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The art of eloquence or persuasion, rhetoric is talked about as much as it fascinates. Alexandre Motulsky-Falardeau, a writer and specialist on the subject, relates the virtues of this age-old discipline that features more than ever in our daily lives.

Let’s go back a bit in history. How was rhetoric born and who have the emblematic figures in this regard been?
Rhetoric goes back to ancient Greece in Sicily (which was a Greek colony) around 465 BC and its origins lie in legal conflict. As a reaction to the tyranny of despots who expropriated people’s goods, citizens needed to voice their rights to citizens’ juries. This was the start of an art of persuasion and legal argument driven by philosophers such as Empedocles, Corax and Tisias, who established guidance designed to convince the audience and come to the assistance of defendants. Other rhetoricians and itinerant teachers known as Sophists – such as Socrates, Protagoras and Gorgias – were to use the art of persuasion, debating and discussing to question traditional thinking. In contrast to the Sophists, Plato (428 BC) opposed truth as the object and aim of rhetoric through dialectic. His pupil, Aristotle (384 BC) was to develop the system of rhetoric by assembling the entire range of oratory techniques as a science designated as the Art of Public Speaking.

Could you shed some light on the three elements composing the art of persuasion?
Aristotle broke down the cogwheels of  argumentation into three central concepts:
Ethos (credibility): referring to the character, poise, ethics and powers of persuasion of the orator intended to create a good impression on his audience while enhancing his reputation, and therefore his legitimacy and credibility.
The tone and style of the message are key to this.
Pathos (emotion): focuses on the audience and is intended to captivate them by calling on listeners’ emotions, empathy and innermost beliefs. This is about appealing to the public’s imagination in order to draw people into the subject.
Logos (logic): defines persuasive speech that makes use of logic, reason, proof and facts in support of an argument and which appeals to the more rational side of public opinion.

What are the five rules of rhetoric?
According to methodology established by Greek and Roman philosophers, five rules provide the basis of rhetoric:
Invention (“Inventio”): seeks to find arguments, ideas and processes in order to convince.
Disposition (“Dispositio”): refers to the effective sequencing of arguments in the intervention and a speech that adheres to a logical progression for maximum persuasive power. One could sum that up as introduction, development and conclusion.
Elocution (“Elocutio”): this is the art of finding the words that enhance a speech or writings through figures of speech, syntax and the use of images (metaphors, comparisons). Today, this is what we call “style”.

Actions (“Actio”): refers to staging through body language, diction and pronunciation in order to embody words eloquently. This is essential to making the speech lively,
thereby gaining and holding the audience’s attention.
Memory (“Memoria”): involves the processes required to memorize one’s speech using mnemonic techniques.

During the course of its history, rhetoric has undergone a certain tension between two opposing concepts: the art of persuasion and the art of eloquence. Can you give us your opinion on this?
Historically, rhetoric as it was practiced by the Greeks was intended to convince. Then, in ancient Rome, a movement driven by Quintilian and Cicero came to regard it as the science of speaking well (bene dicendi scientia), an idea that was based on style and eloquence. Descartes on the other hand had a more Cartesian vision that was reminiscent of Plato’s thinking, leading to the quest for truth.

What advice would you give to someone looking for their own style?
One must know oneself in order to be capable of being acknowledged but also be able to listen to others. Being eloquent and holding attention implies culture. There are no secrets: one must read the great thinkers, literature, newspapers, watch great films, documentaries, listen to music, see exhibitions…When one observes, listens and takes an interest in human beings with regard to their history and psychology, one acquires a sense of repartee in order to be pertinent (what is known as Kairos). This requires imagination, acumen, intuition and practice, exactly the kind of qualities that make great speakers and fine strategists truly remarkable.

What would you regard as essential reading or training for learning rhetoric?
There is little in the way of training. This discipline is mostly taught in universities and teachers suggest putting it into practice during eloquence competitions. To pick up the basics, there are a number of must-read works such as Olivier Reboul’s Introduction à la rhétorique (Introduction to Rhetoric) or Schopenhauer’s The Art of Being Right, which is useful for business people and political figures. I would also invite readers to explore La rhétorique aujourd’hui that I have just published and which retraces the principles of argumentation in our society governed by communication, advertising and the media.

Recommended reading: La rhétorique aujourd'hui, by Alexandre Motulsky-Falardeau - Presses Université Laval.

Based on an interview by Stéphanie Laskar


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