Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

Saturday School: Lesson #1 – Redeeming Rhetoric


Lesson #1 – Redeeming Rhetoric

  1. Complete the reading assignment
  2. Complete the writing exercise
  3. Post your assignment in the comments
  4. Share the lesson with a friend


Rhetoric is frequently confused with sophistry. For example, when a politician uses the emotion of the moment after a national tragedy to promote a new policy, or bends and distorts the truth in a speech to get more votes, we often hear people say, “That’s just political rhetoric.”

Most view rhetoric pejoratively, associating it with misleading or untruthful statements in spoken or written word. But that is sophistry, not rhetoric. Consider Aristotle’s affirmation of rhetoric as distinct from sophistry:

If it is argued that one who makes an unfair use of such faculty of speech may do a great deal of harm, this objection applies equally to all good things except virtue, and above all to those things which are most useful, such as strength, health, wealth, generalship; for as these, rightly used, may be of the greatest benefit, so, wrongly used, they may do an equal amount of harm (Rhetoric, 1.1.13).

By “wrongly used” he means sophistry; rhetoric rightly understood, is not sophistry, but the principled process of crafting a valid and compelling message. Aristotle explains further,

it belongs to Rhetoric to discover the real and apparent means of persuasion, just as it belongs to Dialectic to discover the real and apparent syllogism. For what makes the sophist is not the faculty but the moral purpose. But there is a difference: in Rhetoric, one who acts in accordance with sound argument, and one who acts in accordance with moral purpose, are both called rhetoricians; but in Dialectic it is the moral purpose that makes the sophist, the dialectician being one whose arguments rest, not on moral purpose but on the faculty (Rhetoric, 1.1.14).

The similarity between rhetoric and sophistry is the intent to persuade; the difference between them is the moral purpose for persuading. All writing is about persuasion, whether it is a non-fiction book with a message or a novel that inspires us to feel. Writers who want to write with integrity will need to grasp the art of assertion, rhetoric.



Two notes:

First, it is granted that Aristotle can seem lofty, and he is not always easily accessible to modern readers because of some unfamiliar words and expressions he uses, but writers who are serious about the craft should take Mortimer Adler’s advice and do the hard work necessary to understand a teacher whose thoughts are above our own.

This is the only time real education takes place. When we read someone we understand, we are not usually learning to think better, we are only acquiring new information to think about. Learning something new is a good and a worthy endeavor for its own sake, and we should always pursue that which intrigues us, but we have not been educated until our soul has been enlarged through better thinking. More on this later.

Second, one may wonder why a course on writing would start with the topic of rhetoric. It’s a fair question. The answer is both simple and complex. The complex understanding will have to come with time and is usually better caught than taught. The simple answer is rhetoric is a faculty of the mind that discovers means of persuasion in particular circumstances.1 Since writing is thinking–in one sense, writing is literally thinking our thoughts onto paper–those who take the craft seriously will want to develop their mental faculties appropriately.

Writing Exercise

In 150 words or less, use the traditional five-paragraph essay format, and the content from this lesson, to persuade your readers of the importance of rhetoric, particularly as an art free of sophistry. Post your essay in the comments.

Do you want to touch readers with your words, learn the craft of writing, or simply improve your writing skills from a classical perspective? Join me each week for Saturday (Writing) School. Every Saturday I’ll send a lesson to your inbox you can complete in an hour, or you can work on it at your leisure. It’s free!


Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Translated by J. H. Freese., ed. J. H. Freese, vol. 22 (Medford, MA: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd., 1926), 1355b.

1Crider, Scott F. The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005.

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he’ll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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5 Replies

  1. Johannes Sithole

    Hi Scott you are reviving me, I feel there is a lot to be done.And on my part you are the answer to my prayers.

  2. Rhonda Moser

    Scott your writings are so impressive. I’m so proud of you. Love you. Aunt Rhonda

    1. Thanks, Aunt Rhonda! Good to hear from you.

  3. D. Troy Hassell

    I’m interested but I’m in seminary online at the moment. Should be completed 2017. Then I would like to write for the broader body of Christ. I will see then how to hone my craft.

    1. Troy,

      That’s fantastic. Feel free to take a look at when you’re ready. All the lessons will be posted there to explore at your convenience. Blessings! SP