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A brief history of rhetoric


DisciplinesRhetoric > A brief history of rhetoric

The sophists | The liberal art | Contemporary cynicism | See also


Here's a brief history of rhetoric, from the ancient Greeks onwards.

The sophists

Since Homer in the 8th century BC, wisdom ('sophos') and skill were prized. The Sophists were originally itinerant poets and teachers who spread learning and culture wherever they found those ready to pay.

Being (or at least appearing) wise, the sophists were the effective lawyers and advised on governance and the new Athenian democracy. A rhetorical question is one which requires no answer, implying the wisdom contained within it.

Over time, the Sophists focused more on eloquent speech and rhetoric, making grand claims about their ability to answer all questions. This brought them up against 'modern' thinkers such as Socrates, who did not charge fees and Plato, who portrayed them as greedy instructors who used fallacious reasoning concealed in decorated language to deceive and to gain power. Aristotle also helped separate out philosophy as a separate school, leaving sophism as being largely about the techniques of rhetoric.

Popular opinion thus turned against the sophists and today 'sophism' means the use of deceptive argument, pulling on emotional strings rather than using rational logic, appearing smart rather than being smart.

Defining the discipline

Whilst Aristotle denounced the sophists, he also refined rhetoric in 'The Art of Rhetoric', documenting and defining its rules and methods in the various forms of Aristotelian argument.

In Rome, Cicero, with his 'Rhetorica ad Herennium' and Quintilian developed rhetoric further and the five canons of rhetoric was very influential for centuries.

Across the centuries from the Greeks and Romans, various writers continued to explore, refine and re-define rhetoric, including:

  • St. Augustine (354-430), in 'De Doctrina Christiana.'
  • Boethius (~480-524), in his 'Overview of the Structure of Rhetoric.'
  • Erasmus (~1466-1536)in 'De Duplici Copia Verborum et Rerum.'
  • Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540) in 'Rhetoricae' and other works.
  • Thomas Wilson's 'The Arte of Rhetorique' (1553)

The liberal art

Eloquent persuasion became a mainstay of the civilized intellectual as well as the courtier's preferred mode of speech. From the Romans to the Middle Ages, rhetoric was taught as a liberal art alongside logic and grammar.

In the post-Roman period, rhetoric was limited to the writing of letters and sermons, though the verbal form picked up again through proselytizing. It only regained its former popularity in the Renaissance period.

Rhetoric thus became a mainstay of priests, lawyers, politicians, writers and all who would persuade, in particular those who addressed a wide audience. Today, there is hardly a persuasive field which is untouched by its methods.

From the Greek 'rhetor' who addressed juries to modern leaders who address global audiences, rhetoric is a indeed a powerful tool.

Contemporary cynicism

Today, the use of the word 'rhetoric' sometimes approaches a derogatory form, implying the use of fancy language to persuade, much as sophism lost credibility amongst the Greeks, and much for the same reason: when politicians and others use it as a cloaking mechanism for unpopular or vacuous speech, then others will throw stones not only at the person but also the method.

See also

Rhetorical questions, Aristotelian argument

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