As children we are conditioned to a particular form of discourse that is framed by a significantly complex set of variables including our culture, gender, ethnicity, birth order, political identity and power, religion, and personality. How we employ words, in what context, and with what relative level of effectiveness is determined by all of these factors and more. Rhetoric is, however effectively argued over, a tool to be used within verbal discourse with the intent to convince others of a particular point-of-view. Political speech is perhaps the most obvious form of rhetoric we experience, but it is also employed in attempts to sell us things, to get others to go on dates, to win jobs and promotions, and to teach our children lessons on how to live life. Rhetoric's power is in its ability to convince - to win over people to a particular "side," to reinforce matters of morality, law, or conscience. This, as both Aristotle and Cicero observed, can be used for evil as well as for good - one has only to listen to speeches made by Hitler or Martin Luther King, Jr. To know the truth of this - that rhetoric is not inherently a good or a bad, but a tool that can result in either or both. Aristotle took on the argument that rhetoric is simply a craft - not one of the great arts (truths) of the world like science and religion which seek out and explore the universe's absolutes - but more like the building of furniture or the weaving of a rug - the perceived quality of rhetoric is found not in a tangible form, but one that disappears the moment the words are said. For Cicero, rhetoric was an art form that required practice and skill, much like any of the physical endeavors such as combat or Olympic competition. In this, his view of rhetoric was that it worked to serve the needs of the republic by providing the speaker with a manner by which to convince others (through impeccable and unimpeachable argument) of the correctness or "goodness" of a particular course of action. Political speech, was supported by Aristotle as an extension of good and Cicero proved to be the greatest practitioner.
If we are to truly comprehend the concept of "free speech" as was supported by Aristotle, Cicero and within our modern Western culture, we have to understand the concept of speech itself. We, of course, have a constitutional definition that appears to be essentially analogous to all forms of verbal expression. However, we do practice a common set of laws restricting speech when it covers particular topics, is used within specific contexts, and is aimed at doing direct harm to others. But, even within these restrictions, we still don't truly and clearly define speech as anything other than the utterance or conveyance of words. Speech, then, is an intangible thing that has enormous power - speech can result in the destruction of the world, or the rescue of a single being. So, what we utter and write, what we say directly or what we imply has no power in and of itself, but rather in the effect that it has upon the actions of others.
Speech is an absolute necessity. Without it, we could not possible communicate the true abstractions of life, the truths of science and faith, our passions and needs. Speech, then, is an essential element of humanity. But, is it an inherent good? Aristotle's position on speech, and in particular rhetoric, is that it has the inherent capability of corrupting not only the speaker, but the listener as well - that what is true can be turned into a lie with the effective crafting of a speech. What Aristotle argued was that political speech is absolutely necessary as a way of communicating and bridging the gap between the private and the public, the focus being upon the proper contextualization of discovered and known truths to those in the populace who would not otherwise be exposed to or otherwise grasp them within their daily lives. It is the carpenter's duty to build homes and furniture, the baker's to make bread, and the rhetorician's to explain the moral and ethical code of life to everyone. In this view, those engaged in political speech are, by their nature, agents of good.
However, Aristotle also maintained that the essential problem with rhetoric is that as it is made up of words, and words and arguments can lie, then rhetoric itself cannot be a universal good - such as science or religion whose entire purpose is to discover and reveal the absolute truths of the function of our universe and our souls. Rhetoric can be used to achieve great good. The speeches of Martin Luther allowed for the creation of the protestant Christian faith and the breaking of the monopolistic strangle-hold the Catholic Church had over the medieval world. The words of Abraham Lincoln were used to convince the nation of the evils of slavery.
The political speech of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson brought about the final blow to the legacy of slavery. Susan B. Anthony used rhetoric to convince the nation of women's rights to participate in the political life of the nation. These people employed rhetoric to achieve a greater good by revealing immorality, by force of careful and unimpeachable argument, by using the structures of argument employed by Cicero.
Rhetoric can be used to deceive - one has only to have known a "good" liar in their lives to know the truth of that statement. Rhetoric, no matter how nobly employed by good people, can be used for absolute evil intent. In our modern existence, rhetoric was used to convince the world that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction - without any actual evidence. The result was that a significant number of nations were drawn into one of the longest, most confusing, and pointless conflicts of the past two-hundred years. After the war began, the lies (the false rhetoric) were revealed but that truth was provided far too late for the thousands of people who have died to be saved. In the mid-1930's Adolph Hitler used rhetoric to convince Germany that the Jews were evil, had the desire, intent, and capability of usurping the power of their nation, and that they should be exterminated entirely. The millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and others who died in the Holocaust were the victims of rhetoric.
The area of deliberative oratory, then, is the core of Cicero's understanding of political speech. In this form of rhetoric, there is a speaker and a listener and no interaction between the two.
This is the most common form of political speech and what makes Cicero's particular variant of it so effective was that he absolutely believed in the inherent good that rhetoric can achieve, and an absolute belief that only those of good intention and moral character would be able to wield rhetoric in a believable and effective manner (Steel 24). His effectiveness is captured in his cannons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. The truth can always be discovered outside of rhetoric, so political speech by its very nature would be forced to be truthful when heard by those with the cognitive skill, insight, and education to do so.
Aristotle does not limit the content of political speech to rational truth claims. Neither does he argue that deliberation in the public sphere would lead to a rational consensus," (Triadafilopoulos 741). But, he also defended rhetoric as "offering a complex definition of public speech that appeals to our reason as well as human passions and emotions, Aristotle defends rhetoric against claims that it simply flattery, or worse still, an artful cloak for injustice," (Triadafilopoulos 743). What, then, Aristotle knew about rhetoric is that it could be absolutely used for both good and evil - but that the fact that it can lie does not take away from the greater capability for ridding us of evil. We are convinced of the truth about that which we cannot directly experience through words. Faith in God is based upon words and the drawing up of convincing arguments as the presence of a supreme being within our lives and the universe. Our belief in the atomic structure of molecules is not based upon any visual or factual evidence, but upon the best arranged conclusions based upon supposition and imposed logic. Most people in the world do not question the existence of God, but the vast majority of people would also confirm that they have no absolute proof (sight, touch, taste, smell, or hear) of God. Most people equally accept the existence of atoms, electrons, and protons without anyone actually seeing those things either. Rhetoric has been used, effectively, to convince the world of the existence of God and of atoms - how else would we believe in either if it weren't for rhetoric?