The Meaning of Rhetor

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Statue of the Greek rhetor Isocrates

Coyau / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

In the broadest sense of the term, a rhetor is a public speaker or writer.

Rhetor: Fast Facts

  • Etymology: From the Greek, "orator"
  • Pronunciation: RE-tor

Word Origin

The word rhetor has the same roots as the related term rhetoricwhich refers to the art of using language to affect audiences, usually persuasively. Although it is used more often in the context of spoken language, rhetoric can also be written. Rhetor derived from rhesis, the ancient Greek word for speech, and rhema, which specifically defined "that which is spoken."

According to Jeffrey Arthurs, in the classical rhetoric of ancient Athens, "the term rhetor had the technical denotation of a professional orator/politician/advocate, one who actively participated in the affairs of state and court." In some contexts, a rhetor was roughly equivalent to what we would call an attorney or a lawyer.

Meaning and Usage

"The word rhetor," says Edward Schiappa, "was used in Isocrates' time [436–338 BC] to designate a very specific group of people: namely, the more or less professional politicians who spoke often in the courts or in the assembly."

The term rhetor is sometimes used interchangeably with rhetorician to refer to a teacher of rhetoric or a person skilled in the art of rhetoric. Rhetor has fallen out of popular usage and is generally used in more formal or academic language in the modern world. However, the rhetor's art is still taught as part of many educational and professional courses of study, particularly for persuasive professions such as politics, law, and social activism.

Since [Martin Luther] King was the ideal rhetor at a critical moment to pen the "Letter [from Birmingham Jail]," it transcends the Birmingham of 1963 to speak to the nation as a whole and to continue speaking to us, 40 years later.
(Watson)

The Sophist as Rhetor

  • "How next can we define the rhetor? Essentially, he is a man skilled in the art of rhetoric: and as such he may impart this skill to others, or exercise it in the Assembly or the law courts. It is of course the first of these alternatives that interests us here; for…the sophist qualifies for the title of rhetor in this sense should one choose to describe him in purely functional terms." (Harrison)

The Aristotelian vs. the Neo-Aristotelian

  • "Edward Cope recognized the cooperative nature of rhetorical argument in his classic commentary on Aristotle, noting that the rhetor is dependent upon the audience, 'for in ordinary cases he can only assume such principles and sentiments in conducting his argument as he knows will be acceptable to them, or which they are prepared to admit.'…Unfortunately, under the influence of the nominalistic individualism of the Enlightenment, the neo-Aristotelian left behind the community framework inherent in the Greek tradition to focus on the rhetor's ability to work his will. This rhetor-centered approach led to such oxymorons as considering a community destroyer like Hitler to be a good rhetor. Whatever accomplished the rhetor's purpose was taken to be good rhetoric, regardless of its consequences for the ecosystem as a whole…[T]his rhetor-centered approach blinded itself to the value implications of reducing the criteria of rhetorical practice to mere effectiveness in achieving the rhetor's purpose. If pedagogy follows this idea of competence, then the neo-Aristotelian teaches that whatever works is good rhetoric." (Mackin)

The Humanist Paradigm of Rhetoric

  • "The humanist paradigm is based on a reading of classical texts, especially those of Aristotle and Cicero, and its governing feature is the positioning of the rhetor as the generating center of discourse and its 'constitutive' power. The rhetor is seen (ideally) as the conscious and deliberating agent who 'chooses' and in choosing discloses the capacity for 'prudence' and who 'invents' discourse that displays an ingenium and who all along observes the norms of timeliness (kairos), appropriateness (to prepon), and decorum that testify to a mastery of sensus communis. Within such a paradigm, while one does recognize the situational constraints, they are, in the last instance, so many items in the rhetor's design. The agency of rhetoric is always reducible to the conscious and strategic thinking of the rhetor." (Gaonkar)

The Power of Eloquence

  • "Him only we call an artist, who should play on an assembly of men as a master on the keys of a piano; who, seeing the people furious, shall soften and compose them; should draw them, when he would, to laughter and to tears. Bring him to his audience, and, be they who they may—coarse or refined, pleased or displeased, sulky or savage, with their opinions in the keeping of a confessor or with their opinions in their bank safes—he will have them pleased and humoured as he chooses; and they shall carry and execute that which he bids them." (Emerson)

Resources and Further Reading