Epideictic Rhetoric

What Is Epideictic Rhetoric?

Epideictic Rhetoric also known as Epideictic Oratory (and sometimes called “panegyric” or “demonstrative” oratory) is one of three genres of rhetoricOpens in new window (along with judicialOpens in new window and deliberativeOpens in new window rhetoric), which aims at praising someone for a great accomplishment, publicly blaming someone for a vicious action, or eulogizing people at their funerals.

Breaking Down Epideictic Rhetoric

“Epideictic” comes from the Greek word epideixis, meaning “a display” or “demonstration” of the virtue of an idea, a practice, or an action. Thus, epideictic rhetoric is primarily concerned with the display of common valuesOpens in new window and virtuesOpens in new window held by both the addressorOpens in new window and addresseeOpens in new window. The audience member for epideictic speeches is a theoron, spectator, who observes the speaker’s demonstration or display.

Typically playing the role of persuasionOpens in new window, epideictic rhetoric or epideictic oratory shares the same root with encomiumOpens in new window; because as the encomium, epideictic oratory seeks to honour virtuous people for emulation and emphasizes certain values that are deemed important to the well-being of the citizenry.

AristotleOpens in new window recognized the importance of ceremonial speaking as a way not of training speakers or entertaining audiences but of reinforcing public values. The epideictic orator exhibits this trait by praising a person deserving of honor, or blaming someone for a notorious action. Epideictic orators often employ amplificationOpens in new window (auxesisOpens in new window) of an action to illuminate its beauty and greatness for all to see.

The goal of epideictic speech is contemplative rather than pragmatic because it prompts the audience to think, to reflect, or to embrace a new idea. It is a sort of speech which shapes and cultivates the basic codes of value and belief by which a society or culture lives. Any time that we offer reasons why someone has done a good or courageous thing, we are reasoning epideictically. We present a virtue, and we show how someone has exhibited it.

Sample Observation of Epideictic Speeches

President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; on November 19, 1863 on the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Martin Luther King's I have a dream speech August 28 1963

“ … Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children. … Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. …”

Martin Luther King’sOpens in new window famous “I Have a Dream” speechOpens in new window is a notable example of epideictic oratory, in which King upholds the values of justice, harmony, and peace. Thus, epideictic oratory exercises a strong influence in all the spheres of public life (political speeches, addresses at festivals or social gatherings, funeral orations, etc.), making this type of oratory superior and indispensable.

Other prominent examples of epideictic oratory include but not limited to:
the funeral orationOpens in new window of PericlesOpens in new window praising the virtues of AthensOpens in new window in Thucydide’sOpens in new window Peloponnesian WarOpens in new window (2.34 – 46; fifth century BCE); the funeral oration of Aspasia to the Athenians in Plato’s Menexenus (236E – 249C; fourth century BCE); and most of the speeches found in Isocrate’s Panegyrics and his Plataicus (fourth century BCE) and in Lysias’s Olympicas (late fourth century BCE).
Further Readings:
Chase, J. Richard. “The Classical Conception of Epideictic.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 47 (1961): 293 – 300.
Aristotle, On Rhetoric. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Carter, Michael F. “The Ritual Functions of Epideictic Rhetoric: The Case of Socrates’ Funeral Oration.” Rhetorica 9 (1991): 209 – 32.
Burgess, Theodore C. “Epideictic Literature.” University of Chicago Studies in Classical Philololgy 3 (1902): 89 – 254.
Kennedy, George A. The Art of Persuasion in Greece. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963.