Origins of Rhetoric

Discover the origins of rhetorical theory as well as the conventions of writing and speaking that come from the classical world

The 3 Ancient Arts of Discourse

According to Plato, there were 3 ancient arts that were integral to understanding discourse. 

The first of these was logic, which describes the process of developing an argument that fundamentally makes sense and is founded upon evidence. 

The second ancient art was grammar, which rather than just encompassing rules for phrasing, also included the fact that everyone must have an equal understanding of the terms used in order to communicate effectively. For example, you would struggle to explain how the internet works to someone who grew up in 1000 BCE because it would be hard to explain the concept of the internet without someone first understanding the concept of the computer.

The third of the ancient arts is rhetoric, which Aristotle defines as the power of individuals to convey their thoughts in a way which is persuasive. 

Rhetoric vs Dialectic

Aristotle also took his analysis of language one step further when it came to rhetoric. According to him, every attempt to persuade another person could be categorized into 2 different forms.

The first of these forms is rhetoric. Aristotle says that rhetoric is an attempt to persuade an individual or crowd of your point of view. The second form, however, is dialectic. A dialectic occurs when you are not necessarily sure of your point of view but wish to cultivate one through discussion. With rhetoric, you are simply broadcasting your opinion and attempting to change someone’s mind. While you might engage with an opponent, the purpose of doing so is to change their opinion. However, with dialectic, you are willing to have your own mind changed.

For the purposes of this Pathway, we are going to focus on rhetorical techniques.

The Purpose of Rhetoric

Initially, Greek Philosophers like Plato were highly suspicious of rhetoric. In fact, Plato described it in his book Gorgias as immoral and highly dangerous. However, by the end of his life, he was more willing to acknowledge the utility of the art, saying that it was a potential “midwife for the soul.” This means that he believed that, just like how a midwife delivers a baby, rhetoric could help deliver your inner thoughts, feelings, and ideas for the enjoyment of the world.

By the time of Aristotle, rhetoric was beginning to become viewed far more favorably. Aristotle was, in fact, one of the first people to study rhetoric. His treatise, entitled On Rhetoric in about 300 BCE is now widely regarded as one of the most important foundational texts in linguistics.

Aristotle: Pathos

There are 3 three main features of good rhetoric. The first of these is ‘pathos.’ Pathos is defined as an appeal to the emotions of a speaker. Pathos can, therefore, be delivered through stories, anecdotes, and a passionate delivery.

One example of pathos comes in Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech in which he directly contrasts the actions of “vicious racists” with those of “little black boys and girls.” Here, King is attempting to pull on the emotional heartstrings of his audience in order to persuade them.

King’s argument is made effective through the emotional impact that he is able to have on his audience.

Aristotle: Ethos

Another element of rhetoric identified by Aristotle is Ethos, which is any attempt to appeal to the authority and credibility of a speaker. By establishing that the speaker is trustworthy and reasonable, they are able to increase the probability that their audience will listen to and internalize what they have to say. 

One example of this is evident in advertising in the aftermath of the Second World War. The American Tobacco company Camels ran a campaign which stated that “More Doctors Smoke Luckys than Any Other Cigarette.” Here, the use of doctors, who are usually trustworthy figures in society, meant that they were able to overcome contemporary fears of health risks. In fact, this campaign was so dangerously effective that it led to regulation changes in the United States.

An argument is made more effective when the mouth it comes from appears credible.

Aristotle: Logos

A final element of rhetoric identified by Aristotle is Logos –  the ability to appeal to the logical side of people. 

One simple example of this is the deductive argument, which Aristotle presents himself. His first premise, which is likely to be universally accepted, is that “all men are mortal.” His second premise, also appearing reasonable, is “Socrates is a man.” He then concludes “Therefore, Socrates is mortal.’. Because the first 2 premises are universally reasonable, an audience member, by accepting the first 2, must, therefore, accept the third. 

As well as establishing chains of events, logos can be established through the use of facts and statistics. This helps establish the basis of your argument in a way that your audience will have to accept.

By combining the 3 elements of pathos, ethos and logos, you can create an effective message that will convince your audience.

Five Roman Canons

By 100 BCE, the art of rhetoric had undergone even further study. The Roman philosopher Cicero posited that spoken rhetoric can be generated through 5 easy steps, which he called the 5 Roman canons.

The first of these steps is ‘invention,’ which is when you come up with the core principles of your idea or argument. The second step is ‘arrangement,’ when you put your inventions in order. The third step is ‘style,’ where you come up with the actual words you are going to use to present it. These 3 steps apply to making an argument or presenting an idea, whether it is spoken or written.

Cicero then argues that there are 2 additional steps for creating rhetoric when it is being delivered audibly. The fourth step is ‘memorization,’ which involves committing your major points to memory. Though you don’t need to have your argument or idea word perfect, it is often a good idea to understand its general direction. Finally, there is ‘delivery,’ which is the manner in which you present your argument. This might include the tone of your voice, your posture and the way you use hand gestures to physically communicate.

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