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Identifying & Understanding Classical Rhetoric

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

The field of rhetoric, or the study of argument and persuasion, dates back to Ancient Greece. The three most important scholars of what we now call classical rhetoric - Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle - introduced concepts of rhetoric that are still used today.

Greek Beginnings

What do you think of when you hear the word rhetoric? In contemporary popular usage, the word often has a negative connotation, referring to the empty words and promises of politicians. But rhetoric has a long and noble history, and is one of the most important concepts for understanding current debates about important issues.

Rhetoric refers to the academic study of the art of argumentation and persuasion. It studies how speakers and writers present their point of view on a topic and convince their audiences to agree with them. If you ever want someone to listen to your opinion, whether it is on why a new movie was great or who to vote for in the presidential election, you need to know rhetoric.

Like many branches of learning, rhetoric has its roots in Ancient Greece. Greek scholars, particularly Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle, were the first to systematically study rhetoric and formed what we now call classical rhetoric. Classical rhetoric introduced many ideas that are still used in the study of rhetoric today.

The School of Athens by Raphael
School of Athens

Plato

Rhetoric was a hot topic of conversation among the philosophers and teachers of Ancient Greece, but the great philosopher Plato was among the first to preserve these conversations in writing. His work Gorgias, written about 380 BCE, is considered one of the earliest important works of rhetoric.

Gorgias takes the form of a dialogue between Plato's teacher Socrates and a group of Sophists. The Sophists were a group of rhetoric teachers who taught their students the techniques of persuasion and of creating a logical argument. In Gorgias, Socrates tells the Sophists that what they teach is mere flattery. He argues that rhetoric alone is just immoral manipulation, and that it must have philosophy as a moral guide.

In Gorgias, then, Plato lays out a criticism of rhetoric that continues to dog it to this day: that it is either immoral manipulation or empty words, and that it can get in the way of real deliberation. But he makes an important contribution by arguing that rhetoric must be guided by ethics or morals, which is an important idea that rhetoric scholars still grapple with today.

Isocrates

Plato's contemporary Isocrates also had problems with the Sophists, but unlike Plato, did not think that it invalidated the study of rhetoric. Instead, Isocrates developed his own study of rhetoric which he laid out in a book with the unsubtle title of Against the Sophists.

While Isocrates agreed with the Sophists that rhetoric was used to persuade others, he argued that it should not be used just for its own sake, as many of the Sophists thought, but to direct public affairs. In other words, it should be useful and engaged with the problems of the day.

His emphasis on public engagement led Isocrates to focus on the concept of kairos, or the speaker's ability to adapt to changing circumstances and make his argument fit the occasion. Because Plato often bashed him and mischaracterized his work, Isocrates was for a long time forgotten or lumped in with the Sophists, but scholars have rediscovered him in recent decades and kairos has become an important concept in contemporary study of rhetoric.

Aristotle

If rhetoric as it is known and studied today can be said to have a father, it would be Plato's student Aristotle. Aristotle broke with his teacher by embracing rhetoric and wrote the most influential book on rhetoric of all time, which can go by many different titles, but is sometimes simply called On Rhetoric.

In On Rhetoric, Aristotle discussed two concepts in particular that would shape the future of rhetoric study. Aristotle did not invent these concepts completely, but was the first to write them down in a clear, systematic way.

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