Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the capability of writers or speakers to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. As a subject of formal study and a productive civic practice, rhetoric has played a central role in the European tradition. Its best known definition comes from Aristotle, who considers it a counterpart of both logic and politics, and calls it “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Rhetorics typically provide heuristics for understanding, discovering, and developing arguments for particular situations, such as Aristotle’s three persuasive audience appeals, logos, pathos, and ethos. The five canons of rhetoric, which trace the traditional tasks in designing a persuasive speech, were first codified in classical Rome: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Along with grammar and logic (or dialectic—see Martianus Capella), rhetoric is one of the three ancient arts of discourse.
From Ancient Greece to the late 19th century, it was a central part of Western education, filling the need to train public speakers and writers to move audiences to action with arguments. The word is derived from the Greek ῥητορικός rhētorikós, “oratorical”, from ῥήτωρ rhḗtōr, “public speaker”, related to ῥῆμα rhêma, “that which is said or spoken, word, saying”, and ultimately derived from the verb ἐρῶ erō, “I say, I speak”.
Rhetoric as a course of study has evolved significantly since its ancient beginnings. Through the ages, the study and teaching of rhetoric has adapted to the particular exigencies of the time and venue. The study of rhetoric has conformed to a multitude of different applications, ranging from architecture to literature. Although the curriculum has transformed in a number of ways, it has generally emphasized the study of principles and rules of composition as a means for moving audiences. Generally speaking, the study of rhetoric trains students to speak and/or write effectively, as well as critically understand and analyze discourse.
Rhetoric began as a civic art in Ancient Greece where students were trained to develop tactics of oratorical persuasion, especially in legal disputes. Rhetoric originated in a school of pre-Socratic philosophers known as the Sophists circa 600 BC. Demosthenes and Lysias emerged as major orators during this period, and Isocrates and Gorgias as prominent teachers. Rhetorical education focused on five particular canons: inventio (invention), dispositio (arrangement), elocutio (style), memoria (memory), and actio (delivery). Modern teachings continue to reference these rhetorical leaders and their work in discussions of classical rhetoric and persuasion.
Rhetoric was later taught in universities during the Middle Ages as one of the three original liberal arts or trivium (along with logic and grammar). During the medieval period, political rhetoric declined as republican oratory died out and the emperors of Rome garnered increasing authority. With the rise of European monarchs in following centuries, rhetoric shifted into the courtly and religious applications. Augustine exerted strong influence on Christian rhetoric in the Middle Ages, advocating the use of rhetoric to lead audiences to truth and understanding, especially in the church. The study of liberal arts, he believed, contributed to rhetorical study: “In the case of a keen and ardent nature, fine words will come more readily through reading and hearing the eloquent than by pursuing the rules of rhetoric.” Poetry and letter writing, for instance, became a central component of rhetorical study during the Middle Ages. After the fall of the Republic in Rome, poetry became a tool for rhetorical training since there were fewer opportunities for political speech. Letter writing was the primary form through which business was conducted both in state and church, so it became an important aspect of rhetorical education.
Rhetorical education became more restrained as style and substance separated in 16th-century France with Peter Ramus, and attention turned to the scientific method. That is, influential scholars like Ramus argued that the processes of invention and arrangement should be elevated to the domain of philosophy, while rhetorical instruction should be chiefly concerned with the use of figures and other forms of the ornamentation of language. Scholars such as Francis Bacon developed the study of “scientific rhetoric.” This concentration rejected the elaborate style characteristic of the classical oration. This plain language carried over to John Locke’s teaching, which emphasized concrete knowledge and steered away from ornamentation in speech, further alienating rhetorical instruction, which was identified wholly with this ornamentation, from the pursuit of knowledge.
RHETORIC OR HIGHER EDUCATION AVAILABLE IN ROME
The rhetoric was the final stage in Roman education. Very few boys went on to study rhetoric. Early on in Roman history, it may have been the only way to train as a lawyer or politician. This is where spokesman, the original translation of orator, comes from.
In early Roman times, rhetoric studies were not taught exclusively through a teacher, but were learned through a student’s careful observation of his elders. The practice of rhetoric was created by the Greeks before it became an institution in Roman society, and it took a long time for it to gain acceptance in Rome.
The orator, or student of rhetoric, was important in Roman society because of the constant political strife that occurred throughout Roman history. Young men who studied under a rhetor would not only focus on public speaking. These students also learned other subjects such as geography, music, philosophy, literature, mythology and geometry. These well-rounded studies gave Roman orators a more diverse education and helped prepare them for future debates.
Unlike other forms of Roman education, there is not much evidence to show that the rhetor level was available to be pursued in organized school. Because of this lack of evidence, it is assumed that the education was done through the previously mentioned private tutors. These tutors had enormous impact on the opinions and actions of their students. In fact, their influence was so great that the Roman government expelled many rhetoricians and philosophers in 161 BC.
There were two fields of oratory study that were available for young men. The first of these fields was the deliberative branch of study. This field was for the training of young men who would later need to urge the “advisability or inadvisability” of measures affecting the Roman Senate. The second field of study was much more lucrative and was known as judicial oratory. These orators would later enter into fields such as criminal law, which was important in gaining a public following. The support of the public was necessary for a successful political career in Rome.
Later in Roman history, the practice of declamation became focused more on the art of delivery as opposed to training to speak on important issues in the courts. Tacitus pointed out that during his day (the second half of the 1st century AD), students had begun to lose sight of legal disputes and had started to focus more of their training on the art of storytelling.
A final level of education was philosophical study. The study of philosophy is distinctly Greek, but was undertaken by many Roman students. To study philosophy, a student would have to go to a center of philosophy where philosophers taught, usually abroad in Greece. An understanding of a philosophical school of thought could have done much to add to Cicero’s vaunted knowledge of ‘that which is great’, but could be pursued by the very wealthiest of Rome’s elite. Romans regarded philosophical education as distinctly Greek, and instead focused their efforts on building schools of law and rhetoric.
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