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Chapter III. Classical Rhetoric

1. Definitions

The importance of rhetoric in ancient education and public life is reflected in the wealth of rhetorical treatises composed by classical orators and teachers of oratory. An understanding of classical rhetoric can be gained only by a study of its purpose, subject-matter, and content. The Rhetoric of Aristotle has sometimes been called the first rhetoric. In two senses this is not true. Aristotle's contribution to rhetorical theory is not a text-book, but a philosophical treatise, a part of his whole philosophical system. In the second place, even in his day there were many text-books of rhetoric with which Aristotle finds fault for their incomplete and unphilosophical treatment. If the Rhetoric ad Alexandrum, at one time falsely attributed to Aristotle and incorporated in early editions of his works, is typical of the earliest Greek text-books, the failure of the others to survive is fortunate. Aristotle's rhetorical theories superseded those of the early text-books, and through the influence of his Rhetoric and the teaching of his pupil Theophrastus set their seal on subsequent rhetorical theory. In practice as distinct from theory, Isocrates probably had an influence more direct and intense, but briefer.


“Rhetoric,” says Aristotle, “may be defined as a faculty of discovering all the possible means of persuasion in any subject.”[37]

He compares rhetoric with medicine; for the purpose of medicine, he believes, is not “to restore a person to perfect health but only to bring him to as high a point of health as possible.”[38] Neither medicine nor rhetoric can promise achievement, for in either case there is always something incalculable.

Although Aristotle, with philosophical caution, was careful to state that the function of rhetoric is not to persuade but to discover the available means of persuasion,[39] his successors were more direct, if less accurate. Hermagoras affirms that the purpose of rhetoric is persuasion,[40] and Dionysius of Halicarnassus defines rhetoric as the artistic mastery of persuasive speech in communal affairs.[41] But the anonymous author of the Latin rhetorical treatise addressed to C. Herennius, long believed to be the work of Cicero, qualifies this by defining the purpose of rhetoric as “so to speak as to gain the assent of the audience as far as possible.”[42] And the sum of Cicero's opinion is that the office of the orator is to speak in a way adapted to win the assent of his audience.[43] In his definition of rhetoric Quintilian makes a departure from the habits of his predecessors by defining rhetoric as the ars bene dicendi, or good public speech.[44] Here the bene implies not only effectiveness, but moral worth; for in Quintilian's conception the orator is a good man skilled in public speech, and there are times when, as in the case of Socrates, who refused to defend himself, to persuade would be dishonorable.[45] Quintilian's precepts, however, are more in line with Aristotle than his definition. He busies himself throughout twelve books in teaching his students how to use all possible means to persuasion. The consensus of classical opinion, then, agrees that the purpose of rhetoric is persuasive public speaking.

2. Subject Matter

If then the purpose of classical rhetoric was to come as near persuasion as it could, what was its subject matter? Aristotle, following Plato,[46] says in his definition “any subject,” for any subject can be made persuasive. But this was too philosophical for his contemporaries and successors, who saw in their own environment that in practice rhetoric was almost entirely concerned with persuading a jury that certain things were or were not so, or persuading a deliberative assembly that this or that should or should not be done. Consequently Hermagoras defines the subject matter of rhetoric as “public questions,” Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as “communal affairs,” and the Ad Herennium as “whatever in customs or laws is to the public benefit.”[47] The same influence caused Cicero in his youthful De inventione to classify rhetoric as part of political science,[48] and in the De oratore to make Antonius restrict rhetoric to public and communal affairs,[49] although in another section he returns to Aristotle's “any subject” as the material of rhetoric[50] as does Quintilian later.[51]

Although Aristotle did state in his definition that any subject was the material of rhetoric, in his classification of the varieties of speeches he practically restricts rhetoric as did Hermagoras, Dionysius, and the Ad Herennium; for here he finds but three kinds of oratory: the deliberative, the forensic, and the occasional, ἐπιδεικτικός. Forensic oratory he defines as that of the law court; deliberative, of the senate or public assembly; and occasional, of eulogy and congratulation. Perhaps the most illustrative modern examples of the third would be Fourth-of-July addresses, funeral sermons, and appreciative articles or lectures. Aristotle suggests that exaggeration is most appropriate to the style of occasional oratory; for as the facts are taken for granted, it remains only to invest them with grandeur and dignity.[52]

Occasional oratory seems to have given no little concern to the classical rhetoricians. Since it existed to adorn an occasion, it had to be considered; but unlike the oratory of the forum or of the council chamber it was not primarily practical. Quintilian comments on this; for it seems to aim almost exclusively at gratifying its hearers,[53] in this respect resembling poetry, which to Quintilian, seems to have no visible aim but pleasure.[54] Occasional speeches relied much more on style than did those of the law court and senate, thus meriting Aristotle's adjective “literary,” that is written to be read instead of spoken to be heard.[55] Cicero, like Quintilian, considers these less practical, as remote from the conflict of the forum, written to be read, “to be looked at, as it were, like a picture, for the sake of giving pleasure.” Consequently he declines to classify this form of oratory separately, reducing Aristotle's three kinds of oratory to two. It is valuable, to his mind, as the wet-nurse of the young orator, who enlarges his vocabulary and learns composition from its practice.[56] Aristotle includes it in rhetoric; for in its field of eulogy, panegyric, felicitation, and congratulation, it too uses the available means of persuasion to prove some person or thing praiseworthy or the reverse.[57]

3. Content of Classical Rhetoric

Classical rhetoricians commonly divided their subject into five parts. This analysis of rhetoric into inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronuntiatio is to all intents and purposes universal in classical rhetoric and must be understood to give one a valid idea of its content.[58] Inventio, so often lazily mistranslated as “invention,” is the art of exploring the material to discover all the arguments which may be brought to bear in support of a proposition and in refutation of the opposing arguments. It includes the study of arguments and fallacies; and is that part of rhetoric which is closest neighbor to logic. The kinds of argument treated in the classical rhetoric were two: the enthymeme, or rhetorical syllogism; and the rhetorical induction or example. In the practice of rhetoric inventio was thus the solidest and most important element. It included all of what to-day we might call “working up the case.” Dispositio is the art of arranging the material gathered for presentation to an audience. Aristotle insists that the essential parts of a speech are but two: the statement and the proof. At most it may have four: the ex ordium, or introduction; the narratio, or statement of facts; the confirmatio, or proof proper, both direct and refutative; and the peroratio, or conclusion.[59] This is the characteristic movement of rhetoric, which, as is readily seen, is quite different from the plot movement of poetic.[60] The parts are capable of further analysis. Consequently most writers of the classical period subdivide the proof proper into probatio, or affirmative proof, and refutatio, or refutation.[61] And the Ad Herennium adds a divisio, which defines the issues, between the statement of facts and the proof.[62] Cassiodorus divides the speech into six parts[63] and so does Martianus Capella.[64] Thomas Wilson (1553) offers seven.[65]

The third part of rhetoric is elocutio, or style, the choice and arrangement of words in a sentence. Quintilian's treatment of style is typical. Words should be chosen which are in good use, clear, elegant, and appropriate. The sentences should be grammatically correct, artistically arranged, and adorned with such figures as antithesis, irony, and metaphor.[66] Correctness is usually presupposed by the rhetoricians. To the sound of sentences all classical treatises give an attention that seems amazing if we forget that in Greece and Rome all literature was spoken or read aloud. The sentence or period was considered more rhythmically than logically, and subdivided in speech into rhythmical parts called commas and cola. The end of the sentence was to be marked not by a printer's sign, but by the falling cadence of the rhythm itself. Furthermore, great care should be taken to avoid hiatus between words, as when the first word ends and the word following begins with a vowel. But the glory of style to the classical rhetorician lay in its use of figures. Here rhetoric vindicated its practicality by a preoccupation with the impractical; and here, as in analysis, rhetoric bore the seeds of its own decay. Although Aristotle devoted relatively little space to the rhetorical figures, later treatises emphasized them more and more until in post-classical and in mediaeval rhetoric little else is discussed. The figures of course had to be classified. First there were thefigurae verborum, or figures of language, which sought agreeable sounds alone or in combination, such as antitheses, rhymes, and assonances. Then the figurae sententiarum, or figures of thought, such as rhetorical questions, hints, and exclamations.[67] Quintilian classifies as tropes words or phrases converted from their proper signification to another. Among these are metaphor, irony, and allegory. In our day we consider as figures of speech only the classical tropes, and indeed Aristotle pays little attention to the others. He says that in prose one should use only literal names of things, and metaphors, or tropes[68]—which therefore are not literal names but substituted names. For instance in this metaphor, which Aristotle quotes from Homer, “The arrow flew,”[69] “flew” is not the literal word to express the idea. Only birds fly, reminds the practical person. Max Eastman has pertinently called attention to the fact that it is only to rhetoric, which is a practical activity, that these figures are indirect expressions, or substituted names. Apostrophe is not a turning away in poetic, because in poetic there is no argument to turn away from. Rather in poetic it is a turning toward the essential images of realization, as metaphor in poetic is direct, not indirect, because in poetic a word that suggests the salient parts or qualities of things will always stand out over the general names of things.[70]

The last two parts of rhetoric, memoria and pronuntiatio, are really not permanent parts of rhetoric, but only of the rhetoric of spoken address. Memoria, the art of memory, did not mean to the Greeks and Romans the art of learning by heart a written speech, but rather the art of keeping ready for use a fund of argumentative material, together with the features of the case which the speaker might be pleading. The discussion of it in the treatises is usually an exposition of the mnemonic system of visual association, the discovery of which is ascribed to Simonides. Cicero deliberately leaves a discussion of memoria out of his Orator, because as he says, it is common to many arts;[71] and the Dutch scholar Vossius in the renaissance denied that it was a part of rhetoric.[72] Pronuntiatio, or delivery, has also been found hardly an integral part of rhetoric. It is concerned with the use both of the voice and of gesture. Quintilian, for instance, records the effectiveness of clinging to the judge's knees, or of bringing into the court room the weeping child of the accused.[73] Aristotle discusses only the use of the voice.[74]

Thus classical rhetoric was almost exclusively restricted to the practical oratory of persuasion. In the republics of Greece and Rome a mastery of rhetoric gave its possessor political power; for by persuasive public speech a public man could gain a following by defending his clients in the law courts, and influence the destinies of the state by his deliberations in the legislative assembly. As long as these republican institutions prevailed, the theory and practice of rhetoric continued to be sound and practical.

4. Rhetoric as Part of Poetic

Implicit in Aristotle and throughout classical literary criticism there is a clear-cut distinction between poetic and rhetoric. Aside from the metrical form of poetic, accepted by all but Aristotle as a distinguishing characteristic, and the non-metrical form of rhetoric, the essentially practical nature of rhetoric marked it off to the Greeks and Romans as something quite different from poetic and infinitely more important in education and public life. But however clear-cut this distinction may be in principle, in practical application there is rarely to be found such ideal isolation.

Aristotle, for instance, carries rhetoric bodily over into poetic by including Thought, διÎνοιᾰ, as the third in importance of the constituent elements of tragedy.[75] This Thought is the intellectual element in conduct, and in drama is embodied not in action, but in speech.[76] Aristotle says,

  It is the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent in given 
  circumstances. In the case of oratory, this is the function of the 
  political art and of the art of rhetoric. Concerning thought, we may 
  assume what is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more 
  properly belongs. Under thought is included every effect which has to be 
  produced by speech, the subdivisions being—proof and refutation; the 
  excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger and the like; the 
  suggestion of importance or its opposite.[77]

This is a transfer of the content of rhetoric to poetic, but poetic remains an art of imitation. Imaginative realization of the life of man would be incomplete if the characters in a narrative or in a drama did not use the same rhetorical art as do the characters of actual life. The poets justly carry over rhetoric when the scene demands it, and have often proved themselves excellent rhetoricians. Quintilian praises the peroration of Priam's speech begging Achilles for the body of Hector,[78] and Cicero gives a rhetorical analysis of the speech of the old man in the Andria of Terence, where the arrangement is especially appropriate to the character of the speaker.[79] Norden, therefore, seems to go too far in giving this as an example of contamination of poetic by rhetoric.[80] Dante remains an excellent poet when he puts into the mouth of Virgil that persuasive speech to Cato in the first canto of the Purgatorio. Antony's speech in Julius Caesar is the best known modern example of the legitimate place of rhetoric in poetic.

5. Poetic as Part of Rhetoric

Just as rhetoric is justly carried over into poetic when in the realization of a character or situation a speech must be made or conduct rationalized, so poetic is constantly utilized by the orator. Public speech would be less persuasive if the characteristic imaginative qualities of poetic were excluded. The ideas and propositions of rhetoric would most ineffectually reach an audience if they were not made vivid. That rhetoric is not thus made synonymous with poetic is due to the fact that in rhetoric the images exist to illuminate the concept, while in poetic they are woven into the movement of the plot. Oratory, like poetry, is emotional, as Longinus asserts.[81] Cicero phrases the aim of the orator as “docere, delectare, et movere,” to prove, to delight, to move emotionally.[82] The vividness and emotion, as well as the charm, of poetic are indispensable in attaining the ultimate aim of rhetoric— persuasion. The orator must be himself moved, according to Quintilian,[83] just as the poet, according to Aristotle.[84] That essential quality, indeed, of poetic, the realization of character and situation which presents vividly a situation or event to the mind's eye of the reader or hearer so that he seems to participate in the action and vicariously live through it, was incorporated into rhetoric as ἐνΠγεια, a figure of speech. There petrified in an alien substance, this characteristic quality of poetic was transmitted to another age which knew of it through no other source.[85] Thus a successful orator narrated with descriptive vividness the circumstances, for instance, of a cruel murder, and even dramatized, speaking now in the person of one actor, now of another, the situation which he was endeavoring to realize for his audience. He was thus enabled better to carry his audience with him to his ultimate goal of persuasion.

But though rhetoric might for the moment thus borrow poetic, and though poetic might borrow rhetoric, the two remained distinct in the large, each conceived as having its own movement, its composition, distinct from that of the other.