What Is Rhetoric?

Definitions of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece and Rome

bust of Aristotle
Bust of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition. (Giovanni Dall'Orto/Wikimedia Commons)

Broadly defined in our own time as the art of effective communication, the rhetoric studied in ancient Greece and Rome (from roughly the fifth century B.C. to the early Middle Ages) was primarily intended to help citizens plead their claims 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 classical education.

Modern theories of oral and written communication remain heavily influenced by the basic rhetorical principles introduced in ancient Greece by Isocrates and Aristotle, and in Rome by Cicero and Quintilian. Here, we'll briefly introduce these key figures and identify some of their central ideas.

"Rhetoric" in Ancient Greece

"The English word rhetoric is derived from Greek rhetorike, which apparently came into use in the circle of Socrates in the fifth century and first appears in Plato's dialogue Gorgias, probably written about 385 B.C. . . .. Rhetorike in Greek specifically denotes the civic art of public speaking as it developed in deliberative assemblies, law courts, and other formal occasions under constitutional government in the Greek cities, especially the Athenian democracy. As such, it is a cultural subset of a more general concept of the power of words and their potential to affect a situation in which they are used or received."(George A. Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric, 1994)

Plato (c.428-c.348 B.C.): Flattery and Cookery

A pupil (or at least an associate) of the great Athenian philosopher Socrates, Plato expressed his disdain for false rhetoric in Gorgias, an early work. In a much later work, Phaedrus, he developed a philosophical rhetoric, one that called for studying the souls of human beings to discover truth.

"[Rhetoric] seems to me then . . . to be a pursuit that is not a matter of art, but showing a shrewd, gallant spirit which has a natural bent for clever dealing with mankind, and I sum up its substance in the name flattery. . . . Well now, you have heard what I state rhetoric to be--the counterpart of cookery in the soul, acting here as that does on the body." (Plato, Gorgias, c. 385 B.C., translated by W.R.M. Lamb)

"Since the function of oratory is in fact to influence men’s souls, the intending orator must know what types of soul there are. Now these are of a determinate number, and their variety results in a variety of individuals. To the types of soul thus discriminated there corresponds a determinate number of types of discourse. Hence a certain type of hearer will be easy to persuade by a certain type of speech to take such and such action for such and such reason, while another type will be hard to persuade. All this the orator must fully understand, and next he must watch it actually occurring, exemplified in men’s conduct, and must cultivate a keen perception in following it, if he is going to get any advantage out of the previous instruction that he was given in the school." (Plato, Phaedrus, c. 370 B.C., translated by R. Hackforth)

Isocrates (436-338 B.C.): With Love of Wisdom and Honor

A contemporary of Plato and founder of the first school of rhetoric in Athens, Isocrates viewed rhetoric as a powerful tool for investigating practical problems.

"When anyone elects to speak or write discourses which are worthy of praise and honor, it is not conceivable that such a person will support causes which are unjust or petty or devoted to private quarrels, and not rather those which are great and honorable, devoted to the welfare of humanity and the common good. It follows, then, that the power to speak well and think right will reward the person who approaches the art of discourse with love of wisdom and love of honor." (Isocrates, Antidosis, 353 B.C., translated by George Norlin)

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.): "The Available Means of Persuasion"

Plato's most famous student, Aristotle, was the first to develop a complete theory of rhetoric. In his lecture notes (known to us as the Rhetoric), Aristotle developed principles of argumentation that remain extremely influential today. As W.D. Ross observed in his introduction to The Works of Aristotle (1939), "The Rhetoric may seem at first sight to be a curious jumble of literary criticism with second-rate logic, ethics, politics, and jurisprudence, mixed by the cunning of one who well knows how the weaknesses of the human heart are to be played upon. In understanding the book it is essential to bear in mind its purely practical purpose. It is not a theoretical work on any of these subjects; it is a manual for the speaker . . .. Much of what [Aristotle] says applies only to the conditions of Greek society, but very much is permanently true."

"Let rhetoric [be defined as] an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion. This is the function of no other art; for each of the others is instructive and persuasive about its own subject." (Aristotle, On Rhetoric, late 4th century B.C.; translated by George A. Kennedy, 1991)

Cicero (106-43 B.C.): To Prove, to Please, and to Persuade

A member of the Roman Senate, Cicero was the most influential practitioner and theorist of ancient rhetoric who ever lived. In De Oratore (Orator), Cicero examined the qualities of what he perceived to be the ideal orator.

"There is a scientific system of politics which includes many important departments. One of these departments--a large and important one--is eloquence based on the rules of art, which they call rhetoric. For I do not agree with those who think that political science has no need for eloquence, and I violently disagree with those who think that it is wholly comprehended in the power and skill of the rhetorician. Therefore we will classify oratorical ability as a part of political science. The function of eloquence seems to be to speak in a manner suited to persuade an audience, the end is to persuade by speech." (Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Inventione, 55 B.C., translated by H. M. Hubbell)

"The man of eloquence whom we seek, following the suggestion of Antonius, will be one who is able to speak in court or in deliberative bodies so as to prove, to please, and to sway or persuade. To prove is the first necessity, to please is charm, to sway is victory; for it is the one thing of all that avails most in winning verdicts. For these three functions of the orator there are three styles: the plain style for proof, the middle style for pleasure, the vigorous style for persuasion; and in this last is summed up the entire virtue of the orator. Now the man who controls and combines these three varied styles needs rare judgment and great endowment; for he will decide what is needed at any point, and will be able to speak in any way which the case requires. For, after all, the foundation of eloquence, as of everything else, is wisdom. In an oration, as in life, nothing is harder than to determine what is appropriate." (Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Oratore, 46 B.C., translated by H.M. Hubbell)

Quintilian (c.35-c.100): The Good Man Speaking Well

A great Roman rhetorician, Quintilian's reputation rests on Institutio Oratoria (Institutes of Oratory), a compendium of the best of ancient rhetorical theory.

"For my part, I have undertaken the task of molding the ideal orator, and as my first desire is that he should be a good man, I will return to those who have sounder opinions on the subject. . . . The definition which best suits its real character is that which makes rhetoric the science of speaking well. For this definition includes all the virtues of oratory and the character of the orator as well, since no man can speak well who is not good himself." (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 95, translated by H. E. Butler)

Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430): The Aim of Eloquence

As described in his autobiography (The Confessions), Augustine was a student of law and for ten years a teacher of rhetoric in North Africa before taking up study with Ambrose, the bishop of Milan and an eloquent orator. In Book IV of On Christian Doctrine, Augustine justifies the use of rhetoric to spread the doctrine of Christianity.

"After all, the universal task of eloquence, in whichever of these three styles, is to speak in a way that is geared to persuasion. The aim, what you intend, is to persuade by speaking. In any of these three styles, indeed, the eloquent man speaks in a way that is geared to persuasion, but if he doesn’t actually persuade, he doesn’t achieve the aim of eloquence."(St. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, 427, translated by Edmund Hill)

Postscript on Classical Rhetoric: "I Say"

"The word rhetoric can be traced back ultimately to the simple assertion 'I say' (eiro in Greek). 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." (Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change, 1970)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Rhetoric?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-rhetoric-1691850. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is Rhetoric? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-rhetoric-1691850 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Rhetoric?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-rhetoric-1691850 (accessed June 8, 2023).