Midterm A2


The relationship between the study of rhetoric and the development of virtue or an ethical sense has been debated since classical times.

A2. Explain the classical and enlightenment definitions of rhetoric and propose a contemporary definition.  Account for the definition of the three.

            Classic Rhetoric evolved as an important art, one that provided the orator with the forms, means, and strategies for persuading an audience of the correctness of the orator’s arguments In Greece, rhetoric originated in a school of Pre-Socratic philosophers known as Sophists circa 600 BC. It was later taught in the Roman Empire and during the Middle Ages as one of the three original liberal arts or trivium along with logic and grammar.(Connely 73). Classical philosophers believed: the skilled use of rhetoric was essential to the discovery of truths, because it provided the means of ordering and clarifying arguments.

            The Sophists were a disparate group who travelled from city to city making public displays to attract students who were then charged a fee for their education. Their central focus was on logos or what we might broadly refer to as discourse, its functions and powers. They defined parts of speech, analyzed poetry, parsed close synonyms, invented argumentation strategies, and debated the nature of reality. They claimed to make their students “better,” or, in other words, they taught virtue.  This is the definition of classic rhetoric.

            The word “sophistry” developed strong negative connotations in ancient Greece that continue today, but in ancient Greece sophists were popular and well-paid professionals, widely respected for their abilities; but also, widely criticized for their excesses. They claimed that human “excellence” was not an accident of fate or a prerogative of noble birth, but an art that could be taught and learned. They were the first humanists. Several sophists also questioned received wisdom about the gods and the Greek culture, which they were among the first agnostics. For example, they argued that cultural practices were a function of convention or nomos rather than blood or birth. They argued even further that morality or immorality of any action could not be judged outside of the cultural context within which it occurred.      

            Isocrates like the sophists, taught public speaking as a means of human improvement, but he worked to distinguish himself from the Sophists, whom he saw as claiming far more than they could deliver. He suggested that while an art of virtue or excellence did exist, it was only one piece, and the least, in a process of self-improvement that relied much more heavily on native talent and desire, constant practice, and the imitation of good models. Isocrates believed that practice in speaking publicly about noble themes and important questions would function to improve the character of both speaker and audience while also offering the best service to a state.(Norlin)


            As rhetoric adapted through time, The Enlightenment produced several writers that were influencing the course of rhetoric during the seventeenth century, many of them carrying forward a new mantra.  For example, the ideas of the five components of rhetoric no longer living under the common heading of rhetoric, instead, invention and disposition were determined to fall under the heading of language, while style, delivery, and memory were all that remained for rhetorical style that had been set forth by Rhetorists during the preceding decades.  This century saw the development of a modern, vernacular style that looked to English, rather than to Greek, Latin, or French models.

            One of the concerns of the age was to find a suitable style for the discussion of scientific topics, which needed a clear exposition of facts and arguments, rather than the ornate style favored at the time.  Francis Bacon in his The Advancement of Learning criticized those who are preoccupied with style rather than “the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment.” On matters of style, he proposed that the style conform to the subject matter and to the audience, that simple words be employed whenever possible, and that the style should be agreeable. (Jardin 112)

            Thomas Hobbes, like Bacon, also promoted a simpler and more natural style that used figures of speech sparingly. Hobbes produced a number of other works on the subject hoping to further his intentions.      The most influential development in English style came out of the work of the Royal Society that was founded in 1660.  In 1664 a committee was set up to improve the English language. Among the committee’s members were John Evelyn, Thomas Sprat , and John Dryden. Sprat regarded “fine speaking” as a disease, and thought that a proper style should “reject all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style” and instead “return back to a primitive purity and shortness” (Marc 234).

             John Dryden is credited with creating and exemplifying a new and modern English style. His central tenet was that the style should be proper “to the occasion, the subject, and the persons.” As such, he advocated the use of English words whenever possible instead of foreign ones, as well as vernacular, rather than Latinate, syntax. His own prose, and his poetry became examples of this new enlightenment.(Blitzer 3)

            Today, a contemporary definition of the term rhetoric can be used at times to refer only to the form of argumentation, often with the negative connotation that rhetoric is a means of obscuring the truth. The linguistic turn is a major development in Western philosophy during the 20th century, the most important characteristic of which is the focusing of philosophy, and consequently also the other humanities, primarily on the relationship between philosophy and language. Language is not a transparent medium of thought, and has been stressed by a very different form of philosophy of language it is claimed that analytical philosophy did not relate to this tradition. It is claimed that all we can know about reality that is conditioned by language. Rhetoric is now an attempt to solve real-world problems by addressing specific audiences who have decision-making power. (Blitzer 12)

In conclusion, Rhetoric has transformed through time.  In the classical sense, the teaching of Virtue was aramount.  As hypocracy was on the rise, a need for context flourished throughout the world primarily in England and France during the enlightenment when the need for focused scientific and direct approaches were called for in order to facilitate context and understanding of a given situation.  In the contemporary sense Rhetoric is viewed as a means to obscure the truth.   Where is the virtue in this type of execution?  Classic Rhetorists would not only be proud, but disgusted at the same time. Enlightened Rhetorists’ may harbor some of the same sentiments, and contemporary rhetorists seem to be echoing hypocrisy too.  You see…as time moves forward, whether Rhetorists’ believe semantically one way or the other.  The driving force behind rhetoric is greed.  The need to persuade is intrinsically connected to attaining and procuring some sort of power. 


Work Cited



Bitzer, Lloyd F. (1968). The Rhetorical Situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric, Winter. (1.1), 1-14.


cf. Conley, T.M. Rhetoric in the European Tradition. University of Chicago Press.; Kennedy, G.A. (1990) A New History of Classical Rhetoric. Princeton University Press. (1994).


Lisa Jardine, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse (Cambridge University Press, 1975).


Marc Fumaroli ed., Histoire de la rhétorique dans l’Europe moderne 1450-1950, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1999. ISBN 2130495265


Isocrates. “Against the Sophists.” In Isocrates with an English Translation in three volumes, by George Norlin, Ph.D., LL.D. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1980.; Isocrates. “Antidosis.” In Isocrates with an English Translation in three volumes, by George Norlin, Ph.D., LL.D. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1980.


Rorty, Richard. ‘Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Reification of Language.’ Essays on Heidegger and Others. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.


1 comment for “Midterm A2

  1. April 2, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Aaron, that’s quite an indictment of rhetoric, and I’m not sure I agree. However, you may have a case here, if you can say more explicitly how each historical example illustrates rhetoric being all about power and greed.

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