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What Is Ancient Rhetoric?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
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  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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Ancient rhetoric is described by Aristotle as the art of persuasion. While modern day rhetoric can be communicated through the mediums of writing, radio, and television, the ancient art of rhetoric was expressed almost exclusively in speeches. The height of this art in ancient times ran from the fall of Troy in 1200 anno domini (AD) to the fall of Rome in the fifth century AD. Notable rhetoricians include Marcus Tullius Cicero and Pericles.

Rhetoric first flourished in ancient Greece. The first mention of rhetoric as an art was in Homer’s Iliad. Cicero is widely considered the finest rhetorician of the Roman Republic, based on his collected speeches and treatises. His On Invention was one of the most widely used texts on the art of rhetoric in the Middle Ages.

Treatises on ancient rhetoric were being written before Cicero’s time, however. The first treatise is recognized as that of Empedocles, in around 444 BC. He influenced the first actual texts dedicated to the subject that were compiled by Corax and Tisias. While a number of philosophers and thinkers from Protagoras to Isocrates expounded ideas on ancient rhetoric, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle are considered the most influential on Western thinking.

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Plato posited that rhetoric could be divided into two types. The first was true rhetoric, based on dialectic study and the pursuit of truth. The aim of true rhetoric was to persuade people of the truth. Second to true rhetoric was false rhetoric, which was the advancement of what people wanted to hear in order to persuade them to do what the rhetorician — often a politician seeking votes — desired.

While Plato’s ideas on ancient rhetoric have survived in fragments, Aristotle, his student, wrote a full treatise on the subject. He was the first to look at the steps in the process to create rhetoric. Aristotle believed that a rhetorician needed to discover his or her subject, arrange it, and then select a style for the final presentation.

Like Plato, Aristotle outlined a number of key elements to ancient rhetoric. He believed the character and credibility of a speaker were vital; he called this ethos. He also believed pathos or emotional appeals were critical to effective rhetoric. Finally, he believed that rhetoricians had to be masters of the art of logic and reasoning, which he called logos, in order to persuade an audience.

Cicero took Aristotle’s ideas on ethos one step further. Whereas Aristotle’s ethos could be applied narrowly to the subject at hand — meaning an expert on bees would be more persuasive on the matter of beekeeping than would a plumber — Cicero believed that a rhetorician should be knowledgeable on all subjects. An orator, then, must be a man or woman of the world who seeks knowledge on multiple subjects.

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, better known as Quintilian, was a later orator and rhetorician in the Roman Empire. He created a treatise called the Institutes of Oratory that set forth a plan for training rhetoricians. He added to Aristotle’s ideas on the creation of good rhetoric by describing the five canons of rhetoric: inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria and actio. Those ideas basically translate as creating an idea, arranging or structuring it, perfecting its content and style, memorizing it, and delivering it. His ideas are still considered the five key elements of creating speeches, even today.

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