable people continued to study the art. Daniel Webster picked up rhetoric at Dartmouth by joining a debating society, the United Fraternity, which had an impressive classical library and held weekly debates. Years later, the club changed its name to Alpha Delta and partied its way to immortality by inspiring the movie “Animal House.” To the brothers’ credit, they didn’t forget their classical heritage entirely; hence the toga party.
Scattered colleges and universities still teach rhetoric—in fact, the art is rapidly gaining popularity among undergraduates—but outside academia we forgot it almost entirely. What a thing to lose. Imagine stumbling upon Newton’s law of gravity and meeting face to face the forces that drive the universe. Or imagine coming across Freud for the first time and suddenly becoming aware of the Unconscious, where your Id, Ego and Super-Ego conduct their silent arguments.I wrote this book for that reason: to lead you through this ill-known world of argument and welcome you to the Persuasive Elect.