She is the beautiful warrior. Words are her weapons, and she wins by the strength of her arguments and the elegance of her expressions. She represents the classic concerns of rhetoric: applying skilled public speaking to the issues of the day to move hearts and minds.

Rhetoric has always been difficult to define. I often use it to mean: 1) an academic discipline; 2) a socio-political skill in language use; 3) persuasive, stylistic features in language use, and; 4) following George Kennedy, a form of "energy" in language (A Hoot in the Dark). None of these ways of defining rhetoric is exclusive. The term has multiple denotations and connotations, and I will not attempt to settle on any particular one.

Dictionary definitions most often describe rhetoric as the effective use of language to persuade or as the study of the elements of style and structure in writing or speaking. These typical dictionary definitions clearly point to a dualistic nature of rhetoric as understood for much of the past 2,500 years. On the one hand, rhetoric is a skill with a socio-political purpose: to persuade. On the other hand, rhetoric is the study and application of style and structure. These two definitions are not necessarily exclusive.

Rhetoric for the ancient Greeks was not a concept without conflict. Plato's early conception of rhetoric called it a "knack" that could be used to make poor arguments seem the better (a view we often hear today). For Plato, a proper rhetoric was a skill, used in the service of philosophy, to help mankind arrive at transcendent truth. His antipodes, the Sophists, maintained a position much like the social-epistemic rhetoricians today, that rhetoric identifies and creates contingent truths. Aristotle, on the other hand, compartmentalized rhetoric into distinct subsets of skills and called it "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion" (On Rhetoric 1355b). These are just three of the many ways the Greeks conceived of rhetoric. All three share a concern with the public sphere, moral philosophy, and politics.

So I use these four working definitions: As an academic discipline, rhetoric is the theory, practice, and critique of effective written and oral communication. As a socio-political skill in language use, rhetoric is the use of certain discourses in certain contexts with certain audiences for the purpose of persuasion. As the persuasive features of language use, rhetoric is the theory, practice, and critique of the persuasive effects of language features, i.e. how various features persuade. As the energy of language, rhetoric is the ever-present, pre-linguistic source of our ability to understand the persuasive intent of a message.

The Canons of Rhetoric

Invention: To discover the available means of persuasion.
Arrangement: To assemble the argument effectively.
Style: To present the argument cogently and artistically.
Memory: To speak extemporaneously.
Delivery: To effectively use voice, gestures, text, and images.

For a more detailed look at the canons of rhetoric, I highly recommend Silva Rhetoricae. For a quick introduction to rhetoric, read my online primer. For more detail about critical techniques, refer to the Rhetorica Critical Meter.

About Andrew R. Cline, Ph.D.


Dr. Cline's Media Sources | Rhetorica: Press-Politics Journal