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Rhetoric is concerned with form, rather than content; style, rather than substance. The Greeks (such as Aristotle) distinguished logos (meaning) from lexis (speaking). For Romans (such as Quintilian) the difference was between res (things, matters) and verba (words, expressions). This makes rhetoric inherently suspect.

In Gorgias, the dialogue by Plato (b. 428 B.C.E.) named after the famous teacher of rhetoric who discusses the matter with Socrates, we learn that rhetoric is the art of persuasion, not instruction. Gorgias, 454e. As such, Socrates regards it with suspicion. Socrates promotes the study of philosophy over the study of rhetoric. The dialogue ends with Socrates telling a story, which he claims to consider fact, of the judgment of the souls of the dead, at the crossroads between the road to the Isles of the Blessed (heaven) and the road to Tartarus (hell). Gorgias, 523a et seq.. The moral: it is better to be just than to merely appear just.

We do not have to choose between having Gorgias for a teacher or Socrates: we can make a study of both philosophy and rhetoric. And, clearly, Socrates is not above telling a good story to get his point across, and Plato, the author of the dialogue was a master of styles. Even in translations, some dialogues, such as the Symposium, reveal that Plato himself had mastered many styles.

As with so many subjects, our name for the subject of Rhetoric comes from the title of a treatise by Aristotle (b. 384 B.C.E.). Aristotle’s Rhetoric divides persuasion into three classes:

  • (1) ethos (character),
  • (2) pathos (emotion) and
  • (3) logos (reason).
These classes correspond to the three elements in speech-making: (1) speaker, (2) listener and (3) subject matter. Aristotle also classified three purposes or occaisions for speech: (1) ceremonial (funeral), (2) political (legislature) and (3) forensic (courtroom). These correspond to three ends or objects: (1) to praise (or blame) a person’s character, (2) to adopt (or reject) a future course of action, and (3) to judge (or excuse) a person for past actions.

Later Roman teachers of oratory (Cicero (106 B.C.E.) and Quintilian (35 C.E.)) picked up Aristotle’s classifications and used them for their own works on rhetoric. Quintilian, for example, relies on Aristotle’s treatment of ethos to insist that to be an effective speaker, one must have a good character. Prostitutes can persuade, Quintilian observes, but a man seeking to persuade a deliberative body or a court must have a better reputation than a prostitute in order to speak with “authority”.

Rhetoric might have languished under the weight of Christian dogma during the middle ages, had its uses to Christendom not been authoritatively demonstrated by Augustine (b. 354) and Boethius (b. 480). Augustine, himself a teacher of rhetoric before converting to Christianity and eventually becoming the bishop of Hippo (a city in North Africa) demonstrated the use of rhetoric in sermons and written polemics against heresy. Boethius, however, guaranteed that generations of scholars would study rhetoric by including it as one of the seven courses or “artes liberales” which were taught to undergraduates in all medieval universities. He made “rhetoric” one of the three arts pertaining to language: the trivium.

In modern times, “rhetoric” has largely disappeared, or been swallowed up in “Composition” (note the primary definition of "Rhetoric" by Webster 1913, below) and “Communication” courses. Though some universities maintain a Rhetoric department or even a degree program in Rhetoric, the notion of an “art” necessary to the education of free people is difficult to maintain against the dominant agro-intellectual paradigm of “fields” of scientific research.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric; classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.html

Cicero, Excerpts, trans. John F. Tinkler; www.towson.edu/~tinkler/reader/cicero.html

Joseph Petraglia-Bahri, “A Brief Overview of Rhetoric” (with links to student essays on topics and Classic authors in the field); http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/gallery/rhetoric/essay.html

Gideon Burton, Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric (an on-line encyclopedia of rhetoric); http://humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/silva.htm

Rhet"o*ric (?), n. [F. rh'etorique, L. rhetorica, Gr. (sc. ), fr. rhetorical, oratorical, fr. orator, rhetorician; perhaps akin to E. word; cf. to say.]


The art of composition; especially, elegant composition in prose.


Oratory; the art of speaking with propriety, elegance, and force.



Hence, artificial eloquence; fine language or declamation without conviction or earnest feeling.


Fig. : The power of persuasion or attraction; that which allures or charms.

Sweet, silent rhetoric of persuading eyes. Daniel.


© Webster 1913.

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