Early in the morning, Jay Heinrichs sits in his kitchen, watching as his teenaged son George Heinrichs eats breakfast. Noticing the empty tube of toothpaste in the bathroom, he shouts, “George, who used all the toothpaste?” George shoots back, “The point is how we’re going to keep this from happening again.” Previously, Heinrichs has taught his son that the purpose of a good argument is to discuss the future tense. Heinrichs concedes George’s point, and then asks George to get some more toothpaste, which George does immediately. Considering this incident later, Heinrichs realizes that he won the argument by making George believe that he won the argument. George is happy to have corrected his father, and, because he’s feeling victorious, he goes to get some toothpaste.
Jay Heinrichs, the author and narrator of the book, likes to use examples from his personal life, especially his family life. By beginning with a banal-seeming example of the power of arguing, Heinrichs tries to establish a connection with his audience (his readers), most of whom, presumably, will be familiar with the kind of low-stakes, everyday arguments that Heinrichs mentions here. Notice also that Heinrichs’s argument with George reaches a clear resolution (unlike many arguments that people have in the course of a day). Heinrichs will show readers how to argue more intelligently and productively.
Rhetoric, the art of argument, is a vital tool for any parent with a moody child, Heinrichs says. Like it or not, arguing is a part of life: when people look at ads or listen to a politician’s speech, they’re bombarded with arguments. By studying rhetoric we can “decode” arguments, and learn how to craft arguments ourselves.
Having established the importance of arguing and rhetoric in a banal, everyday setting, Heinrichs generalizes to say that rhetoric is an inescapable part of life. Politics and advertising are two of the most important applications of rhetoric that Heinrichs discusses.
In the ancient world, rhetoric was considered a fundamental skill for leaders. Ancient Greeks pioneered the rules of rhetoric, and Roman statesmen perfected them. Many of the finest passages in the Bible reflect the rules of rhetoric, as does the text of the Constitution. Yet rhetoric became less popular in the 19th century, and nowadays it’s rarely considered a central part of an education. Heinrichs wrote this book to persuade people that rhetoric is an important part of life, and that learning about rhetoric can improve life in countless ways. Through rhetoric, we can learn arguing strategies, and, in all, rhetoric gives us a “fresh new perspective on the human condition.”
Here, Heinrichs lays out the thesis of his book: rhetoric is an important form of knowledge, and it’s as relevant in the 21st century as it was in ancient Roman society. By studying rhetoric, he further claims, people can improve their lives in countless ways, both by boosting their awareness of other people’s arguments and by improving their own argumentative strategies.
To study the importance of persuasion, Heinrichs decided to conduct an experiment: for one whole day, he tried to avoid arguments. He woke up and immediately noticed his Timex Ironman wristwatch, a watch that is marketed as the official watch of the Ironman competition. This form of marketing represents what the Romans called argumentum a fortiori, or “argument from strength”—in short, the idea that, if something works the hard way, it’ll work the easy way (i.e., if the watch works for an Ironman competitor, it should work for Heinrichs).
To prove that rhetoric is indeed an inescapable part of modern life, Heinrichs attempts to live without rhetoric—but of course, he finds himself surrounded by rhetoric and rhetorical approaches, even from something as basic as his wristwatch.
Heinrichs sits at the breakfast table, writing in his notebook. After he quit his job, his wife, Dorothy Heinrichs, returned to full-time work; they agreed that Heinrichs would do the cooking. However, when Dorothy sees Heinrichs writing, she’s often so charmed that she brings him breakfast anyway. Seduction, Heinrichs notes, underlies many forms of entertainment. Not too long ago, a car salesman “seduced” Heinrichs into buying a bad car by putting him in a good mood and taking him for a nice drive.
Almost any human interaction, Heinrichs suggests, has some persuasive—and therefore, rhetorical—underpinning. Interestingly, at the same time as he writes about the importance of seduction in rhetoric, Heinrichs uses seduction to “sell” readers on his book.
Seduction, Heinrichs continues, is the cornerstone of many a successful argument. Through seduction, a skilled rhetorician can bring his audience to a consensus—in other words, agreement with the rhetorician. Even Aristotle, one of history’s greatest logicians, understood that rhetoricians need to use seduction and appeals to emotion to persuade other people—logic alone won’t always work.
Heinrichs generalizes from the previous passage to argue for the importance of seduction (understood in the general sense of any non-logical appeal). While logic and reason are important aspects of any good argument, they’re rarely enough to win the fight—a good rhetorician knows how to also use appeals to emotion and character to persuade other people.
Meanwhile, Heinrichs’ attempts to avoid argument fail. He doesn’t want to cook dinner for George, so he offers to cook stew (a meal that he knows George hates), thereby ensuring that George won’t be home for dinner. Later, he calls Sears over the phone about an unfair bill, making sure to speak slowly, since he knows that, by taking up the Sears employees’ time, he’ll be more likely to get a quick refund. At lunch, he sits outside and listens to a mockingbird singing a song. The bird sings a tune, and then sings it in reverse—a rhetorical trick called chiasmus. In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy used chiasmus: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Most people think of arguing as a tedious activity in which nothing is ever really accomplished. But as Heinrichs implies here, this view of arguing arises from the fact that most people don’t know how to argue well. Heinrichs recognizes that skillful, well-planned rhetorical maneuvers can be very useful—for example, the not-so-subtle maneuver that helps him keep George out of the house that evening. Heinrichs finds rhetorical techniques everywhere—even in birdsong—suggesting that the desire or need to persuade is universal.
Heinrichs’ day has ended up being highly “rhetorical.” Later, he finishes working and puts on a cashmere sweater that he knows Dorothy finds “bedroomy.” He thinks, “Let the seduction begin.”
The prologue ends with another reminder that rhetoric can be fun, useful, and downright sexy.