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The Rhetoric Portal

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Rhetoric is a derivation of the Greek term rhetorike, which first appeared in Plato's dialogue Gorgias. The formal study of rhetoric began in Greece during the 5th century BCE. Paid itinerant teachers called Sophists taught their students the art of effective public speech-making, or oratory. Plato likened rhetoric to cookery, implying that it was an art of appearance rather than truth. Aristotle, a student of Plato, redefined rhetoric in his treatise on the subject as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." Eventually, the scope of rhetoric was expanded to include written as well as spoken discourse, and now includes any form of symbolic communication. Some contemporary definitions of rhetoric include Kenneth Burke's "the use of symbols to induce cooperation in those who by nature respond to symbols" and George Kennedy's "the energy inherent in emotion and thought, transmitted through a system of signs, including language, to others to influence their decisions or actions."

Though rhetoric's reputation suffered during the Age of Enlightenment, when influential writers like Thomas Sprat and John Wilkins of the Royal Society condemned it as meaningless bombast or unwelcome ornamentation, rhetoric is currently enjoying a renaissance in universities across the world.

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In Quintilian's time, rhetoric was primarily composed of three aspects: the theoretical, the educational, and the practical. His Institutio Oratoria draws from a number of sources, and this eclecticism also prevented him from adhering too rigidly to any particular school of thought on the matter, although Cicero stands out among the other sources. Quintilian also refused any short, simple lists of rules; he evidently felt that the study and art of rhetoric could not be so reduced. This might explain the length of Institutio Oratoria, which consists of 12 books.

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Raphael's Plato in The School of Athens fresco, probably in the likeness of Leonardo da Vinci. Plato gestures to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms.
"St Augustine and Monica" (1846), by Ary Scheffer
Cicero at about age 60, from an ancient marble bust

Did you know...

Memory was once considered a major portion of Rhetoric?

Rhetoric topics

St. Augustine

St. Augustine wrote On Christian Doctrine to try to convince the church to not continue to outlaw rhetoric as well as to teach Christian teachers how to interpret and teach the Bible.

Plato on Rhetoric

Man is the Measure of All Things

Plato has been the most renowned philosopher of the Western world for over 2400 years. He was believed to be the son of the god, Apollo, and was known for his sublime thoughts and vision expressed through his foundational philosophies.

Plato is most famously associated with his teacher and mentor, Socrates. Plato’s major works are based in dialogues involving Socrates. The father of Western philosophy, Plato is revered for his revolutionary ideas in philosophic and scientific research that were imparted in the school, which he founded — the Academy. He taught there for twenty years before returning to Syracuse. The Academy, however, continued to operate for another 900 years, and served as the precursor to medieval universities.

Theory of Knowledge

“What is Knowledge?” Plato famously explained his ideas about knowledge and the different levels of existence with an analogy known as "The Divided Line" (see Republic, Book VI). He was instrumental in questioning the difference between knowledge and opinion. For Plato, the notion of knowledge was related to the human soul. He expostulated his philosophical theory of the “tripartite soul” to counter the cultural and moral relativism of the time. Among other areas of knowledge, Plato was concerned with the understanding of “justice,” which he discussed extensively in Book I of Republic.

His concept of justice was based on the idea of a three-part, or tripartite, soul. Justice, for Plato, occurred when the soul's constituent parts worked harmoniously, doing nothing more and nothing less than what they were intended to do, with the desire for knowledge through reason governing the other desires (for honour and for pleasure). He also extended the metaphor of soul to the principle of mathematics.

The strains of harmony continued with Plato’s definition of “Good Life.” Good Life did not signify the “Christian denial of body and contempt of flesh;” Plato associated Good Life with the “Life of Reason.” This entailed a true blend of bodily energy and mental sharpness.

Political Philosophy

Book I of the Republic, contain extensive discussion on Plato’s views on the political philosophy of time. Plato concerned himself with thoughts like, What are the elements of a ‘good’ society? What is the extent of power and with whom it exist? What is relation between the individual and the state or the authority? Interestingly, some of the underlying concepts on the Republic have some modern resonances in Foucault’s discussion on ‘power.’

However, Plato stand in sharp contrast with the Christian notion that dismissed the supreme state authority on individual freedom. In this view Plato also contradicts Marxist’s assumption of state as the dictatorial power. Thus, Plato expounded that man as a social creature could nurture himself by the rules of society; for Plato the life could consummate with the ideals of established order manifested through cities ruled by government. Like many other stalwart Greeks of the time, Plato envisioned the propriety human destiny in serving the principles of the state and government. He held city as a ‘man’ “writ large against the sky.”

Intersection with Philosophy

Truth Value

One of the often contentious issues between rhetoricians and philosophers is the often polemic notions each have of truth.

Pre-Socratic and Socratic Periods: During the pre-Socratic and Ancient Greek periods, the debate was particularly strong between the Socratic philosophers and the Sophists

As discussed in Plato’s Gorgias, the Sophists at the time were accused of subscribing to a relativistic notion of truth while Plato, with his theory of forms, advocates a more absolute view of truth. For the Plato, epistemological access to metaphical conceptions of reality were rooted in logic, primarily through the dialectic, whereas the Sophists advocated a notion that truth was rhetorically socially constructed through language use and an individually relative world-view. The function of language serves as either a vehicle for the creation of truths (in the case of the Sophists), or an imperfect human reflection of truths (in the case of Plato).

Aristotle would, in many ways, offer a synthesis between these two differing theories of rhetoric. Aristotle recognized that in theoretical areas, the dialectic provided a means of discovering truth, whereas more pragmatic matters, where the truth may not be discoverable (e.g. judiciary cases) rhetoric is better suited. It is during this time rhetoric gained its traditional appellation of “the art of persuasion,” as Aristotle saw the function of rhetoric as primarily relegated to the legal and political spheres.

Medieval Rhetoric saw a shift in the foundations of truth from largely secular, objective, or relativistic views, as of those the Ancient Greeks, to a theologically based divine source. Medieval rhetoricians, to generalize, looked to religious sources for determination of truth value.

With the rise of Renaissance thinking, rhetoric, the source of truth value returned, once again, to secular roots, specifically philosophy and science. The method of Philosophic inquiry, however, became, even more than in previous times, fractured. On one side of the divide, there were the rationalists, for whom the ultimate source of truth value was intrinsic, or essentially located within human understanding. For the empiricists, on the other hand, truth value, was externally or extrinsically, either located in the observable phenomenon, itself, or in ideas one has about externally observable phenomenon. The role of the rhetorician, then was typically relegated, not to the discovery of truth value, but rather in the effective means of delivering true statements. As was the case with the Medieval rhetoricians, style and delivery typically took precedence for the Renaissance rhetoricians.

The modern and post-modern era of rhetoric saw an explosion in activity. It is difficult to sum up the plethora of diverse theories of truth value, as with any of the previous eras. On the polar-opposite extremes, there are, as was the case in Ancient_Greece, theories of absolute truth value and theories of relative truth value – mirroring (some would say reviving) the arguments between Plato and the sophists. The debate amongst the structuralists and the post-structuralists calls into question the role of language in determining ones world-view, and where – if any place at all – such truth is located.

Web resources

Rhetorical Eras

Ancient Rhetoric

(4th Century B.C.E. - 5th Century C.E.) : In the West, the formal study of Rhetoric began in Greece in the fifth century BCE through the appearance of the Sophists, the first professional teachers of rhetoric in the city-state of Athens. Plato questioned the Sophistic practice and challenged the feined knowledge of the Sophistic orators. Aristotle adapted and expanded upon Plato's ideas. In agreement with the Sophists's views, he sought to establish rhetoric as a teachable discipline, thus opposing his teacher's view that rhetoric was not art. Aristotle was the first to develop scientific proof for arguments. Most of The Ancient era extends from these Greek beginnings to Roman Rhetoric. Cicero (106-43 BCE), a Roman lawyer, drew heavily from Isocrates, Plato, and Aristotle, describing the importance of eloquence and wisdom and also stressing liberal arts. The rhetorical tradition was continued by Quintilian (35-96 CE), who is most famous for his thoughts on the education of youth in rhetoric.

Medieval Rhetoric

(5th - 14th Century) : Rhetoric languished for a while during Europe's late antiquity period. Eventually, at the beginning of the Medieval period, St. Augustine was able to fuse Classical "pagan" rhetoric with the goals of the Catholic Church while writing about the act of preaching. With this the fires of rhetorical theory were rekindled.

Renaissance Rhetoric

(15th - 17th Century) : The Renaissance was a time of renewed European interest in classic Greek and Roman arts and texts. Humanists, at the time, emphasized rhetoric as contributing to the full realization of human potential. The latter part of the Renaissance saw rhetoric attacked both directly and indirectly by Peter Ramus, who challenged the educational system by questioning the teachability of rhetoric rather than the truth. At the same time Francis Bacon took the same critical approach by rejected the syllogism as a means to arrive at the truth.

Enlightenment Rhetoric

(17th - 18th Century) : This era was marked by the rejection of many conventions of classical rhetoric as new ways of constructing reality and investigating discourse gave rise to an epistemological shift. This change corresponded with the new emphasis on the advancement of science through experimentation, empiricism, and inductive logic. The most influential intellectuals of this period were René Descartes, John Locke, and David Hume.

19th Century Rhetoric

20th Century Rhetoric

Postmodern Rhetoric

(20th - 21st Century) : A term dealing with many things, postmodernism in general is a response to literary and artistic modernism. Postmodern rhetoric is concerned with questioning notions of certainty pervasive in many aspects of life and posits a conflicting, not unified, self. Often, postmodern rhetoric is charged with being relativistic.

Contemporary Rhetoric

(19th - 20th Century) : This era has been marked as a way to examine and provide a way of discussing everyday arguments and was brought about as a reinterest in rhetorical studies for discerning and revealing the human motivations and values that structured arguments, which science was unable to address. Some of the most influential rhetors of this time were Chaim Perelman, Olbrechts-Tyteca, Stephen Toulmin, Kenneth Burke, and Lloyd Bitzer.

Women's Rhetoric

(20th - 21st Century) : This field of rhetoric is no longer focused with the idea of how to persuade people. But rather it is interested in understanding how people make sense of and construct the world they live in. This movement is marked by the questioning of systems that favor one group of people and subordinate others. Rhetoric is what gives power to the marginalized groups of society, not an instrument of the powerful.

Food For Thought

How to define "Rhetoric"?

Rhetoric has almost as many definitions as there have been rhetoricians, both as a subject matter and an activity, and no simple definition can do it justice. In fact, the very act of defining has itself been a central part of rhetoric: It appears among Aristotle's topoi, heuristics for rhetorical inventio. The definition of rhetoric is a controversial subject within the field. The word is derived from the ancient Greek eiro, which means "I say." In its broadest sense, rhetoric concerns human discourse.

Related portals


  • "Rhetoric is the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." -- Aristotle, Rhetoric
  • "A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee." Mikhail Bahktin, Marxism
  • "Whatever precautions you take so the photograph will look like this or that, there comes a moment when the photograph surprises you. It is the other's gaze that wins out and decides." Jacques Derrida




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