AskDefine | Define rhetoric

Dictionary Definition



1 using language effectively to please or persuade
2 high flown style; excessive use of verbal ornamentation [syn: grandiosity, magniloquence, grandiloquence]
3 loud and confused and empty talk; "mere rhetoric" [syn: palaver, hot air, empty words, empty talk]
4 study of the technique and rules for using language effectively (especially in public speaking)

User Contributed Dictionary



From Latin rhētorica < (rētorikē), feminine form of (rētorikos) "concerning public speech" < (rētōr) "public speaker"


  1. The art of using language, especially public speaking, as a means to persuade.
  2. Meaningless language with an exaggerated style intended to impress.
    It's only so much rhetoric.


art of using language for persuasion
  • Croatian: retorika, govorništvo
  • Czech: řečnictví, rétorika
  • Dutch: redekunde, retorica
  • German: Rhetorik
  • Russian: реторика (ryetórika)
  • Spanish: retórica
  • Ukrainian: реторика (retóryka)

Extensive Definition

Rhetoric is the art of harnessing reason, emotions and authority, through language, with a view to persuade an audience and, by persuading, to convince this audience to act, to pass judgement or to identify with given values. The word derives from Greek ρητορική (rhetorike), fem. of ρητορικός (rhetorikós), "oratorical, skilled in speaking" and that from ρήτωρ (rhetōr), "orator" .
In Greece, rhetoric originated in a school of pre-Socratic philosophers known as Sophists c.600 BC. It was later taught, in the Roman Empire, and during the Middle Ages, as one of the three original liberal arts or trivium (along with logic and grammar).
In Ancient and Medieval eras of European history, rhetoric concerned itself with persuasion in public and political settings such as assemblies and courts of law. As such, rhetoric is said to flourish in open and democratic societies with rights of free speech, free assembly, and political enfranchisement for some portion of the population. However, celebratory (or epideictic) rhetoric, alongside deliberative rhetoric, is just as important an element of tyrannical regimes or dogmatic (religious and otherwise) public entities that are not open to debate on an equal footing.
In contraposition to scientific debates , rhetorical arguments, as in politics or even justice, do not make use of demonstrable or tested truths, but resort to fallible opinions, popular perceptions, transient beliefs, chosen evidence or evidence at hand (like statistics), which are all properly called commonplaces as they help establish a commonality of understanding between the orator or rhetor and his/her audience.
Contemporary studies of rhetoric have a more diverse range of practices and meanings than was the case in ancient times. The concept of rhetoric has thus shifted widely during its 3300-year history. Rhetoricians have recently argued that the classical understanding of rhetoric is limited because persuasion depends on communication, which in turn depends on meaning. Thus the scope of rhetoric is understood to include much more than simply public--legal and political--discourse. This emphasis on meaning and how it is constructed and conveyed draws on a large body of critical and social theory (see literary theory and Critical Theory), philosophy (see Post-structuralism and Hermeneutics), and problems in social science methodology (see Reflexivity). So while rhetoric has traditionally been thought of as being involved in such arenas as politics, law, public relations, lobbying, marketing and advertising, the study of rhetoric has recently entered into diverse fields such as humanities, religion, social sciences, law, science, journalism, history, literature and even cartography and architecture. Every aspect of human life and thought that depends on the articulation and communication of meaning can be said to involve elements of the rhetorical. "In the last ten years, many scholars have investigated exactly how rhetoric works within a particular field".

History of Classical Rhetoric

Ancient Israel

Rhetorical skills were first required, and found wanting in no lesser personage than Moses as mentioned in Torah, the Hebrew Bible traditionally dated to 1313 BCE, where Moses argued with God that he should not be the one to deliver the message to the people by saying "Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words..." (Exodus 4:10). To this God responded "Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite?" (Exodus 4:14). Levites were the priestly tribe of Israelites that were occupied primarily with teaching, at that time, in public, therefore Aaron was expected to be such a "man of words".

Ancient Greece

The earliest mention of oratorical skill occurs in Homer's Iliad, where heroes like Achilles, Hektor, and Odysseus were honored for their ability to advise and exhort their peers and followers (the Laos or army) in wise and appropriate action. With the rise of the democratic polis, speaking skill was adapted to the needs of the public and political life of cities in Ancient Greece, much of which revolved around the use of oratory as the medium through which political and judicial decisions were made, and through which philosophical ideas were developed and disseminated. For modern students today, it can be difficult to remember that the wide use and availability of written texts is a phenomenon that was just coming into vogue in Classical Greece. In Classical times, many of the great thinkers and political leaders performed their works before an audience, usually in the context of a competition or contest for fame, political influence, and cultural capital; in fact, many of them are known only through the texts that their students, followers, or detractors wrote down. As has already been noted, rhetor was the Greek term for orator: A rhetor was a citizen who regularly addressed juries and political assemblies and who was thus understood to have gained some knowledge about public speaking in the process, though in general facility with language was often referred to as logôn techne, "skill with arguments" or "verbal artistry." See, Mogens Herman Hansen The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (Blackwell, 1991); Josiah Ober Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (Princeton UP, 1989); Jeffrey Walker, Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity (Oxford UP, 2000).
Rhetoric thus evolved as an important art, one that provided the orator with the forms, means, and strategies for persuading an audience of the correctness of the orator's arguments. Today the term rhetoric'' can be used at times to refer only to the form of argumentation, often with the pejorative connotation that rhetoric is a means of obscuring the truth. Classical philosophers believed quite the contrary: the skilled use of rhetoric was essential to the discovery of truths, because it provided the means of ordering and clarifying arguments.

The Sophists

Organized thought about public speaking began in ancient Greece. Possibly, the first study about the power of language may be attributed to the philosopher Empedocles (d. ca. 444 BC), whose theories on human knowledge would provide a basis for many future rhetoricians. The first written manual is attributed to Corax and his pupil Tisias. Their work, as well as that of many of the early rhetoricians, grew out of the courts of law; Tisias, for example, is believed to have written judicial speeches that others delivered in the courts. Teaching in oratory was popularized in the 5th century BC by itinerant teachers known as sophists, the best known of whom were Protagoras (c.481-420 BC), Gorgias (c.483-376 BC), and Isocrates (436-338 BC). The Sophists were a disparate group who travelled from city to city making public displays to attract students who were then charged a fee for their education. Their central focus was on logos or what we might broadly refer to as discourse, its functions and powers. They defined parts of speech, analyzed poetry, parsed close synonyms, invented argumentation strategies, and debated the nature of reality. They claimed to make their students "better," or, in other words, to teach virtue. They thus claimed that human "excellence" was not an accident of fate or a prerogative of noble birth, but an art or "techne" that could be taught and learned. They were thus among the first humanists. Several sophists also questioned received wisdom about the gods and the Greek culture, which they believed was taken for granted by Greeks of their time, making them among the first agnostics. For example, they argued that cultural practices were a function of convention or nomos rather than blood or birth or phusis. They argued even further that morality or immorality of any action could not be judged outside of the cultural context within which it occurred. The well-known phrase, "Man is the measure of all things" arises from this belief. One of their most famous, and infamous, doctrines has to do with probability and counter arguments. They taught that every argument could be countered with an opposing argument, that an argument's effectiveness derived from how "likely" it appeared to the audience (its probability of seeming true), and that any probability argument could be countered with an inverted probability argument. Thus, if it seemed likely that a strong, poor man were guilty of robbing a rich, weak man, the strong poor man could argue, on the contrary, that this very likelihood (that he would be a suspect) makes it unlikely that he committed the crime, since he would most likely be apprehended for the crime. They also taught and were known for their ability to make the weaker (or worse) argument the stronger (or better). Aristophanes famously parodies the clever inversions that sophists were known for in his play The Clouds.
The word "sophistry" developed strong negative connotations in ancient Greece that continue today, but in ancient Greece sophists were nevertheless popular and well-paid professionals, widely respected for their abilities but also widely criticized for their excesses.
See Jacqueline de Romilly, The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens (French orig. 1988; English trans. Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1992).


Isocrates (436-338 BC), (not to be confused with the philosopher Socrates) like the sophists, taught public speaking as a means of human improvement, but he worked to distinguish himself from the Sophists, whom he saw as claiming far more than they could deliver. He suggested that while an art of virtue or excellence did exist, it was only one piece, and the least, in a process of self-improvement that relied much more heavily on native talent and desire, constant practice, and the imitation of good models. Isocrates believed that practice in speaking publicly about noble themes and important questions would function to improve the character of both speaker and audience while also offering the best service to a state. He thus wrote his speeches as "models" for his students to imitate in the same way that poets might imitate Homer or Hesiod. His was the first permanent school in Athens and it is likely that Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum were founded in part as a response to Isocrates. Though he left no handbooks, his speeches ("Antidosis" and "Against the Sophists" are most relevant to students of rhetoric) became models of oratory (he was one of the canonical "Ten Attic Orators") and he had a marked influence on Cicero and Quintilian, and through them, on the entire educational system of the west.
Plato (427-347 BC) famously outlined the differences between true and false rhetoric in a number of dialogues, but especially the Gorgias and the Phaedrus. Both dialogues are complex and difficult, but in both Plato disputes the Sophistic notion that an art of persuasion, the art of the Sophists which he calls "rhetoric" (after the public speaker or rhêtôr), can exist independent of the art of dialectic. Plato claims that since Sophists appeal only to what seems likely or probable, rather than to what is true, they are not at all making their students and audiences "better," but simply flattering them with what they want to hear. While Plato's condemnation of rhetoric is clear in the Gorgias, in the Phaedrus he seems to suggest the possibility of a true art of rhetoric based upon the knowledge produced by dialectic, and he relies on such a dialectically informed rhetoric to appeal to the main character, Phaedrus, to take up philosophy. It is possible that in developing his own theory of knowledge, Plato coined the term "rhetoric" both to denounce what he saw as the false wisdom of the sophists, and to advance his own views on knowledge and method. Plato's animosity against the Sophists derives not only from their inflated claims to teach virtue and their reliance on appearances, but from the fact that his teacher, Socrates, was accused of being a sophist and ultimately sentenced to death for his teaching. In his dialogues, Plato attempts to distinguish the rhetoric common to Socratic questioning from Sophistry.


Plato's student Aristotle (384-322 BC) famously set forth an extended treatise on rhetoric that still repays careful study today.
In the first sentence of The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle says that "rhetoric is the counterpart [literally, the antistrophe] of dialectic." As the "antistrophe" of a Greek ode responds to and is patterned after the structure of the "strophe" (they form two sections of the whole and are sung by two parts of the chorus), so the art of rhetoric follows and is structurally patterned after the art of dialectic because both are arts of discourse production. Thus, while dialectical methods are necessary to find truth in theoretical matters, rhetorical methods are required in practical matters such as adjudicating somebody's guilt or innocence when charged in a court of law, or adjudicating a prudent course of action to be taken in a deliberative assembly. For Plato and Aristotle, dialectic involves persuasion, so when Aristotle says that rhetoric is the antistrophe of dialectic, he means that rhetoric as he uses the term has a domain or scope of application that is parallel to but different from the domain or scope of application of dialectic. In Nietzsche Humanist (1998: 129), Claude Pavur explains that "[t]he Greek prefix 'anti' does not merely designate opposition, but it can also mean 'in place of.'" When Aristotle characterizes rhetoric as the antistrophe of dialectic, he no doubt means that rhetoric is used in place of dialectic when we are discussing civic issues in a court of law or in a legislative assembly. The domain of rhetoric is civic affairs and practical decision making in civic affairs, not theoretical considerations of operational definitions of terms and clarification of thought -- these, for him, are in the domain of dialectic.
Aristotle's treatise on rhetoric is an attempt to systematically describe civic rhetoric as a human art or skill (techne). His definition of rhetoric as a mode of discovery seems to limit the art to the inventional process, and Aristotle heavily emphasizes the logical aspect of this process. But the treatise in fact also discusses not only elements of style and (briefly) delivery, but also emotional appeals (pathos) and characterological appeals (ethos). He thus identifies three steps or "offices" of rhetoric--invention, arrangement, and style--and three different types of rhetorical proof:
  • ethos: how the character and credibility of a speaker influence an audience to consider him to be believable.
    • This could be any position in which the speaker--from being a college professor of the subject, to being an acquaintance of person who experienced the matter in question--knows about the topic.
    • For instance, when a magazine claims that, A MIT professor predicts that the robotic era is coming in 2050, the use of big name "MIT" (a world-renown college for advanced research in math, science, and technology) establishes the strong credibility.
  • pathos: the use of emotional appeals to alter the audience's judgment.
    • This can be done through metaphor, amplification, storytelling, or presenting the topic in a way that evokes strong emotions in the audience.
  • logos: the use of reasoning, either inductive or deductive, to construct an argument.
    • Logos appeals include appeals to statistics, math, logic, and objectivity. For instance, when advertisements claim that their product is 37% more effective than the competition, they are making a logical appeal.
    • Inductive reasoning uses examples (historical, mythical, or hypothetical) to draw conclusions.
    • Deductive or "enthymematic" reasoning uses generally accepted propositions to derive specific conclusions. The term logic evolved from logos. Aristotle emphasized enthymematic reasoning as central to the process of rhetorical invention, though later rhetorical theorists placed much less emphasis on it.
Aristotle also identifies three different types or genres of civic rhetoric: forensic (also known as judicial, was concerned with determining truth or falsity of events that took place in the past, issues of guilt), deliberative (also known as political, was concerned with determining whether or not particular actions should or should not be taken in the future), and epideictic (also known as ceremonial, was concerned with praise and blame, values, right and wrong, demonstrating beauty and skill in the present).
One of the most fruitful of Aristotelian doctrines was the idea of topics (also referred to as common topics or commonplaces). Though the term had a wide range of application (as a memory technique or compositional exercise, for example) it most often referred to the "seats of argument"--the list of categories of thought or modes of reasoning--that a speaker could use in order to generate arguments or proofs. The topics were thus a heuristic or inventional tool designed to help speakers categorize and thus better retain and apply frequently used types of argument. For example, since we often see effects as "like" their causes, one way to invent an argument (about a future effect) is by discussing the cause (which it will be "like"). This and other rhetorical topics derive from Aristotle's belief that there are certain predictable ways in which humans (particularly non-specialists) draw conclusions from premises. Based upon and adapted from his dialectical Topics, the rhetorical topics became a central feature of later rhetorical theorizing, most famously in Cicero's work of that name.
See Eugene Garver, Aristotle's Rhetoric: An Art of Character (University of Chicago Press,1994).

Roman rhetoricians

The Romans, for whom oration also became an important part of public life, saw much value in Greek rhetoric, hiring Greek rhetoricians to teach in their schools and as private tutors, and imitating and adapting Greek rhetorical works in Latin and with Roman examples. Roman rhetoric thus largely extends upon and develops its Greek roots, though it tends to prefer practical advice to the theoretical speculations of Greek rhetoricians. Cicero (106-43 BC) and Quintilian (35-100 AD) were chief among Roman rhetoricians, and their work is an extension of sophistic, Isocratean, Platonic and Aristotelian rhetorical theory.
Latin rhetoric was developed out of the Rhodian schools of rhetoric. In the second century BC, Rhodes became an important educational center, particularly of rhetoric, and the sons of noble Roman families studied there.
Although not widely read in Roman times, the Rhetorica ad Herennium (sometimes attributed to Cicero, but probably not his work) is a notable early work on Latin rhetoric. Its author was probably a Latin rhetorician in Rhodes, and for the first time we see a systematic treatment of Latin elocutio. The Ad Herennium provides a glimpse into the early development of Latin rhetoric, and in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it achieved wide publication as one of the basic school texts on rhetoric.
Whether or not he wrote the Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero, along with Quintilian (the most influential Roman teacher of rhetoric), is considered one of the most important Roman rhetoricians. His works include the early and very influential De Inventione (On Invention, often read alongside the Ad Herennium as the two basic texts of rhetorical theory throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance), De Oratore (a fuller statement of rhetorical principles in dialague form), Topics (a rhetorical treatment of common topics, highly influential through the Renaissance), Brutus (a discussion of famous orators) and Orator (a defense of Cicero's style). Cicero also left a large body of speeches and letters which would establish the outlines of Latin eloquence and style for generations to come. It was the rediscovery of Cicero's speeches (such as the defence of Archias) and letters (to Atticus) by Italians like Petrarch that, in part, ignited the cultural innovations that we know as the Renaissance.
Quintilian's career began as a pleader in the courts of law; his reputation grew so great that Vespasian created a chair of rhetoric for him in Rome. The culmination of his life's work was the Institutio oratoria (or Institutes of Oratory), a lengthy treatise on the training of the orator in which he discusses the training of the "perfect" orator from birth to old age and, in the process, reviews the doctrines and opinions of many influential rhetoricians who preceded him.
In the Institutes, Quintilian organizes rhetorical study through the stages of education that an aspiring orator would undergo, beginning with the selection of a nurse. Aspects of elementary education (training in reading and writing, grammar, and literary criticism) are followed by preliminary rhetorical exercises in composition (the progymnasmata) that include maxims and fables, narratives and comparisons, and finally full legal or political speeches. The delivery of speeches within the context of education or for entertainment purposes became widespread and popular under the term "declamation." Rhetorical training proper was categorized under five canons that would persist for centuries in academic circles:
  • Inventio (invention) is the process that leads to the development and refinement of an argument.
  • Once arguments are developed, dispositio (disposition, or arrangement) is used to determine how it should be organized for greatest effect, usually beginning with the exordium.
  • Once the speech content is known and the structure is determined, the next steps involve elocutio (style) and pronuntiatio (presentation).
  • Memoria (memory) comes to play as the speaker recalls each of these elements during the speech.
  • Actio (delivery) is the final step as the speech is presented in a gracious and pleasing way to the audience - the Grand Style.
This work was available only in fragments in medieval times, but the discovery of a complete copy at Abbey of St. Gall in 1416 led to its emergence as one of the most influential works on rhetoric during the Renaissance.
Quintilian's work attempts to describe not just the art of rhetoric, but the formation of the perfect orator as a politically active, virtuous, publicly minded citizen. His emphasis on the real life application of rhetorical training was in part nostalgia for the days when rhetoric was an important political tool, and in part a reaction against the growing tendency in Roman schools toward standardization of themes and techniques and increasing separation between school exercises and actual legal practice, a tendency equally powerful today in public schools and law schools alike. At the same time that rhetoric was becoming divorced from political decision making, rhetoric rose as a culturally vibrant and important mode of entertainment and cultural criticism in a movement known as the "second sophistic," a development which gave rise to the charge (made by Quintilian and others) that teachers were emphasizing ornamentation over substance in rhetoric. Quintilian's masterful work was not enough to curb this movement, but his dismayed response cemented the scholarly opinion that 2nd century C.E. rhetoric fell into decadence and political irrelevance, despite its wide popularity and cultural importance.
A valuable collection of studies can be found in Stanley E. Porter, ed., Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period 330 B.C. - A.D. 400 (Brill, 1997).

Rhetoric from the Medieval period to the Enlightenment

After the breakup of the western Roman Empire, the study of rhetoric continued to be central to the study of the verbal arts; but the study of the verbal arts went into decline for several centuries, followed eventually by a gradual rise in formal education, culminating in the rise of medieval universities. But rhetoric transmuted during this period into the arts of letter writing (ars dictaminis) and sermon writing (ars praedicandi). As part of the trivium, rhetoric was secondary to the study of logic, and its study was highly scholastic: students were given repetitive exercises in the creation of discourses on historical subjects (suasoriae) or on classic legal questions (controversiae).
Although he is not commonly regarded as a rhetorician, St. Augustine (354-430) was trained in rhetoric and was at one time a professor of Latin rhetoric in Milan. After his conversion to Christianity, he became interested in using these "pagan" arts for spreading his religion. This new use of rhetoric is explored in the Fourth Book of his De Doctrina Christiana, which laid the foundation of what would become homiletics, the rhetoric of the sermon. Augustine begins the book by asking why "the power of eloquence, which is so efficacious in pleading either for the erroneous cause or the right", should not be used for righteous purposes (IV.3).
One early concern of the medieval Christian church was its attitude to classical rhetoric itself. Jerome (d. 420) complained, "What has Horace to do with the Psalms, Virgil with the Gospels, Cicero with the Apostles?" Augustine is also remembered for arguing for the preservation of pagan works and fostering a church tradition which led to conservation of numerous pre-Christian rhetorical writings.
Rhetoric would not regain its classical heights until the renaissance, but new writings did advance rhetorical thought. Boethius (480?-524), in his brief Overview of the Structure of Rhetoric, continues Aristotle's taxonomy by placing rhetoric in subordination to philosophical argument or dialectic. One positive consequence of the Crusades was the introduction of Arab scholarship and renewed interest in Aristotle, leading to what some historians call the twelfth century renaissance. A number of medieval grammars and studies of poetry and rhetoric appeared.
Late medieval rhetorical writings include those of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1294), Matthew of Vendome (Ars Versificatoria, 1175?), and Geoffrey of Vinsauf (Poetria Nova, 1200-1216). Pre-modern female rhetoricians, outside of Socrates' friend Aspasia, are rare; but medieval rhetoric produced by women either in religious orders, such as Julian of Norwich (d. 1415), or the very well-connected Christine de Pizan (1364?-1430?), did occur if not always recorded in writing.
In his 1943 Cambridge University doctoral dissertation in English, Canadian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) surveys the verbal arts from approximately the time of Cicero down to the time of Thomas Nashe (1567-1600?). His dissertation is still noteworthy for undertaking to study the history of the verbal arts together as the trivium, even though the developments that he surveys have been studied in greater detail since he undertook his study. As noted below, McLuhan became one of the most widely publicized thinkers in the 20th century, so it is important to note his scholarly roots in the study of the history of rhetoric and dialectic.
Another interesting record of medieval rhetorical thought can be seen in the many animal debate poems popular in England and the continent during the Middle Ages, such as The Owl and the Nightingale (13th century) and Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls (1382?).

Sixteenth century

Walter J. Ong's encyclopedia article "Humanism" in the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia provides a well-informed survey of Renaissance humanism, which defined itself broadly as disfavoring medieval scholastic logic and dialectic and as favoring instead the study of classical Latin style and grammar and philology and rhetoric. (Reprinted in Ong's Faith and Contexts (Scholars Press, 1999; 4: 69-91.))
One influential figure in the rebirth of interest in classical rhetoric was Erasmus (c.1466-1536). His 1512 work, De Duplici Copia Verborum et Rerum (also known as Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style), was widely published (it went through more than 150 editions throughout Europe) and became one of the basic school texts on the subject. Its treatment of rhetoric is less comprehensive than the classic works of antiquity, but provides a traditional treatment of res-verba (matter and form): its first book treats the subject of elocutio, showing the student how to use schemes and tropes; the second book covers inventio. Much of the emphasis is on abundance of variation (copia means "plenty" or "abundance", as in copious or cornucopia), so both books focus on ways to introduce the maximum amount of variety into discourse. For instance, in one section of the De Copia, Erasmus presents two hundred variations of the sentence "Semper, dum vivam, tui meminero". Another of his works, the extremely popular The Praise of Folly, also had considerable influence on the teaching of rhetoric in the later sixteenth century. Its orations in favour of qualities such as madness spawned a type of exercise popular in Elizabethan grammar schools, later called adoxography, which required pupils to compose passages in praise of useless things.
Juan Luis Vives (1492 - 1540) also helped shape the study of rhetoric in England. A Spaniard, he was appointed in 1523 to the Lectureship of Rhetoric at Oxford by Cardinal Wolsey, and was entrusted by Henry VIII to be one of the tutors of Mary. Vives fell into disfavor when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon and left England in 1528. His best-known work was a book on education, De Disciplinis, published in 1531, and his writings on rhetoric included Rhetoricae, sive De Ratione Dicendi, Libri Tres (1533), De Consultatione (1533), and a rhetoric on letter writing, De Conscribendis Epistolas (1536).
It is likely that many well-known English writers would have been exposed to the works of Erasmus and Vives (as well as those of the Classical rhetoricians) in their schooling, which was conducted in Latin (not English) and often included some study of Greek and placed considerable emphasis on rhetoric. See, for example, T.W. Baldwin's William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, 2 vols. (University of Illinois Press, 1944).
The mid-1500s saw the rise of vernacular rhetorics — those written in English rather than in the Classical languages; adoption of works in English was slow, however, due to the strong orientation toward Latin and Greek. A successful early text was Thomas Wilson's The Arte of Rhetorique (1553), which presents a traditional treatment of rhetoric. For instance, Wilson presents the five canons of rhetoric (Invention, Disposition, Elocutio, Memoria, and Utterance or Actio). Other notable works included Angel Day's The English Secretorie (1586, 1592), George Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie (1589), and Richard Rainholde's Foundacion of Rhetorike (1563).
During this same period, a movement began that would change the organization of the school curriculum in Protestant and especially Puritan circles and lead to rhetoric losing its central place. A French scholar, Pierre de la Ramée, in Latin Petrus Ramus (1515-1572), dissatisfied with what he saw as the overly broad and redundant organization of the trivium, proposed a new curriculum. In his scheme of things, the five components of rhetoric no longer lived under the common heading of rhetoric. Instead, invention and disposition were determined to fall exclusively under the heading of dialectic, while style, delivery, and memory were all that remained for rhetoric. See Walter J. Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958; reissued by the University of Chicago Press, 2004, with a new foreword by Adrian Johns). Ramus, rightly accused of sodomy and erroneously of atheism, was martyred during the French Wars of Religion. His teachings, seen as inimical to Catholicism, were short-lived in France but found a fertile ground in the Netherlands, Germany and England.
One of Ramus' French followers, Audomarus Talaeus (Omer Talon) published his rhetoric, Institutiones Oratoriae, in 1544. This work provided a simple presentation of rhetoric that emphasized the treatment of style, and became so popular that it was mentioned in John Brinsley's (1612) Ludus literarius; or The Grammar Schoole as being the "most used in the best schooles." Many other Ramist rhetorics followed in the next half-century, and by the 1600s, their approach became the primary method of teaching rhetoric in Protestant and especially Puritan circles. See Walter J. Ong, Ramus and Talon Inventory (Harvard University Press, 1958); Joseph S. Freedman, Philosophy and the Art Europe, 1500-1700: Teaching and Texts at Schools and Universities (Ashgate, 1999). John Milton (1608-1674) wrote a textbook in logic or dialectic in Latin based on Ramus' work, which has now been translated into English by Walter J. Ong and Charles J. Ermatinger in The Complete Prose Works of John Milton (Yale University Press, 1982; 8: 206-407), with a lengthy introduction by Ong (144-205). The introduction is reprinted in Ong's Faith and Contexts (Scholars Press, 1999; 4: 111-41).
Ramism could not exert any influence on the established Catholic schools and universities, which remained by and large stuck in Scholasticism, or on the new Catholic schools and universities founded by members of the religious orders known as the Society of Jesus or the Oratorians, as can be seen in the Jesuit curriculum (in use right up to the 19th century, across the Christian world) known as the Ratio Studiorum (that Claude Pavur, S.J., has recently translated into English, with the Latin text in the parallel column on each page (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2005). If the influence of Cicero and Quintilian permeates the Ratio Studiorum, it is through the lenses of devotion and the militancy of the Counter-Reformation. The Ratio was indeed imbued with a sense of the divine, of the incarnate logos, that is of rhetoric as an eloquent and humane means to reach further devotion and further action in the Christian city, which was absent from Ramist formalism. The Ratio is, in rhetoric, the answer to St Ignatius Loyola's practice, in devotion, of "spiritual exercizes". This complex oratorical-prayer system is absent from Ramism.

The English Tradition in the Seventeenth Century

In New England and at Harvard College (founded 1636), Ramus and his followers dominated, as Perry Miller shows in The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Harvard University Press, 1939). However, in England, several writers influenced the course of rhetoric during the seventeenth century, many of them carrying forward the dichotomy that had been set forth by Ramus and his followers during the preceding decades. Of greater importance is that this century saw the development of a modern, vernacular style that looked to English, rather than to Greek, Latin, or French models.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), although not a rhetorician, contributed to the field in his writings. One of the concerns of the age was to find a suitable style for the discussion of scientific topics, which needed above all a clear exposition of facts and arguments, rather than the ornate style favored at the time. Bacon in his The Advancement of Learning criticized those who are preoccupied with style rather than "the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment." On matters of style, he proposed that the style conform to the subject matter and to the audience, that simple words be employed whenever possible, and that the style should be agreeable. See Lisa Jardine, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse (Cambridge University Press, 1975).
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) also wrote on rhetoric. Along with a shortened translation of Aristotle's Rhetoric, Hobbes also produced a number of other works on the subject. Sharply contrarian on many subjects, Hobbes, like Bacon, also promoted a simpler and more natural style that used figures of speech sparingly.
Perhaps the most influential development in English style came out of the work of the Royal Society (founded in 1660), which in 1664 set up a committee to improve the English language. Among the committee's members were John Evelyn (1620-1706), Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), and John Dryden (1631-1700). Sprat regarded "fine speaking" as a disease, and thought that a proper style should "reject all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style" and instead "return back to a primitive purity and shortness" (History of the Royal Society, 1667).
While the work of this committee never went beyond planning, John Dryden is often credited with creating and exemplifying a new and modern English style. His central tenet was that the style should be proper "to the occasion, the subject, and the persons." As such, he advocated the use of English words whenever possible instead of foreign ones, as well as vernacular, rather than Latinate, syntax. His own prose (and his poetry) became exemplars of this new style.

Modern Rhetoric

Modern rhetoric in North America

Walter Jost has examined Rhetorical Thought in John Henry Newman (1989). (John Henry Newman lived from 1801-1890.)
The Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984), who was deeply influenced by Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), worked out what he styles the generalized empirical method in Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957) and elsewhere. In a review article originally published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech (1985: 476-88),
At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a revival of rhetorical study manifested in the establishment of departments of rhetoric and speech at academic institutions, as well as the formation of national and international professional organizations. Theorists generally agree that a significant reason for the revival of the study of rhetoric was the renewed importance of language and persuasion in the increasingly mediated environment of the twentieth century (see Linguistic turn). The rise of advertising and of mass media such as photography, telegraphy, radio, and film brought rhetoric more prominently into people's lives.
For example, when McLuhan was working on his 1943 Cambridge University doctoral dissertation on the verbal arts and Nashe, mentioned above, he was also preparing the materials that were eventually published as the book The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man (Vanguard Press, 1951). This book is a compilation of exhibits of ads and other materials from popular culture with short essays about them by McLuhan. The essays involve rhetorical analyses of the ways in which the material in an item aims to persuade, and commentary on the persuasive strategies in each item.
After studying the persuasive strategies involved in such an array of items in popular culture, McLuhan shifted the focus of his rhetorical analysis and began to consider how communication media themselves have an impact on us as persuasive, in a manner of speaking. In other words, the communication media as such embody and carry a persuasive dimension. McLuhan uses hyperbole to express this insight when he says "The medium is the message". This shift in focus from his 1951 book led to his two most widely known books, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962) and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw-Hill, 1964). These two books led McLuhan to become one of the most publicized thinkers in the 20th century. No other scholar of the history and theory of rhetoric was as widely publicized in the 20th century as McLuhan.
McLuhan read Lonergan's Insight, mentioned above, in 1957 (see Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987: 251). Lonergan's book is an elaborate guidebook to cultivate one's inwardness and on attending to and reflecting on one's inward consciousness. McLuhan's 1962 and 1964 books represent an inward turn to attending to one's consciousness that is far more pronounced than anything found in his 1951 book or in his 1943 dissertation. By contrast, many other thinkers in the study of rhetoric are more outward oriented toward sociological considerations and symbolic interaction.
McLuhan's famous dictum "the medium is the message" can be paraphrased with terminology from Lonergan. At the empirical level of consciousness, the medium is the message, whereas at the intelligent and rational levels of consciousness, the content is the message. McLuhan is thus ordering us to pay attention to the empirical level of consciousness.

Contemporary Study of Rhetoric

Rhetorical theory today is as much influenced by the research results and research methods of the behavioral sciences and by theories of literary criticism as by ancient rhetorical theory. Early rhetorical theorists attempted to turn the study of rhetoric into a social science that allowed predictive analyses of human behavior. Interdisciplinary scholars of symbol systems, such as Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), Hugh Duncan, and most notably Kenneth Burke (1897-1993), influenced a new generation of rhetorical scholars who drew from various disciplines to more fully comprehend the phenomenon of human communication in all its aspects. Contemporary rhetorical theory, in fact, flourishes within a strong humanistic tradition, while social scientific studies tend to include mass media and focus on communication theory. The work of modern rhetorical scholars such as Roderick Hart, Richard E. Vatz, Barry Brummett, and Sonja Foss demonstrate how rhetoric's involvement with the public forum and persuasion make it a singularly useful way to study all modes of communication from oral and written to various modes of entertainment and other public discourse. While ancient rhetorical scholarship had focused primarily on rhetoric as speech, contemporary rhetorical theorists are interested in the panoply of human symbolic behavior—both the spoken and written word as well as music, film, radio, television, etc. Thus Kenneth Burke, who defined the human being as the "symbol-using animal," defined rhetoric as "the use of symbols to induce cooperation in those who by nature respond to symbols." Current rhetorical theory also draws heavily from cultural studies, performance studies, and design studies. Topics of interest to contemporary scholars include the relationships between rhetoric and gender, studies of non-traditional or alternative rhetorics, and rhetorics of science, technology, and new media.
Because the history of modern and contemporary rhetoric is closely tied to modern language theory and philosophy, some North American scholars (like Thomas B. Farrell) have found inspiration in post-structuralist French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Francois Lyotard. All that can be safely said, as a start and in strict relation to rhetoric, is the following: Derrida wrote on voice; Foucault was aware of Stoic rhetoric; Lyotard had a post-Heideggerian concept of rhetoric as being-in-the-world.

French Rhetoric in the Modern and Contemporary Periods

Rhetoric was part of the curriculum in Jesuit and, to a lesser extent, Oratorian colleges until the French Revolution. For Jesuits, right from the foundation, in France, of the Society, rhetoric was an integral part of the training of young men toward taking up leadership positions in the Church and in State institutions, as Marc Fumaroli has shown it in his foundational Age de l’éloquence (1980). The Oratorians, by contrast, reserved it a lesser place, in part due to the stress they placed on modern languages acquisition and a more sensualist philosophy (Bernard Lamy’s Rhetoric is an excellent example of their approach).Nonetheless, in the 18th Century, rhetoric was the armature and crowning of college education, with works such as Rollin’s Treatise of Studies achieving a wide and enduring fame across the Continent.
The French Revolution, however, turned this around. Philosophers like Condorcet, who drafted the French revolutionary chart for a people’s education under the rule of reason, dismissed rhetoric as an instrument of oppression in the hands of clerics in particular. The Revolution went as far as suppressing the Bar, arguing that forensic rhetoric did disservice to a rational system of justice, by allowing fallacies and emotions to come into play. Nonetheless, as later historians of the 19th century were keen to explain, the Revolution was a high moment of eloquence and rhetorical prowess, yet, against a background of rejection of rhetoric.
Under the First Empire and its wide ranging educational reforms, imposed on or imitated across the Continent, rhetoric regained little ground. In fact instructions to the newly founded Polytechnic School, tasked with training the scientific and technical elites, made it clear that written reporting was to supersede oral reporting. Rhetoric re-entered the college curriculum in fits and starts, but never regained the prominence it enjoyed under the ancien régime, although the penultimate year of college education was known as the Class of Rhetoric. When manuals were redrafted in the mid-century, in particular after the 1848 Revolution, care was taken by writers in charge of formulating a national curriculum to distance their approach to rhetoric from that of the Church seen as an agent of conservatism and reactionary politics. By the end of the 1870s, a major change had taken place: philosophy, of the rationalist or eclectic kind, by and large Kantian, had taken over rhetoric as the true terminal stage in secondary education, (the so-called Class of Philosophy bridged college and university education). Rhetoric was then relegated to the study of literary figures of speech, a discipline later on taught as Stylistics within the French literature curriculum. More decisively, in 1890 a new standard written exercise superseded the rhetorical exercises of speech writing, letter writing and narration. The new genre, called dissertation, had been invented, in 1866, for the purpose of rational argument in the philosophy class. Typically, in a dissertation, a question is asked, such as: “Is history a sign of humanity’s freedom?” The structure of a dissertation consists in an introduction that elucidates the basic definitions involved in the question as set, followed by an argument or thesis, a counter-argument or antithesis, and a resolving argument or synthesis that is not a compromise between the former but the production of a new argument, ending with a conclusion that does not sum up the points but opens onto a new problem. The dissertation design was influenced by Hegelianism. It remains today the standard of writing in the humanities.
By the beginning of the 20th century rhetoric was fast losing the remains of its former importance, to be taken out of the school curriculum altogether at the time of the Separation of State and Churches (1905) – part of the argument was indeed that rhetoric remained the last element of irrationality, driven by religious arguments, in what was perceived as inimical to Republican education. The move initiated in 1789 found its resolution in 1902 when rhetoric is expunged from all curricula. However, it must be noted that, at the same time, Aristotelian rhetoric, owing to a revival of Thomistic philosophy initiated by Rome, regained ground in what was left of Catholic education in France, in particular at the prestigious Faculty of Theology of Paris, now a private entity. Yet, for all intents and purposes, rhetoric vanished from the French scene, educational or intellectual, for some 60 years.
In the early 1960s a change began to take place, as the word rhetoric, let alone the body of knowledge it covers, started to be used again, in a modest and near confidential way. The new linguistic turn, through the rise of semiotics as well as structural linguistics, brought to the fore a new interest in figures of speech as signs, the metaphor in particular (in the works of Roman Jakobson, Michel Charles, Gérard Genette) while famed Structuralist Roland Barthes, a classicist by training, perceived how some basic elements of rhetoric could be of use in the study of narratives, fashion and ideology. Knowledge of rhetoric was so dim in the early 1970s, that his short memoir on rhetoric was seen as highly innovative. Basic as it was, it did help rhetoric regain some currency in avant-garde circles. Psycho-analyst Jacques Lacan, his contemporary, makes references to rhetoric, in particular to the Pre-Socratics. Philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote on Voice.
However, at the same time, more profound work was taking place that, eventually, gave rise to the French school of rhetoric as it exists today.
This rhetorical revival took place on two fronts. Firstly, in the area of 17th century French studies, the mainstay of French literary education, awareness grew that rhetoric was necessary to push further the limits of knowledge, and also provide an antidote to Structuralism and its denial of historicism in culture. This was the pioneering work of Marc Fumaroli who, building on the work of classicist and Neo-Latinist Alain Michel and French scholars such as Roger Zuber, published his famed Age de l’Eloquence (1980), was one of the founders of the International Society for the History of Rhetoric and was eventually elevated to a chair in rhetoric at the prestigious College de France. He is the editor in chief of a monumental History of Rhetoric in Modern Europe. His disciples form the second generation, with rhetoricians such as Françoise Waquet, Delphine Denis both of the Sorbonne, or Philippe-Joseph Salazar until recently at Derrida's College international de philosophie. Secondly, in the area of Classical studies, Latin scholars, in the wake of Alain Michel, fostered a renewal in Cicero studies, breaking away from a pure literary reading of his orations, in an attempt to embed Cicero in European ethics, while, among Greek scholars literary historian and philologist Jacques Bompaire, philologist and philosopher E. Dupréel and, somewhat later and in a more popular fashion, historian of literature Jacqueline de Romilly pioneered new studies in the Sophists and the Second Sophistic. The second generation of Classicists, often trained in philosophy as well (following Heidegger and Derrida, mainly), built on their work, with authors such as Marcel Detienne(now at Johns Hopkins), Nicole Loraux (d. in 2006), Medievalist and logician Alain De Libera (Geneva), Ciceronian scholar Carlos Lévy (Sorbonne, Paris) and Barbara Cassin (Collége international de philosophie, Paris). Sociologist of science Bruno Latour and economist Romain Laufer may also be considered part of, or close to this group. Links between the two strands, the literary and the philosophical, of the French school of rhetoric are strong and collaborative and bear witness to the revival of rhetoric in France.

The Profession and Teaching of Rhetoric in (mostly) North America


Other notable 20th- and 21st-century authors in the study of the history, theory, and criticism of rhetoric include Kenneth Burke, Wayne C. Booth, Cleanth Brooks, Edward P.J. Corbett, Marcel Detienne, Robert Ivie, Paul de Man, Marc Fumaroli, Ernesto Laclau, Richard A. Lanham, John Lucaites, Michael Calvin McGee, Chaim Perelman, I.A. Richards, Stephen Toulmin, Victor J. Vitanza, Robert Penn Warren, Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, Richard M. Weaver, and Deirdre McCloskey, as well as others.

Rhetoric in the North American Academy

Contemporary scholars in rhetoric come from diverse academic backgrounds, and are often housed in departments of English, Communication Studies, Rhetoric, Education, or Speech Communication. Rhetorical scholars meet at conferences such as the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the National Communication Association conference, and the Rhetoric Society of America conference. In Canada, The Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric is a small but thriving scholarly community with a yearly conference and an on-line journal, Rhetor. They publish research in journals including the Quarterly Journal of Speech, College Composition and Communication, the Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Rhetoric Review, Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, and Philosophy and Rhetoric.
Canadian Schools with departments dedicated to Rhetoric
  • Ron and Jane Graham Centre for the Study of Communication at The University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK,
(Note, the Graham Centre currently offers Special Case and Interdisciplinary Graduate programmes at the Masters and PhD level. An undergraduate communication option is being developed, and a Masters Of Professional Communication is planned for the summer of 2009).
  • Department of English - Rhetoric and Professional Writing at The University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON
US Schools with departments dedicated to Rhetoric
US Schools with hybrid departments of Rhetoric and another discipline
US Schools with an English Department offering an emphasis in Rhetoric
US Schools with a Communications Department offering an emphasis in Rhetoric
US Schools with an emphasis in Rhetoric offered through a joint English and Communications Department program

Discourse analysis

Rhetoric is not only a method for training effective communicators (rhetors); as a discipline for advanced study, it is a method for understanding on a theoretical as well as a practical level how humans use language ("discourse") to alter or shape our understanding of reality. Every text -- be it advertisement, lecture, speech, letter, blog, or chat -- inhabits a given discourse environment, hence the term discourse analysis. Rather than providing a particular method, discourse analysis is a way of approaching and thinking about a problem; neither a qualitative nor a quantitative research method, but rather a questioning of the basic assumptions of quantitative and qualitative research methods.
Discourse analysis does not provide a tangible answer to problems based on scientific research, but it reveals the ontological and epistemological assumptions behind a project, a statement, a method of research, or - to provide an example from the field of Library and Information Science - a system of classification. Discourse analysis thus reveals the hidden motivations behind a text or behind the choice of a particular method of research to interpret that text, enabling a more critical assessment of that text in light of the implicit assumptions that shaped it. By making these assumptions explicit, discourse analysis allows us to view the "problem" from varying perpsectives and to gain a comprehensive view of the "problem" and ourselves in relation to that "problem." In short, discourse analysis provides awareness of the hidden motivations in others and ourselves and, therefore, helps us solve concrete problems not by providing unequivocal answers, but by making us ask ontological and epistemological questions.

Examples of rhetoric


Primary texts

The locus classicus for Greek and Latin primary texts on rhetoric is the Loeb Classical Library of the Harvard University Press, published with an English translation on the facing page. For other translations, see the references in each author's Wikipedia entry.


Rhetoric in the visual arts

  • Ralf van Bühren: Die Werke der Barmherzigkeit in der Kunst des 12.–18. Jahrhunderts. Zum Wandel eines Bildmotivs vor dem Hintergrund neuzeitlicher Rhetorikrezeption (Studien zur Kunstgeschichte, vol. 115), Hildesheim / Zürich / New York: Verlag Georg Olms 1998. ISBN 3-487-10319-2

External links

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Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Barnumism, affectation, articulateness, bedizenment, big talk, bluster, bombast, choice of words, command of language, command of words, composition, convolution, debating, declamation, demagogism, dialect, diction, effective style, elocution, eloquence, eloquent tongue, exaggeration, expression, expression of ideas, expressiveness, facundity, fashion, feeling for words, felicitousness, felicity, flashiness, flatulence, flatulency, forensics, form of speech, formulation, fulsomeness, fustian, garishness, gasconade, gaudiness, gift of expression, gift of gab, glibness, grace of expression, grammar, grandiloquence, grandioseness, grandiosity, graphicness, high-flown diction, highfalutin, homiletics, hot air, idiom, inflatedness, inflation, language, lecturing, lexiphanicism, literary style, locution, loftiness, long-windedness, luridness, magniloquence, manner, manner of speaking, mannerism, meaningfulness, mere rhetoric, meretriciousness, mode, mode of expression, oratory, orotundity, ostentation, ostentatious complexity, parlance, peculiarity, personal style, phrase, phraseology, phrasing, platform oratory, platitudinous ponderosity, polysyllabic profundity, pomposity, pompous prolixity, pompousness, pontification, pretension, pretentiousness, prolixity, prose run mad, public speaking, puffery, pyrotechnics, rabble-rousing, rant, rhapsody, rhetoricalness, rodomontade, sensationalism, sense of language, sententiousness, sesquipedality, showiness, silver tongue, slickness, smoothness, speaking, speech, speechcraft, speechification, speeching, speechmaking, stiltedness, strain, stump speaking, style, stylistic analysis, stylistics, swelling utterance, swollen phrase, swollenness, talk, tall talk, the grand style, the plain style, the sublime, tortuosity, tortuousness, trick, tumidity, tumidness, turgescence, turgidity, usage, use of words, usus loquendi, vein, verbiage, verbosity, vividness, way, windiness, wordage, wordcraft, wordiness, wording
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