The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Rhetoric (from Greek ρητωρ, rhtr, "orator") is one of the three original liberal arts or trivium (the other members are dialectic and grammar). While it has meant many different things during its 2500-year history, it is generally described today as the art of persuasion through language. Rhetoric can describe a persuasive way in which one relates a theme or idea in an effort to convince.



In Western thought, several periods of history have seen particular interest paid to rhetoric as a discipline. Its origins as a science and art can be traced to ancient Greece. The philosophers of ancient Rome expanded the study and descriptions of rhetoric they had inherited from the Greeks. During the Renaissance, writers and thinkers studied the Classical texts closely, and again there were significant works produced on the subject.

Ancient Greece

Western thinking about rhetoric grew out of the public and political life of Ancient Greece, much of which revolved around the use of oratory as the medium through which philosophical ideas were developed and disemminated. For modern students, it can be difficult to remember that the wide use and availability of written texts is a phenomenon that is only a few hundred years old. In Classical times, many of the great thinkers spoke their words; in fact, many of them are known only through the texts that their students and followers wrote down. As has already been noted, rhetor was the Greek term for orator.

Rhetoric thus evolved as an important art, one that provided the orator with the forms, means, and strategies of persuading an audience of the correctness of the orator's arguments. Today the term rhetoric is generally used 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 rhetoric began in ancient Greece. 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.

Rhetoric was popularized in the 5th century BC by itinerant teachers known as sophists, the best known of whom were Protagoras, Gorgias, and Isocrates.

Gorgias was a diplomat, who first became well-known in Athens through his brilliant oration. He became an influential teacher and his school emphasized the development of an ornate, literary style that made much use of figures of speech. In particular, Gorgias seems to have been fond of antithesis and parallelism as rhetorical devices.

Isocrates was in his time probably the most influential teacher of rhetoric in Greece. He may have been a pupil of Tisias, and in turn educated many of the great orators of his day. He greatly expanded the rather artificial style of his predecessors and contemporaries and created a style that was refined and elegant, without being mannered. His great work Art of Rhetoric does not survive, but his thinking has been preserved in discourses and letters.


For Plato, the essence of philosophy lay in the process of dialectic, in which reason and discussion progressively lead to the discovery of important truths. This brought him into dispute with the sophistic philosophers; Plato believed that the sophists cared not for the truth of an argument, but only how they might appear to win it. Plato mistrusted those arts, such as rhetoric and poetry, which did not spring from universal principles, and held up the sophists as exemplars of rhetoric's failings.

Two of Plato's dialogues are especially focused upon rhetoric. The Gorgias emphasizes Plato's contention that the sophists value style over substance. Philosophy and rhetoric are related in the same way as are medicine and cosmetics. That is, medicine (like philosophy) is concerned with what is truly best for its subjects, whereas cosmetics (like rhetoric) is concerned solely with appearances. The Phaedrus was written after the Gorgias. While it continues Plato's critique of rhetoric, he also holds out the possibility that a rhetoric may yet be devised which is true and noble.

Because of Plato's attacks, Isocrates and the other sophists have come to be viewed as dishonest or inept philosophers. Yet a more balanced view shows that many of them were highly ethical and possessed great intellect.


The rhetoric developed by Plato's student, Aristotle, presents an answer to Plato's criticisms. Unlike his master, he valued the arts of persuasion; in fact, he himself had a school of rhetoric that competed with that of Isocrates.

In the first sentence of The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle says that "rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic". By this, he means that, while dialectical methods are necessary to find truth, rhetorical methods are required to communicate it.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." With this definition Aristotle placed invention, or the discovery of lines of argument, at the very center of the rhetorical enterprise. In doing so he set his system apart from that of the sophists, which focused on outcomes of public speaking. For Aristotle, then, rhetoric is an architectonic, rather than a productive, art. The question of the moral nature of this art has remained one of great debate among scholars of rhetoric.

Aristotle's treatise on rhetoric was an attempt to systematically describe rhetoric as a human art or skill (techne). He identified three different types of rhetorical proof:

  • ethos: how the character of a speaker influences an audience to consider him to be believable.
  • pathos: the use of emotional appeals
  • logos: the use of language in constructing an argument.

He also identified three different types of rhetoric: forensic (concerned with determining truth or falsity of events that took place in the past), deliberative (concerned with determining whether or not particular actions should or should not be taken in the future), and epideictic (concerned with praise and blame, demonstrating beauty and skill in the present).

Also very important in Aristotle's scheme are Kairos, the context in which the proof will be delivered, The Audience, the psychological and emotional makeup of those who will receive the proof, and To Prepon, the style with which he clothes his proof. In order for rhetoric to be effective, the orator must be sensitive to these elements. He must realize that the context will constrict what he can say and what will be considered relevant. He must attune his message to his audience, or he will risk alienating or disgusting his audience. And he must embody his ideas in a way that is both proper to the occasion and to his audience. For example, the orator would not use colloquial or slang language if he was speaking about a lofty topic. Indeed, all three elements are intertwined: The character of the audience will define how the orator judges the context, the context will define the style he will use, and, through the experimentation, the style will influence what the context consists of.

While Western philosophy has tended to emphasize logos, Aristotle's three bases of evidence provide a philosophical foundation for the broadly conceived psycho-social or behavioral sciences where accounting for non-rational factors in human behavior is necessary for explanatory completeness. Especially professions or occupations in applied social sciences, such as psychotherapy are based in the practice of persuasion, or rhetoric in Aristotle's broad conception.

Roman Rhetoricians

The Romans, for whom oration was also an important part of public life, saw much value in Aristotle's rhetoric. Cicero and Quintilian were chief among Roman rhetoricians, and their work is an extension of Aristotle's.

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 went there to study.

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. Although the Ad Herennium was not known in its time, it 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 contributed several other works on rhetoric: De Oratore, the Brutus, and the Orator are major works; De Optimo Genere Oratorum, Topica, and De Partitione Oratia are additional minor works. Cicero, of course, was also a renowned orator, and his orations and epistles are themselves exemplars of rhetoric, and were much imitated.

Along with Cicero, the most influential Roman rhetorician was Quintilian. His 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 it, Quintilian codified rhetorical studies 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.
  • Once the speech content is known and the structure is determined, the next steps involve elocutio (style) and pronuntiatio (delivery).
  • Finally, memoria (memory) comes to play as the speaker recalls each of these elements during the speech.

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 was reacting in part to the growing tendency in Rome to value ornamentation over substance in rhetoric. However, his masterful work was not enough to curb this movement, and the second century AD saw rhetoric fall into decadence.

One other figure worth mention, although he is not commonly regarded as a rhetorician, is St. Augustine. However, he was at one time a teacher of Latin rhetoric and after his conversion to Christianity, 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, and laid the foundation of what would become homiletics, the rhetoric of the sermon.

Rhetoric from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

After the Roman Empire, the study of rhetoric went into decline for several hundred years. Where it survived was primarily in the arts of letter writing (ars dictaminis) and writing sermons (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).

Sixteenth Century

One influential figure in the rebirth of interest in classical rhetoric was Erasmus. His work, De Duplici Copia Verborum et Rerum (1512), 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 the De Copia, Erasmus presents two hundred variations of the sentence "Semper, dum vivam, tui meminero".

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 was a work 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 still required the learning of Greek and Latin and placed considerable emphasis on rhetoric.

The mid-1500s saw the rise of vernacular rhetorics — those written in English rather than in the Classical languages; adoption works in English was slow to take hold, however, due to the bias 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 parts of rhetoric (Inuention, Disposition, Elocution, Memorie, and Utterance). 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 and lead to rhetoric losing its central place. A French scholar, Petrus Ramus, dissatisfied with what he saw as the overly broad and redundant organization of the trivium, proposed a new curriculum. Breaking with the traditional divisions of the liberal arts, he proposed something similar to the contemporary division of universities into multiple schools and departments of study (in fact, Ramus is the ultimate source of this organizational scheme). The five components of rhetoric no longer lived under the common heading of rhetoric. Instead, invention and disposition were determined to fall under the heading of philosophy, while language, delivery, and memory were all that remained for rhetoric.

One of Ramus' followers, Audomarus Talaeus (Omer Talon) published his rhetoric, Institutiones Oratoriae in 1544. This rhetoric 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.

Once stripped of its more substantial elements, rhetoric became a much less prestigious topic of study. Much as Plato originally condemned the rhetoric of the sophists for its lack of concern for truth, rhetoric again threatened to be divorced from logic and critical thinking.

Seventeenth Century

In England, several writers influenced the course of rhetoric of 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, 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.

Thomas Hobbes 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, which in 1664 set up a committee to improve the English language. Among the committee's members were John Evelyn, Thomas Sprat, and John Dryden. 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 Developments

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. The rise of advertising and of mass media such as photography, telegraphy, radio, and film brought rhetoric more prominently into people's lives.

Current state of rhetorical study

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 Hugh Duncan , Ernst Cassirer, and most notably Kenneth Burke, 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. While ancient rhetorical scholarship had focused only on rhetoric as oral 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 and design studies.


  • Classical (Greek)
  • Classical (Roman)
    • Cicero (106-43 BC) -- Great Roman orator and philosopher
    • Quintilian (35-100) -- Imperial professor of rhetoric, complete system of rhetorical education
    • Libanius (314-394) -- prominent practitioner and teacher in the Later Roman Empire
    • Aelius Festus Aphthonius -- 3rd century practitioner and author of a progymnasmata (a book of practical exercises for developing creative thought in writing)
  • Medieval
  • Renaissance
    • Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536) -- Dutch scholar, wrote on style and composition
    • Juan Lus Vives (1492-1540) -- established pattern of rhetorical education in English schools
    • Thomas Wilson (c. 1525-1581) -- neoclassicist, wrote most popular English Renaissance rhetoric handbook - The Arte of Rhetorique (1553)
    • Leonard Cox -- produced first rhetoric handbook in English --Arte or Crafte of Rhetoryke (1530)
    • Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) -- recognized that language shaped genius and not the reverse, well known for the New Science and On the Study Methods of Our Time.

(Definitions, discussion of conflicting opinions, ending with synthesis: a working general definition of rhetoric for this article)

See also

Rhetorical remedies


Primary Texts

  • Aristotle. The Art of Rhetoric. (Translated by J. H. Freese) Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, .
  • Rhetorica ad Herennium. (Unknown author, sometimes attributed to Cicero, trans. Henry Caplan) Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1954.
  • Quintilian. Institutio oratoria. (In five volumes, trans. Donald A. Russell) Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2002.
  • Quintilian. Institutio oratoria. (In four volumes, trans. H.E. Butler) Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 1922

see the External Links section for online editions of several important works, including"

Rhetorica ad Herennium
Cicero's De Inventione
Quintilian's Institutio oratoria
Thomas Wilson's The Arte of Rhetorique

Criticism and Analysis

  • Baldwin, Charles Sears. Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic: Interpreted from Representative Works. Peter Smith, Gloucester, 1959 (reprint).
  • Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
  • Corbett, Edward P.J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student Oxford University Press, New York, 1971.
  • Kennedy, George. Art of Persuasion in Greece. Princeton Univ Press, 1969 (4th printing).
  • Mackin, John H. Classical Rhetoric for Modern Discourse. Free Press, New York, 1969.

External links

Online Primary Texts

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04