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Rhetoric is the art of discourse, wherein a writer or speaker strives to inform, persuade or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. As a subject of formal study and a productive civic practice, rhetoric has played a central role in the European tradition. Its best known definition comes from Aristotle, who considers it a counterpart of both logic and politics, and calls it "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." Rhetoric typically provides heuristics for understanding, discovering, and developing arguments for particular situations, such as Aristotle's three persuasive audience appeals, logos, pathos, and ethos. The five canons of rhetoric, which trace the traditional tasks in designing a persuasive speech, were first codified in classical Rome: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Along with grammar and logic (or dialectic—see Martianus Capella), rhetoric is one of the three ancient arts of discourse.

From Ancient Greece to the late 19th century, it was a central part of Western education, filling the need to train public speakers and writers to move audiences to action with arguments. The word is derived from the Greek ῥητορικός rhētorikós, "oratorical", from ῥήτωρ rhḗtōr, "public speaker", related to ῥῆμα rhêma, "that which is said or spoken, word, saying", and ultimately derived from the verb ἐρῶ erō, "I say, I speak".

Scholars have debated the scope of rhetoric since ancient times. Although some have limited rhetoric to the specific realm of political discourse, many modern scholars liberate it to encompass every aspect of culture. Contemporary studies of rhetoric address a more diverse range of domains than was the case in ancient times. While classical rhetoric trained speakers to be effective persuaders in public forums and institutions such as courtrooms and assemblies, contemporary rhetoric investigates human discourse . Rhetoricians have studied the discourses of a wide variety of domains, including the natural and social sciences, fine art, religion, journalism, digital media, fiction, history, cartography, and architecture, along with the more traditional domains of politics and the law. Many contemporary approaches treat rhetoric as human communication that includes purposeful and strategic manipulation of symbols. Public relations, lobbying, law, marketing, professional and technical writing, and advertising are modern professions that employ rhetorical practitioners.

Miscellaneous terms
Political speech resources
Primary sources
Secondary sources
  • Inventio (invention) is the process that leads to the development and refinement of an argument.
  • Once arguments are developed, dispositio (disposition, or arrangement) is used to determine how it should be organized for greatest effect, usually beginning with the exordium.
  • Once the speech content is known and the structure is determined, the next steps involve elocutio (style) and pronuntiatio (presentation).
  • Memoria (memory) comes to play as the speaker recalls each of these elements during the speech.
  • Actio (delivery) is the final step as the speech is presented in a gracious and pleasing way to the audience – the Grand Style.
  • Chaïm Perelman was a philosopher of law, who studied, taught, and lived most of his life in Brussels. He was among the most important argumentation theorists of the 20th century. His chief work is the Traité de l'argumentation – la nouvelle rhétorique (1958), with Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, which was translated into English as The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation, by John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver (1969). Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca move rhetoric from the periphery to the center of argumentation theory. Among their most influential concepts are "dissociation," "the universal audience," "quasi-logical argument," and "presence."
  • Kenneth Burke was a rhetorical theorist, philosopher, and poet. Many of his works are central to modern rhetorical theory: A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), A Grammar of Motives (1945), Language as Symbolic Action (1966), and Counterstatement (1931). Among his influential concepts are "identification," "consubstantiality," and the "dramatistic pentad." He described rhetoric as "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols." In relation to Aristotle's theory, Aristotle was more interested in constructing rhetoric, while Burke was interested in "debunking" it.
  • Edwin Black was a rhetorical critic best known for his book Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method (1965) in which he criticized the dominant "neo-Aristotelian" tradition in American rhetorical criticism as having little in common with Aristotle "besides some recurrent topics of discussion and a vaguely derivative view of rhetorical discourse." Furthermore, he contended, because rhetorical scholars had been focusing primarily on Aristotelian logical forms they often overlooked important, alternative types of discourse. He also published several highly influential essays including: "Secrecy and Disclosure as Rhetorical Forms.", "The Second Persona," and "A Note on Theory and Practice in Rhetorical Criticism."
  • Marshall McLuhan was a media theorist whose theories and whose choice of objects of study are important to the study of rhetoric. McLuhan's famous dictum "the medium is the message" highlights the significance of the medium itself. No other scholar of the history and theory of rhetoric was as widely publicized in the 20th century as McLuhan.
  • I. A. Richards was a literary critic and rhetorician. His The Philosophy of Rhetoric is an important text in modern rhetorical theory. In this work, he defined rhetoric as "a study of misunderstandings and its remedies," and introduced the influential concepts tenor and vehicle to describe the components of a metaphor—the main idea and the concept to which it is compared.
  • The Groupe µ. This interdisciplinary team has contributed to the renovation of the elocutio in the context of poetics and modern linguistics, significantly with Rhétorique générale (1970; translated into English as A General Rhetoric, by Paul B. Burrell et Edgar M. Slotkin, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) and Rhétorique de la poésie (1977).
  • Stephen Toulmin was a philosopher whose models of argumentation have had great influence on modern rhetorical theory. His Uses of Argument is an important text in modern rhetorical theory and argumentation theory.
  • Richard Vatz is a rhetorician responsible for the salience-agenda/meaning-spin conceptualization of rhetoric, later revised (2014) to an "agenda-spin" model, a conceptualization which emphasizes persuader responsibility for the agenda and spin he/she creates. His theory is notable for its agent-focused perspective, articulated in /The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion/ (Kendall Hunt), derived from the Summer, 1973 /Philosophy and Rhetoric/ article, "The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation."
  • Richard M. Weaver was a rhetorical and cultural critic well known for his contributions to the new conservatism. He focused on the ethical implications of rhetoric and his ideas can be seen in "Language is Sermonic" and "The Ethics of Rhetoric." According to Weaver there are four types of argument, and through the argument a person habitually uses the critic can see the rhetorician's worldview. Those who prefer the argument from genus or definition are idealists. Those who argue from similitude see the connectedness between things and are used by poets and religious individuals. The argument from consequence sees a cause and effect relationship. Finally the argument from circumstance considers the particulars of a situation and is an argument preferred by liberals.
  • Ideological criticism – critics engage rhetoric as it suggests the beliefs, values, assumptions, and interpretations held by the rhetor or the larger culture. Ideological criticism also treats ideology as an artifact of discourse, one that is embedded in key terms (called "ideographs") as well as material resources and discursive embodiment.
  • Cluster criticism – a method developed by Kenneth Burke that seeks to help the critic understand the rhetor's worldview. This means identifying terms that are 'clustered' around key symbols in the rhetorical artifact and the patterns in which they appear.
  • Frame analysis – when used as rhetorical criticism, this theoretical perspective allows critics to look for how rhetors construct an interpretive lens in their discourse. In short, how they make certain facts more noticeable than others. It is particularly useful for analyzing products of the news media.
  • Generic criticism – a method that assumes certain situations call for similar needs and expectations within the audience, therefore calling for certain types of rhetoric. It studies rhetoric in different times and locations, looking at similarities in the rhetorical situation and the rhetoric that responds to them. Examples include eulogies, inaugural addresses, and declarations of war.
  • Narrative criticism – narratives help organize experiences in order to endow meaning to historical events and transformations. Narrative criticism focuses on the story itself and how the construction of the narrative directs the interpretation of the situation.
  • Ralf van Bühren: Die Werke der Barmherzigkeit in der Kunst des 12.–18. Jahrhunderts. Zum Wandel eines Bildmotivs vor dem Hintergrund neuzeitlicher Rhetorikrezeption (Studien zur Kunstgeschichte, vol. 115), Hildesheim / Zürich / New York: Verlag Georg Olms 1998.
  • Bernard K. Duffy and Martin Jacobi: The Politics of Rhetoric: Richard Weaver and the Conservative Tradition (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993).
  • Eugene Garver, Aristotle's Rhetoric: An Art of Character (University of Chicago Press, 1994) .
  • Lisa Jardine, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse (Cambridge University Press, 1975)
  • Charles U. Larson, Persuasion Reception and Responsibility Twelfth Edition, Wadsworth Cengage Learning (2012)
  • Jacqueline de Romilly, The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens (French orig. 1988; English trans. Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1992).
  • William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (2004) .
  • Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, Aristotle's Rhetoric Los Angeles, United States of America (1996)
  • Andresen, Volker. Speak Well in Public - 10 Steps to Succeed. .
  • Duffy, Bernard K. and Richard Leeman. eds. American Voices: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Orators (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005).
  • Cox, Leonard. at Project Gutenberg.
  • Garver, Eugene. Aristotle's Rhetoric: On Art of Character. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Jansinski, James. Sourcebook on Rhetoric. Sage Publications, Inc. 2001.
  • Kennedy, George A. Aristotle, On Rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Kuypers, Jim A. ed. Purpose, Practice, and Pedagogy in Rhetorical Criticism (Lanham, MD: Lexington Press, 2014).
  • Kuypers, Jim A. and Andrew King. Twentieth-Century Roots of Rhetorical Studies (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001).
  • Rainolde (or Rainholde), Richard. at Project Gutenberg.
  • Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg (ed.). Essays on Aristotle's Rhetoric. Berkeley (CA): University of California Press, 1996.


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