“That Powerful Instrument of Error and Deceit”: John Locke on the Dark, Spell-Casting Art of Rhetoric—and What It Means for Us Today

Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is like alcohol. It can be used responsibly, but too frequently it’s not, and so it has a dodgy reputation, and deservedly so.

It shows up in too many places that you wouldn’t want to take your mother or small children. It may give pleasure, but often it merely clouds the judgment.

For numerous examples of rhetoric in its poisonous forms, we need only turn on Fox News or flip through the before-and-after weight loss advertisements in a National Enquirer. There are a lot of people, hard at work in politics, religion, entertainment, and marketing, who give rhetoric a bad name.

John Locke, when he was trying to clear some intellectual space for the first flowerings of Francis Bacon’s scientific methods, perceived rhetoric to be, on balance, a serious barrier to human progress.

Locke called rhetoric “the arts of fallacy” and “that powerful instrument of error and deceit” (The Rhetorical Tradition 710).

Locke, of course, wasn’t taking a swipe at mass capitalist culture, which had not yet evolved, but at the barristers, parliamentarians, pulpit preachers, and university professors of his day, who, in Locke’s view, too often used rhetoric to prop up dubious or unwarranted claims, putting a trance on the minds of those who attended to their words. “It is evident how much men love to deceive and be deceived,” he lamented (710).

Locke’s view of rhetoric here is not just as a persuasive art, but as a dark art, a spell-casting art.

Traditionally, the art of rhetoric, as a subject of study (or derision), has been confined to its use in public speaking and persuasive essay writing, but since the mid-20th century, communication theorists have steadily expanded rhetoric’s range, so that today, in the 21st century, it’s not unusual to find academics talking about rhetoric as something embedded in all messages, from greeting cards to billboards to music lyrics.

One of the early pioneers of this expanded rhetorical territory was Wayne Booth.

In 1961 Booth published a book with the curious title, The Rhetoric of Fiction, which is now widely considered a modern classic in literary criticism, opening up contact between two fields of study—literature and rhetoric—that normally did not explicitly intersect.

A more recent example is an introductory college writing text titled, Everything’s an Argument (2007), written by two prominent and influential professors of academic composition studies. In it, they boldly suggest that even stained-glass windows, meditation, and prayer function rhetorically (Lunsford 15).

Books such as these imply that if we look closely enough, rhetoric, like the Freudian id, is at work just about everywhere, below the surface of things, and can be teased out of the shadows and studied.

English and Speech Communications academics who study rhetoric thus increasingly find themselves sharing research space with linguists who study cognitive metaphors (such as Lakoff et.al), and social psychologists and media theorists engaged in propaganda and cult-formation studies.

Wherever you find an author, a message, and an audience, you find rhetoric.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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