Five Canons of Rhetoric


Overview of the Five Canons of Rhetoric

Rhetoric is the art of speaking or writing effectively to persuade the hearer. Thus the primary goal of rhetoric is persuasion. In this token, the Roman philosopher, CiceroOpens in new window, in his treatise, ‘De Inventione’, written around 50 BC, explains that there are five canons of rhetoric which serve as the tenets to attain persuasion, to influence decisions or actions of others.

The prescribed Five Canons of Rhetoric include the following.
  1. Invention (or Discovery)
  2. Arrangement
  3. Style
  4. Memory
  5. Delivery

The Five Canons of Rhetoric constitute a system and guide on crafting effective speech and writing.

After its promulgation about 150 years later in 95 AD, Quintilian expounded at depth the Five Canons in his treatise ‘Institutio Oratoria’, orchestrating the Five Canons of Rhetoric to become the pattern for rhetorical education well into the medieval period.

The Five Canons of Rhetoric also serve as a template by which to judge or criticize rhetorical discourse. A rhetor must craft his discourse in alignment with the five canons of rhetoric to achieve effective and persuasive rhetoric.

Each of the Five Canons of Rhetoric are discussed below, in chronological order.

1.   Invention (Inventio)

The first canon, Invention (also known as Discovery), concerns the process of developing ideas (arguments) and finetuning them to suit the situation.

Invention typically consist in doing research work (say, for example, a rhetor might say ‘what is there to say on my topic’) and narrowing the topic, or deciding one’s “angle”. The rhetor might also say, ‘what do I want to say about this topic, at this time, with respect to this particular audience.’

This subject “Invention”Opens in new window is an elaborate one. We have taken time to discuss it at length hereOpens in new window.

2.   Arrangement

The second canon, Arrangement, concerns the planned ordering of material to achieve persuasion.

In this technique, a speaker makes the decision to place the strongest of her three arguments against animal experimentation last in a speech to a local civic organization. She believes that her strongest argument stands to have the greatest impact on her audience if it is the last point they hear.

In the classical period, a rather rigid formula was laid down. This held that there should be an introduction, a narration of the facts, an outline of the structure of the speech, a proof of the argument, a refutation of opposing arguments, and a conclusion (or peroration). The Canon of ArrangementOpens in new window is treated in depth in a designated study, including each of the formula outlined above. Learn more about this interesting technique hereOpens in new window

3.   Style

StyleOpens in new window is the peculiar manner in which a writer expresses his thoughts by words.

In writing, the canon of style is first encountered in the drafting stage and continues in the rewriting stage.

The Canon of Style, the third item of the Five Canons of Rhetoric, concerns the peculiar mode of expression usually employed by any person. This third item is discussed at length here.Opens in new window

4.   Memory

Memory, the fourth canon of the Five Canons of Rhetoric, would appear to be concerned solely with memory aids that would assist a budding orator in committing a text to his memory; but it also has to do with more than simply learning how to memorize an already composed speech for re-presentation. Read it at length hereOpens in new window!

5.   Delivery

Delivery, the last canon of the Five Canons of Rhetoric, like the Canon of StyleOpens in new window, is concerned with how something is said; as opposed to what is said (which is concerned with the Canon of Invention). Learn more hereOpens in new window!

Rhetorical discourses through the centuries have been crafted in light of these Five Canons. They are applicable to any branch of rhetoric a speech belongs to, and can apply to any contemporary writing, although attention on memory and delivery has consistently become dwindled.

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