What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric may be defined as the craft of speaking in ways intended to persuade the hearer; it consists of the arrangement of figures of speech to create a pleasing impression on listeners.

According to PlatoOpens in new window, rhetoric is “a way of directing the soul by means of speech”.

Another prominent definition of rhetoric, which is fascinating, is that defined by DiodorusOpens in new window. According to Diodorus, “Rhetoric is a dynamis of invention and expression, with ornament, of the available means of persuasion in every discourse.”

The phrase “the available means of persuasion in every discourse” is added because of the end (telos) of rhetoric, since its end is to speak persuasively in accord with what is available.

The Classicist, KennedyOpens in new window defines rhetoric even more broadly as “the energy inherent in emotion and thought, transmitted through a system of signs, including language, to others to influence their decisions or actions.”

Breaking Down Kennedy's Definition

Every time we express emotions and thoughts to others with the goal of influence, we are engaged in rhetoric. Thus, Kennedy’s definition suggests that rhetoric is simply part of who we are as human beings. This definition also stresses that rhetoric involves “signs, including language”. The definition obviously also suggests that rhetoric develops in the realm of symbols of one kind or another.

Symbol is a general term referring to any mark, sign, sound, or gesture that communicates meaning based on social agreement. A word such as “iron” is an example of a symbol; individual symbols usually are part of a larger symbolic system, such as a language – the symbol system on which most of us rely for communicating with others on a daily basis.

Rhetoric dates back to Antiquity

The idea of rhetoric as a distinct branch of knowledge had its origins in Athens in the second half of the fifth century BCE. Rhetoric has well evolved from ancient times to the present and has been recognized as essential to the topics of politics, literature, science, commerce, and interpersonal conversation.

For most of its history the art of rhetoric has focused primarily on persuasion as its core goal, employing the system of language. This we have noted in the definitions above and we can observe in that offered by Aristotle: “the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever” ( Rhetoric 1.2.1). However, we should perhaps expand the definition of rhetoric to include other goals such as achieving clarity, awakening our sense of beauty, or bringing about mutual understanding. Thus, we can define the art of rhetoric as follows:

The systematic study and intentional practice of effective symbolic expression.

The word “effective” featured in this definition will mean achieving the purposes of the symbol-user, whether that purpose is persuasion, clarity, beauty, or mutual understanding.

The art of rhetoric can render symbol use more persuasive, beautiful, memorable, forceful, thoughtful, clear, and thus generally more compelling. In all of these ways, rhetoric is the art of employing symbols effectively. Rhetorical theory is the systematic presentation of rhetoric’s principles, its various social functions, and how the art attains its goals. Messages crafted according to the principles of rhetoric is called rhetorical discourseOpens in new window, or simply rhetoric. An individual practicing the art of rhetoric is occasionally referred to as a rhetor (RAY-tor).

Further Readings:
Quintilian 2.15.16 – 21. Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.2.1: “the dynamis of discovering in each case the available means of persuasion.”