Classical and Modern Rhetoric

Published 21 Feb 2017

The social and ideological importance of persuasion as an act of inclining insight amongst one’s fellow man is, whether we recognize it or not, present in all aspects of modern life. From the election of our political leaders to the decision over which dish detergent to purchase, we are at the mercy of the rhetorical aims of innumerable parties and principles. But as a historical understanding of this phenomenon suggests, so has this been the case throughout the history of democratic social organization, where the need for leaders to earn the support of some sector of the public had begun to instigate an interest in public expression as a means to conveying information, positions and a response of ascendance to these same qualities.

The pre-Socratic Sophists of Greek origin were among the first to connect the intellectual demands of philosophical examination with exercises in public discourse. The Sophists would be distinctive for their novel, at that time, interest in the improvement of collective intellectual wherewithal through meaningful public discourse. Therefore, the early Sophists took a vested interest “in clarifying the relationship between language and reality and the way in which grammatical consistency and definitional clarity could aid human discourse.” (Angelini, 1) Thus, the Greeks would help to develop a firm academic relationship between the mechanical ability to express one’s self, the intellectual ability to use knowledge to intuit further knowledge and the verbal dexterity to communicate effectively and persuasively those intuitions of merit or relevance to the public. This accounts for the part of rhetoric as one in a triad of foundational disciplines in Greek educational grooming, functioning as an extension upon grammar and as an application of dialact.

Still, within the hands of the Sophists, rhetoric was not necessarily a noble cause. Instead, its value appeared to be contained almost strictly within its representation of the human ingenuity to speak with a persuasion and to the accomplishment of specific end goals. In a manner, this line of thinking would be foundational to the use of the law and the courts then and today. The idea that the effectiveness of one’s argument may play a more important role than the accuracy of his claims or the strength of his position in determining his prospects for success in a court of law is deeply couched in the sometime ironic or internally contradictory intent of sophistry. Here, merit is less directly a factor to one’s argument than is his ability to compel others in his constitution and presentation of the argument.

However, the generations of thinkers that would succeed the Sophists would be distinctly interested in improving the applications of rhetoric by grounding them in more concrete ethical underpinnings. Thus, with the passage of time, thinkers such as Aristotle would designate considerable verbiage to refining our shared understanding of this relationship. As Aristotle would suggest, “rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic. It is a subject that can be treated systematically. The argumentative modes of persuasion are the essence of the art of rhetoric: appeals to the emotions warp the judgment.” (Honeycut, 1) This rational conception of the public discourse would be directly related to the Greek innovation of Democracy. The notion that the politician had to attract the interest and appeal of the polis in order to retain a public office would beget the requirement of such aspirants to express themselves with clarity, meaning and a sound awareness of the target audience.

Here, we are given insight into the sociological conditions which helped to elevate rhetoric to a level of importance for intellectuals and academics, who viewed this as the most effective and sensible means to testing the qualifications of a candidate. The offshoot of requiring candidates to clearly and persuasively reflect their positions would be the airing of public debate on issues of prime importance to the collective. The inducement of rhetoric to employ sound logic in order to prove knowledge would therefore often inherently cause public officials to yield thoughtful and socially valuable insights on subjects of public importance such as those concerning politics, governance, education, law and morality. Rhetoric would essentially be the persuasive fabric to the evaluation of developing ideas regarding the achievement of an orderly and humanistic society.

The Greeks would become specifically concerned with the engagement of rational and logically sound public exchange, to the benefits of civility, legality and collective social progress. As a result, rhetoric would concern not just the capacity to speak before the public and to gain the ear of the populous, but indeed it would be to use this pulpit as a way to extend knowledge, illuminate truth and proliferate insight. The idea of persuasion as a matter of manipulation would, therefore, not enter into this definition. Instead, persuasion would be thought of as the desirable consequence in the proper implementation of facts.

An important figure in the refinement of the proper uses of rhetoric, Aristotle would argue essentially that rhetoric was among the finest endowments with which one may be expected to express truth. He would observe the “definition of rhetoric as ‘the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.'” (Honeycut, 2) This is to say that the truly gifted practitioner of rhetoric is likely to find that he may evince concurrence out those whom he wishes to persuade with what scant factual support is made available to him. One must note that there is never in the classical discussion of rhetoric an endorsement of the employment of dishonesty. Only, the classical rhetoricians argue, the art of effective public oration will be marked by the rhetoricians equal aplomb with a bevy or a dearth of facts with which to intuit the knowledge to be shared.

Returning again to the useful thoughts of Aristotle on the subject, we can find that indeed, rhetoric had become a useful framework through which to channel the discussion of the responsibilities of public office and good governance. To this end, Aristotle believes that one could divide into five categories the channels for the realization of rhetoric. He determined that “the subjects of Political Oratory fall under five main heads: (1) ways and means, (2) war and peace, (3) national defence, (4) imports and exports, (5) legislation.” (Honeycut, 4) Within these parameters, the ancient Greeks had come to view public persuasion as the utmost of conditions by which to secure the good graces and best interests of the general population.

Directly in the footsteps of the rhetoricians of Greek society, the Romans too would find great interest in expanding and expounding upon collective knowledge through this discursive engagement. One of the chief practitioners of this approach in the Roman Empire was Cicero, who had culled much of his own perspective from the teachings of the Greek philosophers before him. A product of a time of great disarray in the empire, when the assassination of Caesar had divided and made unstable the greater Republic, Cicero was a man interested in the ambitious nobility underscoring this philosophically refined school of rhetoric. Therefore, “Cicero aspired to a republican system dominated by a ruling aristocratic class of men, ‘who so conducted themselves as to win for their policy the approval of all good men’. Further, he sought a concordia ordinum, an alliance between the senators and the equites. This ‘harmony between the social classes which he later developed into a consensus omnium bonorum to include tota italia (all citizens of Italy), demonstrated Cicero’s foresight as a statesman.” (Wikipedia, 1) This would be part and parcel to the Roman doctrine of representative democracy, in which a socioeconomically elite class would compete for the favor of the public in order to shape the public good. This is an approach that would be foundation to many of the ideas emerging during the Enlightenment centuries hence.

However, this progress would be detained for many centuries by the rising tide of Christian rule through Europe in the Middle Ages. This predominance would confine rhetoric largely to the context of sermon and letter writing, both fully underscored by the impetus of religious persuasion, which would naturally draw its foundations to an impulse separate and distinct from the more nuanced and less restrictive political context. In a manner, until the revolutions for independence that would espouse the militant pursuit of natural rights in the 18th century rhetoric and verbal discourse would be separated from intellectual advancement.

However, the cresting tide of modernity towards the turn of the 20th century would help to establish a tradition known as modern rhetoric, where the interest in an open, honest, and most importantly, academically sound public discourse would find a home in universities and other scholarly settings once again. The research here would help us to recognize that one of the preeminent effectors in the nature of modern rhetoric would be its emergence during a period of industrial and technological development. At the turn into the 20th century, with mechanical and commercial proliferation occurring on a massive scale, the academic community began again to take an active interest in more clearly articulating the relationship between truth of intuition, clarity of expression and effectiveness of application.

The result would be not just a gaining interest in the discipline of rhetoric but also an inherent permeation of this discipline throughout myriad frames of thought theretofore not engaged in this way. Most specifically, the explosion in the presence and pervasion of mass media throughout our society, first in the form of print and broadcast media, and subsequently through such multilateral channels as the internet, the ways in which humans relate and communicate is now highly mediated. This means that classical understanding of rhetoric as part of a foundational knowledge is subverted to something which covers greater ground. Here, we might understand rhetoric as a forum through which persuasion is rendered to the recipient of a message. Though this does not extricate the human element from the conveyance of the message, it does imbue this element with another level of what one might view as either information or as obfuscation. Regardless, the notion of rhetoric has therefore changed drastically, in due representation of the drastic changes in human discourse.

Marshall McLuhan would be made famous for his claim, this end, that ‘the medium is the message.’ His assertion would be that in modern rhetoric, the persuasive nature of the content of a message is fully inextricable from the medium through which the message is received. For example, if one views a commercial on television, its aesthetic and informational appeal will inherently be supplemented by the added credibility and, one might assume, cost prohibition, inherently implied by its presence in this context. Or perhaps even more to the point, and a subject novel to rhetoric from the classical perspective, the perceived contextual credibility of the message may be directly impacted by the reputation of its medium.

An article of the exact same content is certainly more likely to be perceived as valid when read in Time Magazine as opposed to The National Enquirer. This is to suggest that the reputation earned by the former and the novelty status suspected of the latter could both only be established by way of a sustained and widespread proliferation of materials. This mass media distribution is a modern differential in rhetoric which is indicative of the layers added to the discipline by technology and modernity. We understand through this discipline that human intuition and clarity of communication do not necessarily predicate the whole of the relationship between the message’s originator and its recipient(s). Now, the capacity to reach significantly larger audiences in a single stroke means that the rhetorician must be considerate both of the benefits and the consequences to the intended message.
Importantly, “McLuhan brings to bear on technology the skills of a rhetorician’s imagination” (Kroker, 1) Such is to note that the changes engaging our society through modernity are not without precedence. The classical rhetorician’s tradition allows us to understand the purpose of engaging the subject with the degree of intellectual deconstruction here present, suggesting that through the rendering of discursive truth and through a greater lucidity in communicating the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of functional social systems, we might better come to understand human behavior and natural law in each individual context.

Today, the notion of rhetoric is most differentiated from the classical conception of the discipline by its diversity of meanings and implications theretofore not present. Specifically, rhetoric is today a field applied to an endless spectrum of subjects. Its classical bounding to legal and political discourses is today absent, with rhetoric suitably describing the exchanges now occurring over the fields of science, mathematics, medicine, musical entertainment, architecture and virtually any other context in which human ingenuity and expression must naturally come into play.

But there is also another sense that the evolution of rhetoric from the classical to the modern incarnation has seen the discipline through a host of changes that are directly reflexive of the social parameters, as well as the place in evolutionary history, pertaining to the airing the sentiments contained therein. Such is to say that the device employed by the Sophists would take on a far more socially constructive nature when employed in a social setting where democratic ideals had begun to take legitimate root with the people. Herein, the idea that persuasion could be applied to inclining public support for leaders of the highest caliber would indicate that the use of rhetoric would adapt according to the highest ambition of a society to use persuasive talents to a positive end.

Certainly, that has not changed in modern rhetoric, but to many, the implications are actually inherently negative. The notion that rhetoric, especially as a political device, is inherently an empty collective of persuasive words rather than a soundly built rational case, may be suggestive less of the vice of rhetoric than of the sorry state of our political discourse today which, though certainly based on a specific brand of rhetoric, is nonetheless absent of any honest or rational explication. Modes of persuasion have less to do with fact than with the emotional appeal against which Aristotle so strongly cautioned.

That notwithstanding, the academic discussion on modern rhetoric is as nuanced and complex as it has been, suggesting that there continues to be a great deal to learn and understand about the ways that human beings craft and receive persuasive messages amongst each other.


  • Angelini, Marco. (2003). Interpreting the Elder Sophists. Radical Academy.
  • Honeycut, Lee. (Jan. 2007). Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Iowa State University.
  • Wikipedia. (2007). Cicero. Wikimedia, Ltd. Inc. Online at
  • Kroker, Arthur. (1995). Digital Humanism: The Processed World of Marshall McLuhan. CTheory.
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