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Writing, Speech, Debate, & General Knowledge
2.1 Introduction to Rhetoric

(Adapted from

Rhetoric is the art of using language, especially public speaking, as a means to persuade.

Classical rhetoric originated in Greece, in a school of pre-Socratic philosophers known as Sophists. In ancient and medieval times, rhetoric concerned itself with persuasion in public and political settings such as assemblies and courts of law. The word 'rhetor' was the Greek term for orator. A rhetor was a citizen who regularly addressed juries and political assemblies and who was thus understood to have gained some knowledge about public speaking in the process. Today the term rhetoric can be used at times to refer only to the form of argumentation, often with the pejorative connotation that rhetoric is a means of obscuring the truth. Classical philosophers believed quite the contrary: the skilled use of rhetoric was essential to the discovery of truths, because it provided the means of ordering and clarifying arguments.

Organized thought about public speaking began in ancient Greece by itinerant teachers known as sophists, the best known of whom were Protagoras (c.481-420 BC), Gorgias (c.483-376 BC), and Isocrates (436-338 BC). The Sophists were a disparate group who travelled from city to city making public displays to attract students who were then charged a fee for their education. They defined parts of speech, analyzed poetry, parsed close synonyms, invented argumentation strategies, and debated the nature of reality.

Sophists claimed to make their students "better," or, in other words, to teach virtue. They thus claimed that human "excellence" was not an accident of fate or a prerogative of noble birth, but an art or "techne" that could be taught and learned. They were thus among the first humanists.

One of their most famous, and infamous, doctrines has to do with probability and counter arguments. They taught that every argument could be countered with an opposing argument, that an argument's effectiveness derived from how "likely" it appeared to the audience (its probability of seeming true), and that any probability argument could be countered with an inverted probability argument. Thus, if it seemed likely that a strong, poor man were guilty of robbing a rich, weak man, the strong poor man could argue, on the contrary, that this very likelihood (that he would be a suspect) makes it unlikely that he committed the crime, since he would most likely be apprehended for the crime.

Plato (427-347 BC) has famously outlined the differences between true and false rhetoric in a number of dialogues, but especially the Gorgias and the Phaedrus. Both dialogues are complex and difficult, but in both Plato disputes the Sophistic notion that an art of persuasion, the art of the Sophists which he calls "rhetoric", can exist independent of the art of dialectic. Plato claims that since Sophists appeal only to what seems likely or probable, rather than to what is true, they are not at all making their students and audiences "better," but simply flattering them with what they want to hear. While Plato's condemnation of rhetoric is clear in the Gorgias, in the Phaedrus he seems to suggest the possibility of a true art of rhetoric based upon the knowledge produced by dialectic, and he relies on such a dialectically informed rhetoric to appeal to the main character, Phaedrus, to take up philosophy. It is possible that in developing his own theory of knowledge, Plato coined the term "rhetoric" both to denounce what he saw as the false wisdom of the sophists, and to advance his own views on knowledge and method. Plato's animosity against the Sophists derives not only from their inflated claims to teach virtue and their reliance on appearances, but from the fact that his teacher, Socrates, was accused of being a sophist and ultimately sentenced to death for his teaching. In his dialogues, Plato attempts to distinguish the rhetoric common to Socratic questioning from Sophistry.

Plato's student Aristotle (384-322 BC) famously set forth an extended treatise on rhetoric that still repays careful study today. Aristotle's treatise on rhetoric is an attempt to systematically describe civic rhetoric as a human art or skill (techne). His definition of rhetoric as a mode of discovery seems to limit the art to the inventional process, and Aristotle heavily emphasizes the logical aspect of this process. But the treatise in fact also discusses not only elements of style and (briefly) delivery, but also emotional appeals (pathos) and characterological appeals (ethos). He thus identifies three steps or "offices" of rhetoric--invention, arrangement, and style--and three different types of rhetorical proof:

Ethos: the source's credibility, the speaker's/author's authority

Pathos: the emotional or motivational appeals; vivid language, emotional language and numerous sensory details.

Logos: the logic used to support a claim (induction and deduction); can also be the facts and statistics used to help support the argument.

Inductive reasoning uses examples (historical, mythical, or hypothetical) to draw conclusions.

Deductive reasoning uses generally accepted propositions to derive specific conclusions. The term logic evolved from logos.

Aristotle also identifies three different types or genres of civic rhetoric: forensic (also known as judicial, was concerned with determining truth or falsity of events that took place in the past, issues of guilt), deliberative (also known as political, was concerned with determining whether or not particular actions should or should not be taken in the future), and epideictic (also known as ceremonial, was concerned with praise and blame, values, right and wrong, demonstrating beauty and skill in the present).

Contemporary studies of rhetoric have a more diverse range of practices and meanings than was the case in ancient times. The concept of rhetoric has thus shifted widely during its 2500-year history. Rhetoricians have recently argued that the classical understanding of rhetoric is limited because persuasion depends on communication, which in turn depends on meaning. Thus the scope of rhetoric is understood to include much more than simply public--legal and political--discourse.

So while rhetoric has traditionally been thought of being involved in such arenas as politics, law, public relations, lobbying, marketing and advertising, the study of rhetoric has recently entered into diverse fields such as humanities, religion, social sciences, law, science, journalism, history, literature and even cartography and architecture. Every aspect of human life and thought that depends on the articulation and communication of meaning can be said to involve elements of the rhetorical.

Directions: Answer the following questions.
  1. What is rhetoric?
  2. Describe the role rhetoric played in ancient and medieval Greece.
  3. Who were Sophists? Research any Sophist and write a short biography.
  4. How has the concept of rhetoric changed over time?
  5. Differentiate between inductive and deductive reasoning.

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