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An Overview of Classical Rhetoric


Classical rhetoric, in its most ethical and ancient manifestation, is a way of discussing the truth with one’s fellows in a manner that respects their freedom and dignity, and attempts to move them toward the Good. Of course human beings think, argue and persuade by nature. We do these intuitively! However, there’s a big difference between intuition and art. In order to master any body of knowledge as an art, one must:

  1. Define it
  2. Break it into parts
  3. Study the parts
  4. Practice

Steps 1-3 entail laying a theoretical foundation, of systematically acquiring a theoretical account of the making process. There is no substitute for theory when one’s aim is art. Joseph Dunne defines art (techne), in Back to the Rough Ground, as:

The kind of knowledge possessed by an expert maker; it gives him a clear conception of the why and wherefore, the how and the with what of the making process and enables him, through the capacity to offer a rational account of it, to preside over his activity with secure mastery (1993, p. 9).

There is no substitute for theory when one sets out to master an art. As has been established elsewhere, imparting such practical arts is the aim of Liberal Arts education.

Of liberal arts education, John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his The Idea of a University, writes:

the man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer, or a pleader, or an orator, or a statesman, or a physician, or a good chemist, or a geologist, or an antiquarian, but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings I have referred to, or any other for which he has a taste or special talent, with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger. . . .
I say that a cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself, brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number (U Notre Dame Press,1982, pp. 124 & 6).

I appreciate these lines for a couple of reasons. First, Newman defines liberal arts education in terms of cultivating the intellect by learning to reason, forming one’s judgment and sharpening one’s mental vision. Second, I appreciate the way he turns the tables on the Utilitarians of his day. Newman wrote The Idea of a University to answer the Utilitarians’ claim that university education was not very practically useful (utile). The Utilitarians believed in maximizing the greatest good to the greatest number. They felt that society would be best served by institutions of higher learning that educated in practical skills. Newman, in his erudite way, elucidates why liberal education “enbles us to be more useful, and to a greater number.” Well said!

At any rate, in oder to master an art, one must first define it, then break it into its parts. I prefer to start with Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric (realizing, of course, that debate over the proper definition of rhetoric predates Aristotle). Aristotle and Plato are not the only voices to speak to us of rhetoric from ancient Greece. But they are the ones featured on this site.

Rhetoric Defined

Early in his treatise on rhetoric, Aristotle defines it as:

The faculty of discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion.

Many before him simply defined rhetoric as “the art of speaking.” He was dissatisfied with this reductionism, so he decided (no doubt prompted by comments attributed to Socrates in The Phaedrus,) to take a more philosophical tack in his rhetorical treatise. He realized that his students needed a theoretical understanding in order to acquire an art of rhetoric. Aristotle focuses on cultivating in his students the power to formulate lines of argument on all manner of practical questions. He identifies three arenas of such enterprise (forensic, deliberative and epideictic–that is, arguing before the bar, making one’s case before the assembly, and engaging in ceremonial speaking). Much of The Rhetoric is spent elucidating lines of argument useful in these three contexts. Of proofs (a necessary element of rhetoric) Aristotle identifies two types: artistic and inartistic.  Inartistic proofs are merely used by the rhetor, artisitic proofs are invented, or crafted by means of art.  Examples of the former would be testimony, facts, and so on.  Aristotle then divides artistic proof into three modes: ethos, pathos and logos. Aristotle notes that, in order to persuade, the words of the speech must evoke “fellow-feeling” in the audience, the orator must put the audience in the proper frame of mind, and, of course, must give them good reasons for adopting the postion being argued. Artistic proofs are those “invented” by the rhetor (one who practices rhetoric); inartistic proofs are merely used. So, those artistic proofs, formed by the words of the speech itself, are most fully developed that combine good logical support with appropriate appeals to passion and are spoken so as to underscore the trustworthiness of the speaker. (click here for an elaborated treatment of Aristotle’s three modes of aritistic proof.)

(See also George Kennedy’s A Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition From Ancient to Modern Times. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina Press, 1980.)

So, your student will need to study the foundational concepts discussed at this site. However, I think one can get bogged down with theory at a too young age, and rhetoric is, in the final analysis, a very practical enterprise. Be sure and check out the tips here before you wax too philosophical with your young pupils. Of course liberal arts learning necessitates laying a theoretical foundation, but, at ages twelve to seventeen, I would generally focus on fun exercises in argumentation, speech composition, and oral interpretation, graduated to give them a “layered” learning experience. That way they experience the joy of working with the language and cultivate the ability to work with words as their grasp of the art spirals upward. There is time later for contemplating the deeper concerns of rhetorical theory (and believe me, there are a few!), and, besides, you’ve got to leave something for us college professors to teach! If you have an advanced student who is philosophically inclined, click here. Back to the overview.

Two more concepts in classical rhetoric, associated normally with the Sophists, are kairos and to prepon. Kairos is timing. Timing is an important element of rhetoric. Consider the difficulty in getting a laugh when one muffs the punchline of a joke. Why so? For one thing, it throws off the timing. To prepon has to do with fitness for the occasion. One does not preach hell-fire and brimstone in a Lutheran church. It’s just not appropriate; it’s not fitting. On the other hand, some of the most poignant speeches are identified as such because they were “such a fitting response to the occasion.”

The 5 Classical Canons of Rhetoric

or, the Sub-Arts of the Art of Rhetoric


By the Roman era, rhetoric had been divided into five sub-arts, the Five Classical Canons of Rhetoric. They are: Invention, Disposition, Style, Memory and Delivery. For the purposes of this overview, let us think of them in terms of a practical guide to preparing a speech (realizing there is much more to them). For each canon, I will phrase a question that one might ask oneself when composing a speech.

1. Invention. “What can I say?”

Invention has to do with the legwork; of coming up with good ideas. Invention entails doing research, (what is there to say on my topic, generally,) and narrowing the topic, or deciding one’s “angle” (out of everything one could say, what do I want to say about this topic, at this time, with respect to this particular audience.

But why would this process be called “invention”? Because, when one is engaged in persuasive speaking or writing, one must invent, or construct, arguments. Invention is a very involved part of the art of rhetoric. It entails much more than merely deciding one’s topic, but these thoughts will suffice for the purposes of this overview. (click here for more)

Alright. You’ve decided your angle and gathered a goodly amount of supporting evidence, now you need to organize your thoughts.

2. Disposition: “What arrangement will make the most sense?”

Make an assertion, support it with evidence, reasoning and an illustration if necessary, make a transition and move on to your next point. One must balance elaborating points with overloading the audience.

Most textbooks go on at length here regarding spatial, versus logical, versus chronological patterns of organization. I generally just teach Plato’s “clever butcher” analogy. Plato said that a clumsy butcher takes a chicken and hacks it all to pieces; makes a mess of the whole thing. A clever butcher, on the other hand, realizes that the chicken has natural divisions, called joints, and uses those to cleanly divide the chicken. So, when organizing a speech, I just tell my students to look for the natural divisions of the topic and organize it around those. If during practice the speech doesn’t seem to flow properly, all they have to do is reorganize. I don’t think it needs to be any more complicated than that.

One thing’s for certain. When you’re building a beautiful edifice, and you go to the emporium to buy materials, you don’t just wheel your cart down the aisle and grab materials willy-nilly. You buy the tools and materials you need according to the blue print. Disposition is about establishing a blueprint which guides the making process.

Speaking of building a fine edifice, style is the key to introducing to the enterprise an element of beauty.

3. Style: “Where is emphasis needed?”

The canon of style may be divided into two parts: Ornamentation and Orchestration. Ornamentation has to do with Imagery–painting word pictures.

Orchestration has to do with Rhythm.

Most people don’t envision a shanty when they think of their dream home. When it comes to speeches and papers, aesthetics are equally important. This is so for a couple of reasons. First, in order to move an audience, one ought to evoke as vivid a mental image as possible. This is where pathos and style come together. Second, beautiful speeches inspire. Learning to use language artfully, to appeal not only to the mind, but also to the imagination and the heart, is a very humanizing activity (for both speaker and audience).

(click here for more)

4. Memory: “How can I remember the points in order to make the speech flow?”

Memory is not memorization. This canon has more to do with mnemonic devices. Back in the day when people had to deliver large amounts of text from memory, they invested some time in constructing means of remembering main points.

5. Delivery: “Given this situation, how might I most effectively deliver this message?”

Delivery may be subdivided into the physical and the vocal. Physical aspects of delivery are: posture, eye contact, movement and gestures. Vocal aspects have to do with tone, rate, pitch, volume and so on.

Memory and delivery are rather obvious and were, for some time, considered the “lost canons of rhetoric.” There’s not a whole lot to them.

At any rate, those are the five classical canons of rhetoric. In order to master an art, one needs to define it, break it into parts, study the parts and then practice it until it becomes second nature. This brief sketch can get you underway. The journey will entail following and studying the links found here, composing and delivering some speeches and papers, engaging in a few organized debates, composing some orations and oral interp pieces and learning to think quickly on one’s feet.

A Word on Practical Reasoning


As one acquires an art of rhetoric one will also hone one’s ability to engage in practical reasoning. That is why dialectic and rhetoric are closely linked. That is why debate or argumentation, speech and public speaking go hand-in-hand. One must, therefore, define practical reasoning, and break it into its constituent parts as well. Having done so, our overview of rhetoric will be complete.

In my courses I define practical reasoning as:

Cultivating the intellectual abilities to:

  1. Identify and evaluate assumptions.
  2. Follow an argument to its conclusion.
  3. Spot contradictions and faulty logic.
  4. Draw appropriate distinctions.
  5. Avoid extremes.
  6. Exercise foresight.

Three basic tools for developing practical reasoning in the classical model are:

  • Syllogistic logic
  • dialectic
  • common material fallacies

As I understand liberal education, these are the three fundamental tools, dispensed in the dialectic and rhetoric stages, that equip one to deal systematically with ideas. They equip one to reason systematically, identify and evaluate assumptions, spot contradictions and faulty logic and think quickly and with precision. You will find all three of these tools glossed [here]. “Rhetorical reason” is a species of practical reason in which I have a keen interest!

There are excellent sketches of all these topics in the new Oxford University Press Encyclopedia of Rhetoric.

You will also find the Troy Organ Index to Aristotle an invaluable help. Buy them.