If you have been exposed to the field of communication, literature, or even politics, chances are you have come across the word “rhetoric” in one way or another. Yet, despite its prevalence, there remains a lingering uncertainty about the definition of rhetoric and its historical roots. In this blog post, we will delve into the intricate world of rhetoric, exploring its meaning and tracing its development through the ages.

Defining Rhetoric: A Multifaceted Concept


At its core, rhetoric revolves around the art of persuasion. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” While this definition is still considered relevant today, the concept has evolved significantly over time.

Contemporary communication scholars often attribute three main dimensions to the definition of rhetoric:

  1. Oral and Written Discourse: Rhetoric entails the effective use of language in various forms, such as speeches, essays, and debates, to persuade, inform, or entertain an audience.
  2. Strategic Persuasion: Rhetoric includes the deliberate manipulation of symbols, including words, images, and body language, to influence others’ perceptions and emotions.
  3. Contextual Adaptability: Rhetoric is highly dependent on the circumstances in which it is embedded. Speakers must adapt their rhetorical strategies according to the particular audience, situation, and culture they are addressing.

Thus, when exploring the meaning of rhetoric, it is essential to recognize its multifaceted nature and the numerous factors that contribute to its effectiveness. To learn more about the various aspects of rhetoric, check out our post on The Multifaceted Meaning of Rhetoric in Communication.

A Glimpse into the History of Rhetoric: From Ancient Greece to Modern Times

The rich history of rhetoric can be traced back to ancient Greece, where the discipline first emerged as a vital aspect of civic life. As early voting systems emerged, citizens needed to possess persuasive skills to influence public opinion and sway political decisions. To meet this need, rhetoric rose to prominence and was eventually institutionalized as an essential part of a well-rounded education.

Ancient Greek Rhetoric: Foundations of the Discipline

The origins of rhetoric are often attributed to the fifth-century BCE Athenian teacher and philosopher Corax of Syracuse. However, it was not until the arrival of the “Famous Three” – great thinkers Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates – that the discipline’s foundations were truly established.

  • Socrates is known for his method of questioning and critical thinking, known as the Socratic method. This method formed the basis for the development of rhetorical techniques such as argumentation, inquiry, and refutation.
  • Plato contributed to the field of rhetoric through his well-known work, Gorgias, which examined the ethical implications and potential misuse of persuasive speech.
  • Aristotle is perhaps the most influential figure in the history of rhetoric. His work, Rhetoric, provided a comprehensive foundation for the discipline, discussing the art of persuasion, ethos (credibility), pathos (emotion), and logos (logical reasoning).

Roman Rhetoric: Expansion and Integration

As the influence of ancient Greece waned, Rome emerged as the new center for intellectual thought. This shift led to the absorption and adaptation of Greek rhetorical theories by prominent Roman rhetoricians like Cicero and Quintilian.

  • Cicero produced several significant works on rhetoric, such as De Oratore and Brutus, in which he emphasized the importance of eloquence and style in public speaking.
  • Quintilian is best known for his magnum opus, Institutio Oratoria, a comprehensive guide to rhetoric that outlined the principles of persuasion, the development of rhetorical skills, and the value of an ethical approach to persuasion.

The Middle Ages to Modern Times: Adaptation and Transformation

Throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times, the study and practice of rhetoric continued to evolve. Key developments during these eras include:

  • The integration of rhetoric into the Christian Church, with figures like Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas adapting classical rhetorical theories to suit religious purposes.
  • The emergence of humanism during the Renaissance, which saw a revival of interest in ancient rhetoric and its application to various fields, such as political theory, education, and art.

In the twentieth century, rhetorical theorists like Kenneth Burke, Chaim Perelman, and I. A. Richards broadened and diversified the definition of rhetoric, recognizing its application beyond just public speaking and expanding its reach to fields like literature, media, and advertising. For a deeper understanding of the historical and cultural significance of rhetoric, read our post on Rhetoric: Uncovering Its Historical and Cultural Significance.

Final Thoughts

As we have explored, the definition of rhetoric is both complex and multifaceted, encompassing a range of aspects related to communication, persuasion, and contextual adaptability. Its rich history highlights its continued relevance and importance across diverse fields and cultures, inviting us to continue refining and expanding our understanding of this fascinating discipline. To further explore the art of persuasion and its applications, visit our post on The Art of Persuasion: A Dive into Rhetoric and Its Applications.


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