Classical Rhetoric


    Rhetoric--or the art of effective communication, whether written or spoken--was the cornerstone of classical education. In the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome, it was the academic discipline that guided the skillful production and critical evaluation of discourse in all its usual settings--in law courts, in commerce and the professions, in ceremonial oratory, in diplomacy and public relations, in cultural and political debate.

    In his influential treatise on the subject, Aristotle (384-322 BC) defined rhetoric as the art of identifying (and applying), in any given situation, the most likely means of persuasion. His theoretical writings, together with the speeches of his exact contemporary Demosthenes (384-322 BC) and especially the speeches and writings of Cicero (106-43 BC ) and Quintillian (30?-? AD), constitute the major resources in the field and furnish an essential basis and framework for all subsequent contributions to the subject.

    Many of the fundamental principles and practical insights of the discipline--e.g., be clear, be forceful, be concise, be emphatic--remain as valid and useful today as they did twenty-four centuries ago. Moreover, these principles have been solidly confirmed by recent research in psycholinguistics, semiotics, and cognitive science--fields that have contributed enormously to our understanding of how humans actually think, learn, speak, write, solve problems, form ideas and impressions, and communicate. Especially in our fast-paced age of electronic media and non-stop entertainment--an age of attention spans measured in nano-seconds and information flows measured in gigabytes--it seems likely that classical rhetoric's timeless principles of effective communication should be more valuable than ever.


    Elements of Communication.

     Anticipating the similar, but more complex and scientific analyses of its 20th-century descendants (Communication Theory and Semiotics), classical rhetoric divides communication into three main components:

Speaker >>>>>> Message >>>>>> Audience

    Rhetoricians also placed great emphasis on the context of the message, with the main contextual concerns being the purpose of the message and the place in which it was to be heard or seen.

    According to this scheme, the speaker (or author) acts as the originator or sender of a message (either spoken or written). To be effective, this message must be designed to suit a particular audience (for clearly you would not make the same speech to, say, a group of preschoolers and a group of adults) a particular place (e.g, courtroom, outdoor stadium, small conference room), and a particular purpose (to warn, instruct, edify, arrouse, appease, awe, entertain, etc.).

Speaker. According to classical theory, the character of the speaker is all-important, for audiences tend to believe the testimony (no matter how unlikely) of familiar, reliable, and trustworthy speakers and to discredit the claims (no matter how reasonable) of strange, undependable, or suspicious sources. In the view of Aristotle and Quintillian, effective speakers should make a special effort to seem polite, friendly, and well-disposed to the audience, should take care to demonstrate common sense and good judgment, and should have (or should at least appear to have) a spotless moral reputation.

Message. As far as content and style are concerned, classical rhetoricians taught that a message should be composed in such a way that it (a) reflects favorably on the character and disposition of the speaker and (b) accords appropriately with its audience, place, and purpose. In short, every aspect of the speech--from its characteristic images and turns of phrase to the gestures and facial expressions that accompany its delivery--should be contrived to produce a particular pre-calculated effect.

Audience. All classical authorities agree: to communicate effectively, you must tailor your message (whether written or spoken) to the size, shape, tastes, expectations, political interests, cultural circumstances, moral and social concerns, and intellectual level of your audience. A corollary of this advice is: The more you know about your audience, the more likely your chances of communicating successfully.

Place. In the classical era, and even more so today, an important consideration in message design is where the communication will take place. Speakers need to know what sort of location or facility they will be speaking in: a small meeting room? an amphitheater? Is sound amplification available? visual effects? Similarly, writers need to know where their message will be appearing: in a magazine? an academic journal? on a bulletin board? on a computer screen? The point is, the social and cultural context in which a message appears--e.g., on a bumper sticker versus in a formal greeting card--has an obvious bearing on its style, content, and presentation.

Purpose. Classical rhetoric recognized three general goals or aims of communication: to persuade, to inform, to entertain. But seldom did these three general types of message exist in a pure form. Instead, as is even more the case in our modern culture of "infomercials," dramatized news stories, and "infotainment," lawyers, teachers, leaders, and politicians frequently blended entertainment devices (e.g., fables, humorous anecdotes) into their presentations to enforce a point or maintain audience attention. Furthermore, for any given communication task, classical speakers were also advised to have a clear, definite, practical purpose in mind (e.g., to stir opposition or win approval for plan A or policy B, to gain favor for candidate X or client Y) and not lose sight of that purpose during their presentation. Hence the excellent rhetorical advice to all would-be communicators today: Have a point and stick to it.


On being persuasive:

"Persuasion is a form of demonstration, for we are most fully persuaded by something when we believe it to have been clearly demonstrated."

On effective live presentation:

 "Success via the spoken word depends on three things: (1) the personal character of the speaker, (2) the attention and disposition of the audience, (3) the proof--or apparent proof--provided by the words of the speech itself."

On the two types of persuasive argument:

Anyone who expects to prove his point or be persuasive must use enthymemes [i.e., rhetorical syllogisms--brief, clear, vivid arguments] or examples: there is no other way.

On the advantages of having truth and virtue on your side:

Things that are true and edifying are, by their very nature, easier to prove and easier to believe than falsehoods and malicious accusations.

On who is to blame for a wrong verdict:

"Things that are true and things that are just usually prevail over their opposites--so when the decisions of judges turn out wrong in such cases, the defeat must be due to the speakers themselves, and they must be blamed accordingly."

On the importance of knowing your audience:

Of the three elements of speech-making--speaker, subject, and audience--it is the third one, the addressee or hearer, that is most important, for it is the audience that ultimately determines the goal and object of the speech.

"We must especially take into account the nature of our particular audience when making a speech of praise; for as Socrates used to say, it is not difficult to praise the Athenians to an Athenian. In short, if the audience esteems a quality, we must say our hero has that quality, no matter whether we are addressing Scythians, or Spartans, or philosophers."

"Having exact knowledge of a subject does not guarantee a convincing argument, since an argument based on knowledge must rely on instruction, and some people cannot be instructed."

An old lawyer joke?

"Political oratory is less given to unscrupulous practices than legal oratory . . ."

On the importance of good character:

There are three things that inspire confidence in an orator's character: common sense, a polite, well-disposed attitude, and a sound moral reputation.

"That the orator's own character should look right is particularly important in political speaking."

On style and metaphor:

"Good prose should never be excessively ornamental; it should consist either of plain and proper terms or metaphors, and almost never of strange, novel, or astonishing words."

"Metaphors give style clearness, charm, and distinction as nothing else can."

"Metaphors must neither be far-fetched, for they will be difficult to grasp, nor obvious, for they will have no effect."

"The foundation of good style is correctness, which involves calling things by their right names instead of by vague, general terms."

"To achieve conciseness use names instead of descriptions."

"It is all right to represent things by metaphors and epithets, but take pains to avoid poetical effects."

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