Counterrhetoric Practice

Practicing the Idea of Stoicism as a Form of Counter-Rhetoric

In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald J. Robertson talks about the idea of Stoicism as a form of counter-rhetoric.

The Sophists, as we’ve seen, sought to persuade others by appealing to their emotions, typically in order to win praise. The Stoics, by contrast, placed supreme value on grasping and communicating the truth by appealing to reason. This meant avoiding the use of emotive rhetoric or strong value judgments. We usually think of rhetoric as something used to manipulate other people. We tend to forget we’re doing it to ourselves as well, not only when we speak but also when we use language to think. The Stoics were certainly interested in how our words affect others. However, their priority was to change the way we affect ourselves, our own thoughts and feelings, through our choice of language. We exaggerate, overgeneralize, omit information, and use strong language and colorful metaphors: “She’s always being a bitch!” “That bastard shot me down in flames!” “This job is complete bullshit!” People tend to think that exclamations like these are a natural consequence of strong emotions like anger. But what if they’re also causing or perpetuating our emotions? If you think about it, rhetoric like this is designed to evoke strong feelings. By contrast, undoing the effects of emotional rhetoric by describing the same events more objectively forms the basis of the ancient Stoic therapy of the passions.
Indeed, one way of understanding the contrast between Stoic philosophy and Sophistic rhetoric is to view Stoicism as the practice of a kind of antirhetoric or counterrhetoric. Whereas orators traditionally sought to exploit the emotions of their audience, the Stoics made a point of consciously describing events in plain and simple terms. Cutting through misleading language and value judgments and stripping away any embellishments or emotive language, they tried to articulate the facts more calmly and soberly. Marcus likewise told himself to speak plainly rather than dressing up his thoughts in fancy language. Indeed, nothing is so conducive to greatness of mind, he said, as the ability to examine events rationally and view them realistically by stripping them down to their essential characteristics in this way.24 In the Discourses we’re told that a philosopher, presumably not a Stoic, once grew so frustrated with his friends questioning his character that he screamed, “I can’t bear it, you’re killing me—you’ll turn me into him!,”25 pointing at Epictetus. That was a sudden display of histrionics: a blast of emotional rhetoric. Ironically, though, if he’d been more like Epictetus, he would have just stuck to the facts without getting worked up and said something like, “You criticized me; so be it.” In truth, nobody was killing this man and he could bear it.

I think this is an idea worth reflecting on and practicing. I think that it's very common to exaggerate things in the manner depicted above, and it's worth considering what a more calm and neutral description would be like. By the means of such exercises, I think we can start to break down some of the negative thought patterns and emotional spirals that cause us to react irrationally. I'll start with some of Robertson's examples from above. Note that I used ChatGPT to come up with many of the examples on the "Emotional Description" side on the left, but the translations on the right side are all my own.

Emotional Description More Neutral Description
She’s always being a bitch! She often acts in an unfriendly manner.
That bastard shot me down in flames! That person rejected my proposal.
This job is complete bullshit! This job has undesirable aspects.
(Upon making an error) I'm such an idiot! I made an error.
You're impossible to deal with! I'm not sure how to engage with you productively.
I'm going to die of embarrassment. I am very embarrassed.
I've told you a million times already. I've repeatedly told you about this matter.
This is the absolute worst day of my life. This day has been unpleasant.
Nobody loves me. I currently feel unloved.
I can't do anything right. I frequently err.
I've been waiting for eternity. I've been waiting for a long while.
It's like talking to a brick wall. I don't feel like you're engaging with me.
You always do this. You frequently do this.
I'm drowning in work. I have a lot of work.
I'm going to explode if I have to hear that one more time. That statement will agitate me if I hear it again.
This room is a pigsty. This room is dirty and disorganized.
If I don't get this done, it'll be the end of the world. If I don't get this done, there will be unpleasant consequences.
My heart is shattered into a million pieces. I am experiencing emotional pain.
You're killing me with your questions. I find your questions tiresome.
I can't take it anymore. I don't want to deal with this anymore.
This is driving me up the wall. This is agitating me.
Everything always goes wrong for me. I frequently encounter problems.
I'm such a failure. I'm not living up to my goals for myself.
I have the worst luck in the world. I have luck that seems unusually poor.
You always let me down. You frequently let me down.

Additional Reading: I previously made a post on the idea of Stoicism as a form of counter-rhetoric.