1.9. Classical Rhetoric






1.9.1. Introduction

1.9.2. Genres and styles

1.9.3. Phases of composition

1.9.4. Parts of a speech




1.9.1. Introduction




Classical rhetoric can be defined as the science of persuasion through the use of language, the discipline which studies the way a speech can be made more effective through the use of devices which can be identified, classified and learnt. It is therefore a practical discipline, a "technique", as it is called by Aristotle. Ars bene dicendi, the shorter classical definition of rhetoric, insists on this practical side of rhetoric. Equally important is the notion that rhetoric is concerned above all with oral discourse--not with written language, which is the main concern of poetics. Also, there is no question of inspiration in rhetoric. Being a practical technique, it is concerned with controllable and predictable means of construction and persuasion, not with speculations about the origin of beauty or invention. The emphasis is all the time on practice, pre-established exercise, and constant work.


Rhetoric had been condemned by Plato, as well as most kinds of poetry. He waged a relentless war against the sophists, whose abilities were designed to provide their disciples with the means of using language to persuade using any means, without taking into account the justice or the truth of the matter being discussed. In his dialogue Gorgias he asserts that rhetoric is to jurisprudence, or real knowledge of the justice of causes, as cosmetics is to gymnastics: something which can give a mere appearance of truth, but which deals only with that, appearance, and not reality. For Plato, the only acceptable kind of rhetoric is that which consists in a true knowledge of the matters being discussed, and this he will identify to philosophy.


Aristotle will side with the sophists in this respect, asserting that it is not the business of rhetoric to decide on the truth of the matter. Rhetoric is only concerned with the means to persuade. But in Aristotle's view , rhetoric is an art or a science, that is, it is concerned not with actual persuasion, but rather with an understanding of these means. "Aristotle then defends rhetoric on approximately the same grounds as Plato condemns it" (Wimsatt and Brooks 68). In his Rhetoric he classifies these, adding lexis and taxis (composition) to those factors which had been listed by the sophists as influencing persuasion. He gives some indications on the composition of discourses which serve also as a general scheme to his treatise and to the science of rhetoric:

We must deal with three things concerning discourse. First, where the means of persuasion are to be found; second, elocution; third, how the parts of discourse are to be disposed. (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1403 b)

Aristotle includes the actual delivery of the speech (that which later Latin rhetoricians call actio ) as a subdivision of elocution. With Aristotle, rhetoric is concerned not only with the form of discourses, but also with their contents--because the meaning of the discourse, the kinds of arguments employed and the knowledge displayed are essential elements in the final result--the persuasion of the hearer.


His remarks on style can be related to those in the Poetics: there is a concern for clarity and purity above all, but a respect for elevation and strangeness, departure from the ordinary and metaphor, puns, parallelisms and figures in general. The main quality which a discourse must have, according to Aristotle, is energeia. This is not, of course, a rhetorical figure, but rather the right achievement of the end of the discourse, which results in persuasion.


After Aristotle rhetoric becomes more and more codified. His main concepts are kept and more sharply defined by later rhetoricians. Presumably, many works on rhetoric and criticism were written between the age of Aristotle and that of Horace. However, only small fragments survive. Surviving treatises of rhetoric include the works of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Peri syntheos onomatos), Cicero (De oratore) and Quintilian (Institutio oratoria). We also have the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium (c. 85 BC). All these may be considered to be systematizations of the achievements of scholars from the Sophists to the Alexandrine critics.


With Cicero and Quintilian we approach the medieval concept of rhetoric: it is no longer a simple description of speech techniques; it is an encyclopaedic discipline, since its final aim is the education of a cultivated person; the orator becomes here the ideal of humanity. It is also closer to poetics, since it becomes more and more concerned with written language.


The most influential treatises of rhetoric follow a standard development of the discipline. All discourses are perfectly classified and subject to rule. We must know:

· The possible kinds of discourses, the genres of rhetoric (genera).

· The steps we must follow in order to compose a discourse (opus).

· The structure of the discourse, the way it divides into sections, its internal organization (this aspect was referred to as ordo, materia, or res).





1.9.2. Genres and styles (genera)




There are different kinds of discourses depending on their aim, their subject matter and the public they are addressed to. On the other hand, the subject matter, the circumstance of the speech and the public it is addressed to will require a particular treatment or style. Classical rhetoric is quite restrictive in codifying the potential diversity of these circumstances. Aristotle speaks of three kinds of rhetoric or three main areas for the public speaker: forensic (dealing with law), deliberative (relative to public affairs, such as economy or politics) or epideictic (moral discourses). Later Latin writers follow much the same scheme, only they speak of genera (genres).


· Forensic genre (Genus iudiciale). A discourse pronounced by a lawyer who pleads a case in a court of law. It is the most typical of the three, the most central to rhetorical theory. The public is homogeneous, cultured and professional, and the style must therefore be in keeping: solemn, energic and dignified. The subject-matter is easily classified, since the discourse always deals with past events which must be proved and accusations which must be rejected. The main point of the discourse is to determine what is lawful and what is unlawful (iustum / iniustum).


· Deliberative genre (Genus deliberativum). Deliberative discourses are delivered before an assembly which decides on public affairs; their aim is to defend a future course of action, to persuade the assembly to decide on a law, a declaration, etc. Advice is given using analogical anecdotes or stories, examples (exempla) which in due time will become rhetorical commonplaces. The public is more mixed and less specialised than in the forensic genre, and the main emphasis must fall on the usefulness or otherwise of the debated issue (utile / inutile) rather than on the application of a law.


· Epideictic genre (genus demonstrativum aut laudativum). These discourses are pronounced on a somen occasion; the public is supposed to be also of a miscellaneous kind. If the forensic genre concentrates on the past and the deliberative genre concentrates on the future, the emphasis now falls on the present, the alternative being to praise or to decry something or someone (e. g. Cicero's discourses against Catiline). The most important part of this kind of discourse consists in the description of the person or the object.


The styles of rhetoric are also rigidly classified, and the use of one or the other depends on the occasion, the subject matter and the public.



(types of

rhetoric): a) forensic b) deliberative c) epideictic

(law) (economy, politics) (moral discourses)



Cicero a) genus b) genus c) genus

(styles) vehemens modicum subtile




Herennium : a) gravis b)mediocris c) extenuatum


Dionysius: a) elegant b) middle c) plain.

or sublime



These levels of style are related by Cicero to three different aims: a) to move or persuade, b) to please, and c) to prove. These three "levels" of style are not linked to specific poetic genres at this time, as they will be in later neoclassical theories (for instance, to epic poetry, comedy, and satire respectively).








1.9.3. Phases of composition (opus)




Aristotle: heuresis taxis lexis hypocrisis


Cicero: inventio dispositio elocutio memoria pronunciatio



1. Inventio consists in the delimitation of the subject, finding the ideas or subject matter the rhetor wants to deal with, the arguments he wants to bring forward. Sometimes a previous phase (intellectio) is mentioned, the division being then between the choice of a subject and the invention of more specific subdivisions and development.


2. Dispositio or collocatio. In this phase, the raw materials of invention are given form, set in a specific order. For instance: first we must inform about the facts, then refute contrary arguments. In ordering our own arguments, we must place some important arguments first, then the less interesting ones, and leave the strongest one to end.


3. Elocutio. Elocution is relative to style and language, not to the contents themselves. An adequate vocabulary and ornament (ornatus) are chosen. A specific tone or style (high, middle, or low) guides the choice of words and figures throughout, all the time with keeping in mind the aim of the most effective persuasion. Ornaments are divided into rhetorical figures and tropes (rhetorical figures act in praesentia, while tropes are characterized by substitution and work in absentia ). Figures are classified into figures of speech and figures of thought. Most rhetorical treatises expand the section on ornament into long lists of figures.


4. Memoria. Cicero describes memory as "the firm grasp of thought on the things and the words to retain invention." The discourse must be learnt, since it is going to be delivered orally. There are mnemotechnic rules to make the task easier--not least keeping the different parts of the discourse in mind.


5. Pronuntiatio and actio. These are relative to the actual delivery of the discourse in its vocal and gestural aspects. The rhetor must be a good speaker and actor if he does not want to waste his previous efforts.





1.9.4. Parts of a speech (ordo)




There are four main parts according to the most widespread classical theories:


1. Exordium, also called proemium or prologus. The aim is a phatical one: to establish the first contact with the public, with a practical aim in view: to engage their attention and sympathy for the rest of the speech: "docilem, attentum, et benevolum parare". There are two main parts in this prologue:

- captatio benevolentiae, moving the public to a favourable disposition vis a vis the rhetor and his cause;

- propositio, a brief announcement of what is to follow. The important thing at this point is to be brief and clear.


2. Narratio. A development of the subject matter announced in the propositio. It must be a clear, ordered and objective description of facts, trying meanwhile not to bore the audience. Narration must restrict itself to what is known about the subject, without indulging in speculations or hypotheses.


3. Argumentatio. Now the time has come for a more subjective approach; the orator puts forward his views on the subject and presents his own arguments while he tries to refute those of his rivals. Two sections:

- probatio

- refutatio


4. Peroratio or epilogus, divided into

- recapitulatio

- affectus

The peroratio is the conclusion of the speech, which must try to attract the sympathy of the public both through reason and through the emotions. Therefore, this part reproduces the structure of the opening, first with a summary of the strongest points in favour of the rhetor, then with an appeal to the personal engagement of the public, through pity, indignation, patriotism, or through the use of the strongest argument left aside for this purpose.


This approach, with its rigid divisions and classifications, will be the source for thought about composition for hundreds of years. The rhetorical tradition of the classical age will continue uninterrupted (if impoverished) through the Middle Ages and into the modern age, above all through the influence of Cicero's De Oratore and the Rhetorica ad Herennium, which will provide the basis for most medieval and Renaissance treatises on the subject.




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