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Defining Rhetoric

June 20, 2011

The Sophists turned rhetoric into a mistress. Initially, Isocrates sought to educate and in-form the individual citizen, but this soon turned to oratorical tactics of manipulation and deception. The goal was no longer defined by truth, but by motive. Rhetoric was stripped of her honor by those who looked toward the satisfaction of their own desires.

Socrates, while defining rhetoric, stated that “Oratory is the art of enchanting the soul, and therefore he who would be an orator has to learn the differences of human souls—they are so many and of such a nature, and from them come the differences between man and man.” (Plato, Phaedrus)

Enchanting the soul comes from the word psuchagogia, and carries the meaning of evoking one from the netherworld.

As Socrates applies the word to rhetoric, he argues that rhetoric leads the soul forth out of a place of dormancy. In other words, rhetoric bears the power to awaken the soul. But to what? Socrates argued truth, or to the nature of things.

Poe seems to draw on this same meaning in his critical essay The Poetic Principle. In this essay, Poe argues that the poetic principle is nothing more than the “elevation of the soul.” It is an elevation of the soul to what Poe calls, supernal Beauty.

It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us—but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone.

Like Socrates, Poe wishes to impress upon the soul, as the “stamp upon the wax,” the eternal. Neither wishes to take the pupil out of, or away from, this world. Rather, they wish to infuse the temporal with the eternal, to invade the earthly with the heavenly.

The power of language rests in its ability to awaken and impress upon the soul truth, goodness, and beauty.

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From → Education, Language

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