What Are the 3 Branches of Rhetoric?

Questions and Answers About Rhetoric and Composition

Allegory of Rhetoric
Allegory of Rhetoric in the gardens of the Palácio dos Marqueses de Fronteira (17th century) in Lisbon, Portugal. (De Agostini/D. Cavadini/Getty Images)

As defined by Aristotle in his Rhetoric (4th century BC), these are the three branches or genres of rhetoric:

  1. Deliberative Rhetoric (legislative, political, with the purpose to exhort or dissuade)
    Deliberative rhetoric is speech or writing that attempts to persuade an audience to take (or not take) some action. Whereas judicial rhetoric is primarily concerned with past events, deliberative discourse, says Aristotle, "always advises about things to come." Political oratory and debate fall under the category of deliberative rhetoric.
    Aristotle . . . lays out various principles and lines of argument for a rhetor to use in making arguments about possible futures. In short, he looks at the past "as a guide to the future and at the future as a natural extension of the present" (Poulakos 1984: 223). Aristotle contends that arguments for particular policies and actions should be grounded in examples from the past "for we judge of future events by divination from past events" (63). Rhetors are further advised to quote "what has actually happened, since in most respects the future will be like what the past has been" (134).
    (Patricia L. Dunmire, "The Rhetoric of Temporality: The Future as Linguistic Construct and Rhetorical Resource." Rhetoric in Detail: Discourse Analyses of Rhetorical Talk and Text, ed. by Barbara Johnstone and Christopher Eisenhart. John Benjamins, 2008)
  1. Judicial Rhetoric (legal, forensic, with the purpose to accuse or defend)
    Judicial rhetoric is speech or writing that considers the justice or injustice of a certain charge or accusation. In the modern era, judicial (or forensic) discourse is primarily employed by lawyers in trials decided by a judge or jury.
    [I]n Greece theories of rhetoric were developed largely for speakers in the lawcourts, whereas elsewhere judicial rhetoric is not a major consideration; and only in Greece, and thus in western Europe, was rhetoric separated from political and ethical philosophy to form a specific discipline that became a feature of formal education.
    (George A. Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times, 2nd ed. The University of North Carolina Press, 1999)

    Outside a courtroom, judicial rhetoric is displayed by anyone justifying past actions or decisions. In many professions and careers, decisions related to hiring and firing must be justified, and other actions must be documented in case of future disputes.
    (Lynee Lewis Gaillet and Michelle F. Eble, Primary Research and Writing: People, Places, and Spaces. Routledge, 2016)
  1. Epideictic Rhetoric (ceremonial, with the purpose to commemorate or blame)
    Epideictic rhetoric is speech or writing that praises (encomium) or blames (invective). Also known as 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.
    Superficially, at least, epideictic rhetoric is largely ceremonial: it is addressed to a general audience and directed to praising honor and virtue, censuring vice and weakness. Of course, since epideictic rhetoric has an important educative function--since praise and blame motivate as well as indicate virtue--it is also implicitly directed to the future; and its argument sometimes bridges those that are typically used for deliberative rhetoric.
    (Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, "The Directions of Aristotle's Rhetoric." Aristotle: Politics, Rhetoric and Aesthetics, ed. by Lloyd P. Gerson. Routledge, 1999)

    For more information about the three branches of rhetoric, follow the links to Deliberative Rhetoric, Judicial Rhetoric, and Epideictic Rhetoric.

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