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History of Rhetoric
Rhetoric and Oratory
the art of swaying an audience by eloquent speech.
In ancient Greece and Rome oratory was included
under the term rhetoric, which meant the art of
composing as well as delivering a speech. Oratory
first appeared in the law courts of Athens and soon
became important in all areas of life. It was taught
by the Sophists. The Ten Attic Orators (listed by
Alexandrine critics) were Antiphon, Andocides,
Lysias, Isocrates, Isaeus, Aeschines,
Demosthenes, Lycurgus, Hyperides, and
Dinarchus. Classic Rome's great orators were
Cato the Elder, Mark Antony, and Cicero.
• The theory of rhetoric was discussed by Aristotle and
Quintilian; and three main classes of oratory were later
designated by classical rhetoricians: (a) deliberative–
to persuade an audience (such as a legislature) to
approve or disapprove a matter of public policy; (b)
forensic–to achieve (as in a trial) condemnation or
approval for a person's actions; (c) epideictic– "display
rhetoric" used on ceremonial occasions. Rhetoric was
included in the medieval liberal arts curriculum. In
subsequent centuries oratory was utilized in three
main areas of public life–politics, religion, and law.
During the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the
Reformation, oratory was generally confined to the
church, which produced such soul-searing orators as
Savanorola, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John
• Classical Rhetoric: The
eloquence that Nestor,
Odysseus, and Achilles
display in Homer's Iliad led
many Greeks to look upon
Homer as the father of oratory.
The establishment of
democratic institutions in
Athens in 510 BC imposed on
all citizens the necessity of
public service, making skill in
oratory essential; hence a
group of teachers arose known
as Sophists, who endeavored
to make men better speakers
by rules of art. Protagoras, the
first of the Sophists, made a
study of language and taught
his pupils how to make the
weaker cause appear the
• The actual founder of rhetoric as a science is said
to be Corax of Syracuse (fl. about 465 BC), who
defined rhetoric as the "artificer of persuasion" and
composed the first handbook on the art of rhetoric.
Later masters of rhetoric were Corax's pupil Tisias
(fl. 5th cent. BC), also of Syracuse; Gorgias of
Leontini, who went to Athens in 427 BC; and
Thrasymachus of Chalcedon (fl. 5th cent. BC), who
also taught at Athens. Antiphon (480?-411 BC), the
first of the so-called Ten Attic Orators, was also the
first to combine the theory and practice of rhetoric,
and with Isocrates, the great teacher of oratory in
the 4th century BC, the art of rhetoric was
broadened to become a cultural study, a
philosophy with a practical purpose. Plato satirized
the more technical approach to rhetoric, with its
emphasis on persuasion rather than truth, in his
Gorgias, and in the Phaedrus he discussed the
principles constituting the essence of the rhetorical
• Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, defined
the function of rhetoric as being,
not that of persuasion, but rather
that of "discovering all the
available means of persuasion,"
thereby emphasizing the winning
of an argument by persuasive
marshaling of truth, rather than the
swaying of an audience by an
appeal to their emotions. He
regarded rhetoric as the
counterpart, or sister art, of logic.
The instructors in formal rhetoric in
Rome were at first Greek, and the
great masters of theoretical and
practical rhetoric, Cicero and
Quintilian, were both influenced by
Greek models.
• Cicero wrote several treatises on the
theory and practice of rhetoric, the
most important being On the Orator;
Quintilian's famous Institutio Oratoria
still retains its value as a thorough
treatment of the principles of rhetoric
and the nature of ideal eloquence.
Scholastic declamations of the early
empire are found in the extant
suasorioe and controversioe of the
rhetorician Seneca, the former
belonging to deliberative rhetoric, the
latter dealing with legal issues and
presenting forensic rhetoric. During
the first four centuries of the Roman
Empire, rhetoric continued to be
taught by teachers who were called
Sophists, the term by this time used
as an academic title.
• Protagoras, the first of the Sophists, made a study of
language and taught his pupils how to make the weaker
cause appear the stronger. The actual founder of rhetoric as a
science is said to be Corax of Syracuse (fl. about 465 BC),
who defined rhetoric as the "artificer of persuasion" and
composed the first handbook on the art of rhetoric. Later
masters of rhetoric were Corax's pupil Tisias (fl. 5th cent. BC),
also of Syracuse; Gorgias of Leontini, who went to Athens in
427 BC; and Thrasymachus of Chalcedon (fl. 5th cent. BC),
who also taught at Athens. Antiphon (480?-411 BC), the first
of the so-called Ten Attic Orators, was also the first to
combine the theory and practice of rhetoric, and with
Isocrates, the great teacher of oratory in the 4th century BC,
the art of rhetoric was broadened to become a cultural study,
a philosophy with a practical purpose.
Rhetoric & the Story of Corax vs. Tisias
• The Scene: "Corax and his pupil Tisias were reputedly
the first Sophists. Like many young men with an appetite
for worldly success, Tisias sought training from Corax in
the hope of being able to sue his way to wealth and
influence. Wishing to make sure he was not duped by his
teacher, Tisias contracted to pay Corax only after he had
actually won a law suit. On this condition his training
commenced and soon enough was over. But Tisias
became complacent. Years went by and Tisias brought
no suits against anyone. Corax had been willing to wait
to be paid, but not forever, so he brought a suit against
Tisias to recover his fee" --
• Tisias: Your Honors, I stand before you today in humility
of spirit and purity of motive. I ask only that you listen
patiently and judge rightly in issuing your verdict.
• Your Honors, I charge Corax for failing to teach me well
the art of Rhetoric. The proof of this charge is here
before us today. For if I should lose my case, it will
surely prove that I was not taught Rhetoric very well. And
this being the case I should NOT have to pay the tuition.
For no one should have to pay for services that weren't
rendered according to what was promised.
• On the other hand, if I win the case, it shows that I had
enough sense and talent to figure out the art of Rhetoric
out on my own, despite the negligence of my instructor.
But even this is not necessary to my case. For a ruling
against Corax, is a ruling for me. And a ruling for me
means I do not have to pay tuition. In either case, then, I
should NOT have to pay tuition.
• Corax: Your Honors, I, too, stand humbly before you. I, too,
recognize, in years far more experienced than that of my adversary,
your outstanding record of prudent and just decision making on
behalf of those whose cause is just. We are indeed fortunate to gain
a hearing before you. This, then, is my case.
• I have given Tisias the very best education in rhetoric of which I am
capable, on the condition that he would at some point in his career
pay my tuition. This he has not done. Now, if you rule against me -that is if Tisias does in fact win his case -- it serves to show that I
taught him Rhetoric well, in which case he should be required to pay
my tuition. If, however, Tisias does not win his case, that would
show him to be a poor, or rather bad, student. (We already know he
is poor.) Those who are wise well know that a teacher is not to be
faulted if, in discharging his services well and faithfully, the student
is simply too stupid or too lazy (or too both) to take advantage of
those services, expertly rendered.
• But even this is unnecessary to my case. For a ruling against Tisias
is a ruling in favor of me. Such a ruling would, of course, mean that
Tisias must pay my tuition. In either case, then, my tuition should be
The Decision:
• Translation: "From a bad crow, a bad egg." Or,
"When a mischievous bird of prey lays an egg,
the egg too is mischievous."
• The verdict was actually a play on words: Corax
means "crow“ and Tisias means "eggs“
• The case was, in effect, thrown out of court.
Modern Version
• The following argument reworks the
traditional sophist's argument for buying
lessons in rhetoric ("You should buy my
lessons so that you can evaluate my
argument that you should buy my
lessons") by developing the infinite regress
implicit in recursive consultation.
• Medieval and Renaissance Rhetoric:
Rhetoric constituted one of the subjects of the
trivium, or three preliminary subjects of the
seven liberal arts taught at the universities, the
other two being grammar and logic. The chief
medieval authorities on rhetoric were three
Roman scholars of the 5th, 6th, and 7th
centuries: Martianus Capella (fl. late 4th cent.
and early 5th cent.), author of an encyclopedia
of the seven liberal arts (arithmetic, astronomy,
geometry, and music, in conjunction with
grammar, logic, and rhetoric); Flavius Magnus
Aurelius Cassiodorus, historian and founder of
monasteries, famed especially for his
Institutiones Divinarum et Humanarum
Lectionum, the second book of which contains
an account of the seven liberal arts; and Isidore
of Seville, a Spanish archbishop who compiled
an encyclopedic work setting forth the erudition
of the ancient world.
• During the Renaissance, the study of
rhetoric was again based on the works of
such writers of classical antiquity as
Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian. A number of
contemporary dissertations were produced,
among them the Art of Rhetorique (1553) by
the English statesman and writer Thomas
Wilson (1525?-81), the Art or Craft of
Rhetoryke by the English schoolmaster
Leonard Cox (fl. 16th cent.), and treatises by
Pierre de Courcelles (fl. 16th cent.) and
André de Tonquelin (fl. 16th cent.), both
French rhetoricians. Rhetoric was a
prescribed subject in colleges and
universities, public disputations and
competitive exercises keeping the practice
long alive.
• In the first half of the 20th century, a
revival of the study of formal
rhetoric, encouraged largely by the
exponents of the linguistic science
known as semantics, occurred
throughout the English-speaking
countries of the world. Among the
modern educators and philosophers
who made notable contributions to
the study of rhetoric were the British
literary critic I. A. Richards and the
American literary critics Kenneth
Duva Burke (1897-1993) and John
Crowe Ransom.
• Modern Rhetoric: In the early 18th
century, rhetoric declined in importance,
although more on its theoretical than on
its practical side, since the political
arena and the debating platform
continued to furnish numerous
opportunities for effective oratory. For
the succeeding half-century, the art of
rhetoric had increasingly fewer
exponents. The Lectures on Rhetoric
(1783) by the Scottish clergyman Hugh
Blair (1718-1800) achieved
considerable popularity in the late 18th
and early 19th centuries, as did the
Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776) by the
Scottish theologian George Campbell
(1719-96) and the Elements of Rhetoric
(1828) by the British logician Richard
Whately (1787- 1863).
Old Dead Greeks, Part Two:
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
The Sophists were men whose responsibility it was to train and educate
the sons of Athenian citizens. There were no formal school as we know
them today. Instead, these were peripatetic schools, meaning that the
instructor would walk with students and talk with them – for a fee, of
course. The Sophists taught the skills (sophia) of rhetoric and oratory.
Both of these arts were essential for the education of the Athenian
citizenry. After all, it was the sons of the citizens who would eventually find
themselves debating important issues in the Assembly and the Council of
Five Hundred. Rhetoric can be described as the art of composition, while
oratory was the art of public speaking.
The Sophists abandoned science, philosophy, mathematics and ethics.
What they taught was the subtle art of persuasion. A Sophist was a
person who could argue eloquently – and could prove a position whether
that position was correct or incorrect. In other words, what mattered was
persuasion and not truth. The Sophists were also relativists. They
believed that there was no such thing as a universal or absolute truth,
valid at all times. According to Protagoras (c.485-c.411 B.C.), "Man is the
measure of all things." Everything is relative and there are no values
because man, individual man, is the measure of all things. Nothing is
good or bad since everything depends on the individual. Gorgias of
Leontini (c.485-c.380 B.C.), who visited Athens in 427, was a well-paid
teacher of rhetoric and famous for his saying that a man could not know
anything. And if he could, he could not describe it and if he could describe
it, no one would understand him.
The Sophistic movement of the fifth century B.C. has been
the subject of much discussion and there is no single view
about their significance. Plato's treatment of the Sophists in
his late dialogue, the Sophist, is hardly flattering. He does not
treat them as real seekers after truth but as men whose only
concern was making money and teaching their students
success in argument by whatever means. Aristotle said that a
Sophist was "one who made money by sham wisdom."
At their very best, the Sophists challenged the accepted
values of the fifth century. They wanted the freedom to sweep
away old conventions as a way of finding a better
understanding of the universe, the gods and man. The
Sophists have been compared with the philosophes of the
18th century Enlightenment who also used criticism and
reason to wipe out anything they deemed was contrary to
human reason. Regardless of what we think of the Sophists
as a group or individually, they certainly did have the
cumulative effect of further degrading a mythical
understanding of the universe and of man.
From the ranks of the Sophists came SOCRATES (c.469399 B.C.), perhaps the most noble and wisest Athenian to
have ever lived.
Socrates was that he was remarkable for living the life he preached. Taking no fees,
Socrates started and dominated an argument wherever the young and intelligent
would listen, and people asked his advice on matters of practical conduct and
educational problems.
Socrates was not an attractive man -- he was snub-nosed, prematurely bald, and
overweight. But, he was strong in body and the intellectual master of every one with
whom he came into contact. The Athenian youth flocked to his side as he walked the
paths of the agora. They clung to his every word and gesture. He was not a Sophist
himself, but a philosopher, a lover of wisdom.
In 399 B.C., Socrates was charged with impiety by a jury of five hundred of his fellow
citizens. His most famous student, Plato, tells us, that he was charged "as an evildoer and curious person, searching into things under the earth and above the
heavens; and making the worse appear the better cause, and teaching all this to
others." He was convicted to death by a margin of six votes. Oddly enough, the jury
offered Socrates the chance to pay a small fine for his impiety. He rejected it. He also
rejected the pleas of Plato and other students who had a boat waiting for him at
Piraeus that would take him to freedom. But Socrates refused to break the law. What
kind of citizen would he be if he refused to accept the judgment of the jury? No citizen
at all. He spent his last days with his friends before he drank the fatal dose of
Socrates wrote nothing himself. What we know of him
comes from the writings of two of his closest friends,
Xenophon and Plato.
Our knowledge of Socrates comes to us from numerous dialogues which Plato wrote after 399. In
nearly every dialogue – and there are more than thirty that we know about – Socrates is the main
speaker. The style of the Plato's dialogue is important – it is the Socratic style that he employs
throughout. A Socratic dialogue takes the form of question-answer, question-answer, questionanswer. It is a dialectical style as well. Socrates would argue both sides of a question in order to
arrive at a conclusion. Then that conclusion is argued against another assumption and so on.
Perhaps it is not that difficult to understand why Socrates was considered a gadfly!
There is a reason why Socrates employed this style, as well as why Plato recorded his experience
with Socrates in the form of a dialogue. Socrates taught Plato a great many things, but one of the
things Plato more or less discovered on his own was that mankind is born with knowledge. That
is, knowledge is present in the human mind at birth. It is not so much that we "learn" things in our
daily experience, but that we "recollect" them. In other words, this knowledge is already there.
This may explain why Socrates did not give his students answers, but only questions. His job was
not to teach truth but to show his students how they could "pull" truth out of their own minds (it is
for this reason that Socrates often considered himself a midwife in the labor of knowledge). And
this is the point of the dialogues. For only in conversation, only in dialogue, can truth and wisdom
come to the surface.
Plato's greatest and most enduring work was his lengthy dialogue, The Republic. This dialogue
has often been regarded as Plato's blueprint for a future society of perfection. I do not accept this
opinion. Instead, I would like to suggest that The Republic is not a blueprint for a future society,
but rather, is a dialogue which discusses the education necessary to produce such a society. It is
an education of a strange sort – he called it paideia. Nearly impossible to translate into modern
idiom, paideia refers to the process whereby the physical, mental and spiritual development of the
individual is of paramount importance. It is the education of the total individual.
The Republic discusses a number of topics including the nature of justice, statesmanship,
ethics and the nature of politics. It is in The Republic that Plato suggests that democracy was
little more than a "charming form of government." And this he is writing less than one
hundred years after the brilliant age of Periclean democracy. So much for democracy. After
all, it was Athenian democracy that convicted Socrates. For Plato, the citizens are the least
desirable participants in government. Instead, a philosopher-king or guardian should hold the
reigns of power. An aristocracy if you will – an aristocracy of the very best – the best of the
Plato's Republic also embodies one of the clearest expressions of his theory of knowledge.
In The Republic, Plato asks what is knowledge? what is illusion? what is reality? how do we
know? what makes a thing, a thing? what can we know? These are epistemological
questions – that is, they are questions about knowledge itself. He distinguishes between the
reality presented to us by our senses – sight, touch, taste, sound and smell – and the
essence or Form of that reality. In other words, reality is always changing – knowledge of
reality is individual, it is particular, it is knowledge only to the individual knower, it is not
Building upon the wisdom of Socrates and Parmenides, Plato argued that reality is known
only through the mind. There is a higher world, independent of the world we may experience
through our senses. Because the senses may deceive us, it is necessary that this higher
world exist, a world of Ideas or Forms -- of what is unchanging, absolute and universal. In
other words, although there may be something from the phenomenal world which we
consider beautiful or good or just, Plato postulates that there is a higher unchanging reality of
the beautiful, goodness or justice. To live in accordance with these universal standards is the
good life -- to grasp the Forms is to grasp ultimate truth.
The unphilosophical man – that is, all of us – is at the mercy of sense impressions and
unfortunately, our sense impressions oftentimes fail us. Our senses deceive us. But because
we trust our senses, we are like prisoners in a cave – we mistake shadows on a wall for
reality. This is the central argument of Plato's ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE which appears in
Book VII of The Republic.
Plato's most famous student was
ARISTOTLE (384-322 B.C.).
• At the age of eighteen, Aristotle became the student at
the Academy of Plato (who was then sixty years of age).
Aristotle also started his own school, the Lyceum in 335
B.C. It too was closed by Justinian in A.D. 529. Aristotle
was a "polymath" – he knew a great deal about nearly
everything. Very little of Aristotle's writings remain extant.
But his students recorded nearly everything he
discussed at the Lyceum. In fact, the books to which
Aristotle's name is attributed are really little more than
student notebooks. This may account for the fact that
Aristotle's philosophy is one of the more difficult to
digest. Regardless, Aristotle lectured on astronomy,
physics, logic, aesthetics, music, drama, tragedy, poetry,
zoology, ethics and politics. The one field in which he did
not excel was mathematics. Plato, on the other hand,
was a master of geometry.
For four years, Aristotle served as the teacher of a thirteen
year old Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon. In 334, he
returned to Athens and established his school of philosophy
in a set of buildings called the Lyceum (from a name for
Apollo, “the shepherd”). The beautiful grounds and covered
walkways were conducive to leisurely walking discussions, so
the students were known as peripatoi (“covered walkways”).
First, we must point out that Aristotle was as much a scientist
as a philosopher. He was endlessly fascinated with nature,
and went a long way towards classifying the plants and
animals of Greece. He was equally interested in studying the
anatomies of animals and their behavior in the wild.
Aristotle also pretty much invented modern logic. Except for
its symbolic form, it is essentially the same today.
• Aristotle's rhetoric has had an enormous
influence on the development of the art of
rhetoric. Not only authors writing in the
peripatetic tradition, but also the famous Roman
teachers of rhetoric, such as Cicero and
Quintilian, frequently used elements stemming
from the Aristotelian doctrine. Nevertheless,
these authors were neither interested in an
authentic interpretation of the Aristotelian works
nor in the philosophical sources and
backgrounds of the vocabulary that Aristotle had
introduced into rhetorical theory. Thus, for two
millennia the interpretation of Aristotelian
rhetoric has become a matter of the history of
rhetoric, not of philosophy.
His theory of rhetorical arguments, for
example, is only one further application of his
general doctrine of the sullogismos, which
also forms the basis of dialectic, logic and his
theory of demonstration. Another example is
the concept of emotions: though emotions are
one of the most important topics in the
Aristotelian ethics, he nowhere offers such an
illuminating account of single emotions as in
the Rhetoric. Finally, it is the Rhetoric too
which informs us about the cognitive features
of language and style.