What is Classical Rhetoric?

Classical Rhetoric


This meant that, in his education, a great man must not only study the rules and principles of eloquent expression, but he must know and do the good; he must not only have mastered certain techniques, but he must be familiar with the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. The discipline that taught a man these things was called classical rhetoric.

While modern books on speaking and writing have plenty of emphasis on technique, they are almost devoid of any treatment of those other things necessary to truly persuasive expression. To get a full understanding of what it is to be able to express yourself persuasively, you have to go back to the ancients. The three greatest ancient writers on rhetoric were Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian. Aristotle was the greatest theoretician of rhetoric, Cicero its greatest practitioner, and Quintilian its greatest teacher. Classical rhetoric begins and ends with these three men.

Summer2_1-25_flattened.inddAlthough the study of rhetoric truly begins at a young age with practice in imitating the writing of others, it extends in later years into the specific study of persuasive expression. There is no better place to begin this latter kind of study than with Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Aristotle taught that there were three elements of communication: the speaker, the audience, and the speech itself. In fact, his book is broken down into three parts, one on each of these elements of rhetoric.

There are also, says Aristotle, three kinds of persuasive speech: political speech, legal speech, and ceremonial speech. In political speech, the audience is some body of decision-makers like a political assembly. Its subject is the future, and its object is to move the audience to take some course of action. The end of this kind of speech is expediency, which is a kind of good. Political rhetoric, therefore, is highly moral or ethical in character.

In a legal speech, the subject is the past, and the object is the determination of what has or has not in fact happened. A lawyer arguing a case in court would be an example of a legal speaker, although anyone who argues to an audience about past events would count as a legal speaker. The end of legal speech is the determination of the truth, making it very logical in nature.

A ceremonial speaker would address the present and would concern himself with the present honor or dishonor of someone. He would engage in the praise or blame to achieve his object. The person giving a eulogy and certain kinds of sermons would engage in this sort of rhetoric. Because of its ceremonial nature (which is why it is often referred to as the rhetoric of display), ceremonial rhetoric is considered to have an emphasis on the aesthetic; in other words, on the beautiful.

In addition to the three kinds of speech studied in rhetoric, there are also three modes of rhetoric—three ways in which persuasion is accomplished. They are ethos, logos, and pathos.Summer2_1-25_flattened.indd

Ethos refers to the character of the speaker. We generally determine very early on whether the speaker or writer is worthy of our trust. We ask the question, “Is this the sort of person we can believe?” When discussing this particular mode of persuasion, Aristotle discusses what it is to be a good person and how we can communicate that to our audience.

Logos refers to the strengths and weaknesses of our arguments. When we hear or read a persuasive appeal of some kind, we will judge it, in part, on the logical strength of the arguments. In this mode of persuasion, the chief tools are enthymeme and example.

Summer2_1-25_flattened.inddThe enthymeme is the form an argument takes in persuasive speech; it is the deductive part of our argument. In logic, we would spell out all of our assumptions and perhaps use a full logical syllogism in making our point. However, when speaking or writing to a larger audience—or perhaps even talking to a friend who is not familiar with logic—we would use an abbreviated form of the syllogism called an enthymeme. We might also tell a story or joke, or relate some real-life experience we have had to make our point. Doing this, Aristotle would say, is to use example.

Pathos refers to the emotions of the audience. When we are trying to persuade people of something, we have to take into account how they feel. To establish our point, we might want to elicit pity for someone or something from our audience—or possibly anger or enthusiasm or skepticism. This requires a knowledge of the kinds of emotions people are prone to and why they have them.

In each of these divisions of rhetoric—the three elements, the three kinds of speech, and the three modes of persuasion—Aristotle emphasizes not only technique, but something relevant about human nature. That is what sets Aristotle’s Rhetoric apart from other books on persuasive expression and what warrants our attention to it today.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2011 edition.


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