Definition and Examples of Epideictic Rhetoric

Daniel Webster
(Coll-Devaney/Getty Images)

Epideictic rhetoric (or epideictic oratory) is ceremonial discourse: speech or writing that praises or blames (someone or something). According to Aristotle, epideictic rhetoric (or epideictic oratory) is one of the three major branches of rhetoric.

Also known as demonstrative rhetoric and ceremonial discourse, epideictic rhetoric includes funeral orations, obituaries, graduation and retirement speeches, letters of recommendation, and nominating speeches at political conventions. Interpreted more broadly, epideictic rhetoric may also include works of literature.

In his recent study of epideictic rhetoric (Epideictic Rhetoric: Questioning the Stakes of Ancient Praise, 2015), Laurent Pernot notes that since the time of Aristotle, epideictic has been "a loose term":

The field of epideictic rhetoric seems vague and laden with poorly resolved ambiguities.

From the Greek, "fit for displaying or showing off"

Pronunciation: eh-pi-DIKE-tick

Epideictic Rhetoric in Earlier Times

Epideictic rhetoric has been used for centuries, stretching back to the time of the ancient Greeks as well as the era that defined the founding of our country.

Ancient Greece

"The ceremonial orator is, properly speaking, concerned with the present, since all men praise or blame in view of the state of things existing at the time, though they often find it useful also to recall the past and to make guesses at the future."
(Aristotle, Rhetoric)

"[Epideictic orations are] produced as show-pieces, as it were, for the pleasure they will give, a class comprising eulogies, descriptions, and histories, exhortations like the Panegyric of Isocrates, and similar orations by many of the Sophists . . . and all other speeches unconnected with battles of public life. . . . [The epideictic style] indulges in a neatness and symmetry of sentences, and is allowed to use well-defined and rounded periods; the ornamentation is done of set purpose, with no attempt at concealment, but openly and avowedly . . ..
"The epideictic oration, then, has a sweet, fluent and copious style, with bright conceits and sounding phrases. It is the proper field for sophists, as we said, and is fitter for the parade than for the battle . . .."
(Cicero, Orator, trans. by H.M. Hubbell)

"If we speak in praise . . . if they do not know him, we shall try to make them [the audience] desire to know a man of such excellence since the hearers of our eulogy have the same zeal for virtue as the subject of the eulogy had or now has, we hope easily to win the approval of his deeds from those whose approval we desire. The opposite, if it is censure: . . . we shall try to make them know him, in order that they may avoid his wickedness; since our hearers are unlike the subject of our censure, we express the hope that they will vigorously disapprove his way of life."
(Rhetorica ad Herennium, 90s BC)

"Rhetorical theory, the study of the art of persuasion, has long had to recognize that there are many literary and rhetorical texts where rhetoric does not aim directly at persuasion, and their analysis has long been problematical. To categorize speeches aimed at praise and blame rather than at decision-making, speeches such as funeral orations and encomia or panegyrics, Aristotle devised the technical term 'epideictic.' It can readily be extended to take in literary and theoretical texts insofar as they also do not aim directly at persuasion."
(Richard Lockwood, The Reader's Figure: Epideictic Rhetoric in Plato, Aristotle, Bossuet, Racine and Pascal. Libraire Droz, 1996)

The Founding Fathers

"Adams and Jefferson, I have said, are no more. As human beings, indeed, they are no more. They are no more, as in 1776, bold and fearless advocates of independence; no more, as at subsequent periods, the head of the government; nor more, as we have recently seen them, aged and venerable objects of admiration and regard. They are no more. They are dead. But how little is there of the great and good which can die! To their country they yet live, and live for ever. They live in all that perpetuates the remembrance of men on earth; in the recorded proofs of their own great actions, in the offspring of their intellect, in the deep-engraved lines of public gratitude, and in the respect and homage of mankind. They live in their example; and they live, emphatically, and will live, in the influence which their lives and efforts, their principles and opinions, now exercise, and will continue to exercise, on the affairs of men, not only in their own country but throughout the civilized world."
(Daniel Webster, "On the Deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson," 1826)

Epideictic Rhetoric in Modern Times

Just as epideictic rhetoric was used in earlier eras, modern figures, including a famous talk show host and even a former U.S. president, have used this type of discourse to praise more current individuals and even to explain the practice itself.

Oprah Winfrey's Eulogy for Rosa Parks

"And I'm here today to say a final thank you, Sister Rosa, for being a great woman who used your life to serve, to serve us all. That day that you refused to give up your seat on the bus, you, Sister Rosa, changed the trajectory of my life and the lives of so many other people in the world.
"I would not be standing here today nor standing where I stand every day had she not chosen to sit down. . . . Had she not chosen to say we shall not—we shall not be moved."
(Oprah Winfrey, Eulogy for Rosa Parks, October 31, 2005)

President Obama's Ceremonial Rhetoric

"Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that there were many forms of political discourse. . . . She said Mr. [Barack] Obama excels at speeches read from a teleprompter to a mass audience, not necessarily at the other forms. And his best speeches, she said, were examples of epideictic or ceremonial rhetoric, the kind we associate with conventions or funerals or important occasions, as opposed to the deliberative language of policymaking or the forensic language of argument and debate.
"They don’t necessarily translate to, say, selling major legislation, a skill mastered, for example, by Lyndon B. Johnson, hardly a compelling orator.
"'It’s not a kind of speech that’s a valuable predictor of one’s capacity to govern,' she said. 'I don’t mean to say it doesn’t forecast something. It does. But presidents have to do a lot more than that.'"
(Peter Applebome, "Is Eloquence Overrated?" The New York Times, January 13, 2008)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Epideictic Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, October 9). Definition and Examples of Epideictic Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Epideictic Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).