Essay: Rhetoric, Democracy, and Human Liberty

                                Mars Hill in Athens, Greece
Throughout human history one constant yearning exists—the desire in man`s heart for freedom, success, security, and overall human liberty. This essay will argue that these desires have only come to fruition in partnership with rhetorical freedom, or in more modern terms, freedom of speech. Moreover, this essay takes the stance that there exists a direct connection between rhetorical freedom and healthy democracies throughout history. An intellectually honest study of history shows that rhetoric, and the freedom to use it, is a major construct in any civil society or democratic government which promotes human liberty. In contrast, when rhetoric is suppressed, outlawed, or stifled by political correctness—what follows is authoritarianism, despotism, and lack of freedom. From its birth some 2500 years ago in the democracy of ancient Greece, rhetoric and democracy have walked hand-in-hand in the development of all the great civil societies. However, in each case, when tyranny, despotism, and human suffering exist at the hands of governments, oligarchs, or sovereigns, there also exists an absence of rhetorical freedom, as well.
Ancient Greece—Athens—is the first recorded Democracy. Prior to the emergence of this nation state, most of the world—according to The Rhetorical Tradition (p.20, para.4)—was orchestrated and ran by oligarchs, sovereigns, and warlords. Other than the oration, which was used to pass down information, history, and tradition, the ideas and discussions about rhetoric had not yet occurred, at least in pagan recorded history. It was in the Grecian Nation States—with their freedom in a democracy—that the discussions and deliberations about what rhetoric was, and how it should be used, took form. The only other possible example with regard to freedom and archaic forms of rhetoric could be considered to have existed with Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, sometime around 1440 B.C.E. Some scholars argue that the Jewish people had a form of written language because when Moses was handed the Ten Commandments they were in written form. Moreover, Moses used rhetoric in a persuasive manner to lead his people in the Exodus and to convince Pharaoh to release the Jews from their captivity. Interestingly, one could argue that, according to the Bible, the Jews had no governance other than their elders and the Law. Could this have been the first so-called democracy? The Jews had the freedom to speak, they had the ability to form a group consensus—which often angered God and Moses,—and they had their liberty. These are the basic components in a democracy. Eventually, the Jews demanded to be like the rest of the world and have a King (1 Samuel 8, NIV).

Another interesting point from the text is that Athens and its newly formed democracy also had a “Middle Class” (P.22). This makes the first connection between rhetoric, democracy, and free markets. Moreover, this democracy assisted in the creation of an environment in which men of a lower station in life could create and amass personal wealth—improving their station in life. Furthermore, the text states that this made the oligarchs and the elite class uncomfortable. One can begin to see (from history) the innate conditions of the human heart—a desire to control and contain the lower classes. The text points out that rhetorical freedom was a means to obstruct the rise of tyrants:

“After 510 B.C.E. the government of Athens was a democracy in which members of the old oligarchic families were encouraged to play leading roles as a check against the rise of tyrants” (P.20, para.4)
History is replete with examples of the struggle between the masterminds and the masses for the sake of ego, power, wealth, and liberty.
The Greco-Persian wars were, at their base level, the result of King Darius`s desire to further his Kingdom and expand his power, control, and wealth. Only the Nations States of Athens and Sparta were willing to stand in defiance of King Darius and they considered their new found democracy worthy of defending unto death. Again, the yearning in the human heart for liberty and freedom trumps all other desires. It would seem that the subtext of human existence, in an examination of the events on the world stage—even unto this very day—is the struggle between those that deem men to be free and sovereign individuals vs. those that desire to be ruled, lorded over, taken care of, or those that possess a willing servitude toward a government, a sovereign, or a group of intellectual masterminds. Rhetoric has played an enormously powerful role in this battle between liberty and tyranny.
The rise of the Roman Republic and their use of Greek cultural mores conveys a direct link to the rhetors of Athens and the formation of another democracy or republic. The great Roman Senate, one of the first great deliberative bodies in human history, used the rhetorical devices of persuasion in the political arena. Although the Roman Republic was altogether different in its structure in contrast to democratic deliberative bodies like the English Parliament or the American Republic which, at its founding consisted of three separate but equal branches of government, it did discuss, promote, and help to facilitate free enterprise, free markets, and to create a class system. The plebs had the opportunity to create and retain certain levels of wealth and private property; however, they couldn’t easily raise their station in life in terms of joining the ruling class or the elitists of Rome.
The Roman rhetor Cicero carried on the traditional basic compositional forms of rhetoric; however, like his predecessors in Greece—Plato, Gorgias, and Aristotle—he also pursued the further definitions and uses of rhetoric. He was free to do so in the Roman Republic. Again, history shows that liberty allows for the free exchange of ideas and the use of persuasive rhetoric, and Dialectic. The Roman Republic thrived and expanded within the boundaries and protections of archaic human liberty; however, their tactics in the expansion of their empire were not necessarily moral. Furthermore, history shows that while Rome was still a Republic, it allowed freedom of speech; therefore, rhetoric was not under assault. The interesting thing to note in the Roman Republic, which this author contends will emerge in every future case in which a nation spirals toward tyranny, is that when Rome become a dictatorship it lost its freedom in rhetoric. By the time that Quintilian was on the stage in Roman history as a rhetorician, he was unable to use the same powers of Dialectic in the body politic of the Roman Empire. What is seen in his writings is the promotion of the same basic forms of rhetorical construction, yet, no ability to expound on free-thinking ideals. It is almost as if Quintilian was passing on (to future rhetoricians) the classical structures of rhetorical composition. This was his only available contribution—a surface level discussion of the origins and traditions of Classical Rhetoric. This fact provides evidence that without freedom—democracy—there was no freedom of speech; therefore, rhetoric suffered or was at best, anecdotal.
In Medieval times, history shows that the classical structure and basic components of constructing rhetoric in written form are carried on through scholars from that time period and the Church of Jesus Christ. Augustine kept one separate but important aspect of rhetoric alive—the rhetorical device of persuasion. He saw this as one use of rhetoric that would not violate the doctrinal boundaries in his religion; it would not be a blatant alinement with the pagan usage of rhetoric. In the text The Rhetorical Tradition his views are quite clear on this matter:
“In the City of God he states that platonic philosophers came closer to the truth of Christianity than any other pagan thinkers. This view has influenced Western treatment of Plato well into modern times” (P. 451, Para. 3).
As one studies rhetorical traditions and history, it seems evident that any time tyranny emerges on the stage of human history (tyranny defined here as anything that stifles freedom of speech) rhetors retreat back to using rhetoric as a construct of the written word rather than putting the emphasis on oration and persuasion. Augustine, it would seem, was able to build a bridge between these two aspects of rhetoric. He was able to use both forms of rhetoric—oral and written—and he convinced his contemporaries in the church that all was well and that they were not promoting pagan world views or gods.
The historical figure of Jesus must be analyzed as well with regard to rhetoric and human freedom. Whether or not one is Christian, agnostic, or atheist—Jesus was largely hated by the Jewish leaders of His day because of rhetoric. Jesus used the rhetorical device of persuasion to preach a New Covenant with the Jewish people. His New Covenant broke ranks with traditional ways of speaking to and about God. Jesus told the Jewish leaders that God was not concerned with the traditional sacrifices and ceremonies of the past but that He looked at the inward hearts of men and their inward cleanliness and sacrifices. This was a great offense to the Jews. His final words on the cross, again, display persuasiveness: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, NIV). Jesus was killed, in the eyes of the world, for His rhetoric.
History and writing provide mankind with multiple examples of the relationship between rhetoric and democracy and how one cannot exist, in its best form, without the other; however, for the sake of brevity, one particular event between the death of Christ and the Enlightenment period was a precursor to the ultimate democracy—America. That event was the Magna Carta document. History shows the use of written and oral forms of rhetoric to persuade a sovereign (King John) to recognize individual sovereignty (at least at the level of Feudal Barons). This was the first time, since the Roman Republic, that a law was created to protect the freedom of the individual and their individual rights. Both written and Dialectic forms of rhetoric were used as a means to this end (History Learning Site, 2014).
The Renaissance period appears to have given rebirth to Sophistic styled rhetoric. Rhetoric had generally been used in the construct of written words, speeches, and other formal writings; however, there was a rise in the use of rhetoric outside of the classical syllogisms during the Renaissance. Rhetoric was once again debated, as in the days of Plato and Gorgias, as to its proper definitions and use.
Fast forwarding to the Enlightenment, the great John Locke was involved in the debate concerning rhetorical usage. He felt that rhetoric should be used to find logical conclusions (The Rhetorical Tradition, P.10). Prior to the Renaissance, rhetoric was beginning to take on a “symbolism over substance” role in public arenas. Locke was heavily involved in politics and toward the end of his life published two essays on the Treatises of Government. He made the argument that the only truly moral form of governance was one in which a social compact was made between the government and the people. The people should have the power, under a set of laws, to speak to their King or sovereign through a parliamentary system. Thus, the King would then deliver what the people wanted as the governed. This is a paraphrased simplification of his works, however, it was a main point in these two essays. This was another precursor to the eventual Constitution of the United States. Locke, originally trained at Oxford in Aristotelian Rhetoric, used the rhetorical devices of his day to persuade individual liberty and democracy.  Again, history shows that freedom of speech—rhetoric in both written and dialectic forms—are a necessity in producing and maintaining a democracy.
One thing that must be addressed in this essay is the fact that freedom of speech must also allow for the freedom of unwanted speech. Plato and Gorgias may have disagreed, they may have hated one another; however, there appears to be no evidence that either man used the police power of government of silence their detectors. This is a tragedy in the modern world—the silencing of rhetoric that is offensive to one group or another. It is also the precursor to tyranny as shown all throughout the 20th century. A great debate in the minds of intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies was the topic of economic policy and governance. Karl Marx and John Engels changed the economic world when they published the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Marx calls for a “workers revolution” worldwide between the proletariat and the Bourgeois:
“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries unite!” (Marx, 1848).
Whether or not Marx meant for his potential revolutionaries to silence the rhetoric of their detractors—this was the case in every revolution in the 20th century. The revolutions of Lenin and Mao—the most notable—filled the fields in Asia with the innocent blood of those that opposed their economic system. Again, we see that once tyranny raises its head—rhetoric dies, and with it, democracy. It seems evident that rhetoric and democracy are vital partners in human liberty; one cannot exist without the other. When rhetoric is outlawed, tyranny follows. When rhetoric is freed, democracy follows. Democracy has always held an element, although not always perfect, of human liberty and human rights.
Finally, in our own modern day—in America—we see the rise of political correctness. Some see this as a means to peace, harmony, and a more civil society; however, as angry as Plato or Socrates might have been with the Sophists, they sought to win their case with rhetorical freedom and ideals. Those that seek to unleash the police power of government on the offensive speech of others will only see that same government leviathan turn on them in the end. Freedom means freedom in rhetoric. Freedom in rhetoric is always present in a democracy. Tyranny is always at the end of the road called “political correctness,” or outlawed rhetoric.
Works Cited
“1 Samuel.” Life Application Study Bible: New International Version. 8th ed. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House, 1997. chapter 8. Print.
Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. Print.
“Luke 23:34.” Life Application Study Bible: New International Version. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House, 1997. Print.
“Magna Carta.” History Learning Site. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.
Marx, Karl. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Raleigh, N.C: Alex Catalogue, 1990. Print.


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