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What Is Greek Rhetoric?

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  • Written By: D. Coodin
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 04 September 2016
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Greek rhetoric is the art of persuasive discourse, as practiced and written about by ancient Greek thinkers. In ancient Greek society, the ability to sway an audience through language was valued as essential component of civic engagement. As a result, it became a standard part of Western education that continued into the 20th century. Greek rhetoric is most closely associated with the Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose text "Rhetoric," which was written during the fourth century B.C., lays out a detailed analysis of how language and persuasion are tied together.

Aristotle breaks down rhetoric into three means of persuasion: ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos refers to an appeal to the character of the speaker. A practitioner of Greek rhetoric should try to establish credibility with his or her audience by displaying practical intelligence, virtuous character and good will. In a modern context, an example of the use of ethos might be a public speaker citing his or her affiliation with a prestigious university or mentioning his or her own philanthropy.

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Pathos refers to an appeal to the audience's emotions. Greek rhetoric encourages the use of rhetorical devices and poetic language to elicit sympathy. This can take the form of such devices as metaphors, alliteration and anaphora, which is the repetition of words to begin successive sentences. For example, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech" contains multiple sentences in a row that being with "One hundred years later." The anaphoric repetition emphasizes the lack of progress in civil rights by making the audience experience a lack of progress in language.

Logos is the third method of persuasion of Greek rhetoric and refers to the use of reasoning to establish an argument. This can take the form of inductive logic, in which a speaker uses specific examples to draw general conclusions. An example of this would be a politician showing his or her opponent's support for a controversial issue and using this to conclude that the opponent is generally unfit for public office. The speaker also can use deductive reasoning, in which he or she uses a general proposition to draw specific conclusions.

Although Greek rhetoric is firmly rooted in Aristotelian tradition, its modern methods of training were also influenced by Quintilian, a first-century Roman who created five canons of rhetoric for the purposes of education. Quintilian's method of learning rhetorical discourse begins with the invention of an argument and the arrangement of its parts into a coherent presentation. These first two steps of Greek rhetoric are followed by the stylistic use of language, memorizing the entirety of the speech and a delivery that presents the message effectively.

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