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Rhetoric as an Art Essay

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Updated: Dec 14th, 2019


Rhetoric during the pre-Socratic time was seen as the art of discourse aimed at broadening speaker’s and writer’s horizons and developing their good communication skills. During that period, rhetoric provided heuristics for understanding, discovering and developing arguments as a way of winning audiences’ appeal.

For example, sophists created five laws to guide the study of rhetoric. These laws include invention, argument, delivery, memory and style. They were designed to persuade the audience and motivate them to listen to the speaker or to read the work of a given philosopher.

Rhetoric in Pre-Socratic period

Pre-Socratic period was marked with Hellenic rhetoric that shaped the view of philosophers in relation to the connection of the thought and expression. For instance, the communication skills used by Plato and the Socratic movement formed rhetoric as a discipline. The ancient Greeks aimed at including common sense and truth in their conversations. In this case, rhetoric as a discipline concentrated on discovering the limitations of being either subjective or objective during conversations.

During pre-Socratic period, the aim of rhetoric was to set a framework for analyzing communications. Here, rhetoric did not produce critical theories. Speakers and writers were useful for creating civic engagements in the society due to their convincing public speaking and writing. Rhetoric emphasized the importance of eloquence and wisdom during conversations.

The main personalities associated with rhetoric include Plato, Aristotle, Quintilian, Cicero, Socrates, etc. Particularly, Plato questioned the teaching practice of that time and challenged the knowledge of the teachers. For Plato, rhetoric was not an art. Aristotle, on the other hand, expanded on the ideas of Plato, his teacher, before qualifying rhetoric as an art. Remarkably, Aristotle sought to develop a scientific approach to arguments.

Cicero, who was a Roman lawyer, used the arguments developed by both Plato and Socrates before classifying rhetoric as a liberal art. Quintilian is widely known for his emphasis on teaching rhetoric to the youth in schools.

However, when the ancient period ended, there were considerable changes in the attitude towards rhetoric and the way of its teaching. St. Augustine is associated with rhetoric of the medieval age. His main contribution to its field was the fusion of classical “pagan” rhetoric with the aims of the Catholic Church when he worked on the art of preaching.

Rhetoric during the Renaissance

Among the personalities associated with rhetoric during the age of reformation, it is necessary to note Erasmus. In his book, Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, he treated rhetoric as the least comprehensive work of antiquity and added to it a traditional treatment of matter and form.

For Erasmus, the subject matter of rhetoric was to discover variety in discourse. For him, rhetoric was concerned with the quality of either a speech or a written work, given the fact that there existed many versions of writing and delivering speeches. Julian Luis Vivas is another well pronounced personality associated with rhetoric during reformation.

During that period, rhetoric was characterized by the conversion of teachings from Greek to vernacular. This can be attributed to the strong orientation of rhetoric towards Latin and Greek during pre-Socratic time. This period was also characterized by various reorganizations in the school systems that eventually led to rhetoric loosing its central position.

For instance, the five laws of rhetoric as indicated earlier in this paper were dropped. In place of these laws, new inventions and dispositions were included under the name of dialectic. During that period, rhetoric was defined by style of delivering messages during conversations and the ability to memorize philosophical thoughts.

During that time, religion was the dominant subject of discussion with Christianity playing a leading role. In this case, rhetoric concentrated more on gaining religious truths than ordinary knowledge. To be a Christian was the main focus of rhetoric. The main Christian doctrine was the establishment of a personal relationship with the divine.

This relationship was personal and opposed to proportional. Discovering the emotive experiences first, before focusing on logic, was, therefore, the main subject matter of rhetoric. It is worth noting that Christianity was not the only religious belief held by people during this time. Christians used rhetoric to prove that Christianity was the only true religion.

A case in point that demonstrates the subject matter of rhetoric during reformation is the encounter with the divine. Rhetoric of that time stated that it was normal to have a personal experience with the love of the savior.

The main concern of rhetoric was on how this personal encounter could be used to make an individual to be a Christian, especially a non believer. This was particularly so because of the existence of many religious believes in the world. Rhetoric was, therefore, concerned with differentiating Christian experiences from the ones of other religions.

During the reformation, rhetoric had the role of establishing a guideline for judging different experiences with the aim of determining whether they were Christian experiences or not. Sophists proposed the use of logic and the Bible as a guideline for judging different experiences.

Logic referred to the application of reason in analyzing the arguments of people claiming to have a divine experience. For example, if a person claimed to receive a divine command from God to burn the Bible, rhetoric would dismiss such an experience.

That is why, during reformation, the art of rhetoric required individuals to apply logical reasoning in differentiating experiences like the one indicated above. Logic stated in such a case that God could not command an individual to burn the Bible, which is His own holy word. The above argument, therefore, contradicts with the nature of God and thus can not be from God.

Existentialism as a part of the subject matter of rhetoric was focused on the need to have a personal relationship with God during the reformation. It based its argument on the teachings of Christ, especially on His emphasis on love. This art also emphasized on the necessity to follow a practical Christian lifestyle.

Rhetoric in the 20th century

This refers to the study of rhetoric during the 20th century. This period is characterized by the establishment of departments of rhetoric and speech in institutions. National and international professional organizations became famous during this time. With increased mediation in the 20th century, the study of rhetoric as an art was restructured to emphasize language and persuasion.

The effects of globalization led to increased advertisements and mass media coverage of information all over the world, thus making rhetoric an important part of people’s life. With these changes, the meaning of rhetoric as an art in the 20th century is more associated with the mass media than language as it was the case during the pre-Socratic period.

For instance, visual rhetoric is a common vocabulary in the modern world associated with the mass media that analyzes the persuasions done by non-verbal communication. The importance of visual rhetoric is realized in advertisements whereby pictures are designed in an appealing way to attract consumers to buy the product.

The personalities associated with rhetoric of the 20th century include Chaim Perelman, Kenneth Burke, I.A. Richards, and Stephen Toulmin among the others. Chaim Perelman brought rhetoric to the centre of argumentative theories. He significantly influenced the concepts of dissociation, quasi-audience and presence. Kenneth Burke, on the other hand, brought the concepts of identification and dramatic pentad into the modern rhetoric.

For him, rhetoric referred to the use of language to induce cooperation in being. I.A. Richards considered rhetoric to be a study of misunderstandings and the ways how it can be prevented. He brought the concept of comparison to provide a critique to rhetoric. Stephen Toulmin introduced the argumentation theory to the study of rhetoric.

Modern rhetoric is characterized by lack of a conventionally recognized method of study. In the modern society, the study of rhetoric is considered to originate from reality. Nowadays, the main object of the study of rhetoric is discourse, thus making it difficult to differentiate rhetorical and discourse analyses.

It makes us use such mediation and ethos as concepts to describe the social and epistemological functions of the study. Rhetoric differs significantly from the discourse by extend of analysis, especially when discoursing similar items, such as speech or a poem. In this case, rhetoric does not only look at the argumentative claims advanced by the work, but goes ahead to identify the specific strategies employed by the writer to persuade his targeted audience.


In conclusion, the above discussion indicates the extent to which rhetoric can be taken as an art with its own subject matter. It does so by considering how this issue was approached in different times in history. From the discussion, it is clear that rhetoric as an art originated from the Greeks and Romans, with Plato and Socrates being the major personalities behind the study of this subject.

During that period, the subject matter was discovering, developing and understanding arguments. The aim of rhetoric as an art then was to produce individuals with good communication skills, both written and spoken.

During the reformation, the subject matter of rhetoric was to understand the religious theories. The min focus of this subject was to judge arguments by individuals concerning their personal experiences with the divine. Here, rhetoric emphasized the use of logic and the Bible to discern experiences.

Finally, this paper looked at rhetoric as an art during the 20th century, a period during which rhetoric shifted its focus to the mass media. Rhetoric of that period is an impotent subject in the life of people as indicated in the paper. In the 20th century, the main concern for rhetoric is to discover the role played by the work of art in pursuing the targeted auditory. From the above discussion, rhetoric qualifies as a genuine work of art with the subject matter rightly on its own.

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