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Differences in classical and modern rhetoric

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2886 words Published: 3rd May 2017

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Differences in classical and modern rhetoric

Historically rhetoric has been studied and argued by philosophers, educators and mankind in general, all in an effort to offer proof of the true meaning of the word. It has been accepted by all that rhetoric is a form of communication. Whether it is considered an art of using language in a persuasive manner or it is the clever misuse of words to gain trust and to persuade, can only be determined by an individual’s perception and interpretation of the words they hear (Elliot Aronson, 1992). The definition of rhetoric is as simple as the art of persuasion, but what makes rhetoric effective is the way it is applied. In order to use rhetoric in writing and in speech, the meaning of rhetoric and its purpose must be clearly understood. Rhetoric involves more than just what is written, but how it is arranged. Other writing tactics also are used to make rhetoric what it is. Rhetoric can be described as the art of effective, eloquent, and persuasive writing and or deliverance of a speech. The use of rhetoric ages back to the times of the ancient Greek. Plato, a famous Greek philosopher, saw rhetoric only useful and admirable if it was an expression of truth. Aristotle, another Greek philosopher, disagreed. He felt that rhetoric was focused on the invention of the argument. In Aristotle s point of view, the argument was meant to seek the truth and also appeal to reason, ethics, and emotion. Although both of the great philosophers saw rhetoric in two slightly different aspects, it was still used to persuade an audience (Anthony Pratkanis, 1992).

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For many people, the word “rhetoric” conjures up images of doubletalk — political or advertising language used to befuddle and confuse its audience. This common usage of the word causes problems for the serious modern student of rhetoric, because the term can legitimately be defined, as it is in my Random House dictionary, as “the undue use of exaggeration or display … concerned with mere style or effect.” However, this is not the only, or even the primary, definition of the word. It’s simply the one with which most people are familiar, and its currency can cause difficulty for someone interested in the discipline of rhetoric (Elliot Aronson, 1992).

Such a problem didn’t always exist. As one of the classical liberal arts, rhetoric, along with its sister arts grammar (not what we call “grammar”, but more akin to the modern discipline of semantics) and dialectic (a system of learned disputation similar to what we now call informal logic), was one of parts of the trivium, the foundation of education in classical and medieval times. Thus it is that my Random House dictionary defines rhetoric also as the art of “influencing the thought and conduct of an audience” through the use of effective language. In this, its primary use, the term “rhetoric” has been around for over 2500 years. In fact, rhetoric was an important part of a European education right into this century (Anthony Pratkanis, 1992).

Classical rhetoric is important because it established the basic theories of persuasion that were taught until this century. These theories still hold true today, and we can become better, more persuasive communicators if we adhere to the best of them. If you stop and think about it for a minute, you will note that the most influential and powerful people in our society are good communicators. Politicians who make our laws are generally excellent speakers. People whom you admire (outside of sports) are often good communicators (George A. Kennedy, 1999).

Rhetoric is not limited to any particular discipline; as a method of analysis, it can be applied, for example, to political discourse, though it is not political science; to literary works, though it is not literary criticism; and to scientific discourse, though it is not science (Anthony Pratkanis, 1992). In fact, whenever we use discourse to influence someone else’s actions or thoughts, in whatever field, we are using, often without realizing it, ancient principles of rhetoric. Thus the discourse of any field may be fruitfully studied, not for the quality of its politics, literature, or science, but for its rhetorical significance and effectiveness (George A. Kennedy, 1999).

Quintilian was a Latin scholar who used five different elements to perfect the art of rhetoric. These five steps helped the speaker or writer use rhetoric to its fullest. Inventio is the first of the five elements, and is the Latin word for invention. The idea is to first recognize what kind of audience the essay or speech is directed at, and then invent arguments that appeal to the audience ethically, logically, and or emotionally. Dispositio is the second element, which means arrangement in Latin (Anthony Pratkanis, 1992). In order for an argument to be effective it must be arranged properly. The third element in Quintilian s arrangement is Elocutio. In Latin, Elocutio, means style. This is the way the author or speaker uses diction and syntax. Memoria, which is the fourth element, is Latin for memory. This element is necessary for effective speeches, but it not a vital element in essays and other writings (George A. Kennedy, 1999). When a speech is memorized it flows more smoothly, and doesn t allow unintended breaks to distract the audience. The last of the five elements is pronuntiatio. In Latin this is the word for delivery. In writing this is the tone in which the author uses in his writing, where as, in speech it is the speaker s voice and his gestures that matter (Mark Robson, 2007).

Although Quintilian s five elements help a person compose a rhetorical essay or speech, they do not include certain schemes that construct rhetoric. A few of the basic schemes of rhetoric are parallelism, anaphora, and climax. These schemes help enhance persuasive arguments. Parallelism is the arrangement of a series of related words. An example of this is found in Abraham Lincoln s second inaugural address. It states, with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right Anaphora is the repeated use of the same group of words used to begin successive sentences or clauses. An example of this can be found in Ecclesiastes 3:1-2. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted Climax is the way words and sentences are arranged to imply the order of rising events that led to the magnitude of the story. An example of this is in Melville s novel, Moby Dick (Mark Robson, 2007).

Despite Augustine, the so-called Rhetorica ad Herennium, ‘or “Rhetoric written for [friend] Herennius” and called in later medieval and Renaissance times the “new” rhetoric, to distinguish it from the “old” rhetoric represented by Cicero’s earliest work, the De inventione (“On invention”—the first part of the rhetorical curriculum), became an all-time record hit textbook for the Greek and Roman art of persuasion in the period c.400 – 1600 A.D (Elliot Aronson, 1992). Written at around the same time as Cicero’s De inventione, that is, in the first two decades of the last century B.C., the “Rhetoric written for [friend] Herennius” was soon lost and then rediscovered around 400 A.D. It achieved its premier status because it dealt with the whole rhetorical curriculum (the finding of the most appropriate arguments, the arrangement of them, the memorization of them, the delivery of them and the ornamentation of them with graceful figures of speech and thought), and it was written in simple, didactic Latin—the universal learned language of the time. It was also illustrated with easy and relevant examples, many of them composed by the writer himself, who believed that you should illustrate your rhetorical precepts with your own compositions rather than purple passages taken from prior writings (Mark Robson, 2007).

The “Rhetoric written for [friend] Herennius,” together with certain advanced Greek and Roman textbooks, gathered momentum over the thousand and more years following the Herennius text’s “rediscovery” and even the highly opinionated view of certain late-fifteenth-century rhetorical teachers that it was not by Cicero, did not dent its popularity. By the time the long road from Aristotle’s textbook on rhetoric and its near-contemporary, anonymous, “Rhetoric for Alexander” (fourth century B.C.10) had been traversed; the “old” and the “new” rhetoric amounted to a pretty formidable arsenal of techniques and practices for constructing “truth” and persuading others of it (Laura R. Micciche, 2007).

Aristotle recognized the value of rhetoric and the manner it could be directed to a specific audience. He perceived it as a form of speaking to an audience comprised of ordinary citizens and the idea that it makes use of a common idea or belief shared by the speaker and the audience (enthymeme). He believed that rhetoric was a techno and identified the need to understand characteristics of human emotions and the elements of an argument in order to speak with authority on any given subject. He identified the integrity and believability of a speaker as the key ingredient (Laura R. Micciche, 2007).

But what are we today to make of this huge and effective corpus and in what senses can there be today a further “new rhetoric”? As George Pullman says below, “The old rhetoric, it seems, is something difficult to outrun.” In this Pullman echoes the statement of Edward P.J.Corbett, who, in his Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, wrote: (Edward P.J Corbett, 1998).

The author believes that the elaborate system of the ancients, which taught the student how to find something to say, how to select and organize his material, and how to phrase it in the best possible way, is still useful and effective, perhaps more useful and effective than the various courses of study that replaced it.”

We may well argue that today all the ancient techniques of persuasion are utilized knowingly or unknowingly in our modern systems of marketing and advertising—though we do not build into these systems the ethical and moral imperatives that great rhetorical writers of the past, such as Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, did. Nor do we make sure that our young are fully familiar with all the techniques of oral and written persuasion that may be available to them, as was common in former times. Here the warning of Pratkanis and Aronson is very pertinent:

“We believe that, in an age of propaganda, the most important thing for the survival of democracy is the existence of communicators who know how to present their message clearly and fairly, coupled with an informed electorate that knows the difference between a fair presentation and a con job. It is toward achieving these ends that we wrote this book.”

Rhetoric, indeed, is too important to be left to today’s marketing experts. Use of the term has expanded enormously in recent times, to include all cultures, genders, classes and even animals. We must ourselves nowadays understand the history and meaning of the word and how it might empower us today to meet and deal effectively with the explosion of new technologies of persuasion and communication, particularly in regard to the new electronic age and the infinite changes and possibilities associated with it. The authors of the present volume are fully aware of the inherited rhetorical tradition and of the “changes” that must be incorporated into the “new” rhetoric for our own times (Mark Robson, 2007).

A rhetor can use a variety of strategies to communicate the message, or to create the kinds of appeal that will best move the audience. The rhetor must engage the audience, gaining their attention and maintaining it in order to reveal the exigence as a problem in the world that the audience can change. The speaker must then, using only discourse, motivate them to change the situation the discourse has identified (Mark Robson, 2007). Finally, if the rhetor is to be truly effective, he or she must in some way enable or empower the audience to take the action requested. The rhetor must do all this in a subtle way, so that the method of influence — the use of the modes of appeal — does not call attention to it, but instead allows its effect to be felt directly. Thus the intended audience for a discourse, who are moved to action by its appeals, would be unlikely to analyze how they are being persuaded; they will feel convinced, but often are in no position to perceive, much less articulate, how that persuasion has occurred. That role belongs to the rhetorical critic (Laura R. Micciche, 2007).

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By contrast with the audience, the rhetorician’s role is not to be persuaded by the discourse, but to understand how the discourse works to influence its intended hearers. A rhetorician’s job is to “mine” an existing discourse to reveal the underlying strategies and “common-sense assumptions” upon which the argument has been constructed. Among other questions a rhetorician asks is “What view of the world would the audience need in order for this discourse to make sense to them? What assumptions of theirs are being taken for granted?”

Both the rhetor who constructs the discourse and the rhetorician who analyzes its appeals are assisted by a thorough understanding of rhetorical principles, which are built, like most such theories, from a study of effective practice. A rhetorician who studies, for example, political autobiography, will be able to comment on three distinct levels. First, the rhetorical critic will be able to reveal how the specific discourse under consideration achieves its purpose — how it has been adapted to its intended audience, and the nature of the ethos, logos, and pathos appeals it uses. The critic will consider its engagement, motivating, and enabling strategies. Second, the rhetorici an will be able to comment on the nature of political autobiography as a genre; he or she will show how, by comparison with other works in the same genre, the author has adhered to, or departed from, the generic conventions, which have acted as constraints upon the rhetor. The rhetorical critic will point out noteworthy effects of the discourse as a representative of its type, how it conforms to or challenges its generic constraints (Laura R. Micciche, 2007).

Finally, this rhetorician can contribute something to the understanding of how in general discursive appeals work to persuade an audience. He or she may even be able to infer broad theoretical principles from the situated instance of discourse that is being studied, considering how it fits into the theoretical framework of the discipline as a whole (George A. Kennedy, 1999).

The study of rhetoric, both as a situated art and as a body of theoretical material, is important. It is a critical tool that helps us to understand how discourse shapes the way people act or think, not only in the case of situated instances of rhetorical discourse but also in much broader terms. Such study leads to a fuller understanding of how discourse, and particularly persuasive discourse, is able to move an audience.

As human beings, as citizens, as teachers and scholars, we use language all the time to modify and influence events in the world around us. Equally, other people use language to influence our thoughts and behavior. It is important for us, as educated people, to know as much as we can about how this influence is affected. Such knowledge is useful not only for its practical benefits, but because it forms a critical and analytical foundation for approaching many of the tasks that face us daily as we construct and respond to the discourse that shapes our experience of the world (George A. Kennedy, 1999).

From the time of the ancient Greeks until present, rhetoric has been used effectively in works of writing and in speeches. Plato, Aristotle, and Quintilian have illustrated the use and tactics of rhetoric wonderfully. Though in the ancient Greeks time rhetoric was meant to be used only to persuade something truthful or seek something truthful, it now it is used heavily by politicians. Although its purpose has somewhat changed over the years, its function has stayed the same.


Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson” In Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion” New York: Freeman, 1992.

George A. Kennedy “Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times” The University of North Carolina Press, February 1999.

Mark Robson “The Sense of Early Modern Writing: Rhetoric, Poetics, Aesthetics”, Manchester University Press, July 2007.

Laura R. Micciche “Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching”, Boynton/Cook publisher, August 2007.

Edward P.J Corbett “Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student”, New York: Oxford University Press, August 1998.


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