Classical Rhetoric 101: A Brief History

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This is the
second in a series
on classical rhetoric
. In this post, we lay the foundation of
our study of rhetoric by taking a look at its history. While this
post is in no way a comprehensive history of rhetoric, it should
give you enough background information to understand the context
of the principles we’ll be discussing over the next few months.

Humans have
studied and praised rhetoric since the early days of the written
word. The Mesopotamians and Ancient Egyptians both valued the ability
to speak with eloquence and wisdom. However, it wasn’t until
the rise of Greek democracy that rhetoric became a high art that
was studied and developed systematically.

in Ancient Greece: The Sophists

Many historians
credit the ancient city-state of Athens as the birthplace of classical
rhetoric. Because Athenian democracy marshaled every free male into
politics, every Athenian man had to be ready to stand in the Assembly
and speak to persuade his countrymen to vote for or against a particular
piece of legislation. A man’s success and influence in ancient
Athens depended on his rhetorical ability. Consequently, small schools
dedicated to teaching rhetoric began to form. The first of these
schools began in the 5th century B.C. among an itinerant group of
teachers called the Sophists.

The Sophists
would travel from polis to polis teaching young men in public spaces
how to speak and debate. The most famous of the Sophists schools
were led by Gorgias and Isocrates. Because rhetoric and public speaking
were essential for success in political life, students were willing
to pay Sophist teachers great sums of money in exchange for tutoring.
A typical Sophist curriculum consisted of analyzing poetry, defining
parts of speech, and instruction on argumentation styles. They taught
their students how to make a weak argument stronger and a strong
argument weak.

Sophists prided
themselves on their ability to win any debate on any subject even
if they had no prior knowledge of the topic through the use of confusing
analogies, flowery metaphors, and clever wordplay. In short, the
Sophists focused on style and presentation even at the expense of

The negative
connotation that we have with the word “sophist” today
began in ancient Greece. For the ancient Greeks, a “sophist”
was a man who manipulated the truth for financial gain. It had such
a pejorative meaning that Socrates was executed by the Athenians
on the charge of being a Sophist. Both Plato and Aristotle condemned
Sophists for relying solely on emotion to persuade an audience and
for their disregard for truth. Despite criticism from their contemporaries,
the Sophists had a huge influence on developing the study and teaching
of rhetoric.

in Ancient Greece: Aristotle and
The Art of Rhetoric

While the great
philosopher Aristotle criticized the Sophists’ misuse of rhetoric,
he did see it as a useful tool in helping audiences see and understand
truth. In his treatise, The
Art of Rhetoric
, Aristotle established a system of understanding
and teaching rhetoric.

In The Art
of Rhetoric, Aristotle defines rhetoric as “the faculty
of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”
While Aristotle favored persuasion through reason alone, he recognized
that at times an audience would not be sophisticated enough to follow
arguments based solely on scientific and logical principles. In
those instances, persuasive language and techniques were necessary
for truth to be taught. Moreover, rhetoric armed a man with the
necessary weapons to refute demagogues and those who used rhetoric
for evil purposes. According to Aristotle, sometimes you had to
fight fire with fire.

After establishing
the need for rhetorical knowledge, Aristotle sets forth his system
for effectively applying rhetoric:

  • Three Means
    of Persuasion (logos, pathos, and ethos)
  • Three Genres
    of Rhetoric (deliberative, forensic, and epideictic)
  • Rhetorical
  • Parts of
  • Effective
    use of style

Art of Rhetoric had a tremendous influence on the development
of the study of rhetoric for the next 2,000 years. Roman rhetoricians
Cicero and Quintilian frequently referred to Aristotle’s work,
and universities required students to study The Art of Rhetoric
during the 18th and 19th centuries.

in Ancient Rome: Cicero

Rhetoric was
slow to develop in ancient Rome, but it started to flourish when
that empire conquered Greece and began to be influenced by its traditions.
While ancient Romans incorporated many of the rhetorical elements
established by the Greeks, they diverged from the Grecian tradition
in many ways. For example, orators and writers in ancient Rome depended
more on stylistic flourishes, riveting stories, and compelling metaphors
and less on logical reasoning than their ancient Greek counterparts.

The first master
rhetorician Rome produced was the great statesman Cicero. During
his career he wrote several treatises on the subject including On
, On
, and Topics.
His writings on rhetoric guided schools on the subject well into

approach to rhetoric emphasized the importance of a liberal education.
According to Cicero, to be persuasive a man needed knowledge in
history, politics, art, literature, ethics, law, and medicine. By
being liberally educated, a man would be able to connect with any
audience he addressed.

the rest of the article

1, 2010

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