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Rhetoric is employed in both act and perception, in private thought and public communication. It is a means of communication as well as a theory for understanding and criticizing itself and the alternative means of communication. Wedded by the motives of both author and audience, the rhetoric of the social sciences is, like other rhetorics, simultaneously a guide for persuasive writing and a framework for intelligent reading. Centrally speaking, the rhetoric of the social sciences is the study and practice of argumentation and proof making, constrained only by the available means of persuasion. As such, rhetoric judges and is judged, it moves and is moved. Rhetoric is our ways and means of scientific deliberation. Following the models of Aristotle (c. 384322 BCE) and of Cicero (10643 BCE), the Roman statesman and philosopher, rhetoric is also importantly about the ethos or character of the author; to some theorists, such as Quintilian (3596 CE), it is nothing less than the good person speaking well.

Rarely claimed after Aristotle to be a science unto itself, rhetoric as a discipline has profoundly shaped the sciences, and each of the sciences, including the social sciences, have returned the sometimes painful favor by reshaping and redefining the theories and vocabularies of rhetoric; (cf. Socrates, in Platos Phaedrus : The method of the science of medicine is, I suppose, the same as the science of rhetoric.... In both sciences it is necessary to determine the nature of something [2005, p. 56]).

An ancient discipline of Greek and Latin origins established originally for pleadings in law, politics, and international commerce, the rhetorical theories of Cicero, Quintilian, St. Augustine (354430 CE), and especially Aristotle proved to be of central importance to all of human communication, including scientific communication, and became the foundation for liberal education in Europe for more than twenty centuries. The influence of rhetoric was particularly strong in the medieval university trivium, of which St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) is a product. The trivium was organized around three basic subjects: grammar (that is, words, word order, phonics, sentence structure, and the like), logic (syllogism, cause and effect, quality versus quantity, and so forth), and rhetoricwith rhetoric presiding as queen and lord. Rhetoric was not a mere synthesis of grammar and logic, though partly it was; rhetoric provided fundamental training in strategic theories of persuasion. It gave students practice in the arts of persuasion and good citizenship that would be necessary for success in later pursuits, such as immediately in the quadrivium (the study of mathematics, science, and music) and followed by (at least for some students) investigations in philosophy, theology, and public service. Compared to todays four- or five-step handbooks on valid scientific method, the handbooks of rhetoric appear, like scientific argument itself, copious. In Aristotles On Rhetoric alone, one can identify several scores of distinct strategies for argument and proof, and literally thousands more of unique commonplaces (or topoi )that is, general and particular sites of knowledge and belieffor use in designing arguments (Aristotle [c. 350 BCE] 1991). The sum of the permutations, a subset of all the available means of persuasion, is immense.

In the sixteenth century a Frenchman named Peter Ramus (15151572) was deeply inspired by his surface reading of Plato (c. 427347 BCE), the sophists, and other classical rhetoricians. A persuasive and powerful (but not, it seems, a highly original or ethical thinker), Ramus commenced to reduce the very word rhetoric to mere style, emotion, ornament, or, in the foulest of moods, manipulationa project that was encouraged by the so-called scientific revolution, of which Ramus was a part. In the century before René Descartes, Ramus thought a new language and taxonomy of thought were necessary to suit the scientific and mathematical ideas of the Renaissance, and Aristotelian rhetoric and logic, which students had been learning for centuries, was eclipsing, he said, the full reception of those ideas (Ong 1958; Olmsted 2006). That Ramus himself adapted ancient principles of rhetoric (such as the pairing of opposites) to enact his, as Ong puts it, superficial revolution was to Ramus and his followers apparently beside the point. The fleeting success of antirhetoric rhetoricsuch as, to repeat, Ramuss own reduction of the very word to mean mere stylehad been observed in previous epochs, however, and would periodically recur.

In educated circles of the late eighteenth century, rhetoric reappeared in a form closer to its ancient, philosophical stature (Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham each wrote a book on rhetoric, Smith emphasizing the rhetoric of belles lettres and Bentham the fallacies of political pundits). In the second half of the nineteenth century a notable addition to rhetoric and religion was supplied by Cardinal Newman in Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (c. 1870). Rhetoric was then shoved far under the rug by neopositivists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (the neopositivists were a diverse group that included, among others, the scientist-philosophers Karl Pearson, Ernst Mach, and the so-called scientific socialists). But the logical positivists, the members and philosophical allies of the Vienna Circle, went even further and tried with some success to bury rhetoric along with other cognitively meaningless subjects such as, they said, metaphysics, theology, and poetry. In retrospect, the positivists said, their goal was not to kill off rhetoric and other humanistic disciplines but simply to banish them from scientific deliberation.

In the 1940s and 1950s the study of rhetoric was again revived to respectability, this time by the writings of I. A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, Richard McKeon, Chaim Perelman, Wayne Booth, Richard Weaver, and some others. A tiny postwar boom came to rhetoric by way of a delayed interest in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) and American philosophical pragmatism (represented by C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey), both of which, like Aristotle and his followers, saw symbols and human action as inextricably entwined, even in science. A larger boost came from specific economic and cultural change. Demand for workers in the fields of technology, such as in for example the increasingly important radio and broadcast journalism industries, gave new value to the skills of the rhetorician. And in the 1970s and 1980s the philosophical and cultural movements generally referred to as postmodernism gave new purpose to theories and arts of communication, that is, to rhetoric.

Nowadays the larger universities maintain a department of rhetoric. If lacking a full department of their own, academic rhetoricians find employment with journalists and others in a department of communication studies, with political scientists and others in a school of public affairs, or with scientists, historians, and philosophers in the departments of classics and science and technology studies.

Rhetoric is among the oldest of subjects and also the most fluid. The fluidity of rhetoricits ability to adapt to radically changing social, economic, and political conditionsis essential to and descriptive of its fitness. Rhetoric is constantly under attack, often by highly skilled writers. To themthe Platonists, the Ramists, the Cartesians, the logical positivists, the scientific socialists, and the media journaliststhe University of Chicago philosopher Richard McKeon (19001985) never tired of pointing out that because rhetorical choices are always being madefrom the arid symbols of first-order predicate logic to the manifestos of scientists and philosophers who would deny the force of rhetoricrhetorical training is always relevant to the human condition.

Contemporary social scientists are formally speaking innocent of their own rhetoric. That is not to say they do not grasp the words, facts, models, theories, experimental methods, and institutional environments with which and in which they operate; rather, with a few exceptions, professional societies and the modern university do not require more than an imitative capacity to work with other than highly specific, state-of-the-art rhetorical forms to gain in-group authority (Latour and Woolgar 1979; McCloskey 1985; Nelson, Megill, McCloskey 1987; Brown 1989; Klamer 2007). A mathematical article purporting to prove with utility theory the goodness of market economies, for example, is not likely to refer to the decline of character talk in nineteenth-century economic psychology. Nor is the positive social scientist likely to know or even care about the purposive erasure of ethics and narrative from twentieth-century economic thought. Todays social scientist is trained to believe with the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association that there is only one scientific styletodays style, exemplified by articles published in the top-ranked journals. Her neatly separated section titlesintroduction, theory, model, data, hypothesis test, policy implications, conclusionare said by her teachers to represent distinct and nonrhetorical epistemic objects (Bazerman 1988). She is trained to let the facts speak for themselves and to keep her values out of sight (Burke 1950; Booth 1974; Fish 1990). Likewise, the empirical economist does not bother to learn the rhetorical history of statistical significance testing, even though significance testing is his lifeblood, and does not achieve the crucial test of economic or social scientific significance his handbook on method imagines (McCloskey and Ziliak 1996; Ziliak and McCloskey 2007). The loss of rhetoric in social science training is more than a simple academic farewell to reason.

Some observers argue that without a basic training in rhetoric, a social scientist cannot know the difference between knowledge and belief, and why the difference matters. Quite a few others think that the reason to bring rhetoric back to the center of educationincluding graduate educationis that highly specialized scientists would become better equipped to speak with other specialists, and, perhaps more importantly, with policy makers and the general public. Specialization, Adam Smith observed, is on balance good for society; but he added that it is only through mutually beneficial exchange that the gains from specialization can be realized ([17621763] 1963). Rhetoric, some say, enables both the means and the ends.


Aristotle. [c. 350 BCE] 1991. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bazerman, Charles. 1988. Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Bentham, Jeremy. [1824] 1962. The Handbook of Political Fallacies. Intro. Crane Brinton. New York: Harper.

Booth, Wayne C. 1974. Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, Richard Harvey. 1989. Social Science as Civic Discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burke, Kenneth. 1945. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth. 1950. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Fish, Stanley. 1990. Rhetoric. In Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, 203222. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Klamer, Arjo. 2007. Speaking of Economics: How to Be in the Conversation. London: Routledge.

Klamer, Arjo, Robert M. Solow, and Donald N. McCloskey, eds. 1989. The Consequences of Economic Rhetoric. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Lanham, Richard A. 1991. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. New York: Sage.

McCloskey, Deirdre N. [1985] 1998. The Rhetoric of Economics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

McCloskey, Deirdre N., and Stephen T. Ziliak. 1996. The Standard Error of Regressions. Journal of Economic Literature 34 (March): 97114.

McKeon, Richard. 1987. Rhetoric: Essays in Invention and Discovery. Ed. and intro. Mark Backman. Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press.

McKeon, Richard. 1990. Freedom and History, and Other Essays: An Introduction to the Thought of Richard McKeon. Ed. Zahava K. McKeon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nelson, John S., Allan Megill, and Donald N. McCloskey. 1987. The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Olmsted, Wendy. 2006. Rhetoric: An Historical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Ong, Walter J. [1958] 1983. Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pearson, Karl. 1892. The Grammar of Science. London: J. M. Dent and Sons.

Perelman, Chaim. 1979. The New Rhetoric and the Humanities. Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel.

Plato. [c. 380s370s bce] 2005. Phaedrus. Trans. Christopher Rowe. London: Penguin.

Rorty, Richard. 1982. Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, Adam. [17621763] 1963. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belle Lettres. Ed. John C. Bryce. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ziliak, Stephen T., and Deirdre N. McCloskey. 2007. The Standard Error: How Some Sciences Lost Interest in Magnitude, and What to Do About It. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Stephen Ziliak

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1. The study and practice of effective COMMUNICATION.

2. The art of persuasion
3. An insincere eloquence intended to win points and get people what they want. All three senses have run side by side for more than 2,000 years. In the late 20c, rhetoric has an explicit and an implicit aspect. Explicitly, many 20c language professionals refer to rhetoric as archaic and irrelevant, while for some philosophers of communication and for many teachers of writing it is a significant and lively issue. In the latter circles, there is discussion of a ‘new rhetoric’ that blends the best of the old with current insights into the nature of communication. It is, however, an ironic measure of the centuries-old strength of rhetoric that many of its principles, concepts, and devices are taken as given by educated users of languages like English, French, and German. Terms like ANALOGY, ANTITHESIS, dialectic, and METAPHOR had their beginning among the rhetoricians of ancient Greece, as did many of the techniques of court-room argument, public speaking, advertising, marketing, and publicity.


In ancient societies with no awareness of writing, the ability to speak informatively, cohesively, and memorably was essential and admired. In such societies, chiefs, bards, and seers used a variety of techniques to gain attention and ensure retention of information (in their own as well as their listeners' minds). Linguistic techniques included: RHYTHM; REPETITION; formulaic lists and descriptions; kinds of EMPHASIS; balance and antithesis; ELLIPSIS; and words and devices to evoke mental images. In the course of time, such techniques were organized into bodies of received knowledge. In some societies, they were largely a part of religious ritual, as in India; in others, such as Greece, they were part of the craft of speaking which in the 5c BC became the foundation of education in city states like Athens and Sparta.

Greek rhetoric

The story is told of exiles who returned to Syracuse, a Greek colony in Sicily, after the overthrow of a tyrant. Because they needed to organize their claims to appropriate land, they hired teachers to help them argue their cases, and, as a result, the craft of rhetoric emerged through pleading in the Syracusan court. Itinerant teachers known as sophists (wise ones) then taught this forensic art alongside logic, a subject which was associated with the new craft of writing. Rhetoric's foremost exponents and analysts were Gorgias, Isocrates, Plato (all 5–4c BC), and Aristotle (4c BC). Of their rhetorical works, however, only Plato's Phaedrus and Aristotle's Rhetoric have survived. As writing became commoner, elements of the oral craft were transferred to prose composition and efforts were made to harmonize the rules of speech and writing with those of logic. The devices of rhetoric, however, did not lose their links with poetry or their practical ties with the law. As a result, rhetoric came to be viewed in two ways: as the high moral and philosophical art of speech and writing, and as a low art of winning arguments and impressing the gullible.

The five canons

Many manuals were compiled on the subject, such as the Latin treatise Rhetorica ad Herennium (‘Oratory for Herennius’: anonymous, 1c BC). These works usually listed five canons or offices of rhetoric, concerned with gathering, arranging, and presenting one's material:

1. Greek heúresis, Latin inventio.

Finding or researching one's material. The speaker or writer assesses an issue and assembles the necessary material.

2. Greek táxis, Latin dispositio.

Arranging or organizing one's material. Here, the orator puts the parts of the discourse in order, starting with the exordium or formal opening, then proceeding with the narration, including the division into various points of view, with proofs and refutations, and closing with the conclusion.

3. Greek léxis, Latin elocutio or educatio.

The fitting of language to audience and context, through any of three styles: the high-and-grand, the medium, and the low-and-plain. Included in this ‘style’ section are the traditional rhetorical devices and figures of speech.

4. Greek hupókrisis, Latin pronuntiatio or actio.

Performance, including the arsenal of techniques to be used in proclaiming, narrating, or in effect acting. This aspect was concerned with live audiences but also covered work on papyrus and parchment.

5. Greek mnḗmē, Latin memoria.

Training of the mind, to ensure accurate recall and performance in public assembly or court of law.

In all such discourse, the speaker could appeal to páthos (the emotions, the heart), to lógos (reason; the head), and/or to êthos (character; morality).

Roman rhetoric

Republican Rome shared the Greek interest in debate and legal argument, and therefore considered rhetoric essential to public life. Classics like Aristotle's Rhetoric were augmented by the lawyer Cicero (2–1c BC), who produced among other works the De inventione (On Making your Case) and the De oratore (On Being a Public Speaker), and by Quintilian (1c AD), author of the Institutio oratoria or Institutiones oratoriae (Foundations of Oratory). The systematization of rhetoric served the Empire well, helping to develop Latin as a language of literacy throughout the dominions. Imperial Rome, however, generally discouraged free and democratic debate, with the result that style and effect became more important than integrity.

Medieval and Renaissance rhetoric

Aristotle and Cicero had a profound influence on education in medieval Christendom. Through the works of Martianus Capella (5c), Cassiodorus (5–6c), and St Isidore of Seville (6–7c), their principles became part of Scholasticism, leading to the trivium (the three ways) of grammar, rhetoric, and logic-cum-dialectic, studied by aspirants to Latin learning and clerical orders. The trivium was the foundation for the quadrivium (the four ways) of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music-cum-harmony. Together, these made up ‘the seven liberal arts’, the core programme of theocratic and general education. Cicero had been the first to use the phrase artes liberales (liberal arts), the model not only for medieval and Renaissance scholarly debate but for contemporary liberal arts colleges and degrees and the education they seek to provide. When the complete text of Quintilian was rediscovered in a Swiss monastery in 1416, it helped animate the revival of classical learning known as the Renaissance. Scholars like Peter Ramus (16c), however, saw rhetoric less as a way of developing speech than as a means of teaching writing, whose importance was much greater than in classical times, both to the Church and the new nation-states. The five ancient canons were reorganized, assigning invention and disposition to dialectic and largely ignoring memory (although learning by heart remained a prime element in education). Renaissance rhetoric served the growth of literacy in the vernaculars as well as Latin, focusing on composition, style, and the figures of speech.

Rhetoric and English

During and after the Renaissance, rhetoric dominated education in the humanities in England, Scotland, and France, remaining little changed until the later 19c. During this period, the ancient tension between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ rhetoric continued, as the following extracts indicate. The first, from The Schoolmaster ( Roger Ascham, 1563), praises Cicero and everything Latinate; the second, from Hudibras ( Samuel Butler, 1663) mocks the ornate and empty:
Ascham. There is a way, touched in the first book of Cicero De oratore, which, wisely brought into schools, truly taught, and constantly used, would not only take wholly away this butcherly fear in making of Latins but would also, with ease and pleasure and in short time, as I know by good experience, work a true choice and placing of words, a right ordering of sentences, an easy understanding of the tongue, a readiness to speak, a facility to write, a true judgment both of his own and other men's doings, what tongue soever he doth use.
Butler. For rhetoric, he could not ope His mouth but out there flew a trope; And when he happened to break off In the middle of his speech, or cough, He had hard words ready to show why, And tell what rules he did it by.

The fragmentation of rhetoric that began in the Renaissance created whole new subjects in succeeding centuries. The third and fourth canons (elocution and pronunciation) became in the 18c courses in ‘proper’ speech, taught by actors like Thomas Sheridan and John Walker, both of whom published pronouncing dictionaries of English.

During the 17–19c, the methods of Cicero and Quintilian were standard in British and American universities. Yet, while students learned the classical languages and their rhetoric, their teachers were often in the forefront of change to English. The Scottish scholar Adam Smith chose English rather than Latin when giving his lectures; his friend Hugh Blair was appointed to the first chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the U. of Edinburgh in 1762, the precursor of all chairs of English language and literature around the world. In 1806, the first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, Massachusetts, was John Quincy Adams (later sixth US president). He was charged to instruct students in accordance with the models and exercises of Quintilian, but when Francis J. Child occupied the same chair in 1851, it was as Professor of English. In 18c society at large, issues of judgement and taste became more important than aesthetics and rhetoric, and among Romantics in the 18c and 19c freedom and feeling were more intriguing than discipline and refinement. As the 19c progressed, the ancient theorists became of less and less interest, except to classical scholars, and rhetoric became for many either the (empty) forms of public speaking or the study of writing and composition in schools. Some of the ancient aims and practices were, however, sustained in the debating societies of British universities and the departments of speech and public address in US colleges.


The ancient rhetoricians assumed that truth was absolute and separable from a text. Many 20c critics and scholars, however, see truth as relative and texts as self-contained objects whose ‘truth’ is re-made by every reader. The ancients regarded discourse as dynamic, embodying an intention and a design fitted to an audience, much as politicians and lawyers still see it. Many present-day literary critics, however, see discourses and especially texts as complete in themselves and distinct from their creators, the intention and ideas of the creator having reduced importance or no importance at all if they are not directly shown in the text. The dynamic therefore lies not with the writer but with the reader, in the re-creation of meaning. The emphasis has accordingly been on structure, coherence, and interpretation rather than on creation and the techniques of dissimulation that may accompany it, except insofar as these can be deconstructed to reveal a variety of possible interpretations. Even so, classical rhetoric survives. It has given shape to much of the Western world's inheritance of oracy and literacy. Everyone who speaks and writes a Western language or any language influenced by the forensic and literary traditions of the West is willy-nilly affected by it. Anyone who speaks in public or writes for professional purposes engages in the processes first listed in the five canons. In journalism and publishing, on radio and television, in the theatre and cinema, the old names may or may not be known, but the tools continue to be used.


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RHETORIC. The term "rhetoric" refers to the art of persuasive discourse or to the presence of rhetorical elements in prose, poetry, or oratory.


As a discipline, rhetoric crowned education in the culture of ancient Greece and Rome and served in the Middle Ages as one of the three liberal arts of the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Even though occasions for the practice of live oratory in judicial courts and political forums declined in the medieval period, rhetoric supplied theoretical principles for the arts of preaching, letter writing, and poetry.


Humanists in fourteenth-century Italy began to study newly recovered classical manuscripts, including previously unknown rhetorical works, histories, and other literary texts. At the same time the advent of printing carried forward the pedagogical influence of the most ubiquitous rhetorical manuals of Roman antiquity: De inventione (On invention) by Cicero (10643 B.C.E.) and the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium (Rhetoric for Herennius). The recovery of De institutio oratoria (On the education of the orator) by Quintilian, a first-century Roman teacher of rhetoric, reinforced and expanded the content of the early works. All of these depicted rhetoric as including five parts or canons: invention, arrangement, memory, delivery, and style; and all envisioned three kinds of oratory: political, judicial, and ceremonial (epideictic).

The discovery around 1400 of Cicero's De oratore (On oratory), a dialogue, and many of his orations and letters to friends inspired scholars to imitate his Latin and to regard as inadequate the medieval form inherited from the Scholastics. Ciceronianism, as the new movement was called, had its critics, who argued against excessive imitation of the vocabulary and syntax of Cicero.

Interest in the language and literature of ancient Greece also arose in the fifteenth century when Greek scholars came to reside in Italy, bringing with them Greek manuscripts of works unknown for centuries. Among these scholars were Manuel Chrysoloras (c. 13531415), who taught Greek in Florence, and George of Trebizond (13951486), author of a popular rhetoric incorporating the Greek and Byzantine tradition and a translator of Aristotle's Rhetoric into Latin. His was the first of many translations that made Aristotle's teachings available once more.

Prominent among the manuals of rhetoric reviving the whole classical tradition were George of Trebizond's Rhetoricorum Libri V (c. 1433; Five books on rhetoric); Guillaume Fichet's Rhetorica (1471); Lorenzo Guglielmo Traversagni's Nova Rhetorica (1478; New rhetoric); Johannes Caesarius's Rhetorica (1542); and the Jesuit Cipriano Soarez's De Arte Rhetorica (1562), which was reprinted continuously into the eighteenth century. Some very popular textbooks of the Renaissance were devoted entirely to invention and some solely to style.


As occasions for the use of rhetoric in the city-states of Italy increased at the beginning of the Renaissance, so too did interest in the elements of the art. Invention, the technique of developing arguments on both sides of a subject, was deemed critical to persuasive speech or prose. Rhetoric shared with logic (or dialectic) the need for invention, but dialectic debated philosophical questions while rhetoric argued matters of public concern in order to persuade a general audience.

Invention aided orators in creating arguments when certain knowledge could not be attained, when one could argue only from what seemed probable. The ancient dialectical method of assessing probabilities, "the topics," was used to probe a subject systematically by asking for its genus, species (or definition), accidents, and properties (and its similarities, opposites, and relationships). Rhetorical texts added to the topical lore of invention the topics of persons (ancestry, education, appearance, and character) and action (manner of life, deeds, words). Collectively these were referred to as "commonplaces" in English, koinoi topoi in Greek, and loci communes in Latin. In sixteenth-century England students kept "commonplace books" in which they recorded topical arguments, memorable sayings, and set pieces of eloquence. The topical method permeated creative efforts in poetry and literary prose as well as public discourse. Closely linked to the topics was the canon of style. Its concern with levels of discourse, tone, and the fecundity of figures of speech inspired even more interest than invention in the Renaissance. The figures or "colors" were exploited extensively in oratory, prose, and poetry to appeal to the emotions.

The lines between the provinces of dialectic and rhetoric began to break down in the sixteenth century when more and more philosophical subjects came to the attention of an increasingly educated public. The scope of rhetoric was thus widened beyond the three traditional kinds.


The recovery of Quintilian's De institutione oratoria in 1416 confirmed humanists in their efforts to revamp the curriculum to emphasize both literary and practical concerns. The studia humanitatis, which soon replaced the trivium in most Italian schools, included grammar, poetics, rhetoric, history and moral philosophy. Logic was deleted from the new curriculum in reaction to what was deemed Scholastic preoccupation with syllogistic reasoning.

Among the later humanists, Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) was probably the best known in his lifetime. His influence spread across the Continent to England, where his De Ratione Studii (1512; On a course of studies) and De Copia (1512; On copiousness), a treatise on style, were adopted by John Colet (14671519) for use in St. Paul's School in London. Juan Luis Vives (14921540), educated at the University of Paris, also carried humanist studies to England. Soarez's De Arte Rhetorica (1562), mentioned earlier, circulated from Portugal to Italy and to Jesuit schools throughout the world. Philipp Melanchthon's (14971560) rhetorical works extended his humanistic approach to Germany and other northern areas.


Although Latin remained the predominant language for scholarly communication, during the sixteenth century the vernacular increasingly became the preferred medium for familiar letters, preaching, publications, and oratory aimed at a general audience. As consciousness of national differences increased in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so also did attention to the perfection of national languages and a desire to make them equal to classical Latin. Textbooks of rhetoric soon appeared in the vernacular, for example, Thomas Wilson's The Art of Rhetorique (1553) in English and Bartolomeo Cavalcanti's La retorica (1555) in Italian.


The Dutch humanist Rudolph Agricola (14441485) and the French scholar Petrus Ramus (15151572) suggested changes in the curriculum that reversed earlier humanist alterations. Teaching at the University of Paris, Ramus followed the lead of Agricola in returning attention to the study of dialectic, making it the master discipline. Attempting to eliminate overlap in the curriculum, he allocated invention, organization, and memory to dialectic and gave style and delivery to rhetoric. The effect was to attribute to dialectic his own methods of analysis and composition and to equate rhetoric with stylistic artifice, neglecting entirely its aim of persuasion. Ramism was most popular in northern Europe and England during the last half of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.


The rise of interest in scientific induction and experiment in the seventeenth century brought with it a concern for clearer, more succinct prose. Francis Bacon (15611626) called for a more analytic approach to the coloration of meaning in expression. René Descartes (15961650) and John Locke (16321704) deplored stylistic artifice. Invention, which Bacon saw as primarily associated with science, diminished in importance. Emphasis in teaching style moved from stress on elegant figures and extensive elaboration to that on precision in diction and clarification of meaning in open, familiar expression.


Four major and enduring trends in the study of rhetoric can be discerned in the eighteenth century: neoclassicism, elocution, belletrism, and philosophical-psychological theory. Neoclassicism and elocution both flourished in the first part of the century. Neoclassicism called for renewed study of the Greek and Latin classics of rhetoric. Bernard Lamy (16401715) and François Fénelon (16511715) in France and John Lawson (17091759) and John Ward (1679?1758) in England were foremost in this movement. Elocution, the old canon of delivery concerned with voice and gesture, came into vogue as a separate art because critics believed that proficiency in pulpit and political oratory had seriously declined. Thomas W. Sheridan (17191788) successfully promoted this new trend in education.

The latter half of the eighteenth century saw the rise of belletrism and the philosophical-psychological approach to rhetoric. Neither of these retained invention, their focus being analysis of the written word. Growing out of the Scottish Enlightenment, the belletristic movement engaged such disparate figures as Henry Home, Lord Kames (16961782), Adam Smith (17231790), Edmund Burke (17291797), Joseph Priestley (17331804), George Campbell (17191796), and Hugh Blair (17181800). They stressed interpretation of literary texts and such concepts as taste, the sublime, and the beautiful. George Campbell approached the study of rhetoric from the standpoint of the new theories of the human mind, termed faculty psychology. His Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776) treats the aims of discourse and the creation of effects on the mind. All four of these views of rhetoric were transported to North America.

See also Descartes, René ; Education ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Humanists and Humanism ; Locke, John ; Melanchthon, Philipp ; Ramus, Petrus .


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Howell, Wilbur S. Logic and Rhetoric in England, 15001700. New York, 1961.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains. New York, 1961.

Miriam Joseph, Sister. Rhetoric in Shakespeare's Time: Literary Theory of Renaissance Europe. 1947. Partial reprint, New York, 1962.

Ong, Walter J. Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue from the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason. Cambridge, Mass., 1958.

Vasoli, Cesare. La dialettica e la retorica dell'Umanesimo: "Invenzione" e "Metodo" nella cultura del XV e XVI secolo. Milan, 1968.

Vickers, Brian. In Defence of Rhetoric. Oxford, 1988.

Jean Dietz Moss

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"Rhetoric." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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rhetoric the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques; language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but which is now often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.

In the Middle Ages, rhetoric was counted as one of the seven liberal arts; the word comes via Old French and Latin from Greek.
rhetorical question a question asked not for information but to produce an effect, e.g. who cares? for nobody cares.

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"rhetoric." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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rhet·o·ric / ˈretərik/ • n. the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, esp. the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques. ∎  language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content: all we have from the opposition is empty rhetoric.

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"rhetoric." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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rhetoric Art of discourse and persuasive speaking; language, written or spoken, designed to impress or persuade. Rhetoric is valued in public speaking, but the sophistication of many of its modern techniques may have led rhetoricians – such as politicians – to be more distrusted by a better-informed public.

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"rhetoric." World Encyclopedia. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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This entry includes two subentries:

Ancient and Medieval

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"Rhetoric." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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rhetoric: see oratory.

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"rhetoric." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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rhetoricAmharic, barbaric, Garrick, Pindaric, samsaric •fabric • cambric • Aelfric • chivalric •geriatric, paediatric (US pediatric), Patrick, psychiatric, theatric •tantric •epigastric, gastric •alphanumeric, atmospheric, chimeric, cleric, climacteric, congeneric, Derek, derrick, Eric, esoteric, exoteric, ferric, generic, hemispheric, Herrick, Homeric, hysteric, mesmeric, numeric, skerrick, spheric, stratospheric •red-brick • Cedric •calendric, Kendrick •anthropometric, asymmetric, diametric, geometric, isometric, kilometric, metric, obstetric, psychometric, pyrometric, sociometric •electric, hydroelectric, photoelectric •androcentric, centric, concentric, eccentric, egocentric, ethnocentric, Eurocentric, geocentric, phallocentric, theocentric •airbrick • hayrick • Friedrich •Dietrich •empiric, lyric, panegyric, Pyrrhic, satiric, satyric, vampiric •pinprick • citric • oneiric • hydric •nitric •aleatoric, allegoric, anaphoric, camphoric, categoric, choric, Doric, euphoric, historic, metaphoric, meteoric, phantasmagoric, phosphoric, pyrophoric, semaphoric, sophomoric, theophoric, Warwick, Yorick •con trick •auric, boric, folkloric •Kubrick, rubric •Ugric • Cymric • xeric • firebrick •Rurik, sulphuric (US sulfuric), telluric, Zürich •Frederick • Roderick • undertrick •agaric • Alaric • choleric • limerick •turmeric •archbishopric, bishopric •rhetoric • maverick • overtrick •Masaryk

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"rhetoric." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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