The word “rhetoric” comes from the Greek rhêtorikê, which means “the art of speech,” “the art of speaking”: the etymology shows the role played by the ancient Greeks in the field which constitutes the subject of this article. The art of speaking exists in many civilizations, but Greek antiquity has given it a distinctive, rigorous, and rich theoretical underpinning.
The most common definition in antiquity consists of characterizing rhetoric as the “power of persuasion” or the “art of persuasion.” This means that rhetoric aims to win the approval of others by means of speech. The basis of Greek rhetoric is persuasion: the enigma of persuasion. How do we explain the frequent yet mysterious phenomenon that consists of making others freely think something they have not thought before? Rhetoric was invented in order to answer this question. Fundamentally, it aims at understanding, producing, and influencing persuasion. The word “art” (tekhnê in Greek) does not limit itself to what modern languages mean by artistic creation, and it also gives the idea of a reasoned approach, of a system of rules for practical usage, and of a technical production.
In its full sense (which was that of the ancients), the word “rhetoric” covers both the theory and the practice of speech; that is to say, treatises, manuals, and abstract discussions, and also presentations and speeches of all kinds.
Rhetoric was developed in Greece during what is known as the “classical” era; that is to say, during the fifth and fourth centuries bce. It was linked to the regime of the “city” (polis), which was a dominating type of political and social organization at that time. A “city” was a small autonomous state of which the inhabitants (or more precisely, some of the inhabitants), called “citizens,” managed their affairs by voting and common debates. Such a regime favored public speech and, therefore, rhetoric.
It was at Athens above all, the most important city at the time, that rhetoric was at its height in terms of three aspects: oratorical practice, theory and teaching, and critical and philosophical reflection.
The Athenian oratorical practice spread within a legal and political context. By law, parties were obliged to plead their cause personally, without being represented by a lawyer. The public prosecutor’s office did not exist, therefore individuals brought the necessary accusations forward. Such a system supposed an effective commitment from the citizens, both as defendants and as prosecutors, within the legal framework. The courts sat all throughout the year and the verdicts were given by the juries, drawn from among citizens of more than 30 years of age, of whom there were several hundreds. In politics, the main organ was the Assembly of people (made up of all the adult citizens with a quorum of 6,000), who exercised the executive power by voting on decrees and by electing magistrates. There was also the Council (composed of 500 citizens aged over 30), who prepared the work of the Assembly. So it was the Athenian institutions themselves that created the rhetoric activity. It was an almost daily activity, considering the frequency with which the courts and assemblies met, and also an activity that took place before a large audience, usually meaning an extremely high number of listeners each time (several hundred or several thousand people). In Athens, during the fifth and fourth centuries bce, “speaking to the people” constituted a communication situation that is difficult to comprehend today. It was a question of making oneself heard in large crowds, in physically and acoustically uncomfortable conditions, and with a view to real and immediate consequences.
Added to that are the ceremonial speeches made on occasions such as national funerals and religious feast days, as well as ambassadorial speeches given before cities and foreign sovereigns and all sorts of private conferences.
From this assiduous and multiform practice, written traces have been preserved, because during the classical era, the Greek speakers took the habit of publishing their speeches or at least some of them. The three most significant contributions, in both quantity and quality, were those of Demosthenes, Isocrates, and Lysias. They illustrate the Athenian rhetoric practice in all its glory. The published speeches are not necessarily word for word records, but were revised with artistic license and took into account a posteriori the arguments of the other side. Between “oral character” and “literary character,” the exchange was constant in Athenian rhetoric.
Theory And Teaching
Oratorical practice relied on a very vigorous teaching. There were many masters of rhetoric in Athens and many different schools. The methods varied but were for the main part oral. They included theoretical lessons, case studies, the learning of exemplar speeches assigned by the master, practical composition exercises on real or fictional subjects, verbal sparring matches between students, as well as gesture and voice training.
Research into the rhetoric field was conducted in the manuals or treatises that were called Tekhnai (“Arts,” meaning “of rhetoric”). Two remarkable examples have been preserved and offer complete lessons on rhetoric. One is the Rhetoric to Alexander, dated from between 340 and 300 bce, and which has been wrongly handed down to us under the name of Aristotle (the author could in fact be the orator and historian Anaximenes of Lampsacus). This treatise lists the different types of speeches, then presents the appropriate subjects for each type, then analyses the common means of persuasion in all types of speeches (concerning argumentation as well as style). It finally gives indications regarding which plan to adopt for each type of speech considered. Its aim is to supply as detailed a method as possible, in order to allow speakers to produce the most rich, elegant, and persuasive speeches for each case. Basically, it gives definitions, advice and rules, which stem both from a systematic study of the object and a close examination of usage and norms in place at that time.
The other treatise is the Rhetoric by Aristotle, which dates from around 360–325 bce. For Aristotle, the study of rhetoric took on an intellectual and practical usefulness. It allows truth and justice to triumph within the legal context. It serves to persuade at all times where a didactical presentation is not acceptable and where it must maintain the conviction using common notions (before large audiences); it provides the ability to support opposing arguments and it allows one to defend oneself by speech in case of danger.
Some of the main points covered by Aristotle include the identification of three genres which can be applied to all possible rhetoric speeches (judicial genre, deliberative genre, and epideictic or ceremonial genre); the distinction between the two main forms of persuasion: logical persuasion through demonstration (logos) and moral persuasion through “character” (êthos) and “passion” (pathos); the psychology used as an agency of proof; the systemization of the “commonplaces” (topoi) of argumentation; the distinction between the technical evidence (elaborated by speech) and non-technical evidence (provided by an external source, for example testimonies); and also sentence analysis (“period” notion) and metaphor.
Aristotle came up with the fundamental idea that, in order to persuade, the existing competencies within the listener must be exploited. A good speaker knows the cognitive competencies and the significant connections of those listening. He builds upon the preexisting ideas, on accepted values, and in this way can bring about the paradox of persuasion (which was indicated above). Innovation is introduced into the listener’s mind from well-known and accepted premises.
Critical And Philosophical Reflection
The Athenians did not only practice and theorize rhetoric; they also analyzed and evaluated it. While the rhetoric phenomenon was developing and becoming more extensive, society at the time had, in fact, reservations and doubts about this new art, which harbored possibilities of excessive subtlety, manipulation, and deception. This mistrust was radically and greatly expressed in Plato’s dialogues, which constituted one of the principal chapters in rhetoric history (first half of the fourth century bce). Plato often dealt with rhetoric; it constituted one of the main themes of his work. Plato ruthlessly criticized what he regarded as the faults of the rhetoric in use in his day: its intellectual and moral weakness as well as its link to democracy (Plato condemned democracy). Against this vulgar rhetoric, he defined the ideal of a “true” rhetoric, which was founded upon truth and justice. The true rhetoric has little in common with what is normally called rhetoric. It is, in reality, science and teaching; it is the speech of philosophy. Ultimately, in its perfection, it is not made for men but for gods.
The Platonic criticism was fruitful, because it sparked off a dialogue between philosophy and rhetoric. It made philosophers understand that rhetoric also concerns them (that is why Aristotle, a philosopher, dealt with rhetoric) and it led orators to take into account the intellectual and moral requirements of philosophy.
When the fourth century bce came to an end, rhetoric was completely different to what it was at the beginning of the fifth century bce. Over the period of 150 years, in classical Greece and in particular at Athens, rhetoric became widespread thanks to the constant contact and exchanges between people, institutions, doctrines, and problems.
Subsequently, the elements put in place were never forgotten. They constituted a platform for the later history of rhetoric, not only during antiquity but much later up until the modern era of European and American history.
Even today, Greek rhetoric remains a reference and a source of inspiration for the scholars who are interested in political models, literature, and the philosophical and linguistic aspects of communication.
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