The Rhetorical Canons

Cicero defined the five elements of the process

rhetorical canons
The five canons of classical rhetoric.

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In classical rhetoric, rhetorical canons—as defined by Roman statesman and orator Cicero and the anonymous author of the first-century Latin text "Rhetorica ad Herennium"—are the overlapping offices or divisions of the rhetorical process. The five canons of rhetoric are:

  • Inventio (Greek, heuresis), invention
  • Dispositio (Greek, taxis), arrangement
  • Elocutio (Greek, lexis), style
  • Memoria (Greek, mneme), memory
  • Actio (Greek, hypocrisis), delivery

The Five Canons

Though Cicero is generally credited with developing the five canons of rhetoric, the famed Roman figure admits he did not actually invent or create the concept.

"In De Inventione, Cicero advances what is probably his best remembered contribution to the history of rhetoric: his five canons of oratory. He admits, however, that these divisions are not new with him: 'The parts of [rhetoric], as most authorities have stated, are Invention, Arrangement, Expression, Memory, and Delivery.' Cicero's canons provide a useful means of dividing the work of the orator into units." — James A. Herrick, "The History and Theory of Rhetoric." Allyn and Bacon, 2001.

Though Cicero, perhaps Rome's greatest orator, did not invent the concept of the five canons, he certainly disseminated the concept and helped to segment the work of orators into specific parts—a useful idea that has survived for millennia.

Cicero on the Five Canons

Rather than relying on others to define what Cicero meant and why the five canons were, and are, so important in public speaking, it can be helpful to learn what the famed orator himself said about the subject.

"Since all activity and ability of an orator falls into five divisions ... he must first hit upon what to say; then manage and marshal his discoveries, not merely in orderly fashion, but with a discriminating eye for the exact weight as it were of each argument; next go on to array them in the adornments of style; after that keep them guarded in his memory; and in the end deliver them with effect and charm." — Cicero, "De Oratore."

Here, Cicero explains how the five canons help a speaker not only divide a verbal argument into parts but also delineate "the exact weight" of each part. A speech is an effort by a speaker to persuade; Cicero's canons help the speaker craft their persuasive argument in the most effective way to achieve this purpose.

Disconnected Parts of Rhetoric

Over the centuries, the five canons of rhetoric came to be seen as more of a stylistic vehicle than a way of organizing parts of a speech in an orderly, logical fashion. It was in the study of logic where "concerns" of an argument were to be crafted, according to some scholars.

"Over the centuries, various 'parts' of rhetoric were disconnected and linked to other branches of study. For example, during the 16th century it was common to view the province of rhetoric as exclusively style and delivery with the activities of invention and arrangement transferred to the realm of logic. The impact of this shift still can be seen today in the tendency of many European scholars to view rhetoric as the study of tropes and figures of speech, disconnected from more substantive concerns such as argument (there are, of course, exceptions to this tendency)." — James Jasinski, "Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies." Sage, 2001.

Here Jasinski explains that many scholars came to see the canons as a device used to create clever flourishes of phrasing, not the basis for constructing a coherent, persuasive argument. If you read between the lines, it's clear that Jansinski believes just the opposite: as Cicero had posited 2,000 years before, Jansinski implies that the five canons, far from being merely a way to construct clever phrases, combine to create effective argumentation.

Contemporary Applications

Some scholars note that today, in practical applications, many educators focus on some of the canons and disregard others.

"In classical education, students studied the five parts, or canons, of rhetoric—invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Today, English language arts educators tend to focus on three of the five—invention, arrangement, style—often using the term prewriting for invention and organization for arrangement." — Nancy Nelson, "The Relevance of Rhetoric." Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts, 3rd ed., edited by Diane Lapp and Douglas Fisher. Routledge, 2011.

Cicero emphasized that you really need to use all five canons to construct a coherent, logical, and persuasive speech—albeit giving some of these more importance than others. Nelson points out that many educators use only three of the canons—invention, arrangement, and style—and employ them as a teaching tool rather than a holistic method for constructing a persuasive speech.

The Lost Canons

Two canons that seem to have been "lost" in recent decades, memory and invention, are probably the most important elements in constructing a persuasive speech. Cicero might have said that those are the two canons that should generally be given the greatest weight.

"The academic rediscovery of rhetoric in the 1960s did not include much of an interest in the fourth or fifth canons of rhetoric, as Edward P.J. Corbett notes in his Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (1965). Yet these two canons probably contribute the most to any understanding of a cultural and cross-cultural rhetoric, especially rhetorical memory and its relation to invention. Unlike historical traditions of rhetorical studies, memory receives little attention in schooling today, and unfortunately the subject has been largely given over by English and rhetoric departments to biology and psychology studies." — Joyce Irene Middleton, "Echoes From the Past: Learning How to Listen, Again." The SAGE Handbook of Rhetorical Studies, ed. by Andrea A. Lunsford, Kirt H. Wilson, and Rosa A. Eberly. Sage, 2009.

Middleton seems to bemoan the fact that what she sees as the two most important canons have been lost in the study of rhetoric. Because all rhetoric is built on memory—the imitation of books, ideas, and speeches that have come before—leaving these out could rob students of the opportunity to find their own inner voice by studying the works of admired authors and speakers. Other thinkers simply state that the five canons together make up the very heart of rhetoric.

"The canons of rhetoric are a model, to my mind the most efficacious, for any interdisciplinary study." — Jim W. Corder, "Uses of Rhetoric." Lippincott, 1971.

Corder makes clear that you cannot, or at least should not, disregard any of the five canons, as they make up the best basis—as they have for centuries—of constructing an oral argument that will flow logically and persuade your listeners of the correctness of the argument you are making.

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Nordquist, Richard. "The Rhetorical Canons." ThoughtCo, May. 10, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, May 10). The Rhetorical Canons. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Rhetorical Canons." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).