The term “epideictic” derives from the Greek epideixis, translated as “showing forth” or “display.” According to Aristotle’s classification of rhetorical genres in The art of rhetoric, epideictic discourse is concerned with topics of praise and blame, deals with the present, and is addressed to an audience of spectators, rather than judges (1358a–b). Epideictic relies on verbal amplification (auxesis) to portray desirable qualities of the object of praise and to depict the object of blame as base and dishonorable (1368a). Although The art of rhetoric identifies epideictic as a distinct form or genre of rhetoric, it also notes that epideictic elements can be used in the other two main genres of oratory, when, for example, a deliberative speaker portrays a particular course of action as more attractive than others and a judicial orator’s defense employs amplification to depict the accused in a favorable way.
Aristotle’s classification subsumed under the rubric of epideictic several existing genres, including the speech of praise (enkomion), the festival speech (panêgyrikos logos), and the Athenian funeral oration (epitaphios logos). Aristotle also “disciplined” these genres by collapsing their distinct ideological functions into a neutral category of praise and blame and by turning the audience into detached observers of the orator’s skill (Schiappa 1999, 185–206). In practice, however, each of these genres exceeded the mold into which Aristotle tried to place it: enkomion possessed a significant moral and didactic dimension (Poulakos 1987), panêgyrikos was often used politically to exhort an audience to follow a course of action (Haskins 2005), and epitaphios logos played a major role in constituting Athenian democratic ideology (Loraux 1986).
Aristotle’s interpretation of epideictic as display and amplification was tied to his notion of rhetoric as a “useful” art subordinated to substantive knowledge of politics and ethics (Rhetoric 1355a, 1356a). An alternative approach to eloquence was championed by Aristotle’s older contemporary Isocrates (436–338 bce), an Athenian educator whose school was a major rival of Plato’s Academy. Isocrates posited discourse as an artificer of culture and politics rather than a mere appendage to it. According to this view, epideictic “appears as that which shapes and cultivates the basic codes of value and belief by which a society or culture lives; it shapes ideologies and imageries with which, and by which, the individual members of a community identify themselves; and, perhaps most significantly, it shapes the fundamental grounds, the ‘deep’ commitments and presuppositions, that will underlie and ultimately determine decision and debate in particular pragmatic forums” (Walker 2000, 9).
The purview and cultural importance of epideictic expanded during those historical periods when oratory of the type practiced in public arenas of democratic Athens and republican Rome was eclipsed by less explicitly pragmatic types of eloquence. Epideictic discourses occupied a broad range between the extremes of the Isocratean idea of logos politikos, “characterized by elevation of subject matter and a certain practical application usually arising from admixture of the deliberative element,” and declamatory exercises that treated paradoxical themes (Burgess 1902, 96).
Epideictic rhetoric continued in prominence from late antiquity into the Renaissance. Its influence on the discursive output of both secular and religious nature owes to its preoccupation with ethical choice and its artful modeling of virtues. The moralizing aspect of epideictic infiltrated many genres, cutting across presumed distinctions between rhetoric and literature, prose and poetry, the private and the public. Its pragmatic-pedagogic aspect cannot be dismissed either, for epideictic declamation formed a cornerstone of humanistic education from Hellenistic times to the nineteenth century, training students in the art of seeing both sides of the same subject (Vickers 1983).
In the twentieth century, several theorists contributed to the perceived primacy of epideictic rhetoric. Richard Weaver argued that all language is “sermonic” insofar as its function of naming is never neutral but shot through with intention and attitude. Chaim Perelman’s theorizing of “presence” highlighted display as a key rhetorical strategy in bringing certain elements to “the foreground of the hearer’s consciousness” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969, 142). Kenneth Burke’s notion of “terministic screens” similarly insisted that every terminology selects and amplifies some aspects of reality and thereby obscures other aspects (1966). Burke’s characterization of rhetoric as a form of communal identification (rather than mere persuasion) suggested that discourse not only frames reality but also creates grounds for both social identification and division (1969).
Together, these insights influenced scholarly inquiry into rhetorical dimensions of a wide spectrum of symbolic action, both verbal and nonverbal. No longer viewed as a mere supplement to substantive argumentation, “display” is now accorded serious scholarly attention. Contemporary rhetorical studies of display encompass both traditional ceremonial genres of public address as well as a host of primarily visual and spatial forms, from museums and memorials to film and television.
- Burgess, T. C. (1902). Epideictic literature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Burke, K. (1966). Language as symbolic action. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Burke, K. (1969). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Haskins, E. V. (2005). Philosophy, rhetoric, and cultural memory: Rereading Plato’s Menexenus and Isocrates’ Panegyricus. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 35, 25–45.
- Loraux, N. (1986). The invention of Athens: The funeral oration in the classical city (trans. A. Sheridan). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Perelman, C., & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1969). The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation (trans. J. Wilkinson & P. Weaver). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Poulakos, T. (1987). Isocrates’ use of narrative in the Evagoras: Epideictic rhetoric and moral action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, 317–328.
- Schiappa, E. (1999). The beginnings of rhetorical theory in classical Greece. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Vickers, B. (1983). Epideictic and epic in the Renaissance. New Literary History, 14, 497–537.
- Walker, J. (2000). Rhetoric and poetics in antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Weaver, R. M. (1970). Language is sermonic. In R. L. Johannesen, R. Strickland, & R. T. Eubanks (eds.), Language is sermonic: Richard M. Weaver on the nature of rhetoric. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, pp. 201–225.