views updated May 17 2018


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 .


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

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


views updated Jun 08 2018



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


views updated May 21 2018


It is widely acknowledged that during the nineteenth century the academic discipline of rhetoric enjoyed undisputed preeminence in the curriculum of both secondary and college education in the United States. It is also widely acknowledged that this is the last time it exerted such influence. Subsumed by the development of writing instruction within English courses and the growth of speech departments in the early twentieth century, rhetoric lost its integrated status during the increasing departmentalization and professionalization of the academy.

One explanation for its abrupt reversal of fortune is that rhetoric, understood as a formal university discipline rather than a field of discursive practices, shifted its emphasis from the study of persuasion to the appreciation of literary taste and fine writing. This aesthetic departure from the speakerly orientation of Greek and Roman authorities such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian is sometimes called the "New Rhetoric." New Rhetoric is associated with the literary approach of the British clergymen Hugh Blair, George Campbell, and Richard Whately and their many American adherents, such as Edward T. Channing, Adams Sherman Hill, and John Franklin Genung. Despite the practical aspects of this modification, many later American rhetoricians feel that it augmented the most superficial aspects of the discipline—the study of the ornamentation of discourse, rather than the study of its sinews and bones. For example, questions of style (word choice, diction, organization) began to eclipse a classical emphasis on the choice of the best kind of argument to use in a given situation (whether to argue from causes, effects, or different types of appeals to human emotions). This transformation had its origins in the English rhetoric texts that dominated American classrooms during the early nineteenth century, but it grew in a specifically American climate of widespread literacy, class mobility, and professional expertise. Rhetoric, which once advertised itself as the art of persuasion, or, more grandly, the master discipline for the study of all discourse, became the utilitarian study of expressive protocols that make people appear educated.


By most accounts, one of the primary engineers of this transformation was Hugh Blair (1718–1800), whose 1783 Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres influenced American education for more than one hundred years.

Blair was a member of the Scottish common sense school of professors who developed an integrated worldview of the empirical and hermeneutic sciences, humanities, and theology (Charvat). Rather than its modern meaning of practical, the philosophical term "common sense" derives from Thomas Reid (1710–1796), who argued that there were impressions, such as a feeling of reality, or a sense of time, that were common to all human beings. This view tended to ground the principles of rhetorical appeal on assumptions about the shared elements of human experience. Blair was a celebrated Presbyterian minister to a wealthy congregation prior to his formal appointment at Edinburgh, and his rhetoric, theology, and political thought were united by a genteel aesthetics.

Blair's text seems fairly unremarkable today. That is a testament to how thoroughly his approach to rhetoric became assimilated by American culture. Whereas most studies of rhetoric had previously focused on persuasive oratory, Blair gave equal attention to the importance of fine writing. Almost a quarter of Blair's lectures focus on the arts of written composition. They include discussions of cultured British writers for emulation, such as Joseph Addison (1672–1719). Blair eschewed theorizing about the broader dimensions of epideictic (ceremonial) and deliberative (legal and political) oratory, showing a more professional concern for shaping the modern arenas of pulpit eloquence, addresses to public assemblies, and legal arguments. Blair had virtually no interest in inventio (the processes of choosing one's argument), suggesting that appropriate arguments occur automatically to most writers and speakers. Although the place of inventio in rhetoric had been under attack since the French logician Petrus Ramus's works of the mid-1500s—Ramus asserted that it was part of dialectic or logic, not rhetoric—Blair's orientation further contributed to its exile.

The cumulative effects of Blair's modest departures from the classical tradition were to normalize middle-class standards of taste. Gone was a concern for listing the various techniques with which the elite orator could mold the opinions of different kinds of audiences. In its stead grew advice about how a middle-class professional could influence a middle-class audience through written prose. Blair's text was taught at Williams and Yale as late as 1860, and the text itself went through many later printings (Guthrie 15:62–63). Beyond its direct use, however, it was greatly influential on a variety of later American texts, such as George Quackenbos's Advanced Course of Composition and Rhetoric (1855), M. B. Hope's Princeton Text-Book in Rhetoric (1859), John Hart's Manual of Composition and Rhetoric (1870), or John Genung's Working Principles of Rhetoric (1900). As many scholars of rhetoric and public address have noted, Blair's influence is apparent in most college composition texts to the current day.


A second British text that exerted an astonishing long-term influence was George Campbell's (1719–1796) Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776). Widely republished during the nineteenth century and used as an upper-level course text at many American universities through 1860, Campbell's book was a landmark attempt to theorize the physiological appeal of successful rhetoric on the human mind. It was drawn from the theories of associational psychology initially proposed by John Locke, David Hume, and David Hartley. Agreeing with Locke that the events of the world somehow made impressions on the human mind, Hartley suggested that our feelings and thoughts were connected to vibrations in our nervous system. For example, the feeling evoked by the word "boom" becomes associated with the feeling produced by a thunderclap. Similarly, our sensations, ideas, and feelings about explosive themes are connected by their associations with each other, organized by such principles as resemblance, contiguity, and causation.

Campbell applied these physiological and philosophical hypotheses to the way rhetoric works. For example, he argued that concrete words generated more intense physiological sensations and associations than abstract words (memories, imagined ideas). At the heart of Campbell's project was a term he borrowed from Hume: "vivacity." Campbell asserts that the vivacity of ideas is the quality primarily responsible for attention and belief. If mental operations were a mixture of immediately powerful sensations, the fading impressions of memory, and the fleeting dreams of the imagination, a strong writer or speaker will connect abstract ideas with the vivacity of immediate sensations. The third part of Campbell's text offers very specific advice about how to achieve vivacity through the choice, number, and arrangement of words.

Although Campbell's rhetorical advice was based on psychology that has been long drawn into question, his study treated his subject at an interdisciplinary level rarely achieved in rhetoric texts. His lucid and practical discussions about how to achieve vivacity and perspicacity (clarity) were copied nearly verbatim by later British and American rhetoric manuals for a hundred years. Unfortunately, his compelling rehabilitation of the study of passions as a worthwhile—if not preeminent—concern of rhetoric was lost in the late nineteenth century's growing pedagogical agenda for technical correctness, standardized word usage, and belletrism. However, Campbell's subtle vision of the mind as feelings-in-movement had great effect on American thinkers ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) to William James (1842–1910) (Berlin, pp. 42–57). Campbell's powerful influence appears as late as 1890, when William James approvingly quoted Campbell's account of how words acquire associations in the famous "Stream of Thought" chapter of James's Principles of Psychology.


The third major New Rhetoric text to shape American thought during the nineteenth century was the English theologian Richard Whately's (1787–1863) Elements of Rhetoric (1828). Even though Whately's text is primarily an ecclesiastical debater's manual, he imagines that many of these debates will be carried out in journals, pamphlets, and articles. He begins his text by recommending habits of daily composition on familiar topics to develop students' minds. Unlike Blair, Whately discusses inventio in depth, and he also gives concise and lively advice on debating tactics, the interrogation of witnesses, and defense and offense strategies. Even today, one of the great appeals of his text is its frank instruction on the proper use of underhanded rhetorical techniques, such as circumlocution and fallacy. Despite Whately's obvious enthusiasm for rhetorical combat, the overall tone of his text, like Blair's, focuses much more on developing techniques of conviction, rather than persuasion. He insists that proper management of one's ethos (basically, the character of a speaker or writer) is more effective than firing volleys of persuasive tricks. Like Blair, Whately repeatedly recommends a "natural" style, free of affectation and laxity.


The influence of these texts in American colleges prior to the Civil War is well illustrated by the changes in Harvard's chair, the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the successive holders of the position demonstrate a clear shift from classical theory to New Rhetoric, culminating in an emphasis on word choice, style, and poetic diction in writing. The first two Boylston Professors were John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), whose term lasted from 1806 to 1809, and the Reverend Joseph McKean (1776–1818), who served from 1809 to 1818. As his collected Lectures indicate, Adams's work in rhetoric was based primarily in Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, with the public persuasion of men as their primary object. Although McKean did not publish his addresses to the students, Dorothy Anderson and Waldo Braden report that McKean followed very closely to the professor-ship's job description, giving lectures on the rise and progress of oratory; sketches of famous orators; analysis of the functions and departments of the five-part oration; and application of the theories of the ancients to pulpit oratory.

The first chair to move away from classical practices was Edward T. Channing (1790–1856), Boylston Professor from 1819 to 1851. Assessing Channing's general influence on New England letters, the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that "Channing and Edward Everett may be said to have created the classic New England diction—the measured, dignified speech, careful enunciation, precise choice of words, and well modulated voice that (for men of my age at least) will ever be associated with President [Charles] Eliot" (p. 216). Channing taught Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Richard Henry Dana Jr., Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to name only a few luminaries of American letters. Channing's Lectures were published in 1856 but they reflect addresses he made as early as 1819. Channing was a Unitarian like his brother, William Ellery Channing, and his recommendations are characterized by sobriety, reasonableness, and faith in the perfectibility of humankind. He felt that stable government and the growing diffusion of education were tending to make public discourse more temperate and egalitarian. Discussing the difference between modern and ancient oratory, Channing declared: "A modern debate is not a contest between a few leading men for a triumph over each other and an ignorant multitude; the orator himself is but one of the multitude, deliberating with them upon common interests, which are well understood and valued by all" (p. 17). Channing was mildly progressive as an educator and refrained from giving students too many exact rules that might make them awkward. Like Blair and Whately, he preferred that they should develop their own natural language of expression and learn to be versatile and sensitive to changing contexts.

Channing was primarily interested in developing students' taste as writers. Every two weeks, students wrote on topics such as "some of the causes of false judgment as to merit in the works of Literature and the Arts," "the reasons why criticism of recent works is to be distrusted," or "the English poets as advocates of Liberty" (Anderson and Braden, pp. xlvii-xlviii). Afterward, he would meet his students for discussion in his office alone and in groups. He could be very sarcastic in his comments. Studying some of Channing's student papers held in the Harvard archives, Anderson and Braden note that Channing's written comments show a preference for "precision" and "graceful ornamentation and amplification without superfluity" (p. xl). As the number of students rose after 1845, Channing was forced to reduce the number of compositions they wrote to one a month. This reduction portended greater problems to come. By the end of the century, as rhetoric became more and more associated with writing, acute increases in college enrollment and overcrowded classes prompted the hiring of large number of lower-level writing instructors.

Although Channing was charged with supervising student declamation (in 1828 freshmen declaimed seven times a year; juniors and seniors four times a year) he seemed to have little interest in coaching oratory. After complaints about the quality of student speech, the university hired the elocutionist Jonathan Barber (1784–1864) from 1829 to 1835. Greatly influenced by Gilbert Austin's Chironomia (1806), which taught body language with elaborate drawings, Barber made his students practice declamation in a bamboo cage to learn the proper limits of gesture. Predictably, the students rebelled bitterly against his methods. After Barber's departure, the new assistant teachers used Ebenezer Porter's Analysis of the Principles of Rhetorical Delivery (1827), but complaints about the quality of student declamation were perennial until the elocution requirement was dropped in the 1870s.

After thirty years of teaching Edward Channing was succeeded in 1851 by a former student, Francis James Child (1825–1896), who had even stronger literary interests. Previously, literary authors had been read strictly as an extracurricular activity. Upon taking the Boylston chair, Child changed the title of his lectures to seniors from "Rhetoric and Criticism" to "English Language and Literature." Child aggressively pursued these interests in his own research, writing on Spenser and Chaucer and gathering source materials for his monumental English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–1898).

Child's hiring also reflected a larger movement at Harvard away from the study of Latin and Greek authors. As Albert Kitzhaber reports, when Charles Eliot (1834–1926) was inaugurated president of Harvard in 1869, he announced his intention to make the study of English a central part of the curriculum. Eliot augmented the system of entrance examinations in English (instituted just prior to his presidency) so that by 1874 students had to write an entrance composition based on an analysis of a Shakespeare play or a novel by Goldsmith or Scott.


Because Child was absorbed in his ballad research, in 1872 Eliot hired Adams Sherman Hill (1833–1910) as an assistant professor of rhetoric. By 1876 Hill was given the Boylston chair. Although Hill was known to be ruthless in his comments on student papers (which seems to have been a tradition at nineteenth-century Harvard), his great achievement was the institution of a freshman year required writing course in 1885. He wrote the Principles of Rhetoric, and Their Application in 1878, enlarged in 1895. These texts, and Hill's The Foundations of Rhetoric (1892), modernize the advice of the Scottish rhetoricians, but more important Hill's texts show how thoroughly rhetoric had become composition. Hill's Foundations, three hundred pages divided into equal sections on word use, sentence construction, and paragraphing, indicates an almost desperate hope that students' advanced writing skills might be improved if they could only master the most basic parts of speech.

Hill was also an advocate of a genre-based approach to composition instruction that stressed four or five "forms" of discourse: description, narration, exposition, argumentation, and (in some authors) persuasion. The widespread acceptance of these genres as the basic templates for student writing cannot be overstated—many rhetoric texts of the late nineteenth century devote half their pages to them. This influence has continued through the twenty-first century in texts like The Macmillan Writer, which teach them as "modes."

The last Boylston chair of the nineteenth century was Barrett Wendell (1855–1921). Wendell took his post at the end of the age of the "theme," which had embittered several generations of faculty before him. Kitzhaber notes with humor that faculty would assign compositions on abstract topics like "Honesty," "the Evanescence of Pleasure," or "the Dice of the Gods Are Loaded" and then find themselves discouraged that the students could muster little of sense on these themes (pp. 104–105). Predictably, many faculty became bad-tempered and developed a sarcastic wit that students rarely appreciated. Wendell was known to tell students they had written "disgusting slop" (p. 66). There were alternative voices in composition-rhetoric studies that argued that students should write from personal experience or research, such as Alphonso Newcomer's Practical Course in English Composition (1893), Fred Newton Scott and Joseph Villiers Denney's Composition-Rhetoric (1897), and Abraham Henry Espenshade's The Essentials of Composition and Rhetoric (1904), but there was consensus that students could not somehow visualize the simple goal of making meaning.

Wendell's 1891 English Composition was an attempt to try something new. Convinced that the terminology of the New Rhetoric was too technical for a modern student, Wendell sought to simplify the business of writing by applying a three-part heuristic of "unity," "mass," and "coherence" to composition. In the introductory chapter of his textbook, Wendell asserted that "every composition should group itself about one central idea" (unity); "the chief parts of every composition should be so placed as to readily catch the eye" (mass); and "the relation of each part of a composition to its neighbors should be unmistakable" (coherence) (pp. i, 28–29). "Mass," a curious term, was later redefined by other composition writers as emphasis. The discourse of "unity" and "coherence" as terms for paragraph creation had significant precedent in Alexander Bain's (1818–1903) English Composition and Rhetoric (1866), but Wendell sought to apply it at every level of composition: sentence, paragraph, and essay. Wendell's scheme was an admirable attempt to simplify the dizzying scope of rhetorical instructions from earlier eras. Its minimalist philosophy, however, pointed in the direction of William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's famous seventy-one–page Elements of Style (1918; 1959), which can hardly be called a "rhetoric" text in the old sense of the term.

Although the study of integrated theories of rhetoric had been all but abandoned in classrooms by the twentieth century, rhetoric's practical transformations did not bring the immediate end of civilized discourse. In fact, the stultifying protocols for composition that evolved out of rhetoric during the nineteenth century were a response to astonishing democratic upheaval and competing professional interests. For example, in his study of literature and legal discourse, Robert Ferguson notes that the authority of a unified moral principle in law began to give way to a plurality of technical rights over the course of the century. Similarly, Kenneth Cmiel has argued that the nineteenth century is significant for its proliferation of "middling" rhetorical styles and lack of a single persuasive mode. The diversity of social and professional contexts in which people make meaning brought with it a multiplication of different discourses and audiences, such as the rhetoric of the economist, the lawyer, the parent, the psychoanalyst, and the farmer. In some ways, the sense of crisis many rhetoric faculty experienced in the late nineteenth century was legitimate: students did not intuitively know what to write, or for whom, or what truly counted as authority. In a larger sense, however, their teachers may have begun to feel a similar anxiety.

See alsoClassical Literature; Colleges; Curricula; Education; English Literature; Literary Criticism; Oratory; Philosophy; Psychology


Primary Works

Adams, John Quincy. Lectures on Rhetoric and OratoryDelivered to the Classes of Senior and Junior Sophisters in Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass.: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1810.

Austin, Gilbert. Chironomia; or, A Treatise on RhetoricalDelivery. 1806. Edited by Mary Margaret Robb and Lester Thonssen. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966.

Bain, Alexander. English Composition and Rhetoric: A Manual. New York: American Book Co., 1866.

Blair, Hugh. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. 1783. Edited by Harold F. Harding. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.

Campbell, George. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. 1776. Edited by Lloyd F. Bitzer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.

Channing, Edward Tyrrel. Lectures Read to the Seniors inHarvard College. 1856. Edited by Dorothy I. Anderson and Waldo W. Braden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.

Espenshade, Abraham Howry. The Essentials of Composition and Rhetoric. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1904.

Genung, John. The Working Principles of Rhetoric. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1900.

Hart, John S. A Manual of Composition and Rhetoric: AText-Book for Schools and Colleges. Philadelphia: Eldredge and Brother, 1870.

Hill, Adams Sherman. The Foundations of Rhetoric. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892.

Hill, Adams Sherman. The Principles of Rhetoric, and Their Application. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1878.

Hope, M. B. The Princeton Text-Book in Rhetoric. Princeton, N.J.: John T. Robinson, 1859.

The MacMillan Writer: Rhetoric, Reader, Handbook. 5th ed. Edited by Judith Nadell, Linda McMeniman, and John Langan. New York: Macmillan, 1997.

Newcomer, Alphonso G. A Practical Course in English Composition. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1893.

Porter, Ebenezer. Analysis of the Principles of RhetoricalDelivery As Applied in Reading and Speaking. Andover, Mass., and New York: M. Newman, J. Levitt, 1827.

Quackenbos, George Payn. Advanced Course of Composition and Rhetoric. New York: D. Appleton, 1855.

Scott, Fred Newton, and Joseph Villiers Denney. Composition-Rhetoric, Designed for Use in Secondary Schools. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1897.

Strunk, William Jr. The Elements of Style. 1918. With revisions, an introduction, and a new chapter on writing by E. B. White. Ithaca, N.Y.: Thrift Press, 1958.

Wendell, Barrett. English Composition. New York: Scribners, 1891.

Whately, Richard. Elements of Rhetoric. 1828. Edited by Douglas Ehninger. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.

Secondary Works

Anderson, Dorothy I., and Waldo W. Braden. Introduction to Lectures Read to the Seniors in Harvard College by Edward Tyrrel Channing, pp. i–lii. Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.

Berlin, James. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-CenturyColleges. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Charvat, William. The Origins of American Critical Thought, 1810–1835. 1936. New York: Russell and Russell, 1961.

Clark, Gregory, and S. Michael Halloran, eds. OratoricalCulture in Nineteenth-Century America: Transformations in the Theory and Practice of Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

Cmiel, Kenneth. Democratic Eloquence: The Fight overPopular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: W. Morrow, 1990.

Dimock, Wai Chee. Residues of Justice: Literature, Law, Philosophy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Ferguson, Robert. Law and Letters in American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Guthrie, Warren. "The Development of Rhetorical Theory in America, 1635–1850." Speech Monographs 13 (1946): 14–22; 14 (1947): 38–54; 15 (1948): 61–71; 16 (1949): 98–113; 18 (1951): 17–30.

Johnson, Nan. Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in North America. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Kitzhaber, Albert R. Rhetoric in American Colleges,1850–1900. 1953. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1990.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636–1936. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Granville Ganter


views updated Jun 27 2018


Although it is frequently understood to refer to the art of effective discourse, the term "rhetoric" refers variously to the study or analysis of discourse, to the ability to create and deliver messages effectively, and to the study of the theoretical issues that underlie the relationship that exists between knowledge and language. It refers to both the study and application of communicative practices. Traditionally associated with the art of persuasion, especially in the oral tradition, rhetoric has at times been viewed as encompassing the study of virtually all communication interactions on the grounds that all communication can be viewed as intentional. Rhetoric is the foundational discipline on which contemporary concerns for subjects as diverse as audience research, media criticism, marketing, public speaking, semiotics, communication ethics, nonverbal communication, and the philosophy of language are based. The term also has a long history of pejorative use as a label for dishonest or empty discourse, such as when a politician characterizes the speech of his or her opponent as "mere rhetoric," suggesting that its claims are unsubstantiated or that its beautiful phrases are actually meaningless. One reason for the complexity of meanings in the term is simply that rhetoric is an ancient art, the practices of which are closely linked to political systems and cultural norms. As cultures have risen and fallen since ancient times, the significance, meaning, and practice of rhetoric has gone through a variety of transformations.

Rhetoric Emerges as a Discipline

The first formal discussions of the art of rhetoric in the Western tradition emerged in the fifth century b.c.e. in Greece, though more ancient texts of Chinese and Jewish origin as well the works of Homer indicate that there was an even earlier interest in speech making. The growing use of the courts to adjudicate disputes, such as those concerning property ownership, prompted by political changes in Sicily, led to the increasing use of oral public argument that was aimed to produce a decision that was favorable to an advocate. Some individuals began to observe that there were standard practices or lines of argument that were successful. Recognizing that people would pay to learn these strategies, these individuals began to teach the strategies that they had observed or used. News of these prescriptions for successful arguments was soon carried to Athens, where the emergence of increasingly democratic forms of government offered fertile ground for the development of the art of public oratory beyond the courtroom. The teaching of the art of rhetoric flourished in this environment.

From these early days, the teachers of rhetoric, who were often philosophers in a group that was known as the Sophists, faced opposition. Plato, a major spokesperson for this opposition, was concerned that rhetoric, at best, was no art but simply a knack, and, at worst, that it was a morally bankrupt endeavor. Rhetoric, he argued, was not concerned with discovering truth or reality; it was only concerned with appearances. Rhetoric was not considered to be a science, as it led to no certain knowledge, and it was not a respectable art such as dialectic (the use of strict deductive logic to test and defend claims when scientific demonstration was impossible). The Sophists defended their position on philosophical and practical grounds. Truth is rarely attainable and often what one imagines to be the truth of an issue will not be considered true elsewhere. "Man is the measure of all things," argued Protagoras in his contemporary-sounding expression of cultural relativism. For the Sophists, rhetoric was a necessary art, useful to discover and reach agreement about truths, as well as to decide on courses of action when no truth about an issue could be known.

In the most influential work on rhetoric from the Greek period, Aristotle's Rhetoric (circa 335

b.c.e.), an effort is made to transcend this debate. Defining rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion," Aristotle offered a scientific examination of rhetoric to counter the almost mystical powers that the Sophists sometimes attributed to it. Aristotle saw rhetoric as a morally neutral art—a habit of mind and a systematic practice that could be of help to anyone who was engaged in persuasive practice in any situation. He agreed with the Sophists that rhetoric was necessary to answer questions about contingent matters—issues of discussion where "Truth" could not be known. He also identified three areas where rhetorical activity took place. These were the courtroom, where, in response to the presentations of advocates, judges rendered decisions about disputed past facts (e.g., Did they commit the offence? What offence was it?); the senate, where, in response to public arguments, judges rendered decisions about future actions(e.g., Should we go to war with Sparta? Should we spend public money for this building?); and the realm of what might be called public opinion, where the listeners in the audience rendered a decision about present attitudes toward a person who was attacked or praised in a speech or even about the speaker himself. For example, in his speech "On Helen" (circa 414 b.c.e.), Gorgias, a prominent teacher of rhetoric, beautifully exonerated the historical figure Helen of Troy—whom popular culture accused of causing the Trojan War. Aristotle also systematically addressed lines of argument, the psychological characteristics of audience members, cultural values and norms on which one could build an argument, and even how to use language successfully. Aristotle was most interested in the effectiveness of discourse because speakers functioned as advocates who were trying to persuade judges or audiences to decide in their favor. Perhaps his most long-standing contribution is his discussion of the three basic modes of proof. Aristotle identified (and modern textbooks on public speaking echo) three basic ways in which people come to be persuaded: logos, or appeals that are grounded in rationality or logical argument; ethos, or appeals that are grounded in the credibility of the speaker; and pathos, or appeals that are grounded in emotions or are aimed to arouse emotions in such a way that a listener is placed in the right frame of mind to render appropriate judgment.

Rhetoric as a Practical Skill and Master Art

Ancient Rome (from 200 b.c.e.) was deeply influenced by Greek thought about rhetoric and adopted rhetorical training into its emerging educational system. The Romans produced a clear course of study for the training and development of orators. Textbooks such as the Rhetorica ad Herennium (which appeared around 84 b.c.e.) set forth the five elements that students were expected to master. These are referred to as the "rhetorical canon," and they continue to influence how public speaking is taught. The first canon, inventio, or invention, referred to the creation or discovery of the content of the speech. This is the issue to which Aristotle had devoted most of his energies. Modern public speaking textbooks treat issues related to invention when they advise students about selecting and narrowing speech topics, conducting research, and developing supporting materials and arguments for their speeches. The second canon, dispositio, or disposition, referred to the selection and arrangement of this content to create the speech. Modern teachers of public speaking continue to advise students about appropriate patterns of organization and ways to connect one idea to another in an oral presentation. Elocutio, or style, constituted the third rhetorical canon, focusing on the creation of the right wording to express ideas and on the use of stylistic devices to enliven discourse. Modern courses in public speaking still discuss the use of strategies such as clarity, metaphor, antithesis, and parallel structure as ways to increase the effectiveness of a public speech. The fourth canon was called memoria, or memory. Ancient orators were trained to commit even lengthy addresses to memory. Special mnemonic strategies were developed to aid in this process. Contemporary public speakers are trained to use key-word outlines, TelePrompTers, and computer-generated visual aids to assist them in recalling the main points and details of their presentations. The fifth canon was training in pronunciatio, or delivery. To be effective, a speech must be delivered with the voice and body used in a way that enhances the ability of the audience to understand and/or be moved by the message.

The rhetorical canon and its institutional status in Greco-Roman culture, as well as its place as a pillar of the Seven Liberal Arts, demonstrates that from its earliest days, rhetoric has been linked to pedagogy; it has been recognized as a necessary skill of an educated person. However, there has always been a competing history that viewed rhetoric as more than a skill. The Sophists saw it as a way to generate truth. Cicero, regarded as the greatest of the Roman rhetoricians, saw rhetoric as a master art that was linked to the development of the person of public affairs. Cicero's eloquence in speaking in defense of the Roman Republic as it tottered toward monarchy in the first centuryb.c.e. demonstrates his powerful fusion of rhetorical theory with rhetorical practice. In the first century c. e., Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory set forth an exhaustive system for the education of young men, where rhetoric was no longer the neutral art of Aristotle but was deeply linked to ethics. Although written in Imperial Rome when the political structure constrained civic discourse and Cicero's vision of the rhetorician as a man of public affairs had become unviable, Quintilian's writings nevertheless held up the ideal of "the good man speaking well." Modern communication scholars continue to be concerned with the place of discourse in a democratic community as well as with the ethical dimensions of discourse.

The Persistence and Expansion of Rhetoric

From the Medieval period through the Enlightenment, the study of rhetoric passed through a series of highs and lows as the economic, religious, scholarly, and political conditions changed. Instruction in at least part of the rhetorical canon continued alongside studies of grammar and logic, but in some writings during the period, rhetoric was reduced to a focus on the single canon of style or expression, while logic (or dialectic) was elevated in importance. In the early Renaissance, manuals on the art of letter writing and on poetry were linked to classical treatments of rhetoric, but the oral tradition faded while the connection of rhetoric with style in writing was strengthened. Other handbooks on courtly etiquette and preaching kept alive some interest in other aspects of the rhetorical canon. These works clearly express human interest in developing rhetorical sensitivity; they underscore the belief that there is a strategy or art concerning how people know what to say and how they express themselves in language, whether written or oral. The rediscovery of key classical texts during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries renewed interest in rhetoric, and rhetorical training continued as a regular part of Western educational systems well into the nineteenth century. The Ciceronian ideal of the public orator experienced a renaissance in the nineteenth-century American oratorical tradition, but in schools, rhetorical training was typically limited to elements of composition and, in some quarters, practice at declamation (reciting speech excerpts) or elocution (developing skills of memorization and delivery).

The renewed interest in rhetorical studies in the mid-twentieth century grew out of several causes. Internationalism, wartime propaganda, new media, and the growth of advertising all increased attention to the creation and analysis of persuasive messages. Academic interest in argumentation, a maturing sense of the complexities of audience analysis, and a renewed interest in the relationships that exist among knowledge, language, and power have supported a burgeoning field of study that reaches across disciplinary boundaries. Practitioners such as motivational speakers, marketers, and politicians are interested in how to discover information about their audiences and, once they have that information, how to create appeals that will be successful.

One way to learn how to create more effective messages is to study past rhetorical efforts. From this theory emerged the discipline of rhetorical criticism. When discourse intends to have an effect on an audience, the questions that are used to analyze it should concern rhetorical rather than simply literary features. In the 1940s and 1950s, Kenneth Burke argued that "identification" rather than "persuasion" is the key rhetorical concept, and he encouraged critics to investigate both the conscious and unconscious ways in which symbol users attempt to get an audience to share their beliefs and values. Rhetorical scholars have investigated a wide range of public discourse, examining everything from the arguments and appeals of the abolition movement of the nineteenth century to the rhetorical power of public memorials to the influence of media coverage of war.

Rhetorical studies is influencing and being influenced by many disciplines. Feminist rhetorical critics have added new perspectives by asking a new set of questions. A contemporary rhetorical study, for example, may investigate how many times women are cited as experts in hard news versus soft news stories and may hypothesize about what that data means as a reflection of the value system of a culture. Influenced by European thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, rhetorical critics have explored the hidden assumptions that are revealed by the choices that are made in the production of discourse. Even the discourse of the sciences has been examined to expose the rhetorical conventions that are common to the disciplines and to reveal the belief and value systems as well as the power structures that constrain and shape research questions, processes of investigation, and the reporting of results. The study of semiotics and the relationship among words, meanings, and reality offers further richness for analytical study that produces both practical and theoretic insight.

Although rhetoric as a discipline continues to offer opportunities to reflect on theoretical questions that concern the nature of knowledge and language, for the contemporary student, rhetorical study often remains focused on the effective use of discourse. Students of composition develop the skills that are necessary to improve the clarity and effectiveness of their writing. Students of public speaking practice analyzing the particular demands of a speaking situation and audience, creating materials for a speech, and then organizing, wording, and delivering it. Rhetoric instruction leads students to consider how their choices of content, structure, language, and/or delivery strategy will have a rhetorical effect. Students learn that their choices will influence how the audience receives the message; indeed, they will influence the very meaning of the message for that audience. By developing this consciousness, as well as by underscoring the potential power of discourse in shaping and maintaining culture, the study of rhetoric persists at being central to the mission of higher education.

See also:Democracy and the Media; Ethics and Information; Language and Communication; Language Structure; Nonverbal Communication; Propaganda; Public Speaking; Semiotics.


Aristotle. (1954). Rhetoric, tr. Rhys Roberts. New York:Random House.

Bizzell, Patricia, and Herzberg, Bruce. (2001). The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, 2nd edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press.

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

Burke, Kenneth. (1950). A Rhetoric of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Brummett, Barry. (1994). Rhetoric in Popular Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Cicero. (1979). De Oratore, 3 vols., trs. E. W. Sutton and H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Conley, Thomas. (1990). Rhetoric in the European Tradition. New York: Longman.

Covino, William A., and Jolliffe, David. A. (1995). Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Foss, Sonja K.; Foss, Karen A.; and Trapp, Robert.(1991). Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, 2nd edition. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Kennedy, George. (1980). Classical Rhetoric and its Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Medhurst, Martin J. (1993). Landmark Essays on American Public Address. Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press.

Medhurst, Martin J., and Benson, Thomas W., eds.(1991). Rhetorical Dimensions in Media: A Critical Casebook, 2nd edition. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Schiappa, Edward. (1994). Landmark Essays on Classical Greek Rhetoric. Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press.

Amy R. Slagell


views updated Jun 08 2018

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.



views updated May 21 2018


The discipline, traditionally enumerated among the liberal arts, concerned with persuasion or engendering credence. Since it has no proper subject matter and no inherent restrictions on what means it can or should employ, its notion tends to vary with the philosophy with which it is associated. Sometimes, however, rhetoric itself is taken as the basis of entire philosophy (M. Nizolius, 14981576), and at others it is excluded from philosophy as a hallmark of sophism (Plato).

Various Views. The verbal and the mental are two aspects of rhetoric that may be taken as poles between which the variations assumed by the discipline are to be apprehended. When the verbal aspect predominates and the rhetorician's emphasis is on effective speech, criticism is characteristically moral. Either rhetoric is dismissed as a somewhat empty concern with verbal ornamentation; or, if the rhetorician is a figure to be reckoned with, it is argued that man is not "the measure of all things" (Protagoras) and that true self-knowledge leads to principles transcending the merely human. When a cosmological identification of such principles takes place, rhetoric shares with poetry the condemnation of being inferior to philosophy, this frequently accompanied by paradoxical use of poetic devices, such as Plato's, to express a philosophy that excludes poets. The refutation by rhetoric of this attempt to devaluate its importance has ordinarily been to urge the human irrelevance of cosmological speculationthe mistake of Socrates, according to Cicero, was separating wisdom and eloquenceand at the same time to dissociate the rhetorician's active participation in human affairs from the fancies and falsehoods of the poet.

Christian thinkers have evaluated the verbal aspect of rhetoric somewhat differently. The preeminence in so many senses of the Word of God accounts for the subordination of the rhetoric of human wordsin the thought of the converted professor of rhetoric, St. augustinenot to a cosmological, but to a personal Principle (confer, Doctr. christ.; Mag. 3.56, 11.3612.46). The change from belief to Christian faith, the development of theology and the issuing forth of the independent scientific certitudes of philosophy provide the background against which the vicissitudes of rhetoric, conceived in relation to the other liberal arts, can be traced through the intellectual history of the Middle Ages. For St. thomas aquinas, for example, rhetoric is a part of logic leading the mind to a state that is neither full-blown opinion or conviction on the one hand, nor estimation based almost wholly on manner of representation on the other. These are the offices of dialectics and poetics respectively, whereas rhetoric induces a kind of suspicion that does not exclude the contrary possibility (In anal. post., proem. 6).

Throughout the history of Western thought rhetoric or some of its devices has been a part of logic or dialectics. This is not so much because the verbal aspect is preempted or devalued by wisdom, philosophy, science, or some other discipline as because the devices of rhetoric belonging to its mental aspect prove attractive to some philosophers at certain critical junctures. When the larger analogical contexts become doubtful or subject to dispute, or when univocal definitions become difficult to establish, rhetoric has often seemed to offer appropriate resources.

Rhetorical Devices. The rhetorical distinction between definite and infinite questions, the former having a name and time attached and the latter arrived at by removal of these (Cicero, Partitiones oratoriae 9, 18, 30), has sometimes been invoked as a means of first approach to otherwise resistant data, or has been used along with its subdistinctions to order transcendental considerations in metaphysics.

Once the kind of question has been settled on by a rhetorician, his most characteristic device, namely, place or topic (locus, topos ), can be brought into use. Places can be characterized as sets of recurrent patterns that oratorical encounters are likely to embody. Running over these in preparing his case, the orator can locate both his opponent's position and possible lines of argument and his own most effective lines of argument and refutation. Lists of places in the rhetorical tradition are customarily divided into common places, that is, those common to all situations and proper places, those appropriate either to kinds of questions (Cicero) or to kinds of oratory (Aristotle) and distinguished according to type of audience as forensic, deliberative, or epideictic (display). A familiar example of both questions and places in a short, though mixed, list is the set of circumstancesquis, quid, ubi, cur, quomodo, quando, quibus auxiliis that has a long history of use in Canon Law, moral theology and journalism.

The notion of rhetorical place can be presented by contrasting the treatments of definition in rhetoric and dialectics. Dialectics in many of its versions (for example, Aristotle's or Agricola's) employs places, not infrequently taking over those to be found in the lists of rhetoric; but even when dialectics does not use places, its characteristic movement, often rather far ranging, is centripetal with regard to definition or some approximation of this. For rhetoric, definition is one of the places or topics, along with others, such as cause, consequences and contrary. Rhetoric proceeds to definition by explication rather than by narrowing. Unfolding parts or divisions carries out defining (Cicero, Topica 5), the idea being that definition in some matter or affair may provide some room for possible argument in the course of presentation.

Rhetorical Argument. It is in argument that the interest of the great classical rhetorics of Aristotle and Cicero lies. Their predecessors had devoted too much attention either to the verbal side of the art (Aristotle), or to the judging of statements (Cicero), whereas the prior or more important aspect is the invention of arguments. The arguments, for which the places serve as a means of inventing, are for example, corresponding to induction in logic or dialectics, and enthymeme, the counterpart of deduction. While manuals of logic have for centuries described enthymeme as a syllogism with some unexpressed member, for Aristotle it is what is in the mind (Gr. νθυμε[symbol omitted]σθαί, to keep in mind) of the judge or the audience, and for Cicero, what is in his forensic opponent's mind, that dictates what the argument should be.

Treatises on rhetoric, however much they may emphasize the invention of argument, do not neglect the further elements on whose proper synthesis effective rhetorical practice depends. Collocation or arrangement of introduction (exordium ), division of the issue (partitio ), the argument (confirmatio ), the refutation of the opponent's argument and peroration need to be looked after. Elocution or the choice of effective language and memorization require attention. Above all, in the view of the greatest orator of antiquity, Demosthenes, the speech needs delivery (actio ).

The dependence of rhetoric for its persuasive effect is traditionally not confined to the words or the thought or to the combining of the two. Rhetoric relies on the confluence of these with the character of the orator and the emotions (motus animi ) of his audience. The chief rhetorical fallacy would be ineffectiveness. On the other hand, the union in mutual appropriateness of so many elementsthoughts, words, actions and menin rhetorical practice at its greatest has sometimes suggested itself as a moral ideal. For Quintilian, moral education would be moral training; and in Cicero's dictum, the good life would be like a good speech.

Recent Interest. Contemporary attention to rhetoric has largely concentrated on the history of the discipline (R. McKeon). Sometimes it is said that many of the matters included in the classical treatises on rhetoric have been absorbed by the subject matters of psychology and the social sciences. In recent decades, however, the question has been raised whether closer study and adaptation of the devices of rhetorical theory might not contribute to the considerations of problems in literary theory (K. Burke), poetics (J. Paulhan), linguistic theory (I. A. Richards) and ethics, politics and jurisprudence (C. Perelman).

See Also: argumentation.

Bibliography: c. s. baldwin, Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic (New York 1924; reprint Gloucester, Mass. 1959). k. burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (New York 1950). i. a. richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (New York 1936). r. mckeon, "Poetry and Philosophy in the Twelfth Century: The Renaissance of Rhetoric," Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, ed. r. s. crane (Chicago 1952) 297318; "Rhetoric in the Middle Ages," ibid. 260296. p. a. duhamel, "The Function of Rhetoric as Effective Expression," Journal of the History of Ideas, 10 (1949) 344356. c. perelman and l. olbrechts-tyteca, Rhétorique et philosophie: Pour une théorie de l'argumentation en philosophie (Paris 1952). j. paulhan, Les Fleurs de Tarbes: ou, La Terreur dans les lettres (Paris 1941).

[g. f. drury]


views updated May 21 2018


Rhetoric is the art and theory of persuasive speech and argument. A branch of scholarship that dates back to the Greek democracy, rhetoric has long been associated with service to public life and civic engagement. It is best symbolized by the idealized figure of the orator, who represented the finest characteristics of a culture and who, through eloquent speech, articulated the culture's public affairs in a manner that reflected its values. Classical rhetoricians believed that public language must be educated and refined but also approachable, free of jargon, and designed for the nonspecialist, a belief that was continued into the early national period in the United States.

During the early American Republic, rhetoric became an essential aspect of higher education for lawyers, politicians, and ministers, who formally addressed the public. In addition, male and female students at all educational levels studied rhetoric because, educators believed, it enhanced the civic engagement of the young. Whereas later in the nineteenth century rhetoric would come to have negative connotations, Americans during the early Republic felt that rhetoric taught youth to be proper members of a democratic public. The pedagogical emphasis on instruction in rhetoric reveals the extent to which the United States at that time remained a culture powerfully reliant on oratory and orality.

The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece are credited with having caused rhetoric to be considered a significant branch of philosophy. They thought that knowledge from philosophy and other disciplines was, by itself, inert and therefore in need of rhetorical persuasion to propel it into effective use in the arena of human affairs. Early American public-speaking manuals particularly celebrated the Roman orator Cicero (106–43 b.c.) as a model of eloquence and incorruptible morality and suggested that his oratory had helped to protect the Roman republic from tyranny. Americans also idealized Quintilian (35?–? a.d.), a Roman teacher posthumously famous for his writings on rhetoric in Institutio Oratoria (The Orator's Education), for his advancement of polished speech and personal integrity.

Although most refer to it as an "art," rhetoric was generally understood as a body of rules to be learned by students. According to classical practice, rhetoric was divided into five parts, each of equal importance: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. This formula meant that the orator treated the logic of an argument or the development of an idea as standing on equal ground with matters of style, such as the verbal flourishes and metaphors or the orator's vocal inflections and gesture. The orator must master all of these "parts," so the reasoning went, in order to fully engage and persuade an audience. By the mid-eighteenth century, educational institutions came to rely on classically inspired works like A System of Oratory (1759) by the British rhetorician John Ward, which relied heavily on the ideas of Cicero and Quintilian. Ward's System became the most popular text on rhetoric in American colleges until the end of the century.

Americans' eighteenth-century embrace of the classical model of rhetoric represented a sharp break with seventeenth-century American practice, which idealized a far less elaborate, plain style of delivery and made a firm distinction between "style" and "substance." This earlier view was best expressed in the rhetorical theory of Petrus Ramus (1515–1572) of the University of Paris, whose writings were imported by instructors at Harvard and other American colleges during the seventeenth century. Ramus considered logic to be the central characteristic of a good sermon, and rhetoric to be only so much verbal display. As Americans moved away from Ramistic rhetoric and toward classical rhetorics, they came into line with current European and especially British public speaking and scholarship.

This shift also reflected much broader cultural changes toward an emphasis on public opinion and the engagement and persuasion of audiences. With an upsurge in the popularity of evangelical religion and participatory politics, Ramistic rhetoric—which paid little attention to adapting a speech to specific audiences or situations—now appeared out of step with a dynamic and complex society. In keeping with these developments, American colleges began to shift in focus from primarily training ministers to providing a liberal education for men with other professional intentions, such as the law or commerce. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, colleges placed rhetoric at the center of instruction and emphasized its public and civic characteristics. Students took rhetoric in all four years, participated in daily oral disputations and oral examinations, and usually culminated their degrees with a public oration before an audience of local dignitaries. Students also formed extracurricular debating societies to further develop these skills. Such a focus within higher education reflected not only the growing sense that all welleducated men must be adept at oratory but also that they must learn to persuade diverse audiences. Neither was this a movement limited to the privileged or highly educated; in most American cities and towns after the Revolution, groups of noncollegiate young men formed debating societies to practice skills in argument and delivery.

The new emphasis on gauging one's audience and respecting public opinion did not fundamentally change the long-standing hierarchical relationship between an orator and his audience, but it did provide new political possibilities in the American colonies. Public speaking became a key art form for Americans before the Revolution, when oratory helped to galvanize the American public and to establish an argument for independence. Annual speeches commemorating the Boston Massacre of 1770 and the fiery oratory of Patrick Henry helped to create a convincing narrative of intolerable British tyranny. Americans came to see oratory as so important that, after the Revolution, when constructing buildings for Congress and for state governments, architects added galleries from which visitors might enjoy legislative address and debate. In turn, Americans learned to associate their leaders with fine oratory and to criticize them when they failed to live up to the public's standards.

Alongside the growing importance of neoclassical rhetoric, two other important rhetorical movements arose and gained influence during the late eighteenth century. The first was the elocutionary movement, which taught adherents to convey ideas and emotions successfully to their auditors by focusing extensively on the delivery of public speech. Elocutionists provided methods for modulating one's voice, gesture, and facial expression in ways that were believed to capture emotions and "natural" expression. They argued that better training in graceful and persuasive delivery would correct the dry, logical argument that had limited the effectiveness of both secular and religious speech in the past. All forms of speech were seen to benefit from this instruction—from everyday conversations to formal public oratory—making this a far more inclusive movement than one directed solely at the high-born or to aspiring formal orators.

In part because of its seemingly universal applications, elocution became particularly influential at the American common-school level and in academies and was prescribed for both male and female students. Schools had long employed oral recitation as a fundamental aspect of daily lessons, but during the early Republic, recitation became strongly allied with elocutionary techniques to the extent that most schoolbooks contained instructions for vocal inflection and gesture reprinted from prominent elocutionary writings. Indeed, elocution was so ubiquitous in childhood education that schoolbook compilers defined reading as an oral exercise, and "correct" reading as "founded upon the principles of elocution," as did Montgomery Bartlett in his The Practical Reader (1822).

The second rhetorical movement to become prominent in the late eighteenth century was belletristic rhetoric, which displayed a new concern with the aesthetic experience of persuasive speech. Belletristic theorists brought together rhetoric and the belles lettres (from the French for "fine letters"), a broad category often referred to as "polite literature" or "fine learning" and that encompassed a knowledge of philosophy, literature, history, biography, and linguistics. Influential Scottish writers such as Adam Smith and Hugh Blair advocated an elegant style of address that revealed the speaker's knowledge of literature. Many of the orators who came to the cultural forefront during the early nineteenth century and saw their speeches reprinted for broad dissemination, including Daniel Webster and Edward Everett, made use of this fine and lofty style. These speakers and their political contemporaries in the years leading up to the Civil War were so famous for their carefully wrought arguments and inspiring speech that this would later be called "the golden age of American oratory."

Both elocution and the belles lettres were rhetorical movements that were shared across the Atlantic; more distinctive to the American context was the middling oratorical style, or "democratic idiom," as the historian Kenneth Cmiel has termed it. This style married elements of the grander belletristic style with less formal aspects, such as colloquial language and folksy charm more common to ordinary people. As Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most popular speakers of the antebellum era, famously put it in 1835, "he is sure of popularity who can come down among the people and address truth to them in their own homely way and with broad humor—and at the same time has an upper current of taste and chaste expression and condensed vigor." The middling style of address indicated to listeners that an orator put on few airs about an elite background or education, yet retained the ability to elevate the thoughts and feelings of the audience.

One of the sources of this "democratic idiom" was the fiery religious oratory of the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, when some of the most popular speakers were uneducated people with great skills in persuasive, direct address. Although this style would flower most fully in the 1830s, the contrast between it and the belletristic style played an important role in the 1828 presidential election. John Quincy Adams, who had previously held the position of Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, ran against the plaintalking Tennessee lawyer and military hero Andrew Jackson. The candidates' supporters played up the great differences in style between the two men. So, although neither candidate ever electioneered on his own behalf, Jackson's election helped to usher in a new era of popular politics that eschewed refinement and elitism.

These changes in American political culture would eventually contribute to a fundamental shift in the common understanding of rhetoric. Rather than referring to public-spirited speech by the honorable orator, "rhetoric" came to connote the inflated, empty, and even deceptive words of speakers who had their own interests at heart. During the early American Republic, however, rhetoric remained associated with virtuous eloquence that galvanized the public to unified action toward the common good.

See alsoEducation: Colleges and Universities; Election of 1828; Political Culture; Revivals and Revivalism .


Cmiel, Kenneth. Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Morrow, 1990; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Fliegelman, Jay. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Gustafson, Sandra M. Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Halloran, S. Michael. "Rhetoric in the American College Curriculum: The Decline of Public Discourse." Pre/Text 3 (1982): 245–269. Reprinted in Pre/Text: The First Decade. Edited by Victor J. Vitanza. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.

Moran, Michael G., ed. Eighteenth-Century British and American Rhetorics and Rhetoricians: Critical Studies and Sources. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Carolyn Eastman


views updated May 29 2018


Rhetoric, the art of speaking or writing persuasively, was a matter of great importance to educated people during the Renaissance. In schools, students used it to express their own ideas and to analyze the works of others. The basic principles of rhetoric were so familiar to educated people that they could use them almost without thinking. Eloquent speech became the key to success in professions and at court. Renaissance scholars based their study of rhetoric mainly on the works of Cicero, an ancient Roman orator and philosopher who claimed that when rhetoric combined wisdom and persuasive speaking, it produced civil government and justice.

Roots of Rhetoric. Scholars of the Middle Ages and Renaissance learned about rhetoric largely from two ancient sources: Cicero's On Invention and an anonymous text called The Art of Rhetoric for Herennius. These sources identified three major types of rhetoric. Judicial rhetoric was used to present a case in court, while political rhetoric aimed to persuade an audience about political issues. The third type, epideictic rhetoric, served to praise or blame a particular person or thing. Speakers might use this form of rhetoric at ceremonies such as funerals and birthday celebrations.

On Invention and Rhetoric for Herennius divided rhetoric into five basic parts, known as canons. The first canon, invention, referred to the way speakers selected arguments to support their positions. Scholars drew on certain basic categories of thought, which they called topics, to find their arguments. For example, in describing a person, a speaker might use such topics as appearance, education, and character. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 b.c.) discussed the techniques of invention in two of his works, Rhetoric and Topics. Cicero also wrote a work called Topics, which attempted to explain Aristotle's ideas further.

The second canon, arrangement, dealt with the structure of a formal speech. In ancient practice, a speaker would begin by introducing his topic and laying out the facts related to it. He would then announce his thesis (the point he wished to argue) and gave a brief overview of his argument. He offered arguments to support his thesis and to counter opposing viewpoints and ended with a formal conclusion. Renaissance humanists* used this structure in formal letters and essays as well as in orations.

The third canon, style, focused on word choice and figures of speech. The Rhetoric for Herennius was the major Renaissance reference for style. It identified three broad levels of style—plain, middle, and grand. It also described 64 different figures of speech for writers to use and imitate. Renaissance writers, who considered style very important for expressing emotion, came up with even longer lists of such figures.

The Rhetoric for Herennius also devoted chapters to the two final canons, memory and delivery. Renaissance authors were not much concerned with memory, which had to do with the use of mnemonics (memory aids) to learn a speech. However, they paid some attention to delivery, the art of using voice and gestures effectively during a speech.

Rhetoric in the Renaissance. These ancient methods of rhetoric fell out of favor during the Middle Ages, as educators focused more on logic. Scholars involved in the sciences tended to rely on dialectics, a branch of logic, rather than on rhetoric, to discuss their findings. Dialectics was a method of discussion between experts, while rhetoric aimed to address the general public. Unlike rhetoric, which aimed to persuade an audience, dialectics focused on discovering the truth.

During the Renaissance, however, some of the distinctions between these two fields began to blur. As more people became interested in scholarly questions, scholars began to find rhetoric a useful tool for bringing their studies to a wider audience. As a result, rhetoric gradually regained its importance in the academic realm. It also became important in three other fields: preaching, letter writing, and poetry. Renaissance preachers favored a grand style that played on their listeners' emotions. Humanist authors paid close attention to their use of rhetoric in private letters because they often hoped to publish them for a wider audience.

Renaissance writers continued to rely on the Rhetoric for Herennius and Cicero's On Invention as their main sources for the study of rhetoric. However, humanist scholars also recovered other ancient Roman manuscripts on the subject. In the mid-1300s, the Italian scholar Petrarch found works by Cicero that dealt with the art of rhetoric and the value of poetry and literature. In 1416 Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini found the first complete manuscript of On the Education of the Orator, by the ancient Roman teacher Quintilian. This work described the training that a person would need to become an ideal orator, or "the good man speaking well." The book had a great influence on humanist methods of teaching rhetoric.

Greek studies also had a major impact on Renaissance rhetoric. Italian scholars began to study the Greek language in the late 1300s, and those who did not read Greek could refer to new Latin translations of Greek works. Renaissance scholars prepared new, more accurate translations of Aristotle's Rhetoric, which clarified many of the author's points. For example, they showed that Aristotle defined rhetoric not as the art of speaking persuasively but as the art of seeing all possible means of persuasion. They also identified three kinds of appeals that speakers could use to sway their audience. The first, ethos, rested on the moral character of the speaker. The second, logos, depended on reason, and pathos, the third, played on the emotions of the audience. These new translations of Aristotle's works reawakened interest in the ancient thinker's teachings on the subject of rhetoric.

Rhetoric and Education. During the first half of the 1400s, rhetoric formed the core of the humanist program of study. Teachers produced a variety of new Latin textbooks on this subject. One of the most influential manuals was On a Course of Studies (1512) by the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus. It laid out a curriculum that would help students master Latin, imitate ancient writers, and create original works. Vernacular* rhetoric manuals began to appear during the 1500s. They became very important in England, where the Renaissance arrived later than in the rest of Europe. In England, texts in Latin were the first rhetorical manuals. Some English rhetorics focused on a single canon, such as invention or style. Others, like Thomas Wilson's The Arte of Rhetorique (1553), included all five canons. Wilson took a fresh approach to rhetoric, using examples from the Bible, classical works, and his own time to show how to apply the principles of rhetoric.

Scholarly writers also produced various treatises* on the meaning and value of rhetoric. Several of them sought to clarify the differences between rhetoric and dialectic. The northern European author Rudolf Agricola first took up this topic in 1479 in his Three Books On Dialectical Invention. Petrus Ramus, a French educator, expanded on Agricola's ideas in his Training in Dialectic (1543). Ramus claimed that invention and arrangement belonged to the field of dialectic rather than rhetoric. In northern Europe, the scholar Gerhard Johann Vossius took issue with Ramus' new approach. His Commentary on Rhetoric (1605) dealt with the full art of rhetoric as Cicero had described it. Another critic of Ramus was the English philosopher Francis Bacon. His Advancement of Learning (1605) echoed Cicero's idea that the complete art of rhetoric played an important role in civic* life.

(See alsoClassical Scholarship; Education; Humanism; Logic. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

* treatise

long, detailed essay

* civic

related to a city, a community, or citizens


views updated May 11 2018



Speech and Argument. People trying to convince others must always have used, however unconsciously, regular techniques of speech and argument. To that extent, rhetoric—the study of persuasive speaking—must far predate the earliest Greek texts. Yet, as a more formal discipline, with defined teachers and a consciously formulated body of knowledge to transmit, scholars can trace its beginnings to Sicily in the first half of the fifth century b.c.e. Aristotle tells us that, with the end of the tyrannies there at that time, and the subsequent rush of litigation in courts that were now free, the first teachers of rhetoric began to offer their services to citizens who wished to learn public speaking (by Greek law litigants were obliged to represent themselves in court). Aristotle actually regarded the philosopher Empedocles of Acragas as the founder of rhetoric, while other sources name the shadowy figures Tisias and Corax of Syracuse as among the first to be involved in the new discipline. More is known about the Sophist Gorgias of Leontini, whose famous visit to Athens in 427 b.c.e. has been regarded by ancient and modern scholars alike as a real watershed in literary history, and whose distinctive style, with its wordplay and concern for balance, evidently influenced Athenian literature of this period.

Impact. Gorgias brought with him a theory as well as a practice, although it is not clear how far it is correct to separate the two in the fifth century; his instruction may have been based on little more than getting his pupils to learn set speeches of an easily adaptable nature. Indeed, it has even been maintained that rhetoric as a word and concept belongs to the fourth century, not the fifth. Even if that were so, it would still be the case that what we regard as formal rhetoric begins to have an enormous influence on the field of literature in the last quarter of the fifth century b.c.e. in Athens. Then the first publication of speeches in written form took place, after which the requirements of the court and the assembly began to dominate much literary art, especially tragedy: no tragedies from the fourth century survive, but Aristotle’s passing remarks in his Poetics (after 335 b.c.e.) make it clear that this tendency was strengthened in them. In the end, it can be argued that rhetoric ultimately damaged Greek literature, in particular poetry, just as, centuries later, it was to alter Latin literature radically around the beginning of the first century c.e. However, this ignores two crucial facts: it is precisely the fourth century b.c.e., when rhetorical instruction was well established, that has been regarded as the high point of Greek prose; and rhetorical theory had a significant impact on the literary

theory of the fifth century. However unappealing its excesses, the theory and practice of formal oratory profoundly shaped much of Classical Greek literature.


George Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).


views updated May 29 2018

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.