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Classical Rhetoric

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The presented work does not aim to carry out a comprehensive historical analysis of classical rhetoric. The central inquiry our work will focus on the differences in classical rhetoric. We are going to identify some of the characteristics of each, the changing anatomy of rhetoric, and some of the major theorists and movements. Also we incorporate the different social -political climates and other factors relating to the degree of importance of rhetoric.

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The primary texts of classical rhetoric range from fifth-century B.

C. Greece to second-century A.D. Rome. George A. Kennedy in his book “Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times” gives treatment to a history of classical rhetoric-from the fifth century B.C. in Sicily to the late eighteenth century in England and the United States. That’s a traditional book that presents a compelling version of classical rhetoric as it is formed and reformed in successive historical eras. Kennedy distinguishes eleven stances of classical rhetoric: traditional, technical, sophistic, philosophical, rhetoric in the Roman Period, literary rhetoric, Judeo-Christian, Greek rhetoric in the Middle Ages, Latin rhetoric in the Middle Ages, classical rhetoric in the Renaissance, Neoclassical Rhetoric.

Our analysis focuses on origins of rhetoric, basic means of persuasion and controversy between rhetorical schools Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and Cicero.

The history of rhetoric is its origins. Classical rhetoric, in Plato’s sense of “a universal art . . . having to do with all matters, great as well as small, good and bad alike” and in Aristotle’s sense of “discovering in the particular case, what are the available means of persuasion.” According to Corbett, Aristotle is the foundation of all future rhetorics: “With his philosophic treatise, Aristotle became the fountainhead of all later rhetorical theory” (1990, p. 543). Aristotle defines rhetoric as “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion” (1991, p. 14). First handbooks of rhetoric were published in the second quarter of the fifth century B.C. They were helpful for the Greeks, as they outlined techniques for effective public speaking in the law courts. Not only were there no professional lawyers in Greece, there were no professional judges, so litigants had to persuade the jury take the decisions they wanted with no outside help. And Aristotle wrote his Rhetoric as he thought existing handbooks were unsatisfactory, because they concentrated on judicial situations to the neglect of the other species of rhetoric (Kennedy, 1991, p. 9).

His primary interest was in the logical side of persuasion. Aristotle identifies three basic pisteis, or means of persuasion, available to a speaker: “Ethos means the character of a person, not the rhetorical presentation of that character; and pathos means an emotion felt by someone, not the awakening of emotion by a speaker. Logos, however, does mean “argument,” or what is said in a speech; and a speech as a whole is also called a logos” (1991, p. 8). Rhetoric grounds itself in, at least as Aristotle conceptualized it, “not with what seems probable to a given individual like Socrates or Hippias [particular], but what seems probable to men of a given type [universal]; and this is true of dialectic also” (Aristotle 1954, p. 33-35). This fundamental philosophical position of universality — arising out of Platonic-Aristotelian metaphysics and cemented by the Cartesian ego cogito — already knows what Being (Truth) is, a knowing that obligates all aspects of life, including rhetoric, to an organized unity or system. Within it, each part of life and all aspects of its relationships get to be represented. This outcome for rhetoric is signified in the words: “Proof by logos is the only true constituent of the art” (Aristotle 1954, p. 14). For some of the pre-Socratics (who were hysterics) logos  was, on occasion, the ambivalence/confusion of both physis and doxa. With Plato and Aristotle, however, logos is reconceived, with physis as privileged and doxa as supplement. It’s the place of a physis that has not been placed under negation, as Plato and then Aristotle have placed not only logos (as I previously discussed) but also physis under negation.

Applying the idea of teleology (teleos) — meaning achievement of perfection — to rhetoric’s past, Aristotle indicates the art is not perfect. Rhetoric needs to be developed further since past rhetoricians, as Aristotle (1954) points out, “have constructed but a small portion of [the] art” (1354a13). For example, as Aristotle ( 1954) represents rhetoric’s past, the earlier version of the art is discourse by pathos (1354a10-15) and needs to be made right with argument or proof by logos (1355a1-30), something that the Sophistical version lacked. And then, Aristotle (1954, 1402a17, 25) attributes a method of argument to Protagoras (a Sophist). Kennedy describes how Aristotle transcended the serious problems of the ancients’ use of eristic techniques and stylistic devices by systematizing and conceptualizing the theory of rhetoric: “Aristotle is trying to create a systematic art of eristic to replace this unscientific approach; the beginning is difficult, he says but once stated the theory of the art will grow in bulk” (Kennedy, 1959, p. 171).

Because the Sophists have “little or no conscious conceptualization” (Kennedy, 1980, p. 27), their contributions are minimized by contrasting them to what is more complete, Aristotle’s Rhetoric. As such, it is Aristotle and his Rhetoric that are being fully restored rather than rhetoric. Second, the argument that Aristotle’s Rhetoric is the completion of the art blinds the history of rhetoric: It cannot see another perspective even when the story of the Sophists eternally returns, though it returns in different forms. The argument — Rhetoric as the completion of the art — starts with the belief that a theory of rhetoric moved from inadequacies, when humans had not yet achieved consciousness, to maturity epitomized by rational thinking. Aristotle confronts discourse as a productive art as well as an analytical art. While he focuses on the analysis of discourse in Book I of the Rhetoric, he does not exclude its applicability to the production of spoken or written texts.

Barthes observes “a kind of stubborn agreement between Aristotle (from whom Rhetoric proceeded) and our mass culture, as if Aristotelianism, dead since the Renaissance as a philosophy and as logic, dead as an esthetic since Romanticism, survived in corrupt, diffused, inarticulate state in the cultural practice of Western societies” (1988, p.  92). Aristotelianism survives today — politically, through democracy and, culturally, through an ideology of the “greatest number,” through the majority-as-norm, and through the ideology of common sense — and defines a “trans-historical Occident,” which is that of “the endoxa,” or current opinion. Barthes sees an agreement between the ideology of common sense and Aristotle’s Rhetoric of probability and argues that although Aristotle’s Rhetoric is a rhetoric of reasoning and proof, it is a “deliberately diminished logic” because it is adapted to the level of the “public,” which subordinates an ethical/ aesthetic rhetoric to the psychology of the public and to a rhetoric of public opinion. Aristotle’s Rhetoric of probability survives in the products of mass culture — in films, pulp novels, commercial articles — the production and marketing of which follow the Aristotelian rule: “Better an impossible probability than an improbable possibility” (1988, p. 22).

Unlike Aristotle, originally Plato wanted to become a politician, but he was so influenced by the death of Socrates, that he turned to the life of philosopher instead of statesman. In school through Cratylus, his instructor, Plato became acquainted with the earlier philosophic schools, but his own literary efforts began under Socrates tutoring. Until his first visit to Sicily in 387 B.C. Plato composed his early dialogues: the Crito, Apology, the Protagoras, the Gorgias, and Republic. According to his political doctrine advanced in the Republic philosophers should rule, and they should be guided by rational reason, rather than tradition.  Plato didn’t want any small number of assertions to be taken as definitive “Platonism,” because it all points in the opposite direction: By composing an involuted network of statements quite obviously varied in their validity and persuasiveness, he meant to suggest an infinite number of connections to be found and made explicit between parts of his composition and also hoped to inspire readers to add further extensions and applications, made so far as possible in the Platonic manner. Plato looked for philosophical import in the writings of others. His Academy in Athens taught especially rhetoric and oratory.

Plato’s rhetoric is more difficult than virtually any other rhetoricians’ because it derives from the mutuality of dialectic and its connection to Plato’s construction of basic realities. Two people interact only because each rhetorical partner actively exists. The emphasis on individual responsibility in the rhetorical, dialectical act is not as easy to capture, to codify, even to prescribe, as rhetoric before a large audience whose interaction must by its very nature be difficult to assess. In a public forum, the audience works as a group and in many ways is externally passive, or can choose to be utterly passive. The rhetoric of the public speaker does not depend as thoroughly on the audience as the individual, dialectical version of rhetoric does. Plato makes the reader of the dialogue join Socrates and his companions in the art of private rhetoric and dialectic.

Those critics who interpret Plato as completely opposed to rhetoric tend not to consider the existence of the dialogue form in Plato and the fact that it requires active reading. They disregard the readerly resistance that Plato demands in the form of the dialogue, a resistance that assures participation by the reader. The negative critics emphasize a limited aspect of Plato’s conceptualization of rhetoric: they turn exclusively to his attack on the sophistic rhetoric he sets up in the early Gorgias. Plato sets up his often-quoted, graphic, analogical series of dangers in presenting Gorgias’s kind of rhetoric as a trivialization of something important. Just as gymnastics and medicine can be reduced from arts to knacks by reducing them to cosmetics and cookery, so rhetoric can be reduced (Kennedy, p. 49). The crucial interpretive question in Plato’s analogical reasoning consists of two parts. Those critics who interpret Plato as thoroughly attacking rhetoric in this frequently cited passage are attending to only one half of each analogy, namely, cosmetics and cookery. Their worthy counterparts, gymnastics and medicine, are ignored in this interpretation. In his extensive use of these ratios, Plato’s Socrates points to an alternative rhetoric, one based on the pursuit of justice (dike, or balance) and the good rather than on pleasure. So even in Gorgias, a dialogue often dismissed as thoroughly against all rhetoric, Plato treats and enacts dialectical rhetoric. The form of the dialogue itself remains a primary enactment of Plato’s rhetoric. Critics who attend only to Plato’s condemnation of his version of sophistic rhetoric go beyond the interpretation problem of ignoring half of Plato’s analogies to rhetoric. They inaccurately make a synecdoche out of the part of the analogy they do respond to; they claim, in effect, that half the analogy stands for all of Plato’s conception of rhetoric and they ignore the fact that only a rhetorician passionately committed to the possibilities of dialectical rhetoric could damn its misuse so thoroughly.

Some believe that Socrates defeats his opponents handily, others that he fares reasonably well, still others that he fails even though Plato would doubtless like to have his readers think Socrates victorious — and that by reasonably fair means. Much to Plato’s credit, he rarely presents Socrates simply as coming into a circle of disputants and asking questions few or many, resolving difficulties, putting objections to rest, and then leaving to the plaudits of the onlookers, their confusions dissipated, their mixed motives harmonized and elevated, their self-doubts wholly allayed. Plato treats Socrates above all as a man, in reasonably lifelike situations of mixed character both at the beginning and at the end of each dialogue; where he carries conviction to his respondents it is because of the unusual opportunity to show an extraordinary combination of cogent proof, sterling nature, and golden rhetoric, as in the Republic and Symposium. Even so, he is depicted as a man of superior intellectual curiosity, power of invention, and integrity with a most unusual gift for following an argument from start to finish. Plato’s main achievement is that he formulated the Socratic belief in reason into a systematic philosophy of a new Platonic system. His death marks the end of the Hellenic period.

Cicero was one of the most prominent orators of the ancient world. He wrote a treatise on rhetoric and techniques of oratory De Inventione. Cicero was certainly no mere transcriber of Greek handbooks. Nor should one underestimate the factor of popularization for a Roman audience, catered for as much by the dialogue form  with its Roman characters and settings as by the frequent examples from Roman history  and the strenuous attempts to ‘teach Philosophy to speak Latin’,  for the benefit of readers whose knowledge of philosophical Greek might not have been extensive.

In 44 BC Cicero was to send his son to study with Cratippus the Peripatetic, who was by that time the most eminent philosopher still alive in Athens (Corbett 1990). It is obvious from Cicero’s writings, that he had a good knowledge of Plato and of Aristotle’s published works. The tradition is that the ‘esoteric’ works of Aristotle were brought to Rome by Sulla in 84 BC. Views differ on the extent to which Cicero may have known them. Cicero clearly appreciated the Peripatetic contribution to the theory of rhetoric, and knew Aristotle Topics and Rhetoric indirectly if not at first hand. And he shows acquaintance with some other aspects of Aristotelian doctrine. In ” Cicero’s Topica: A Process View of Invention,” Ochs shows that Cicero’s use of the loci in the mature Topics provides an elastic and adaptable means of developing logical thinking:

The Topica presents a methodology for inventing matter and form for an oration that is considerably less mechanical than that offered in the De Inventione. . . . Cicero, most probably, did not view the topical system as a mechanical method. Instead, he seems to understand its active, dynamic character, but fails to address, clearly and concisely, its rhetorical nature. (Ochs, p. 117)

Ochs’ construction of Cicero as a thought-based theorist rather than a skill-based practitioner provides essential interpretation in any reappropriation of classical rhetoric. He shows how Cicero’s theory can be appropriated by skill-based interpreters (the early On Invention, long the only Cicero available to western scholars, does read like a prescriptive, rule-centered textbook of the kind that Plato and Aristotle complained and that contemporary critics have also lamented). Ochs shows how other works of Cicero, in this case the Topics, offer thought-based writing theory. By interpreting Cicero’s writing in context, by taking account of keywords such as topoi, and by resisting a formalist literary analysis that would exclude many of Cicero’s writings, Ochs is able to present a Cicero who carves rules of oratory into stone.

To conclude the work we should note, that classical rhetoric as a series of systems persists partly because it takes account of all the possible uses of written and spoken language. Aristotle, for example, confronts discourse as a productive art as well as an analytical art. While he focuses on the analysis of discourse in Book I of the Rhetoric, he does not exclude its applicability to the production of spoken or written texts. These two aspects of communication in language, of verbal expression, appear to be interconnected in Plato’s Phaedrus as well; the process of Platonic dialectic itself involves the activity of forming discourse while at the same time criticizing that discourse in order to reach a higher level of understanding. The Sophists, including Isocrates and Gorgias, treated the production of discourse as well as its reception. As a group, the Sophists enjoyed great success in teaching people how to create discourse. Aristotle, Plato, and the Sophists did not privilege reading or hearing over writing or speaking. Their training, therefore, was necessarily more active than passive.

Reference List

Aristotle. (1954). Rhetoric. (W. R. Roberts Trans.). N.Y.: Modern Library.

Aristotle. (1991). On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. (G. A. Kennedy Trans.). N. Y.: Oxford University Press.

Barthes, R. (1988). The Old Rhetoric: An aide-mémoire. (R. Howard Trans.). N.Y.: Hill and Wang.

Berlin, J. A. (1992). Aristotle’s Rhetoric in Context: Reading Historically. In S. P. Witte, N. Nakadate & R. D. Cherry (Eds.), A Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James L. Kinneavy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Corbett, E. P. J. (1990). Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Kennedy, G. A. (1959). The Earliest Rhetorical Handbooks. American Journal of Philology 80: 169-78.

Kennedy, G. A. (1980). Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Ochs, D. J. (1982) Cicero’s Topica: A Process View of Invention. In R. E. McKerrow (ed.).  Explorations in Rhetoric: Studies in Honor of Douglas Ehninger. (pp. 107-118). Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.


Cite this Classical Rhetoric

Classical Rhetoric. (2016, Sep 27). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/classical-rhetoric/

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