Rhetoric (from Greek ρήτωρ, rhêtôr, "orator") is one of the three original liberal arts or trivium (the other members are dialectic and grammar) in Western culture. In ancient and medieval times, both rhetoric and dialectic were understood to aim at being persuasive. The concept of rhetoric has shifted from time to time during its 2500-year history. Today rhetoric is generally described as the art of persuasion through language. Rhetoric can be described as a persuasive way in which one relates a theme or idea in an effort to convince. However, both the terms "rhetoric" and "sophistry" can be used today in a pejorative or dismissive sense, when someone wants to denigrate certain verbal reasoning as spurious.



The scholarly literature on the 2500-year history and theory of rhetoric in Western culture is far too voluminous to be listed at the end of this entry. Useful reference works include Thomas O. Sloane, ed., Encyclopedia of Rhetoric (Oxford University Press, 2001); Heinrich Lausberg, Handbook of Literary Rhetoric: A Foundation for Literary Study (1960; 2nd ed. 1973; English trans, Brill, 1998); Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (University of California Press, 1968; 2nd ed. 1991). For overview surveys of the scholarly literature, see Winifred Bryan Horner, ed., The Present State of Scholarship in Historical and Contemporary Rhetoric (University of Missouri Press, 1983; rev. ed. 1990); and Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown, eds., Defining the New Rhetorics (Sage, 1993).

Ancient Greece

Western thinking about rhetoric grew out of the public and political life of Ancient Greece, much of which revolved around the use of oratory as the medium through which philosophical ideas were developed and disseminated. For modern students today, it can be difficult to remember that the wide use and availability of written texts is a phenomenon that was just coming into vogue in Classical Greece. In Classical times, many of the great thinkers spoke their words; in fact, many of them are known only through the texts that their students and followers wrote down. As has already been noted, rhetor was the Greek term for orator. See Jeffrey Walker, Rhetoric and Poetic in Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Rhetoric thus evolved as an important art, one that provided the orator with the forms, means, and strategies of persuading an audience of the correctness of the orator's arguments. Today the term rhetoric can be used at times to refer only to the form of argumentation, often with the pejorative connotation that rhetoric is a means of obscuring the truth. Classical philosophers believed quite the contrary: the skilled use of rhetoric was essential to the discovery of truths, because it provided the means of ordering and clarifying arguments.

The Sophists

Organized thought about rhetoric began in ancient Greece. The first written manual is attributed to Corax and his pupil Tisias. Their work, as well as that of many of the early rhetoricians, grew out of the courts of law; Tisias, for example, is believed to have written judicial speeches that others delivered in the courts. Rhetoric was popularized in the 5th century BC by itinerant teachers known as sophists, the best known of whom were

  • Online edition of Thomas Wilson's The Arte of Rhetorique
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