The role of rhetoric in the greater scheme of thought is incalculable. Rhetoric, including language and discourse, has provided a stage for the development of thought. The interdisciplinary development and practice of rhetoric is intertwined with thought, as one facet cannot be deemed causal to the other. From its beginnings, rhetoric has expanded from fundamental claims of truth to discourse of theories of language and cultural ideology. Discussion on the limitations of language to reflect truth is the enduring debate concerning the role of rhetoric.
This paper will focus on three thinkers who utilized and displayed the importance of rhetoric beyond its surfaced role in oratory and persuasion: Aristotle of the classical period, St. Augustine of the medieval period, and Karl Marx of the modern period. A survey of the cultural and historical context is important, for rhetoric is incited and is driven by motive.
The origins of rhetoric are inherently fixed to the history and culture of ancient Greece, specifically to Greek drama. The theater emerges our of dance routines. Performed in Athenian Theater of Dionysus, the dances were in celebration of the Greek god Dionysus during the religious festival Dionysia. The performers, usually women, would perform the ritual dances while wearing masks in order to convey emotion. One of the performers would address the audience. At this point emotional expression in the monologue would be emphasized and delivered clearly and eloquently so as to appeal to the audience, and therefore persuade them to understand and empathize with the issues presented (Ley 4-6).
The content of the theater was usually a philosophical discussion about issues and struggles that seem to be unsolvable, but nevertheless inherent in one’s life. The dialogue of the actors became more apparent in the plays. Monologues shined through as what was said became more important than what was played out.
The focus of content changed to include major events of transformations of the Greek culture, like the Persian Wars, developing a more political appeal to the discourse of the plays. From this logographers emerged who standardized the narratives in terms of story line and meter, like Homer in his account of the Trojan War. Like a monologue of the theater, the logographer used the tools of the actor. He was convincing in presentation and followed the familiar tale with descriptive terms that followed the rhythm of the narrative. When this skill of presenting persuasively became needed, these logographers taught others the techniques of presentation. When democracy emerged, presenting issues persuasively became a highly successful skill. The ones who practiced and learned the skill of persuasion were usually the ones who could afford the education. These students of persuasion became known as rhetoricians.
The Persian war incited the development of Greek democracy. The democratic political system allowed the city-states of Greece to unite and work as a political force. No longer was society determined by the whims of an individual monarch, the people now decided how society functioned. From this the peasants and the farmers gained more political power. Participants of the democratic process would vote on issues presented by speakers to the polis. If the speaker wanted agreement by the polis, he had to be convincing and appealing; hence the need for rhetoric.
The monologue, perfected in the theater, becomes a useful tool. Like the actors, the speaker used tools of rhetoric. One was expected to present oneself as one with the best intent for the people and appeal to the audience’s logic and emotion, in order to be persuasive.
It is no surprise that the use of rhetoric, speaking persuasively, became synonymous with politicians. More specifically, these political rhetoricians were known as Sophists, who prided themselves in their knowledge of the world and their skill of persuasion. The Sophists were at the forefront of debate in the political sphere. They used their skill and knowledge against their opponents in an effort to persuade the audience to vote policy in favor of their display. If they were persuasive enough, their intent of the debate would become policy. Some, like philosophers Plato and Socrates, regarded the Sophists with disdain and claimed the Sophists were manipulative in their language and selfish in their intent.
The clash between Plato and the Sophists, and rhetoric in general, is more a debate over the notion of truth. Plato valued philosophy and rationality and regarded rhetoric as covering up the truth. The Sophists, on the other hand, believed in a more humanistic principle where the world should be judged within the context of the human condition.
Gorgias made full use of these principles, applying them to the style and utility of rhetoric. He was known for his Asiatic, poetic style and use of figures of speech. For Sophists like Gorgias, they regarded “the world in which man moves as nothing but a set of more or less emotional convictions” (Ijsseling 27). Gorgias and the Sophists exploited the persuasive nature of speech to move listeners through emotional appeal. Rationality had no room in their world of chaos.
Language, like the world, was chaotic. The world was perceived by the Sophists as nothing more than a series of images and emotional convictions. Language was reflecting that chaos through its illusionary nature. In Gorgias’ Encomium to Helen, he argued the acts of the mythical heroin were due to this form persuasion; therefore, she was not to blame. In his construct of speech, he wants to show the deceptive nature of language and the power of language, which by its use justifies deception: “ Speech is a powerful lord that with the smallest and most invisible body accomplishes most god-like works…I shall show how this is so” (35). He wants to display, through his rhetoric, that language does not lead to truth. The limitation of language is a recurring theme in the development of rhetoric.
Aristotle’s philosophy is aimed at establishing universal truths. His approach differed from Plato, who believed that universal truth was separate from particular truths and discussion of the particular is focused upon its attempt to be like the universal. Instead, Aristotle observed universal truths in the particular. The particulars, according to Aristotle, had an essence of universal. By categorizing the particular in relation to the universal, Aristotle is putting a language to being. The relation of the particular to the universal, as well as the universal’s relationship to the particular, says something of the meaning to that truths; supporting one another to uphold the truth that gives them both meaning.
Aristotle’s syllogism puts language to this philosophy of logic. The syllogism works logically by establishing a relationship between two premises, (a universal and a particular). Finding this relationship is finding knowledge that is reinforced by the universal and particular, all giving meaning to one another. Aristotle then applies the syllogism to practical knowledge, like ethics.
The categorical syllogism changes from to dialectical syllogism in order to apply logic to the practical knowledge, something that is useful for man in his daily life. The dialectical syllogism addresses problems like how one should act and live, and what policies should be done by the state so we can live a good life.
In its form, it remained logical like the categorical syllogism and retained the same sense of dialogue, with two premises and a conclusion; however, the premises and conclusion was left to interpretation. The first premise stated a universal truth or premise of how one should live, the second was a particular situation in relation to the universal premise. Because the subject matter dealt with abstract concepts of morals, the syllogism treats them like concrete, universal ideas to make them manageable for argument.
Aristotle applied this same scientific methodology to rhetoric. Rhetorical syllogism, or enthymeme, argued from the particular to the conclusion and suppressing the universal. The universal premise is presupposed in the mind of the audience and there is no need to state it. By assuming the universal principle in one’s speech, the speaker creates credibility in the particular in showing agreement in the truth of that universal premise. The relationship between the two, in the persuaded conclusion, fit logically within these two truths and is better accepted as truth by the audience.
Rhetoric is not classified as knowledge, but is subject to Aristotle’s classification. According to Aristotle, rhetoric is the counterpart to dialectic and a device to find knowledge. Oratory was synonymous with rhetoric; however, rhetoric entailed larger scope of disciplines beyond the act of speech delivery Rhetoric is defined in Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric as “the facility of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” which is “fully persuaded when a thing has been demonstrated” (15). The art of rhetoric includes a theory of persuasive communication “in the context of a genuinely philosophical conception of rhetoric” (15). Aristotle is offering more to the technique of persuasion, beyond the emotional appeal practiced by the Sophist, by implementing an appeal to logos, as well as ethos and pathos.
Aristotle insists that simple persuasion is not the function of rhetoric. As rational beings, more than emotion drives man. Rhetoric serves a particular function in the quest for knowledge, as seen in rhetorical logic in the form of enthymeme. The persuasive quality comes from its use of logos, pathos, and ethos. The extent of their use is determined by the need and context of the rhetoric. These needs are categorized by Aristotle as forensic, epideictic and deliberative, each serving a purpose considering the topic:
(1) Deliberative: political speeches arguing for the policy of the future by providing information to support the greater good of the policy
(2) Forensic: legal speeches, moving the audience to pass judgment
(3) Epideictic: ceremonial and celebratory speeches that provide the audience with pleasure
The extent to which the proofs and appeals, (logos, ethos, pathos), are implemented are dependent of which form of rhetoric is being used. The genre of rhetoric used becomes important in the further development of thought. To what extent rhetoric is used and for what purpose determines the affect and success rhetoric has in persuasion.
The Medieval and Renaissance period provided no development of rhetoric by way of the political structure of society. Before these periods, during the decline of the Roman Republic and appearance of the Roman Empire, there was no widespread use and advancement. Democracy fostered the art of persuasion as people had to be enticed to agree upon a perspective. In this new environment, the art of persuasion was for some time limited to flattery and scholastic use.
There was no sense of rhetoric by the medieval period. Christianity, by that time, had influenced every facet of educated society. Classical works of rhetoric and philosophy were demeaned as pagan literature, called “the food of the devil” and was no longer considered relevant. However, “most educated Christians were trained in rhetoric and … acquainted with classical literature, the style and content of which impressed many with its almost incomparable beauty” (Ijsseling 41). The devices and characteristic of rhetoric proved useful for the development and operation Christian ideology.
St. Augustine was a distinguished rhetorician, known for his style and role in early Christianity. Also educated in the classics, Augustine saw “rhetorical technique in itself is neither good nor bad, but all depends on the use to which it is put…[and] regarded rhetoric as entirely neutral; it may be blessing or a curse, since only the aim determines its value” (Ijsseling 43). However, the style of Christian rhetoric “must be lucid, simple, objective, serious, and biblically inspired” (Ijsseling 43-44). The use of rhetorical devices fit with the persuasive oratory of preaching the Gospel, but for Augustine, there was a differentiation between expression of truth and truth itself.
Above being an accomplished rhetorician, Augustine considered himself a philosopher and theologian. Medieval rhetoricians like Augustine believed truth was determined by religious sources. He believed “one does not learn from another but from an ‘inner teacher’ from whom one receives instruction through introspection” (Ijsseling 44). Augustine is speaking of prayer, an inner dialogue between Christ and individual, with no agents between the two. This belief implies two important factors future thought: (1) the emergence in the concept of the individual, who can have a personal relationship with the divine; and (2) an ideological validation of absolute truth, which could be discovered through this relationship with the divine, within which language has limitations.
In the greater scheme of medieval scholasticism, rhetoric was considered part of the trivium, alongside grammar and dialectics, but differentiated from the quadrivum, which included music, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic. Instead of emphasis in philosophy, theology was considered most important. Rhetorical strategies were applied to Christian thought, and continued with limited use in the scholastic field and in praise of Christ. Rhetoric was used in exercises of reason and argumentation, as Scripture was subject to interpretation and application. There was not much development of rhetorical theory as much as rhetorical practice.
The liberal arts education structure continued on into the Renaissance period, as did the philosophy. But what did change during this transition was a renewed sense of humanism and renewed sense of rhetorical style. As the economic force of early capitalism emerged, power began to shift. There was a lot of money to be made in the exchange of goods. The economic force of early capitalism was emerging, distributing power away from the church and monarchs, and towards port cities and city-states where this exchange of goods and idea was taking place.
The Renaissance was marked with a cultural reinvigoration of goods and ideas, occurring most specifically in Italy. At the forefront of this cultural change were the Italian Humanists, who proved to be the new rhetoricians of the age.
The Humanists saw medieval philosophy as loosing ties with political and social life. The art of rhetoric and applied principles had been isolated, away from political practice. They wanted to apply philosophy and rhetoric to the world beyond the walls of monasteries, “turning quite consciously to classical rhetoric for aesthetic and practical reasons” (Ijsseling 54). Their objective concerned the world of common man and his culture, in relation to these absolute truths like those presented by theology. Rhetoric, especially in the form of poetry, held great value by the Humanists.
The invigoration of rhetoric, however, became overshadowed by the rational thought, which provided a basis for scientific development. The practice of rhetoric was again reduced to academics and social niceties, limited to style and delivery. Used primarily in etiquette, rhetoric and oratory proved useful for mercantilism as capitalist needed to create diplomatic relationships in business.
The advent of the printing press shifted rhetoric from oral presentation to text. Rhetoric was largely ignored as the persuasion was limited by the overpowering format of text. Ideas had to be arranged formally and in a logical manner to fit within this new presentation.
Rational thought proved more powerful than all. The scientific method was applied logically and showed the world as operating mechanistically through natural laws. By discovering this knowledge, man could now control these laws for their own utility, prompting invention and discovery. Rational thought was too overpowering to be undermined by the persuasion of language.
Rhetoric was expected to appeal to the facilities of the mind by the emergence of a new sense of the individual and an understanding of the self. The scientist of the age wanted a new language, an objective language that would truthfully reflect these new ideas. The complex, eloquent language of rhetoric was to be erased, and instead, replaced with a new, simple language that appealed to the reason of man. This new rhetoric left behind the notion of persuasive technique and insisted upon itself to reflect the truth. But was this truth the actual truth of the world, or a reflection of a particular world made out to be universal?
A handful of thinkers of the Modern age undermined the universal assumption of the modern thought. The development and establishment of capitalism occurred simultaneously with rational thought of science, and the reformation of the church, which up to that point held power over the ethical nature of society. Making full use of textual rhetoric, thinkers like Karl Marx argued the bourgeois class was based upon these universal assumptions, and upheld absolute truths by way of an ideology. According to Marx, relative concepts were made into concrete concepts. Superstructures were created to authenticate these concepts, and functioned to sustain power of one class in of society another. In German Ideology, Marx specifically attached the bourgeois ideas of property and the individual.
According to Marx, to understand property as universal is to misunderstand its particular historically characteristics, which he shows within his five stages of historical materialism. The development into the capitalist labor structure consisted of “many different forms of ownership” (Marx 178), resulting in the subjugation of one class of economic producers by another class of property owners.
The bourgeois and proletariat class identity was based on each class’s relation to the means of production. The hegemonic structure of society was interpreted as the natural, universal, and absolute process. According to Marx, ideology was created, maintained, and justified this social order. The bourgeois were articulate enough to define this understanding and had time and capital to exercise these rights of the individual, a concept, which Marx believed, they created for themselves.
Marx argued the notion of the individual was an
abstract concept Marx said was made concrete. Having its roots in development of the Christian doctrine that stressed an individual’s relationship with Christ, the source of all truth. and even further back to Platonic thought, the idea of the individual was further included to be a rational being who is logical in thought. This was supported by the superstructures like law, which favor the individual, a concept of this ideology. The created culture formed the universal and guaranteed particular rights to the individual.
These truths were further supported by science, which was based upon natural laws within which the universe functioned. But most importantly, the concept of the individual effected the psyche of person: those of the bourgeois class were able to exercise the rights of the individual by fulfilling standards that, Marx argues, they created and therefore being an individual who is successful and cultured. The bourgeois identified with this individual as it was reinforced in society. On the other hand, the proletariat, as Marx argues, could not identify with this standard of the individual because of their relation to the means of production, which determined their class distinction. The means of production entailed exploitation of the lower classes by a higher class, which was deemed appropriate because of the individual’s right to choose employment and enter into contracts.
The particular form these rights took was corrupted for those outside the bourgeois class. In the labor contract, the individual has the right to sign over his labor in exchange for capital. The bourgeois then use this individual’s labor to produce products, of which he makes a profit by attaching a value, another abstract concept made concrete. The fact the capitalist makes a profit, says Marx, shows that the laborer’s wage does not equal the value of his labor. If the laborer were given the true value of his labor, then the bourgeois would make no profit because the value of the product should be equal to the value of the labor used to product the product. This is exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeois, says Marx.
The ideology that created and maintained the capitalist system is the center of Marx’s critique. Its justification, apology, was based on the universal idea of the system. The system, in fact, is not universal but created by one class of people in order to preserve wealth and identity. This web, according to Marx, depended upon itself. Marx predicted this system would eventually implode as a revolution occurs when the contradiction between the means of production and social forces of classes comes to its final stage: communism, the end of historical materialism when there is no private ownership of property and no class distinctions.
In his rhetoric, Marx was attacking the philosophical, economical, political history of modern society, and therefore threatening its validity. He insisted the truths of society was based on fact were not true, but made to be true in order to uphold capitalism and instilling power in bourgeois class.
The notion of ideology was a radical claim. But the development of thought speaks for itself. Beginning with Aristotle’s syllogism in the classical period, concepts were treated as universal so particular issues could be related to their truth. The particular justified the universal as much as the universal justified the particular, building meaning and knowledge upon one another.
In this context, the syllogism can be interpreted as the blue print for ideology. The superstructures Marx defined in his critique work in the same fashion, by way of the dialectical syllogism. Practical truths like those of religion and law were founded upon these abstract, but deemed universal, truths of concepts like that of the individual. The rhetoric of these institution echoes the rhetorical logic of the enthymeme. The universals were already assumed and one could logically infer the conclusion.
Proven by its use, the role of rhetoric in facilitating the discourse of thought is the key factor within the precipitating formation of ideology and the limitation of language. Left to interpretation, language can change the meaning and can be manipulated to be whatever the user chooses. Language cannot reflect a truth and a reality that is dependent upon the changing forces of thought, just as thought cannot be defined by language.
Aristotle. The Art of Rhetoric. Trans. H.C. Dawson-Tancred. London: Penguin, 2004.
Gorgias. “Helen.” Readings from Classical Rhetoric. Ed. Patricia P. Matsen. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1990.
Ijsseling, Samuel. Rhetoric and Philosophy in Conflict: A Historical Survey. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976.
Ley, Graham. A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991
Marx, Karl. “German Ideology.” Selected Writings. Ed. Lawrence H. Simon. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994.