Rhetoric: Overview

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Rhetoric: Overview

Rhetoric governs the effective use of verbal and nonverbal communication designed to influence an audience. Understood in its broadest sense, it is practiced more or less deliberately in all societies. Even the animal world seems to apply some of its principles. But in its original and historical form, rhetoric is associated with the use of human discourse to persuade and can be defined as the art of speaking, of speaking well, or of speaking effectively with the aim of persuading. Rhetoric is at once technical, practical, pedagogical, and analytical. It deals with opinions, rather than truths and certitudes, and as such, it can be abused as a means of manipulation.

Since originating in Sicily in the fifth century b.c.e., rhetoric has reflected a keen awareness of all the conditions that, taken together, influence an audience in one way or another. Rhetoric has established itself as a systematic and exhaustive synthesis of all the human sciences, as they are called, and of all practices from which it can draw a benefit, from philosophy to psychology, linguistics to literary theory, and anthropology to sociology. What is specific to rhetorical synthesis and what gives it its universal validity is its transdisciplinary dimension. Rhetoric is an art of synthesis that controls a series of approaches, which togetherand only togethercontribute toward bringing about the desired effect.


Although the most systematic formalization of rhetoric occurred in the West, first in Greece and then in Rome, its key practices and conceptions are universal. Ever since writing was invented in Mesopotamia and Egypt, people have recognized the power of professional writers. Examples of practices and precepts related to eloquence can be found in Egypt beginning with the second millennium b.c.e. and in the Book of Proverbs.

China, like Europe, wanted to separate the persuasive and expressive aspects of rhetoric, to distinguish between the rhetoric of public discourse and what is called literary or ornamental rhetoric. This can be seen throughout China's history in the many compilations of exemplary speeches, in the many treatises with a pedagogical aim, and in the long tradition of poetry and poetic commentary. India, which early on invented an argumentative epic literature, also had rhetorical competitions and later developed a practical and critical method for teaching rhetoric as well as a theory of poetry and drama.

Societies without writing sometimes recognize the authority of those gifted at speaking out. Hence we find the ethos of wisdom among Australian aborigines or that of venerable age and heroic deeds among Native Americans. European Americans recognized and appreciated the eloquence of Native Americans, who used irony or pathos. Thomas Jefferson, for example, compared the Mingo chief Logan to the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. Specialists have studied the verbal formalism typical of Aztec ceremonies, evidence of which was passed down by the conquistadores. A society without rhetoric is hardly imaginable, since rhetoric is necessary to all communication. And it is impossible to imagine how anyone could utter words without seeking ways to make language more effective.

Fields of application.

By definition, any human activity that explicitly or implicitly involves a quest for influence entails rhetoric in its broadest sense, whether or not that activity is grounded in verbal communication. Hence a multiplicity of rhetorics exists. Nothing prevents us from calling any field of interaction rhetoric, since it is precisely the field of interaction that defines the conditions for treating matters discursively, for arguing in one's own defense, or for choosing modes of expression. As a result, it is possible to speak of rhetorics of minorities and of majorities, rhetorics of sexuality, racism, and feminism, rhetorics of drugs, war, peace, exile, and so on. We may also speak of rhetoric in reference to nonverbal activities, assimilating them to one function or another of language to show their influence on the public. Every art formmusic, painting, the figurative arts in general, architecture, and cinemahas its rhetoric, although it may lie at least as much in the manipulation of images as in the use of speech. There is, therefore, also a rhetoric of gestures, of mime, of public or religious gatherings, and of military parades, of all activities that are supposed to communicate a message or spread propaganda.

The Art of Persuasion

Because the Western world has offered the most systematic historical, methodological, and theoretical approach to rhetoric, this entry will focus on the Western concept of rhetoric, understood as the art of persuasion, essentially through speech.

Form and content.

Rhetoric's persuasive efficacy depends on both thought and expression or style. Thought, which is the domain of philosophy, governs the art of dialectics. Expression, which is concerned with the speech act itself, governs how that thought is put into words and how it is delivered. That division between the philosophical realm of thought and the linguistic field of expression is problematic, and the history of rhetoric is in large part the history of their relationship. The tendency to separate them, to limit rhetoric to expression and reserve the dialectical realm of argument, evidence, and organization to philosophy is always present, as if thought were independent of its expression and, conversely, as if eloquence were independent of thought and truth. In rhetoric properly understood and as Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) conceived it in De oratore, persuasion and expression are interdependent, organically connected. Meaning lies as much in form as in content.


Rhetoric thus defined deals with the everyday universe and the contingent aspects of human and social reality, which a certain kind of philosophy, practiced by Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) and later by René Descartes (15961650), disdained and considered unworthy of interest. Philosophy in its traditional and classic sense is interested in eternal and universal certainties and truths. It intends to convince by calling upon unassailable evidence and by invoking arguments that will make its demonstrations irrefutable. Rhetoric's philosophical method is dialectics, which relies on credible arguments, plausible evidence, or circumstantial events. Such arguments appeal to commonplaces and are based on received opinion; they allow for and may even demand refutation, or at least objections that appeal to competing opinions and the same sorts of evidence. Because rhetoric deals with opinions, it argues by applying what is called dialectical reasoning to the probable causes on which the opinion is based. In order to persuade, rhetoric relies on credible arguments, plausible evidence, or circumstantial events. Such arguments appeal to commonplaces and are based on received opinion, but at the same time, they must allow for and may even demand refutation, or at least objections that appeal to competing opinions and the same sorts of evidence.

Pathos and ethos.

Although the first measures taken by the rhetoric of persuasion occur in the realm of thought (designated by the term logos ), the order of verisimilitude to which thought belongs is not sufficient in itself to influence the audience decisively. Rhetoric moves beyond logical argument to consider indirect and circumstantial data (historical, political, social, religious, psychological, moral, and ethical, for example) as a way to increase its effectiveness. It also considers the audience's sensibility, passions, and emotions at least as much as its intellectual faculties. This appeal to the psychology of the audience is what traditional rhetoric calls pathos and it is directed primarily at the senses. Hence images, sounds, odors, and even tactile and gustatory sensations may serve to reinforce the influence sought. That is why the senses (especially sight but also hearing) seem to have become the target par excellence of modern methods of influence, as in advertising. The dominance of the visual in the twenty-first century means that image is often the determining factor; no one who is not at least minimally telegenic can expect to have much public or political success.

The final aspect of any rhetorical approach is ethos, which is linked to the orator's personality. It establishes authority and assures the audience's trust by presenting a view of the orator's character, moral qualities, and sincerity by projecting a moral and physical image. Hence venerable age, experience, social or religious position, or professional or media success may invest an individual with authority.


The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) and the Roman Cicero provided what has become the standard description of rhetoric. In addition to the series of steps to be followed, they defined types of discourse according to the kind of public each type was meant to address.

Audience and types of discourse.

The invention of Western rhetoric in Hellenic Sicily in the fifth century b.c.e. can be attributed to judicial, or forensic, discourse, which was developed to level accusations or mount defenses in the name of justice. In Greece, rhetoricians very quickly came to identify two other types of discourse as functions of the different audiences to which they were addressed. The deliberative, which is supposed to inform, exhort, advise, or dissuade, coincides with the democratic political discourse and was initially addressed to the Senate to urge it to support the useful against the harmful. The epidictic, also called the demonstrative, whose purpose is to praise or blame, to commemorate or denounce, is addressed to a group of spectators to elicit their admiration or reprobation, often to hold something up as an example or as a value to them. These original distinctions are open to revision in the early twenty-first century, when more and more complex types of discourse seem to exist, ranging from the sciences to advertising, television to the Internet, drama to poetry, including treatises, theses, films, cartoons, and so on, and when these types of discourse seem to be more precisely defined and to have better-delimited audiences. Although the distinction between judicial and deliberative discourse still seems valid, we might have to concede, as some have suggested, that epidictic praise or blame has been reincarnated as advertising. In this new type of discourse, the audience is the consumer, the easily influenced viewer who is the potential customer for the items being extolled.

The parts of rhetoric.

Since Aristotle's time, rhetoric has been divided into parts comprising the steps involved in producing a discourse and delivering it in person to the intended public. Each of these parts has in turn been subdivided, resulting in an extremely structured system wherein each phase in the production of a persuasive discourse is systematically and exhaustively represented. Rhetorical treatises are encyclopedias of discursive expertise on how to think, how to write, and how to deliver.

Latin writers, including Cicero in De oratore, definitively established the steps involved in elaborating an oral discourse. The first is inventio (invention), which consists of seeking and selecting the arguments and other resources necessary to one's cause as a function of the discourse chosen. These may include syllogisms, on which dialectical argument is based, or prototypical examples. Logos, pathos, and ethos are subdivisions of inventio and determine the type of argument selected, including the type of evidence, whether extrinsic or intrinsic.

Dispositio (arrangement or composition) defines the order and organization of these arguments. The discourse may have between two and seven parts, but usually has five: the introduction or exordium, the narration (exposition of facts), the confirmation (exposition of evidence), the refutation (denunciation of the opposing argument), and the conclusion or peroration.

Elocutio (elocution) has to do with style: the choice of words and figures and of their formal syntactical combination. These choices are adapted to fit the subject following the rules of decorum. Three styles have been identified. They are known in Latin as grave (noble), tenue (simple), and medium (agreeable); the choice of style is governed by the nature of the subject to be treated, the goal to be achieved, and the target audience. These styles determine the choice of vocabulary (unusual, common, or familiar), the complexity of syntax, and the use of relatively obscure versus transparent figures. A further distinction is made between figures that have to do with the words themselves and those that have to do with ideas. Individual words taken in a sense other than their usual one are called tropes (metaphor and metonymy, for example). Scheme refers to the order in which the words are arranged. Rhetorical figures are often seen as the essence of elocutio; indeed, rhetoric as a whole is sometimes reduced to them. Such figures have regularly been seen as markers of a text's literariness.

Memoria (memory) designates the stage of memorizing a discourse and involves a complex mnemonics that places the parts of a discourse in an imaginary physical space such as, for example, a house or a human body. Finally, actio (delivery) is the art of public performance, the theatrical effects governing voice, accent, body language, mimicry, and so on. It names the moment when the orator comes into contact with the public, makes an entrance and becomes an actor. Memoria and actio apply only to oral discourse, whereas inventio, dispositio, and elocutio apply to both the written and the oral.


Rhetoric, which was first formalized in Greece, found a practical field for expansion in its service to the republic of Rome. Under the Roman Empire, Quintilian (c. 35c. 100 c.e.) introduced the most systematic description of rhetoric. As a teacher, he saw the rhetorician as someone whose level of education entailed an ethical responsibility. The art of speaking well implied the art of speaking virtuously.

The Christian Middle Ages was wary of rhetoric, believing that revealed truth did not need the artifices of eloquence. But the Church also recognized its utility, since rhetoric made it possible to defend the new religion against its enemies. A moderate eloquence would soon be enlisted as an instrument of propaganda, a way of spreading the truth. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354430), a rhetorician by profession, recognized the model for this eloquence in the Bible itself. In addition, medieval hermeneutics applied the rules of rhetorical analysis when it proposed that the books of the Old Testament be read allegorically.

From the twelfth century on, rhetoric survived in law studies, preaching, and poetry. Beginning in the fourteenth century, Francesco Petrarch (13041374) and the humanist Renaissance restored rhetoric's gleam, which had been tarnished by medieval suspicion. But this was also the age when the anti-Ciceronianism of Petrus Ramus (15151572) once again called into question the integrity of rhetoric, establishing a historical break between the fields of thought and expression that lasted for centuries. Rhetoric was confined to elocutio, whereas inventio and dispositio moved to the logico-philosophical realm of dialectics.

Although that revolution had no major consequences in the short term, Descartes and later John Locke (16321704) rejected the legitimacy of dialectics itself, believing that what is only probable and credible has no claim to truth, which lies in the realm of reason or experience. Rhetoric could no longer make use of dialectics but was confined to elocutio. That break was not universal: The Counter-Reformation viewed rhetoric as a useful instrument of propaganda, and thus rhetoric would have its moment of glory in Jesuit teachings.

Romanticism dealt rhetoric a nearly lethal blow, reacting to a rigid formalism that had gradually set in toward the end of the ancien régime. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832) and those who followed contrasted rhetoric to the freedom of a new sensibility that was in quest of a more personal and more sincere expression.

The art of rhetoric was resurrected many times in the twentieth century but always in the shadow of the Ramusian scission. On one side, philosophers such as Chaïm Perelman, in The New Rhetoric, took an interest in questions of argumentative logic and brought about a rhetorical revival in midcentury; on the other side, literary theorists and specialists in poetics confined their interest not just to elocutio but to rhetorical figures, and in the end to a few paradigmatic figures such as metaphor and metonymy. As Gérard Genette argued, the development of an increasingly limited rhetoric characterizes modern literary critical discourse.

Rhetoric and literature.

Literature is one of the language arts most directly influenced by and dependent on rhetoric. Until the eighteenth century, even poetry, as any other oral or written discourse, was directly concerned with the three divisions of rhetoric applicable to written language (inventio, dispositio, and elocutio ). It would be a serious anachronism to ignore this. But beginning in the nineteenth century, poetry considered only elocutio and gradually reduced even it to the question of figures, which became the chief subject of poetic treatises. Figures were now what defined the poetic quality of a text. No longer mere ornament and flowery language, they served to shore up a truly cognitive approach and became a privileged way of apprehending the world. Hence the formalist linguist Roman Jakobson defined the poetic function of a text as the display of its materiality, its "palpable" side, and as a figurative quality essential for expressing indirectly what is not accessible through "simple" speech.

Thus every age seems to have an emblematic figure. In the Middle Ages, allegory was conceived of as the tangible manifestation of the abstract and spiritual world through personification. In the nineteenth century, the symbol became an expression of the cosmic and universal correspondences that the romantics saw as the essence of their poetics. In the twentieth century, metaphor and metonymy became the exemplary figures for a conception of the world that was either poetic and founded on analogy, or prosaic and utilitarian and founded on contiguity. This was an extreme moment in the figurative character of literary rhetoric. Ultimately, an essential figurativeness was revealed at the core of all literary expression. The text, at odds with itself, was now seen as fundamentally incapable of representing the world. Only a return to philosophical reflection may be able to temper the rhetoric of figures and subordinate it to metalinguistic reflection.

General Assessment

From its birth in Sicily within the particular context of defending landowners' rights to twenty-first-century media globalization, rhetoric has evolved and adapted. It is interdisciplinary in its essence and has sometimes appropriated knowledge from disciplines close to its own object; at other times, it has been appropriated by disciplines encroaching on its domain. A unique synthesis of philosophical and expressive approaches, rhetoric is constantly being born anew. It has at its disposal a set of prescriptive or analytical practices and theoretical reflections that even in the twenty-first-century allows it to master all fields of human expression and communication designed to act on the world.

On the whole, the global conception of rhetoric as it appeared in Aristotle's Greece has changed little. Despite, or may because of, its desire for a somewhat utopian, if not ominous desire for control, its overall theoretical and practical understanding of persuasion is still valid.

What has changed are the resources available. One of the advantages its modern-day practitioners have over their ancestors is that they are able to benefit from advances in technology and from the knowledge acquired through research in the nearby branches of the human sciences. In these fields of research, the modern orator, whether a lawyer, a political candidate, or a car dealer, will find resources to better grasp the social, ideological, psychological, or emotional state characterizing the target audience and thus to better understand it so as to better influence, if not control it.

But what has changed even more deeply are the technological means of communication, which are now able to diffuse farther, more rapidly, and more effectively a larger number of messages to a greater number of targets in a greater number of places. The power of the message is directly affected by that new audience. The electronic revolution itself, which is at least as significant as the invention of the printing press, offers new means for more effective persuasion. It is easier to seduce, and hence to influence, through the use of audiovisual media and virtual reality. Virtual reconstitutions of crime scenes, for example, are admissible in court. Rhetoric can only seek to adapt to these technological media, which constitute the new field of actio. The television screen has replaced the forum, the actor has replaced the orator, and teleprompters have replaced memory.

Even more radically, control of the media and access to the means of communication are what now seem to determine the true efficacy of the message, rather than oratorical talent or the intellectual quality of an argument (with perhaps the exception of the lawyer in the courtroom). That revolution has altered the conditions governing access to an audience. The means of communication, when they are not controlled by the state, are increasingly placed in the hands of a few large institutions, which are often controlled by commercial or ideological interests.

The Internet as it exists in the early twenty-first century would seem to offer to each individual access to his or her own means of communication. It ends up, however, providing a virtual "audience" an anarchical plethora of mostly unreliable and inefficient information. Without access to the media, which are the chief if not the exclusive means for diffusing ideas, no opposing power and no perceptible dissension can exist. And dissension is an unavoidable marker for freedom of speech, which is now reserved and limited to those who control access to the means of diffusion. Some speak of a "dictatorship of the media" linked to the power of the new technology, and of "formal democracy." Competition in the realm of opinion requires equal access to the forum.

Paradoxically, then, although nothing seems to have changed in terms of the general principles that govern the art of persuasion, the means available to rhetoric have shifted the essence of intellectual activity toward expression, whether that refers to elocutio, with the emphasis on seduction, or to actio, with the idea that the orator cannot be heard. It is somewhat as if the universe of communication were being transformed into an enormous literary fiction designed to entertain more than to inform or argue. This fiction is already embodied on our television screens and in our magazines as a new kind of discourse, the infomercial, whose very name captures its ambiguity.

Any rhetoric has two aspects: vacuity, if not manipulation and lies; and ethics and trust. We must ensure that such trust is not irremediably undermined by the distrust produced by the growing monopolization of increasingly effective means of communication. The public is now a captive audience, increasingly powerless in the face of that monopoly, and the very future of democratic societies is at stake. In addition to the tradition of reliance on the speaker's ethos, access to a multiplicity of opinions is the public's essential safegaurd against possible abuse of rhetoric. Rooted in freedom of speech, rhetoric finds its justification in the equal opportunity of access to the means of communication.

See also Metaphor ; Poetry and Poetics ; Rhetoric: Ancient and Medieval .



Aristotle. The Art of Rhetoric. Translated by John Henry Freese. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Augustine, Saint. On Christian Doctrine. In The Confessions; The City of God; On Christian Doctrine. Translated by J. F. Shaw. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1990.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De oratore. Translated by E. W. Sutton and H. Rackham. London: Loeb Classical Library, 1959.

. Orator. Translated by H. M. Hubbell. London: Loeb Classical Library, 1952.

Fontanier, Pierre. Les figures du discours. 1818. Reprint, Paris: Flammarion, 1968.

Plato. Phaedrus, Gorgias. Translated by W. D. Woodhead. In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Including the Letters, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon, 1961.

Quintilian. Institutes of Oratory. Translated by H. E. Butler. 4 vols. London: Loeb Classical Library, 1963.

Ramus, Petrus. The Logike of the Moste Excellent Philosopher P. Ramus, Martyr. Translated by Roland MacIlmaine. 1574. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1969. Translation of Dialecticae partitiones.

Rhetorica ad Herennium. Translated by H. Caplan. London: Loeb Classical Library, 1954.


Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945.

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Fumaroli, Marc. L'âge de l'éloquence: Rhétorique et "res literaria" de la Renaissance au seuil de l'époque classique. Geneva: Droz, 1980.

Jakobson, Roman, and Morris Halle. Fundamentals of Language. 4th ed. The Hague: Mouton, 1980.

McKeon, Richard. Rhetoric: Essays in Invention and Discovery. Woodbridge, Conn.: Ox Bow Press, 1987.

Murphy, James. Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical Theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Ong, Walter. Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1958.

Perelman, Chaïm, and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Translated by John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.

Richards, I. A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press, 1936.

Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Translated by Robert Czerny, with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977.

Sloane, Thomas O., ed. Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. This is a rich source of references from specialists too numerous to name here.

Jean-Claude Carron