Classical Rhetorical Theory

Michael H Prosser. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publication. 2009.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as finding all the available means of persuasion. Rhetoric was divided into five parts: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Classical rhetoric can be defined as the period of rhetorical developments from Corax (470-? BCE), author of the first work on rhetoric, The Art of Rhetoric, or Socrates (469-399 BCE) to Augustine (354-430). Thomas Benson and Michael Prosser define the period of classical rhetoric generally from Socrates to Augustine; Joseph Miller, Michael Prosser, and Thomas Benson argue that the medieval period began approximately with Augustine and extended to about 1400 and the rediscoveries of classical works.

Plato submitted rhetoric to its first philosophical dissection in his Socratic dialogues. The major Greek classical rhetorical treatise was Aristotle’s The Rhetoric, followed in Rome by Cicero, Quintilian, and Augustine. Five major classical rhetoricians include Plato (429- or 428-347 BCE or 420-348 BCE), Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Cicero (106-43 BCE), Quintilian (35-95 CE or 40-118 CE), and Augustine.


Plato, the most significant Western philosopher, articulated Western moral leadership of the universe and developed metaphysical and scientific thinking. In The Republic, he proposed the true lover of knowledge as naturally striving for truth and not content with common opinion but understanding the essential nature of things. His protagonist Socrates dialogically searched for truth, justice, high ethics, and goodness. Plato considered the absolute idea of the good as the highest form of perfect and invisible ideas or forms that are developed by inner meditation, in contrast with concrete objects, which he rejected as constituting real knowledge.

For Plato, the ideal republic included a philosopher-king to support virtue, justice, and wisdom; soldiers to protect and control the citizens in acquiring the society’s honor; and the civilian members of the society to provide the material needs of the society. He believed that people would act in accordance with virtue if they knew what formed the basis of virtue. Plato excluded poets in his ideal republic since they dealt with illusion rather than reality.


One of Plato’s early dialogues, the Gorgias, deals with truth, goodness, justice, and ethics but also contrasts monological rhetoric, which he considered like cooking or flattery, and interactive dialectic, or discussion, which leads intelligent individuals to reach the truth, perhaps by a kind of authoritarian consensus. Socrates implies that he knows what he doesn’t know, while those who think that they are wise often know nothing. The old illustrious teacher of rhetoric, Gorgias, and his followers discuss with Socrates the meaning of a rhetorician and rhetoric. It appears that Socrates leads Gorgias into dialectical traps as Socrates believes that the unknowing rhetorician or orator can persuade crowds or mobs better than the experts in health, medicine, and legislation.

Socrates asks Gorgias what he considers his art to be. Gorgias answers that it is rhetoric. Essentially, Socrates and Gorgias discuss reality as found in philosophical dialectic versus the semblance or pretense of reality as found in rhetorical culture and thus generally untruthful discourse. In ending the dialogue, Socrates makes a geometrical equation that as self-adornment is to gymnastic, so is sophistry to legislation, and as cookery is to medicine, so is rhetoric to justice.


Plato’s later dialogue about rhetoric and love has Socrates and Phaedrus discussing a speech by the famous Greek orator Lysias about love. Socrates praises the speech for its eloquence but critiques its lack of adequate definitions. He offers and then disclaims his own speech but finally gives still another, better speech praising the madness of love. Socrates proposes that if a speech is good, the speaker knows the truth about the matters he speaks about. Socrates indicates that speeches must contrast justice and injustice, good and evil, and reality and the semblance of reality.

In the Phaedrus, Plato introduces a noble rhetoric, based on truth, justice, virtue, and goodness. Socrates discusses both oral and written rhetoric, saying that as speech must lead souls by persuasion, a rhetorician must know the various forms of soul. The speaker or writer must also know the different classes of speech and also proper and improper words. Additionally, like Aristotle later, Socrates proposes that one should speak or write about things that are probable, based on first principles of goodness, justice, truth, virtue, and wisdom.

Plato calls on poets, persuasive orators or writers, and legislators to consider the importance of real knowledge, which leads to truth, supporting it by dialectic. Then, by that serious pursuit he might well be called a philosopher, or a lover of wisdom. Plato ends the dialogue by wishing that his own soul might be beautiful and that all his external possessions would be in harmony with his inner soul.


Aristotle was the Western world’s first great encyclopedist, writing many treatises including ones on metaphysics, politics, analytics, logic, physics or natural philosophy, rhetoric, poetry or dramatic arts, music, mathematics, geometry, biology or zoology, and psychology. He called himself a midwife of ideas.

Unlike Plato, who saw the soul as a separate nonphysical entity imprisoned in the body, Aristotle viewed the soul as relative and integral to the body. He described psychology as the study of the soul. Through the soul, Aristotle believed that humans develop the moral and intellectual aspects of humanity; thus the orator has the responsibility to lead audiences not only to truth, justice, and goodness but also toward happiness and human perfection.

Aristotle separated the study of logic into dialectic, as reasoned and intelligent discussion, and analytic discourse, which tests opinions for logical consistency, proceeding through deduction to individual cases. This logic established a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. Logic also includes the process of induction, or individual cases to general principles. Aristotle did not see politics as an abstract idea, as Plato did, but as principles moving toward actual cases with the goal of leading humans toward truth, justice, goodness, and happiness.

Nichomacean Ethics

This treatise by Aristotle dealt with ethics, truth, justice, goodness, and happiness, emphasizing the link between happiness and honor. He identified the causes of human happiness as having a good family, spouse, children, friends, community, education, health, and sufficient wealth for one’s station in life, patriotism, and possibly dying gloriously on the battlefield for one’s country. In this context, Aristotle argued that life has to be seen in completeness. His concept of happiness was essential in his development of metaphysics, psychology, politics, rhetoric, and poetry, in which he expanded Plato’s views on ethics and happiness as being the proper topics of those lines of inquiry and thought.

The Rhetoric

In this treatise with three books, Aristotle defined rhetoric as finding all the available means of persuasion and as the counterpart of dialectics and politics. The first two books emphasized the classes of speeches, role of invention, classes of evidence, and the best ways to persuade the souls of one’s audience. The short third book, probably added at a later time, emphasized the three remaining aspects of persuasion: style, memory, and delivery. The Rhetoric opened up the compositional, theoretical, analytic, and critical aspects of persuasion throughout Western history, but it was so influential that it has also led many later authors into viewing rhetoric as a mechanical system. Aristotle himself avoided the dilemma that later developed by creating an open and systematic approach to persuasion.

Beginning his treatise, he contrasted rhetoric as the counterpart of dialectic, both of which he claimed belonged to no definite science as all individuals engage in examining and submitting ideas to inquiry. Rhetoric is useful, Aristotle claimed, because truth and justice are naturally stronger than their opposites, and truth and justice will emerge in the process of offering proofs and telling one’s story in political terms.

Aristotle defined three classes of speeches: future-oriented deliberative speeches, which argue what individuals should or should not do; present-oriented epideictic or ceremonial speeches, praising or condemning individuals and their actions; and past-oriented judicial or forensic rhetoric, which persuades judges to decide whether an individual has or has not committed a crime and, if so, what the punishment should be. Aristotle believed that orators should be able to reason on both sides of a question in order to know the whole state of the case, not to promote evil, but to know the difference between good and evil. Unlike Plato, however, who believed that rhetoric itself must lead to moral conclusions, Aristotle argued that rhetoric is neither moral nor immoral, but amoral, as it is the orator who is responsible for leading audiences toward truth, justice, goodness, and happiness.

For Aristotle, persuasive speech must deal with probabilities as orators try to persuade their audiences by what is probable rather than what is absolute, or at least they must argue the difference between the possible and impossible. He said that artistic rhetoric must be concerned with proofs, which are a kind of demonstration, either through enthymemes—the most authoritative of proofs—in which the truth of one premise is well known and therefore is omitted, or by syllogisms, with the major and minor premises stated, followed by a conclusion. Aristotle’s major rhetorical contribution was the notion that there are three kinds of artistic proofs: ethos, or ethical proof, which depends on the credibility of the speaker, knowledge of the subject, and good will for the audience; logos, or logical proof, which depends on enthymemes and syllogisms; and pathos, or emotional proof, depending on appeals to the audience’s emotions, such as friendship, joy, anger, or sorrow.

In the second book, about the invention and arrangement of the speech, Aristotle wrote about how these proofs can be organized to persuade one’s audience. Specifically addressing the Greek men of his day, he proposed that young men are most likely to accept and be persuaded by emotional proofs, middle-aged men are likely persuaded by a mix of logical and emotional proofs, and old men are persuaded by reasoned logic. Aristotle proposed that all speeches have at least two parts, the thesis and the proof. He also used the analogy of a human body to make this point: the head, the body, and the feet, or an introduction, proof, and conclusion, comprise the parts of a speech.

In the third book of The Rhetoric, Aristotle briefly emphasized rhetoric’s central role in language, especially in terms of the metaphor, which he had earlier discussed in The Poetics, plus simplicity and clarity. He described all words as having denotative and connotative meanings as they may give the audience new knowledge. Aristotle called the metaphor and the simile figures of speech that enrich the orator’s artistic proofs by bridging the unknown and the known, but he urged that they should always be used in moderation. Finally, he briefly commented on the quality of the orator’s memory in recalling universal and specific commonplaces or topics to use in one’s oratory, as well as the need for a proper delivery. These two concepts were much more fully developed in the Roman Rhetorica CE Herrenium,written about 85 BCE.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero was one of Rome’s greatest statesmen, elected Consul in 64 BCE, as well as one of the greatest Roman jurists, orators, and rhetoricians. Among his best-known speeches are his Catiline orations, delivered in the Senate in 63 BCE against Lucius Catiline. Cicero claimed Catiline had conspired to overthrow the Roman republic. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, Cicero delivered his 14 Philippic orations against Mark Antony, who then had Cicero assassinated in 43 BCE. Both Cicero’s orations against Catiline and his Philippian orations are considered models of nearly perfect classical rhetoric.

Cicero had studied in Greece and was heavily influenced by Isocrates (436-338 BCE), the author of Antidosis and Against the Sophists, one of the most important Attic orators, and the founder of a rhetorical school in Athens who recommended the importance of rhetoric for the development of citizenship. Aristotle, whose discussion of logical and emotional proofs served as the foundation for invention and arrangement of speeches, was also an important rhetorical influence on Cicero. His own rhetorical influence extended to Quintilian (35-95 or 40-118 CE); Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin (347-419 or 420); Augustine (354-430); and Petrarch (1304-1374), who rediscovered many of Cicero’s lost works, thus establishing the significance of Cicero’s contributions for the Renaissance.

Cicero’s rhetorical writings included his history of Roman oratory, Brutus (45 BCE); Orator (45 BCE), in which he identified the Greek Demosthenes (384 or 383-322 BCE) as the ideal orator, and by implication himself, arguing that the moral orator provided the best source for the advancement of civilization and government; and On Oratory (55 BCE), written after finishing his political and military career.

On Oratory

This treatise, replacing his youthful treatise On Invention, was written in three books, in what is called a Ciceronian or Aristotelian dialogue style, in contrast to Plato’s more interactive Socratic dialogues. InOn Oratory, Cicero uses an imaginary conversation among friends in 91 BCE to discuss the value of rhetoric; Lucius Licinius Crassus (115-53? BCE), one of the main participants in the dialogue, represented Cicero’s own views.

Crassus argued that the power of oratory on assemblies could direct their inclinations wherever the speaker wishes or divert them from whatever the speaker wishes. Furthermore, he suggested that in every free nation, and most of all in communities that have attained the enjoyment of peace and tranquility, rhetoric is always the most superior art as the best source of civilization. After being challenged about this positive argument, Crassus responded that while he was aware of the foolish arguments by Gorgias for the value of the orator’s style over knowledge, still the orator must be fully aware of the substance of the matter under discussion, as Socrates had proposed. Essentially, On Oratory discussed ethical and emotional proof more in the philosophical views of true rhetoric introduced by Plato’s Phaedrus and in Aristotle’s Rhetoric than in Plato’s Gorgias.


Cicero’s last rhetorical work, in the form of a letter to Marcus Junius Brutus, delineated his view of the ideal orator and argued that true eloquence requires excellence in both thinking and expression, dividing style into appropriate language and delivery. The great orator must master three rhetorical styles—the plain for simple topics, the middle for more profound topics, and the grand style for very important occasions, as was seen in the orations of Greece’s perceived best orator, Demosthenes. For Cicero, the ideal orator can speak in the courts or deliberative assemblies so as to prove, please, or persuade. Cicero called the orator of the grand style magnificent and undoubtedly possessing the greatest power in civilization.


A Spanish Roman, Quintilian was the first teacher of rhetoric in Rome to receive a state salary. His description of the true orator was the good man speaking well.

Quintilian wrote the 12 books of his Institutes of Oratory in about 95 CE when his patron, the emperor Domitian, was daily condemning many Roman citizens to death for the slightest expression of disrespect toward himself; he banished all philosophers from Rome for fear that they would turn people against him. Domitian entrusted the rhetorical training of his two young nephews to Quintilian, and Quintilian wrote the Institutes for them as a treatise recommending the moral education of young boys as future citizens and leaders. Quintilian emphasized that the orator must above all study morality. Both Jerome and Augustine utilized the values promoted in The Institutes.

After being lost, The Institutes were rediscovered in 1470 and had a major influence in the Renaissance. Quintilian proclaimed rhetoric as entirely practical and useful, and while admitting that it could be misused, argued that it should be considered a good rather than evil contribution, both to the individual communicator in developing ethical standards and to civilization itself.


Augustine is typically considered the figure who bridges the classical and medieval periods. A teacher of rhetoric before converting to Christianity, Augustine in a sense essentially begins rhetoric anew. The contrast between Verbum as the word of God and verbum as the word of man was debated from the beginning of the Christian church. Jerome, a classical scholar and Christian best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin, frequently argued with Augustine about whether Christians could honorably utilize the ancient pagan rhetorical works. Jerome claimed his Ciceronian training was his great weakness in his moral development, and he gave up his study of classical rhetoric for Christianity. Augustine, however, in the fourth chapter of his treatise, On Christian Doctrine, argued that if pagan rhetoric could be used to honor God, then one could still utilize it. On Christian Doctrine not only ignores style over substance, it returned to Plato’s idea of moving individuals to truth by preaching the word of God. Augustine agreed with Aristotle that rhetoric itself is neither moral nor immoral but that the speaker is responsible for developing wisdom and truth. Nonetheless, wisdom without eloquence is of small benefit to states, but eloquence without wisdom is often extremely injurious and profits no one.


Classical rhetoric is important as the foundation for the modern field of communication, and the elements of rhetorical training offered by classical rhetoricians continue to be the basis of rhetorical training today. At the same time, there continues to be considerable debate about the nature of rhetoric, its properties, functions, and ends, just as was the case in classical times.