An Overview of Classical Rhetoric

Origins, Branches, Canons and Concepts

Parthenon of Athens
George Papapostolou photographer / Getty Images

What do you think of when you hear the word rhetoric? The practice and study of effective communication — especially persuasive communication — or the "rascally" bloviations of pundits, politicians and the like? Turns out that, in a way, both are correct, but there's a bit more nuance to speaking of classical rhetoric

As defined by the Twente University in the Netherlands, classical rhetoric is the perception of how language works when written or spoken aloud or becoming proficient in speaking or writing due to proficiency in this understanding.

Classical rhetoric is a combination of persuasion and argument, broken into three branches and five cannons as dictated by the Greek teachers Plato, the Sophists, Cicero, Quintilian, and Aristotle. 

Core Concepts

According to the 1970 textbook "Rhetoric: Discovery and Change," the word rhetoric can be traced back ultimately to the simple Greek assertation 'eiro,' or "I say" in English. Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker and Kenneth L. Pike claim "Almost anything related to the act of saying something to someone — in speech or in writing — can conceivably fall within the domain of rhetoric as a field of study." 

The rhetoric studied in ancient Greece and Rome (from roughly the fifth century B.C. to the early Middle Ages) was originally intended to help citizens plead their cases in court. Though the early teachers of rhetoric, known as Sophists, were criticized by Plato and other philosophers, the study of rhetoric soon became the cornerstone of a classical education.

On the other hand, Philostratus the Athenian, in his teachings from 230-238 A.D. "Lives of the Sophists," posts that in the study of rhetoric, philosophers consider it praise-worthy and suspect of being "rascally," and "mercenary and constituted in spite of justice." Not only meant for the crowd but also the "men of sound culture," referring to those with skills in invention and exposition of themes as "clever rhetoricians."

The conflicting perceptions of rhetoric as either proficiency in language application (persuasive communication) versus mastery of manipulation have been around for at least 2,500 years and show no sign of being resolved. As Dr. Jane Hodson has observed in her 2007 book "Language and Revolution in Burke, Wollstonecraft, Pine, and Godwin," "The confusion which surrounds the word 'rhetoric' has to be understood as a result of the historical development of rhetoric itself."

However,  modern theories of oral and written communication remain heavily influenced by the rhetorical principles introduced in ancient Greece by Isocrates and Aristotle, and in Rome by Cicero and Quintilian.

Three Branches and Five Cannons

According to Aristotle, the three branches of rhetoric are divided and "determined by three classes of listeners to speeches, for of the three elements in speech-making — speaker, subject, and person addressed — it is the last one, the hearer, that determines the speech's end and object." These three divisions are typically called deliberative rhetoric, judicial rhetoric, and epideictic rhetoric

In legislative or deliberative rhetoric, the speech or writing that attempts to get an audience to take or not to take an action, focusing on the things to come and what the crowd can do to influence the outcome.

Forensic or judicial rhetoric, on the other hand, deals more with determining the justice or injustice of an accusation or charge that happened in the present, dealing with the past. Judicial rhetoric applies more to lawyers and judges who determine the core value of justice. Similarly, the final branch — known as epideictic or ceremonial rhetoric — deals with praising or blaming someone or something. It largely applies to speeches and writings such as obituaries, letters of recommendation and sometimes even literary works.

With these three branches in mind, the application and usage of rhetoric became the focus of Roman philosophers, who later developed the idea of five canons of rhetoric. Principle among them, Cicero and the unknown author of "Rhetorica ad Herennium" defined the canons as five overlapping divisions of the rhetorical process including invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

Teaching Concepts and Practical Application

There are a number of ways throughout the ages that teachers have offered students a chance to apply and sharpen their rhetoric skills. The Progymnasmata, for example, are preliminary writing exercises that introduce students to basic rhetorical concepts and strategies. In classical rhetorical training, these exercises were structured so that the student would progress from strictly imitating speech to an understanding and application of an artistic melding of the concerns of the speaker, subject, and audience. 

Throughout history, many major figures have shaped the core teachings of rhetoric and our modern understanding of classical rhetoric.  From the functions of figurative language in the context of particular eras of poetry and essays, speeches and other texts to the various effects created and meaning conveyed by a variety of nuanced vocabulary words, there is no doubt of the impact classical rhetoric has on modern communication. 

When it comes to teaching these principles, it's best to start with the basics, the founders of the art of conversation — Greek philosophers and teachers of classical rhetoric — and work your way forward in time from there.