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The Subject of Rhetoric

by Dr. Robert Einarsson
professor of English, Grant MacEwan College


Right Use vs. Abuse

Rhetoric is a unique subject in that its very definition has been of great concern to rhetoricians from the earliest times. It is a word that, unfortunately, has become practically synonymous in our times with “false language” or “hot air.” However, in earlier times, rhetoric had noble connotations, such as “public discourse,” “civil and democratic speech,” and “the expression of social values and purposes.” Originally, rhetoric was credited with the power to create and maintain civilized society:

When I begin to search in the records of literature for events which occurred before the period which our generation can remember, I find that many cities have been founded, that the flames of a multitude of wars have been extinguished, and that the strongest alliances and most sacred friendships have been formed not only by the use of reason, but also more easily by the help of eloquence. ... Consider another point: after cities had been established, how could it have been brought to pass that men should learn to keep faith and observe justice and become accustomed to obey others voluntarily and believe not only that they must work for the common good but even sacrifice life itself, unless men had been able by eloquence to persuade their fellows of the truth of what they had discovered by reason? Certainly only a speech at the same time powerful and entrancing could have induced one who had great physical strength to submit to justice without violence. ... This was the way in which at first eloquence came into being and advanced to greater development, and likewise afterward in the greatest undertakings of peace and war it served the highest interests of mankind. But when a certain agreeableness of manner -- a depraved imitation of virtue -- acquired the power of eloquence unaccompanied by any consideration of moral duty, then low cunning supported by talent grew accustomed to corrupt cities and undermine the lives of men. (Cicero, Of Invention, Loeb editions.)

The degradation of this word, “rhetoric,” is undoubtedly the result of abuse, both in politics, where language becomes mere strategy and methodology, and in law, where the duty to defend a case becomes an overzealous manipulation of the truth. This is where we are today with what began as a noble art. However, from the earliest times philosophers were aware of the potential dangers and abuses surrounding a smooth and slippery tongue unleashed in the commonwealth! The abuse of rhetoric was a concern to rhetoricians from the very start.

The possibility of abuse gave rise to a series of debates on the nature of rhetoric as a subject of study. Perhaps, many reasoned, since those with bad purposes can use it to do great harm, we should not teach rhetoric. This is an idea that we are familiar with today. Adolf Hitler was able to do so much harm in part because he was a skilled speaker. Skillful lawyers are often able to let guilty people go free, causing great harm in the community. Perhaps it would be better for everyone if there were no such subject as rhetoric. However, for every Hitler there is a Churchill, who did great good with his power of speech. For every manipulative lawyer there is a Kenneth Starr, who uses language to protect the course of the law. Most of the ancient commentators defended the continued study of rhetoric, as in this further quote from Cicero:

For the more shamefully an honourable and worthy profession was abused by the folly and audacity of dull-witted and unprincipled men with the direst consequences to the state, the more earnestly should the better citizens have put up a resistance to them and taken thought for the welfare of the republic.

This was well known to our Cato, to Laelius, and Africanus and to their pupils -- as I may rightfully call them -- the Gracchi, the grandsons of Africanus. These men possessed the highest virtue and an authority strengthened by their virtue, and also eloquence to adorn these qualities and protect the state. Therefore, in my opinion at least, men ought none the less to devote themselves to the study of eloquence although some misuse it both in private and in public affairs. And they should study it the more earnestly in order that evil men may not obtain great power to the detriment of good citizens and the common disaster of the community.

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In Defense of Rhetoric

The potential for abuse led most of the ancient rhetoricians to include a “defense of rhetoric” as a common part of rhetoric textbooks. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, he argues that the expression of reason is man’s highest attribute, and that all good things can be abused, so rhetoric is no different because there are some who abuse it. He also gives us a great deal comfort in our despair over the continued abuse of rhetoric; he says that the abuse of rhetoric will never be as strong as the right and proper use is:

No; things that are true and things that are better are, by their nature, practically always easier to prove and easier to believe in. Again, it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs. And if it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by the right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly. (Aristotle, Rhetoric, Trans. W. Rhys Roberts)

Clearly, if the truth is on your side, you will have more substance and power behind your argument. All other things being equal, the true argument will emerge victorious precisely because it is true.

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Aristotle on Rhetoric

However, this Introduction is to deal with the varying definitions of rhetoric given through the ages, not to get sidetracked into the “defense of rhetoric” so important to the ancients (and to us). The definitions of rhetoric have been quite specific and have been designed to address some very particular concepts relating to this subject.

Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric is given with much specificity and precision: “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” This famous definition is carefully worded. He does not say that rhetoric is defined as winning arguments, beating your opponents, scoring a good one. Instead, Aristotle defines rhetoric as a methodology and as a discovery process. It is the ability to discover “the available means of persuasion,” no matter what case, argument or situation you are faced with. In other words, a rhetorician approaches a “case” in much the same way that a physician approaches a patient (Aristotle and others use this comparison). The doctor’s job is not actually to cure; it is to apply the maximum treatment to the case in question. One can be an excellent doctor and still lose a patient, just as one can be an excellent lawyer and still lose a case. It all depends on the circumstances of the case that you encounter; a good doctor, lawyer, or rhetorician does the best possible job given what the situation permits or offers in terms of treatment, litigation, or public persuasion. Rhetoric, then, is defined as a process of analyzing each situation to see what strategies and approaches would give the strongest possible argument.

Aristotle defines rhetoric as a process, not a product, and in so doing points out a second feature, that rhetoric is a specifically abstract subject. For instance, the same methods of rhetoric are used in various situations and sides of an issue. You might refer to a precedent, quote an authority, present an example, reason from comparison, and so on, regardless of whether you are on the side FOR a certain proposition or on the side AGAINST. Both sides use the same methodologies. The process of rhetoric, therefore, the process of approaching cases, analyzing them, and deriving arguments, is the same on either side of a question. It is only the resulting arguments that are different because the two sides have different potentialities. Because it is applicable to both sides, Aristotle sees rhetoric as a very abstract subject.

Furthermore, rhetoric is abstract because the basic skills of rhetoric apply across a wide range of situations. Any time you are in a situation that requires speech making, analysis, persuasion, detailed explanations, and so on, you are using rhetorical skills. Rhetoric, therefore, is a widespread ability that comes into play in many other subject areas. A teacher of biology, for instance, uses rhetoric, not in biology itself, but in the teaching and communicating of biology. Here again is Aristotle’s famous definition:

Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. This is not a function of any other art. Every other art can instruct or persuade about its own particular subject matter; for instance, medicine about what is healthy and unhealthy, geometry abut the properties of magnitudes, arithmetic about numbers, and the same is true of the other arts and sciences. But rhetoric we look upon as the power of observing the means of persuasion on almost any subject presented to us; and that is why we say that, in its technical character, it is not limited to any special or definite class of subjects.

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Roman Rhetoricians

Aristotle belongs to some of the earliest rhetoric in recorded history. (There are, however, quite a number of other rhetoricians mentioned by Aristotle and others as being from earlier times yet.) Aristotle belongs to Greek rhetoric. A second era of rhetoric is the Roman era, represented primarily by Cicero and Quintilian. Cicero was a more active, political rhetorician, and was in fact assassinated by his political enemies. However, he did write some teaching books, De Inventione (Of Invention), Topica (The Topics of Rhetoric), and Rhetorica ad Herienium. All three of these are easy to read and very instructive, in a good English translation like the ones in the Loeb editions. However, it is Quintilian who should rightly be termed the Roman teacher of rhetoric. His book, Institutio Oratoria (The Training of an Orator), presents an thoroughgoing program of education, from the most elementary grades. It is composed of twelve short “books.” This is no dry, dull textbook. Quintilian is a humane and sensitive educator, and even tender when revealing the losses he has endured. He views each student as a unique learner, a unique challenge to an instructor who should understand and adapt to each student as a person. He proves quite cagey and strategic in his classroom techniques:

While emulation promotes progress in the more advanced pupils, beginners who are still of tender years derive greater pleasure from imitating their comrades than their masters, just because it is easier. For children still in the elementary stages of education can scarce dare hope to reach that complete eloquence which they understand to be their goal: their ambition will not soar so high, but they will imitate the vine which has to grasp the lower branches of the tree on which it is trained before it can reach the topmost boughs. It is the master's duty not to burden his pupils at once with tasks to which their strength is unequal, but to curb his energies and refrain from talking over the heads of his audience. Vessels with narrow mouths will not receive liquids if too much be poured into them at a time, but are easily filled if the liquid is admitted in a gentle stream or, it may be, drop by drop; similarly you must consider how much a child's mind is capable of receiving: the things which are beyond their grasp will not enter their minds, which have not opened out sufficiently to take them in.

Quintilian’s definition of rhetoric, like Aristotle’s, leans toward the specific and precise rather than the general. He defines the rhetorician, again with precision and intent, specifically as “a good man, speaking well.” Quintilian adds a moral dimension to our definition. A rhetorician is someone “speaking well,” i.e., for good purposes, for purposes of justice, fairness, and truth. A rhetorician cannot be, and this is the important point, a bad person. This is the definition, extremely particular though it is, that Quintilian presents.

But does he really mean this in all of its precision? Could not a bad person still be a rhetorician, just an immoral one? Not according to Quintilian. His reason is as follows. A rhetorician must deal with topics such as “What is best for the nation?” “What does justice mean?” “Who is in the right?” Since only someone who is morally good can really have a first hand understanding of topics like justice, equity, and truth, only someone who is morally good can truly be a rhetorician. It is a clever argument, but also has some truth to it. Indeed, how can someone who does not understand the difference between good and evil ever hope to persuade us what is good and what is evil? Quintilian successfully defends our most noble definition of the rhetorician, “a good man speaking well:”

Again in deliberative assemblies how can we advise a policy without raising the question of what is honourable? Nay, even the third department of oratory, which is concerned with the tasks of praise and denunciation, must without a doubt deal with questions of right and wrong. For the orator will assuredly have much to say on such topics as justice, fortitude, abstinence, self-control and piety. But the good man, who has come to the knowledge of these things not by mere hearsay, as though they were just words and names for his tongue to employ, but has grasped the meaning of virtue and acquired a true feeling for it, will never be perplexed when he has to think out a problem, but will speak out truly what he knows. (Institutio Oratoria, Book 12, Loeb editions.)

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The Renaissance of Rhetoric

There is a third era of rhetoric, following the Greek and the Roman, which may be termed Renaissance rhetoric. Beginning in Italy in the 1300’s and ending in England in the early 1600’s, the Renaissance was a time when the books mentioned above, and many others from the ancient period, became once again the material of widespread study and discussion. In the Renaissance, literacy rates shot up as high as 60%, very high from a historical perspective. Many new school textbooks were written in this era. Most of these directly follow the three that we have discussed, Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. In this regard, rhetoric did not change much in the Renaissance; it was simply more studied, taught and talked about. However, there is one dimension of rhetoric that was more developed in the Renaissance, and that is something which could be termed “literary rhetoric.” This rhetoric was still essentially language skills, but applied to poetry and drama, such as Shakespeare’s plays, Sir Phillip Sidney’s book, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, and Edmund Spenser’s romantic epic The Faerie Queene, as well as numerous “sonnet sequences’ that numbered in the hundreds of sonnets all tightly limited to one theme. In terms of literary rhetoric, the Renaissance adds another element to our definition of the subject.

Rhetoric used in the context of poetry produced something called “the flowers of rhetoric.” The flowers of rhetoric were beautiful, interesting, or unique turns of phrase which decorated the poetry of the time. “Flowers of rhetoric” is synonymous with another term that is more familiar to us, i.e., something called “the figures of speech.” We still have the term “a figure of speech” today, but it means much less to us than it did in the Renaissance. Today we use the phrase “a figure of speech” to mean that it was something we didn’t really intend to say. It is a way to excuse an accidentally ill-mannered comment or something that is not quite politically correct. We say that it was just a figure of speech. We also use the term to refer to metaphors, similes, and several other language patterns. This usage, to identify language patterns, is at least accurate, but this still gives us a much diminished view of what figures of speech are. In the Renaissance, there were literally hundreds of language patterns that were considered figures of speech. Any elegant, unusual, or patterned turn of phrase was a figure of speech, and whole books were printed, such as Henry Peacham’s The Garden of Eloquence, listing and cataloguing all the figures of speech and examples of them taken from literature. Learning these patterns and employing them in poetry and letters was fundamental to the education and the culture of the Renaissance. It was a time when people in all educated walks of life were cultured and literary.

Figures of Speech, as other concepts discussed in this Introduction, means something more specific to the earlier times than it to us. There were two major types of figures, called “tropes” and “schemes.” Tropes are figures of speech that focus on the meaning of words. These include puns, where the meaning of the word is shifted mid-sentence. The other type, “schemes,” refers essentially to patterned syntax. Parallelism, for instance, is the classic scheme, because parts of the sentence are structured in a patterned way. One can look over Peacham’s Garden of Eloquence, which contains countless flowers of rhetoric, and see the elegance, variety and beauty that language is capable of. To immerse oneself in these figures, to hunt them down in authors and keep a collection, is to become more and more resourceful and expressive with language.

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A Summary of Rhetoric

In this Introduction we have looked at three eras of rhetoric, the Greek and Roman (which together make up the classical era), and the Renaissance. We have encountered many definitions of rhetoric (some very precise), that range from speech making, to literary work. The underlying definition behind all of these definitions is “skill with language.” The study of rhetoric is an important and profound subject because it is the study of how we express ourselves. Until we are able to get what is in our mind and in our heart “out there” for others to see and to understand, we are in many ways more limited as human beings. Rhetoric is the study of how we may express ourselves; it is the study of how society defines its goals and directs its purposes. It is not, or should not be, “hot air,” even if some days the world seems that way.

Copyright 1999 by Robert Einarsson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, in any manner whatsoever, without written permission of the author, except as provided by USA copyright law.

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