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Theory of Persuasion: Classical Rhetoric Overview
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19/10/2000 1:27 pm Thu

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Classical Rhetoric Overview

Robert Gwynne, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee

Although there are various definitions of the word "rhetoric," we can say that it is the art of persuasion. This includes written as well as spoken persuasion, and would include propaganda, advertising, etc. Originally, however, it referred to spoken persuasion.

By "classical" we mean that time from the fifth century B.C.E in the Mediterranean area, particularly Greece and Italy.

Classical rhetoric is important because it established the basic theories of persuasion that were taught until this century. These theories still hold true today, and we can become better, more persuasive communicators if we adhere to the best of them. If you stop and think about it for a minute, you will note that the most influential and powerful people in our society are good communicators. Politicians who make our laws are generally excellent speakers. People whom you admire (outside of sports) are often good communicators.

Although it's said that power comes out of the end of a gun, power really comes out of people's mouths. Hitler was a good speaker who was able to control a large military by virtue of his power to persuade. Christ was a person who was able to persuade with sermons. Malcom X and Martin Luther King were adept speakers. In short, communication is power. The teachers who established rhetoric as an art knew this well and were able to observe and establish those things that make for effective persuasion. Just as Pythogoras established his theorem which serves as the basis for modern multivariate statistical theory, Protagoras, Aristotle, Cicero, etc., established rhetorical theories which are still powerful today. Language is, like the gun, an instrument of power for those who know how to use it.

How it Began

Rhetoric grew out of the need for people to express themselves in court. There were no lawyers in Athens, Greece in 500 B.C.E. The story goes that a man by the name of Corax started the first courses in rhetoric in Sicily in response to an increase in litigation over land. We don't know if this is true, but we do know that itinerant teachers called sophists (sophos = wise) began teaching rhetoric in Athens in the 5th century.

The Athenians had done two things that created a need for teachers of rhetoric. First, they founded a democratic form of government and, second, they instituted court reform. In the first instance, government had been based on a clan or tribal system, as it still is in many Middle Eastern countries today. This meant that the clans with the most land, power, people, etc., had advantage over weaker clans. Since the system did not work smoothly Kleisthenes created a system in which power resided in the people as a whole and not in an elite few. Second, they filled high offices by choosing by lot from among the best qualified among the candidates. In addition, the courts were reformed by changing from a system of magistrates who decided cases to a system of juries chosen by lot. The juries, by the way, were quite large, around 200 citizens. Citizens, it should be noted, did not include women or slaves. Also note that slaves were not of African origin, but were generally women and children or male craftsmen captured in war. Most males captured in war were killed. If the men were not killed they would have been used to work in mines or the galleys of ships. Getting back to the point, since the juries were large, trials were rather public affairs. Also, the people involved in the trials had to defend or plea their own cases. No Johnny Cochrans here.

With such an open system of government in which people had to argue their own cases and could become powerful politicians and leaders by virtue of their eloquence, learning how to win friends and influence people became a valued skill. As a consequence, speech teachers were in demand. Things were not all as equalitarian as we might imagine, however. As always wealth played no small part. The sophists (teachers) charged high fees for their services, which only the wealthy could afford. Just like today, the rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Unlike today, however, the teachers made money.

The Sophists

The Sophists were not an organized school of philosophy. Instead, they were itinerant teachers, some of whom taught in Athens and competed with each other for clients. Their main competitor, however, was Plato. Whereas, the Sophists believed that only provisional or probable knowledge was available to human beings, Plato believed that absolute knowledge was attainable. Since the Sophists traveled around and saw many different societies with many different perceptions of reality and the gods, they became relativists. Although Plato, most of who's writings have come down to us, berated the Sophists for not being concerned with truth, but only in making money and securing success in argument by any means possible, the Sophists were highly concerned with
truth as they saw it. They just didn't see it the way Plato saw it.

" Plato regarded the rational soul as immortal, and he believed in a world soul and a Demiurge, the creator of the physical world. He argued for the independent reality of Ideas, or Forms, as the immutable archetypes of all temporal phenomena and as the only guarantee of ethical standards and of objective scientific knowledge. Virtue consists in the harmony of the human soul with the universe of Ideas, which assure order, intelligence, and pattern to a world in constant flux. Supreme among them is the Idea of the Good, analogous to the sun in the physical world."

The Sophists, on the other hand, saw human nature as shaped by social circumstances. It's ironic that, while Plato is venerated, along with Aristotle, as THE great classical philosopher, the Sophists are the ones who are the most modern. Philosophers such as John Searle make the argument that social reality is constructed. For example, although money is palpable, e.g., it is paper, silver, etc.,it is the social agreement of what money represents that counts. Money stands for a social construct that we agree upon. During the American Civil War Confederate dollars were worth something; however, after the South lost the war, the North changed that social reality. Since the Sophists often dealt with legal arguments, a more pertinent example is the outcome of the O.J.Simpson trial. The trial made the different realities of African Americans and White Americans manifest. In a sense, there is an absolute reality: O.J. either did or did not really murder Nichole Brown. But what counts is the social reality. Legally, he didn't do it. Plato would have a hard time with that kind of argument; whereas, the Sophists would accept it. I know what I believe, but my belief is determined by social considerations such as my racial and ethnic background, what I saw and heard in the trial, and so on.

Sophistic rhetoric was divided into two main schools: that of Protagoras and that of Gorgias (Gore-Gee-Us). Protagoras was a relativist who believed that morals are not universal and absolute, but culturally or socially determined. Our experience of the world is limited by our senses. For example, humans do not have the ability to see in the infra-red range of the spectrum; so we cannot see the same things that cats can see. However, cats can't see color; so they have no
idea of color. In addition to being limited by the limitations of our perceptions, we are also limited by language in the expression of our perceptions and feelings. This is because language is made up of symbols that stand in place of the real thing. If, for example, we wish to describe a particular aroma, we must resort to comparisons with known aromas. If can't compare the aroma to another one or if the person to whom we are describing the aroma has never smelled the reference aroma, we are in trouble. Language is posterior to reality and hence incapable of encompassing and communicating it. We exchange words, not realities. Nevertheless, Protagoras believed that "Man is the measure of all things: things that are that they are and things that are not that they are not." If cows had gods, he said, the gods would look like cows. Instead of man being created in the image of God, he believed it is the other way around: the gods are created in the image of man. Since our perceptions of the gods are limited to human experience, we socially create them in a human image. Anyone who has studied Greek mythology knows that the Greek gods were in many
ways a disfunctional extended family. Protagoras believed that only by being persuaded (having our sense of reality socially determined) can we feel that we know anything. As a consequence, rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, is a powerful and useful tool.

Gorgias emphasized the power of rhetoric, both nonverbal and verbal, more than did Protagoras. In his most famous surviving work, Encomium to Helen, (An encomium is a speech of praise.)Gorgias argues that Helen was not the cause of the Trojan War. For those who do not know the story, a little digression: Helen, who most likely really lived, was the daughter of Zeus (a god) and Leda (a princess). All the kings of Greece wooed her because she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She probably also laid claim to a lot of land as well. She was given the choice of whom to marry and all of the kings of Greece agreed to defend her husband if anyone tried to take her from him by force. She chose Menelaus, the king of Sparta as her mate. The story goes that she was stolen away by Paris of Troy, an important horse trading city across the Aegean Sea on the coast of what is now Turkey. As a consequence the Greek kings kept their promise and beseiged Troy for ten years before it finally fell and was destroyed. We don't know exactly when all of this happened, but it was probably a couple hundred years before the blind Greek poet Homer (800 B.C.E ?) created the Illiad, an epic poem about the seige. By the time we get to the Fifth Century B.C.E., the poets blame Helen for not being an unwilling participant in the affair, which damaged Greek society and destroyed Troy. In essence, the poets of Gorgias' time were saying that Helen
was the cause of the terrible war.

Gorgias, who was noted for being an extremely powerful and entertaining speaker, came to her defense by saying that she was not to blame. She was captivated by Paris's speech and appearance. In the encomium, Gorgias writes that "speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinest works: it can stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nurture pity.

"The effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies. For just as different drugs dispel different secretions from the body, and some bring an end to disease and others to life, so also in the case of speeches, some distress, others delight, some cause fear, and others make hearers bold, and some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion. ... if she was persuaded by speech she did not do wrong but was unfortunate."

This sounds a lot like a modern defense lawyer talking.

Both Protagoras and Gorgias rejected the idea of absolute truth. Gorgias said that opinion is the only guide to action. The power of speech is the power to shape opinion. They differed, however, on the issue of symmetry in the communication transaction. According to Gorgias the action is one way between the speaker and the audience. According to Protagoras, both sides influence the outcome or opinion. The relationship between the speaker and the audience is symmetric rather than asymmetric. These differences exist today in people's attitudes toward television, with some believing that television viewers are passive consumers of all that they see on the tube. Others
would disagree and say that people react to and influence what is on the tube, particularly in regard to ratings. Both sides are most likely correct. Studies, for example, show that television's affect on violent behavior is actually minimal; however, we can all cite instances of television being responsible for violent behavior in children and young adults. In modern times, with so many different types of media, the characteristics of each medium determine how much feedback or symmetry is available. Feedback is an important concept in modern communication theory.

Isocrates (That's not Socrates, mind you) was another Sophist who has contributed to an especially important ideas in rhetorical theory. His primary interest was to train talented men to become ethical and effective speakers. Like other Sophists he believed that human knowledge is limited. Choosing the "right" course of action in every situation is impossible. He stressed eloquence in speech making and was quite eloquent himself. Although learning to speak eloquently was stressed in a large part of our rhetorical history, it is of little importance today.

What is important today is his stress on fitness for the occassion. To him, fitness was all. That is certainly true today. Modern speech teachers constantly admonish their students to analyze the audience and to design presentations that are appropriate to the audience. One problem that many scholars and scientists have is that they are unable to communicate with the common folk because they are too technical. Another of Isocrates' beliefs was that speakers should be moral
and ethical.

In the Antidosis he wrote:

"For who does not know that words carry greater conviction when spoken by men of good repute than when spoken by men who live under a cloud, and that the argument which is made by a man's life is of more weight than that which is furnished by his words."

I will stress again and again that one's credibility is central to persuasion. A person who is not credible is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to persuasion. Over the last few years credibility has been central to U.S. politics. Why, for example, are the Republicans going after President Clinton and the First Lady regarding White Water? The answer is that they want to bring down the President or at least neutralize his power. The Democrats did the same thing to George Bush regarding Iran-Contra. Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker lost their power to persuade because they lost their credibility. Put bluntly, credibility is power. The power game in Washinton these days seems to rely more on undermining the opponent's credibility than on criticizing his/her political philosophy.

Isocrates also wrote that ability, whether in speech or in any other activity, is found in those who are well endowed by nature and have been schooled by practical experience. In addition to credibility, rhetorical success results from:

1.Natural talent,
2.Practice in varied situations,
3.Instruction in general principles.

One of the above characteristics alone is not enough. It takes all working together. We all know or have known someone who has a large quantity of natural talent for something, but who suffers from not putting the talent to use or from not having had instruction to develop the talent. In some cases a person with great talent will not develop it because she/he feels she/he can get by well without practice or instruction. On the other hand, practice and instruction may be of some help for a person lacking talent, but it's hard to reach a high level of competence without being born with talent. This is true of communicating in front of a group. However, even if we can't all
become Martin Luther Kings, we can at least polish up what we have. On the other hand, I've heard talented people who may have had the talent of King perform poorly because they lacked practice and instruction. Isocrates' point is perhaps not as obvious regarding speaking, because we all do it, as it is with music. There are some who can practice a lot, have the best instruction, etc., but still can't hit a right note on the beat. On the other hand, there are those who have talent who can't play because they don't practice.

What can we learn from the Sophists? First, absolute, complete knowledge is impossible because of our limited senses. Second, language (rhetoric) plays a major role in shaping our sense of reality especially social reality. Third, we have an ethical and practical responsibility to be credible, to tell and seek the truth. Fourth, talent, practice, and instruction taken together make for good communicators.


Plato was not kind to the Sophists. First, he competed with them for students. Second, he differed with them philosophically. Whereas the Sophists were relativists, Plato and his followers were absolutists. Third, although Protagoras may have introduced the method, Plato settled on dialectic as the means to determining truth. In the dialectic method, an answerer and a questioner debate. The answerer defends his thesis and the questioner tries to demolish it. The questioner can only ask questions and the answerer can only answer with yes or no answers. The questioner tries to frame a series of questions so that he will lead the answerer to contradict his thesis. We now know that, although the debates appear to be logical, they often depend on shifts in the meanings of words. However, the method was the beginning of methodical philosophical reasoning. A parody of such a dialogue goes like this:

Q: Have you a dog?
A: Yes.
Q: Has it got puppies?
A: Yes.
Q: Then your dog is a father?
A: Yes.
Q: Now, is the dog yours?
A: Of course.
Q: Then being a father he is yours, so the dog becomes your father and you the puppies' brother.

Plato, as I said, was an absolutist. That is, he believed that certain things were absolutely true or false. For example 49 is a square number. Always has been, always will be. Or, an equal lateral triangle has all sides absolutely equal. If one side is off by just the tiniest bit, it is not an equal lateral triangle. In order to understand where he was coming from, we need to understand his theory of forms, best expressed in his dialogue Phaedo. A simplified explanation goes like this:

"We cannot know things accurately through our senses. Here, he agrees with the Sophists. The world is mutable. The snow which I see outside my window will soon melt. Like everything, it changes. However, we know that there are timeless truths, e.g., the square root of 4 equals 2. We also know that there are concepts such a truth, beauty, and justice which are timeless. For Plato a general idea or concept is immutable because it is an independently existing real thing or entity. Plato also believed that the human souls are immortal, which implies that they must have already existed before they got here and will continue to exist somewhere when we die. This immortality of the soul is proved by the fact that we are able to apprehend the everlasting conceptual objects that Plato called Forms."

This world of Forms is a secondary, transcendent world that contains concept-objects or ideas. This world of Forms or Ideas is a separate place that we have come from and to which we will return. It is similar to the Christian idea of Heaven. Since we come from this world, we have knowledge of it. The way that we uncover that knowledge is through dialectic or some kind of mystical connection.

So what, you ask. The "so what" is that with absolute knowledge, rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is an invalid method of arriving at true knowledge. Furthermore, if we have a priesthood that has a direct line to the world of Forms, we don't need to be persuaded in the Forms. We only need to accept what the priesthood has to say. If we have a political leader who has a direct line to the world of Forms, we need not think, question, or complain; we only need to listen to our dictator who knows the truth. Soon we find that ideas that run counter to the dictator are suppressed by shutting up the critics one way or another: jail, death, control of the media, etc. Speech turns from an emphasis on persuasion to an emphasis on style, etc. Ceremonial speech and sermons become important. This sort of thinking resulted in the Inquisition by the medieval Church which executed and persecuted untold numbers of people, including Copernicus and Galileo. Today, it leads to suppression of the press, and in counties like Iran to the suppression of those opposed to the fundamentalist Shia theocracy. The Sophistic view supports freedom of speech; the Platonic view, censorship.


Although Aristotle attended Plato's Academy, he did not agree with him in every respect. He agreed that knowledge of universal ideas was a kind of knowledge, but he also believed that we gain knowledge from experience, from particulars. In between the two kinds was probable knowledge, knowledge of what is generally the case. The arguments of dialectic, he wrote, derive from premises based on universal opinion, while the arguments of rhetoric derive from particular opinion. However, he was concerned that many of the Sophists were concerned only with manipulating words and people just to win an argument, not to find truth.

At the outset of his work, On Rhetoric, Aristotle says that rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic. He further goes on to define it as the art of finding the available persuasives. Since people are not persuaded until they are convinced that something is true, rhetoric involves demonstration of how those somethings are true or at least usually true. There are three sources to look at to find what may persuade an audience:


Ethos has to do with the character of the speaker, with his/her credibility. Credibility involves more than just honor. It has to do with demeanor, expertise, attractiveness as so on. I'll devote more time to this complex and important subject later. For now, however, let's just think of ethos as all that stuff that affects the audience's perception of the speaker. Pathos, on the other hand focuses on the characteristics of the audience. In modern day parlance, we might say that it has to do with audience demographics and psychographics, i.e., education level, intelligence, ethnicity, gender, age, interests, etc. Logos has to do with the speech itself, e.g., its arrangement, length, complexity, types of evidence and arguments, and so on. All three of these characteristics are equally important, although some may become more important in different situations.

One thing is certain, though, and that is that each characteristic requires research. In order to present a credible appearance, one needs to be prepared, which involves research into the topic. Audiences, at least some of the time, are able to recognize a strong breeze of hot air hitting them in the face. Audience research is also important. Know your audience and design your message so that it appeals to them and so that people can understand it. Scientists, engineers, computer geeks, etc., often talk over their audience's heads. Maybe they like to hear themselves pontificate. That, however, is a good way to lose an audience. Advertisers know how important audience analysis and audience targetting is. They spend billions of dollars a year on audience analysis. Finally, preparing a well organized presentation with lots of evidence and examples is important. People like structure and they like examples, "little stories" that illustrate a point. It's easy to see how these three characteristics interact. The speech has to be organized in way that will convince the audience. We have to know the audience to do this. We also have to know the audience in order to
know how to make them think that we are credible. And we have to prepare well to be credible.

Aristotle also wrote about the three virtues of of style:


Clarity is important. In the above paragraph I wrote about audience analysis and how some speakers have problems because they speak over their audience's heads. In every case, it is necessary to be clear. Use concise, well chosen examples; choose words carefully; don't try to snow your audience. Propriety has to do with what is proper. There are certain words that we do not use with general audiences. There are things that we don't talk about. As one Supreme Court judge said about indecent language. A pig is just fine in a pig pen, but not in the parlor. The whole idea is to get the audience on your side, not to alienate them. We should also use correct language. We should use grammar fit for the occasion and correct words. We don't want to say things such as, "Poor people are able to afford less homes." It should be "fewer homes." We need to eliminate "ah," "like," "ya know," etc. from our speech.

By the First Century B.C.E. rhetoricians had settled on the five part division of the preparation of a speech: three of these parts are still useful to us today: invention, arrangement, and delivery.

Invention has to do with finding the arguments, evidence, examples, etc., that will persuade our audience. In other words, invention has a strong research component. According to Aristotle, there are two main divisions of arguments: artistic and non-artistic. The non-artistic arguments are those that the speaker has to discover and not just think up. These are the kinds of arguments that are out there for us to discover. Aristotle divided the artistic proofs into three main categories:

rational or logos
emotional or pathos
ethical or ethos

There are various kinds of rational arguments, but the two main kinds are inductive and deductive arguments. An inductive argument derives its truthfulness from what is generally true, e.g., the sun has risen in the west everyday in recorded history; therefore, the sun will rise in the west tomorrow. Or, smokers have a higher incidence of lung cancer than nonsmokers; therefore, smoking causes lung cancer.

Inductive arguments show up as examples, deductive arguments often are what Aristotle called enthymemes. An enthymeme is an argument that contains a conclusion and one premise, with the other premise being implied or taken for granted by the audience. For example: "No one ever attains perfect happiness in this life; so Monique had better not count on attaining perfect happiness." We assume that Monique is a person and not my pet cat, which seems to have achieved perfect happiness.

Since people are generally more passionate than rational, emotional appeals are often effective. This should be readily apparent to anyone who at least casually kept up with the O. J. Simpson trial. The judgement of the nation was divided according to race and not evidence. Because we are emotional, most advertising appeals to pathos. The research that is appropriate for determining what pathetic appeals are most effective is audience analysis. Advertisers, today's most effective
persuaders, spend billions of dollars per year on audience anaylsis. Even politicians use teams of researchers to conduct focus groups and surveys of audience demographics, psychographics, and salient issues. Even a candidate's hair style plays a part in the persuasive process. Though we live in a highly technological world, persuasion relies on using technology to appeal to our most primitive emotions, not to our reason.

Ethos, ethical appeal, is a more important mode of persuasion than we might first realize. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are." Ethos, which also falls under the rubric of credibility, has to do with the audience's perception of the character of the speaker. If a speaker impresses the audience with his/her appearance, competence or expertise, intelligence, good will, honesty, dynamism, etc., chances are that he/she will persuade the audience. If not, he/she will not be persuasive. Ever since Nixon covered up the facts behind the Watergate burglary, both Republicans and Democrats have attempted to reduce
the power of their opponents by attacks on their opponents' credibility. The credibility of Hillary Clinton, who is not an elected official, is under constant attack by the Republicans because they want to undermine her power and the power of her husband, the President. The Democrats did the same thing when they questioned the veracity and forthrightness of President Bush regarding the Iran-Contra affair. Instead of relying on logos (the issues), modern politicians seem to stress the lack of their opponents' ethics. Athough, President Reagan's credibility was attacked, particularly regarding Iran-Contra, Reagan was known as the "Great Communicator" because of his charisma. One scholar has called Reagan's kind of credibility charismatic articulation. The charismatic articulator has the ability to say what people feel and wish to hear, but are unable to say themselves. Rush Limbaugh, an extremely articulate entertainer, functions as a charismatic articulator for a significant segment of the U.S. population. However, another significant number of the poplulation has serious questions regarding the evidence that he uses. Both Reagan and Limbaugh have had the added credibility derived from truly believing what they espouse.

Modern scholars have determined that there are seven dimensions for source credibility (Listed in order of importance).

1.Competence : The level of knowledge and experience the audience perceives in the speaker. Preparation, body language, appearance, educational level are important here.
2.Trustworthyness: The reliability of the speaker. Does the speaker do what he/she says. Type of occupation, e.g., used-car salesman versus experienced mechanic.
3.Dynamism: Aggressiveness, force, energy, loud/soft, rhythm, body language,etc. Eliminate "and ah," "uh." 4.Power: Appearance, whether speaker can provide rewards and punishment, wealth, etc.
5.Goodwill: Degree to which speaker has audience's versus his/her best interests in mind.
6.Idealism:Degree to which speaker is perceived as having values and qualities that audience esteems and desires. Martin Luther King is an example of a speaker with high level of idealism. 7.Similarity: Degree to which speaker is perceived as resembling the audience.

Arrangement is important because people like structure. Aristotle said that speeches should have at least a beginning, middle, and end. This sounds simple enough, but I have heard countless speakers blatantly disregard this basic rule. What usually happens is that such speakers get so carried away by the sound of their own words that their speeches have two, three, or more beginnings, middles, and ends. A good speech, like a jazz solo builds to a climax and ends. The audience can hear the flow of the speech and anticipate the conclusion. To have several climaxes in one speech frustrates the audience's expectations. Another problem that often arises with inexperienced speakers is that they totally forget the conclusion or fail to signal the conclusion. They leave us hanging, asking, So, is that it?"

Outlining your speech or presentation is important. A sentence outline can help you with the structure of the presentation, and a keyword outline derived from the sentence outline can help you keep your place while giving the presentation. In addition, your audience will thank you for giving them some structure. Remember, people thrive on structure and desire closure.