What is Rhetoric? - Definition, Devices & Examples Video

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  • 0:01 The Great Thinkers on Rhetoric
  • 1:37 Definition of Rhetoric
  • 2:34 Rhetoric Devices & Examples
  • 6:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

If you don't read this lesson, you'll never understand what rhetoric means! That may or may not be true; it's probably just hyperbole. Read about the different definitions of rhetoric and some of its most popular means of persuasion.

The Great Thinkers on Rhetoric

Sometimes one word can mean a lot of different things. Rhetoric is one of those words. Throughout history, many of the greatest minds had different things to say about this concept.

For example, ancient Greek philosopher Plato defined rhetoric as 'the art of winning the soul by discourse.' He thought that rhetoric was a philosophy rather than an art and that it was actually an unnecessary tool. Plato was concerned with the truth, not the ability to persuade.

Greek philosopher Aristotle, a student of Plato, argued that 'rhetoric is the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.' Aristotle placed an importance on discovering the possible means of persuasion, not the actual effect of persuasion.

Roman rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintilianus had an entirely different take from the two Greek philosophers. He thought that rhetoric was the art of speaking well. He faulted Aristotle because he didn't believe that he took into account the simple fact that anyone could persuade, even a liar or a charlatan. Quintilianus felt that to achieve true rhetoric, a speaker must have a high moral character, be knowledgeable about the subject that he's speaking about, and above all be ethical.

Most of us have heard of Aristotle and Plato. Many of us have not heard of Quintilianus. However, it should be noted that it is his work in rhetoric that dominated English schools in the 16th-18th centuries.

Definition of Rhetoric

Okay, so rhetoric is one of those words that can mean a few different things to different people. So, how do we define something like that? We need to simply strip the word down to the basics. Let's agree that rhetoric is the art of using language where at least one person is trying to change the thinking of at least one other person. This can be done either orally in something such as public speaking, or in the written form, such as in a thesis paper.

For some, there will always be a negative connotation that comes along with the idea of rhetoric. Rhetoric can be seen as meaningless or empty language that is exaggerated in order to impress. Of course, if a politician is trying to persuade you to vote for him, and if he's a Republican politician and you are a Democrat, you may call his speech 'rhetoric.' Here, the connotation would be that he is trying to trick you or is otherwise being dishonest.

Rhetoric Devices and Examples

Politicians try to get you to vote for them. Companies want you to buy their products. Maybe you just want to win the argument with your friend that the Yankees are a better baseball team than the Red Sox. There are hundreds of different rhetoric devices used to help in the art of persuasion. But first, it should be noted that rhetoric is not just about what you're saying, it's also about how you're saying it. Things like the pace of your speech, the tone of your voice, and your overall body language are just as important as the words you recite.

  • Alliteration: repetition of the same consonant sounds beginning several words in a sequence

'I came, I saw, I conquered.' or Veni, vidi, vici. - Julius Caesar

  • Hyperbole: use of exaggeration for emphasis

'The shot heard 'round the world' - Ralph Waldo Emerson in his poem 'The Concord Hymn', which referred to the beginning of the American Revolution

  • Antistrophe: repetition of the same word or phrase

'In 1931, ten years ago, Japan invaded Manchukuo - without warning. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia - without warning. In 1938, Hitler occupied Austria - without warning. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia - without warning. Later in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland - without warning. And now Japan has attacked Malaya and Thailand - and the United States - without warning.' - President Franklin D. Roosevelt

  • Irony: expression of something other than the intended meaning, the opposite of the literal meaning

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