15 History of Rhetoric

Introduction: This section introduces some of the major rhetoricians of the Western rhetorical tradition and provides brief summaries of their principal contributions to rhetorical theory. The purpose of this section is to provide you with the systems and tools useful for conducting rhetorical analysis, of the type you will likely be expected to do in your composition classes. It is important to note that the rhetorical tradition is vast, and no single work could cover all of the ideas and theories that comprise the study of rhetoric. Therefore, while the rhetoricians and their theories that appear in this chapter reflect significant contributions to the rhetorical tradition, it is by no means a complete list.
Also important to note is the difficulty of defining rhetoric. There are perhaps few terms whose meaning has been debated as much as rhetoric. Certainly, it seems that most every rhetoric textbook, or chapters on rhetoric in composition textbooks like this one, must begin with a discussion on the ambiguous nature of the term rhetoric. Thus, here, too, is where we will start.
Rhetoric, DefinedIn this textbook, and in contemporary higher education generally, rhetoric refers to theories and principles used to analyze and create “texts.” Some of these theories and principles date back to antiquity. In fact, the first known handbook of rhetoric, The Instructions of Ptahhotep, appeared in Ancient Egypt, approximately 2000 B.C.E. Since that time, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of rhetoricians have attempted to describe and prescribe what make “texts” successful. As you can imagine, their results have been considerably different, and as you will learn Aristotle’s rhetoric is vastly different from Kenneth Burke’s rhetoric.
Further complicating our contemporary understanding of rhetoric is its common usage. No doubt, you have heard a present-day politician claim their opponent is espousing “rhetoric,” the implication being that they are being dishonest and trying to manipulate others through corrupt language. In this sense, rhetoric is simply synonymous with lying. It is unfortunate that this perception of rhetoric as insincere language meant to mislead or manipulate is currently the most pervasive definition of the term; however, it is not a new one. The ancient Greeks, Plato, Aristotle and many others, vehemently debated what rhetoric meant. They questioned the relationship between rhetoric and truth, a relationship that was questioned by practically all of the rhetoricians that followed them, and one that is still being questioned by rhetoricians, as well as by students of composition and rhetoric like you, to this day.
Beyond the relationship between rhetoric and truth, rhetoricians have also questioned the role ethics, culture, power, knowledge, and technology play in rhetoric. These topics, and others, have been frequently and widely considered throughout the rhetorical tradition. The function of context, audience, and purpose have also been seriously contemplated by rhetoricians, as have the artifacts that can be labeled rhetorical. At its beginning, rhetoric was exclusively concerned with the oral delivery of speeches, otherwise known as oration. Moreover, it was limited to certain types of speeches, such as those conducted in courtrooms, or in the chambers of government, or during ceremonial occasions. It would take centuries before rhetoric included writing in its scope.
Now, however, practically anything is considered viable for rhetorical analysis. Visual images, material objects, sounds, even the human body, have all been the subject of insightful rhetorical analysis. Truly, the artifacts upon which rhetorical analysis can be conducted are limitless (a condition that explains the quotation marks used around the word text in the definition of rhetoric provided at the start of this section). You would do well to keep remember this when choosing your own artifacts for rhetorical analysis – it doesn’t always have to be a speech or even a written text.
While much of rhetoric has evolved and changed over the years, one thing that has remained constant is the goal to understand and explain how humans use symbols to influence the thoughts and actions of other humans. This is true regardless of the rhetorician, the theory, the “text,” or the time. Keep this in mind as you read the following sections and become familiar with some of the major theories and principles of rhetoric. Doing so will help you conduct your own effective rhetorical analysis, which in turn will help you become a better rhetor yourself.


Aristotle’s On Rhetoric is one of the earliest comprehensive treatments of rhetoric. He approaches the topic of rhetoric through a descriptive lens, rather than a prescriptive one, meaning he identifies and delineates the elements of rhetoric as he sees them happening in the orations of his time rather than provide a list of do’s and don’t’s for those seeking to improve their public speaking ability. His descriptive approach is reflected in his prominent definition of rhetoric: the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.
One of the most enduring concepts from Aristotle’s systemization of rhetoric is his description of artistic proofs, oftentimes referred to as the Aristotelian appeals. Aristotle theorized there were three ways a rhetor could create “proof” or persuade their audience into supporting their argument: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos refers to the rhetor’s character, their credibility; logos indicates the logic of the argument being presented; and pathos describes exciting the audience’s emotions. Aristotle believed that ethos was the most important appeal, because when the rhetor lacks credibility, it can undermine both the logic of their argument and their attempts to rouse the emotions of their audience; however, he also recognized that pathos was the most effective for persuading an audience.
Aristotle also identified three types of rhetoric: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. The two features that distinguish Aristotle’s three types of rhetoric are the rhetor’s goal and its correlation with time. For instance, when a rhetor is speaking to persuade their audience to make a decision that will determine some future action, they are performing deliberative rhetoric. Deliberative rhetoric is most common to governmental bodies like the Senate. Forensic rhetoric, on the other hand, is concerned with determining what took place in the past. This is the rhetoric of the courtroom, where decisions about what a person did or did not to must be made. Epideictic rhetoric takes place in the present, and its aim is to praise or blame a person’s qualities as they are at that specific time. It is difficult to separate a person’s past behavior from their immediate conduct, something Aristotle knew and acknowledged, but an example would be saying something like, “Bill is a great guy.” A statement like this is going to be based on Bill’s past actions, of course, but the motivation behind this statement is to make the audience think well of Bill at the moment it is said.
There are many more components to Aristotle’s rhetorical theory, but these two – the appeals of rhetoric and the types of rhetoric – provide important and useful criteria with which you can perform your own rhetorical analysis. For instance, you could view a speech on YouTube, or an essay in the newspaper or a magazine, and make a judgment on its efficacy. How did the speaker or the writer create ethos, logos, and pathos in their work? Are they conducting deliberative, forensic, or epideictic? How can you tell? Use your answers to these questions to answer even more important ones, such as, “Did they succeed and fulfill their rhetorical aim? Why or why not?”


There are few rhetoricians who have had a more lasting or significant impact on the study and practice of rhetoric than Marcus Tullius Cicero. An accomplished polymath, Cicero wrote his first text on rhetoric, De Inventione (On Invention) when he was only 22 years old. While he would later characterize this early work of his as immature and incomplete, it was in this text that Cicero first outlined the rhetorical canon.
Rhetorical canon describes the five components necessary for oration. These are:
  • Invention (inventio) – the conceiving of topics either true or probable, which may make one’s cause appear probable
  • Arrangement (dispositio) – the distribution of the topics which have been thus conceived with regular order
  • Elocution (elocutio) (style) – the adaptation of suitable words and sentences to the topics so conceived
  • Memory (memoria) – the lasting sense in the mind of the matters and words corresponding to the reception of these topics
  • Delivery (actio) – regulating of the voice and body in a manner suitable to the dignity of the subjects spoken of and of the language employedModern technology and the changing of audience expectations have reduced the importance of memory in rhetoric. Nevertheless, Cicero’s rhetorical canon can be a very valuable tool for constructing rhetoric as well as for evaluating it. For the latter, consider the following list of the canon as questions rather than definitions:
  • Invention – What is the rhetor’s goal and by what means are they attempting to achieve it? Are they using statistics or anecdotes? Something else?
  • Arrangement – What is the order or distribution of these means? Does the order follow chronologically or is it arranged via importance, i.e. from most persuasive point to least, or vice versa? Have they distributed their work in some other fashion?
  • Elocution– What is the style of the rhetor’s words and sentences? Do they use esoteric words and long, complex sentences or simple and familiar words in short, easy to follow sentences?
  • Memory – While memory may or may not be a factor for contemporary rhetors, you can always evaluate what they relied on to complete the rhetorical act is. If they didn’t memorize it, then did they use note cards, a teleprompter, or something else to recall it?
  • Delivery – Through what medium was the rhetorical act conveyed? What visual elements did the rhetor employ to convey their rhetorical act? What other, ostensibly external features of the rhetorical act contributed to its expression?
  • Applying these questions made from Cicero’s rhetorical canon can be a useful tool for analyzing any rhetorical act. What’s most important, though, is that you use the answers to these questions to answer a bigger one: did the rhetor succeed? In other words, in addition to identifying the aspects of the rhetorical act prompted by the above questions, you should use your answers to these questions to evaluate the quality of that rhetorical act. Which of the above contributed most to the act’s success? Which contributed most to its failure?


Like others included on this list, Kenneth Burke’s intellectual interests were expansive. He was a poet, novelist, essayist, and critic, as well as a social commentator, philosopher, and, of course, a rhetorician. A central theme of his work was the social aspects of communication. This focus on the societal function rhetoric serves is evident in his definition of rhetoric: “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.”
Also like others on this list, Burke’s contributions to the Western rhetorical tradition are manifold. However, for the purposes of your own endeavors to analyze texts rhetorically, Burke’s concept of dramatism, and its associated use of the pentad, is particularly useful. As you might be able to infer from the name itself, dramatism relies on the five elements of drama – act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose – to explain how and why humans use symbols to communicate with each other.
Burke amended the five elements of drama with questions. Together, they formed what he called the dramatistic pentad:
  • Act: What happened? What is the action: What is going on?
  • Scene: Where is the act happening? What is the background situation?
  • Agent: Who is involved in the action? What are their roles?
  • Agency: How do the agents act? By what means do they act?
  • Purpose: Why do the agents act? What do they want?Asking and answering these questions provides important insights into the motivations for discourse. In other words, it helps us understand how and why the humans involved in the rhetorical act said and did what they said and did.

Equally important to answering the pentand’s questions is evaluating the ratio between each element of the pentad has it manifests itself in the rhetorical act. The role each of these dramatist elements plays in the discourse is not equal. One or two of these will play a much more significant role than the others, and identifying which is the most influential will further help you make sense of the “text.” The example of movie genres helps explain how this ratio fluctuates between rhetorical acts and how that difference explains the motivation behind it. Movies that feature superheroes are more likely to focus on the “act,” the spectacle of the hero fighting the villain. This fight is the motivation for all that precedes it in the movie. Alternatively, a movie that takes place on a sinking ship relies on the scene, the background situation, for creating and communicating information. The actors’ motivations are attributable to the context, to the scene they appear in; who the are, what they do, and how they do what they do are important, but only insofar as they relate to their circumstance of being trapped on a sinking ship.

See if you can use Burke’s dramatist pentand to make sense of a “text.” Ask each of the questions associated with the five elements to determine the motivation(s) driving the discourse. Determine which seems most influential. Is it the act itself or the agents of the act? Is it what they do or why they do it or where they do it? Use your answers to these questions to attribute motivation and explain why the act transpired the way it did.


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Writing and Rhetoric by Heather Hopkins Bowers, Anthony Ruggiero, and Jason Saphara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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