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Classical Christian Movement

On Definition of Rhetoric

By November 1, 2009January 31st, 2023No Comments

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Today we read of “empty rhetoric,” “mere rhetoric,” and even “violent rhetoric”. The term is present in our daily lives, yet only rarely it is used properly. Ask the average man on the street, or in this author’s case, the average college sophomore, to define rhetoric, and the responses provide some insight into the prevalence of the popular disposition toward the art. The sophomores write that rhetoric is “persuasion,” “empty argument,” “sophistic discourse,” or “the art of composition” if they know of it at all. While each of these so-called definitions of rhetoric holds something in common with the art, none of them engages the fullness of the art, nor its essential qualities. While the contemporary views of rhetoric expressed herein can be traced to numerous root causes including the attempt to separate invention and logic from rhetoric in the Middle Ages, the American Elocutionary Movement of the eighteenth century, the reinvention of scholastic rhetoric courses into grammar, composition, and literature courses, etc., none of these is the focus of this essay. Rather, the concern is with a reinvestment in rhetoric as an art form through a better understanding of its defining characteristics as approached through Aristotle and Quintilian’s definitions of rhetoric as a civic art as well as a more contemporary conceptualization of the term.

The seminal definition of rhetoric is that of Aristotle, written in his treatise Rhetoric. Aristotle writes that rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic (Rhetoric I.1, 1354a1). It grows out of dialectic and the conceptualization of character (ethos and the related concept of ethics; Rhetoric I.2, 1356a25f), and, in fact, rhetoric and dialectic are two branches of the same tree. Dialectic deals with the concepts in the absolute and rhetoric in the contingent realm. The relationship of rhetoric to the dialectic is important as it stresses that rhetoric has import beyond practice, that it has substance or form, a necessary element to the concept of an art or technê. Aristotle asserts that rhetoric is the art of discovering all of the available means of persuasion in any given situation (Rhetoric I.2, 1355b26f). In order to ascertain why the simplification of this de nition to “the art of persuasion” or “persuasion” is harmful, it is appropriate to examine each term of import as it arises in Aristotle’s formulation.

Rhetoric is the art. . .

The term art or technê implies a two-fold understanding of the subject—that of technê (form) and praxis (practice). Technê, translated from the Greek, means art or craftsmanship; it infers rational method. The concept is related to episteme, science or knowledge, but works in the realm of probability rather than in the realm of absolutes and of truth. Rhetoric must have form or technê both in and of itself. While Aristotle would agree that rhetoric is devoid of subject matter in its practice, he demonstrates that as art rhetoric has form and contains methodological subject matter. He provides further instruction in this area as he lays out his system of rhetoric within the greater schema of arts of knowledge and demonstration. In addition to form, the art must be applicable or active in practice. This element of praxis is empty if deprived of its related and underlying form. This is one of the primary problems with the public conception of rhetoric as empty or sophistic. It is further exacerbated by the recognition that rhetoric, as Aristotle conceives of it is ethically neutral–it is amoral, and may be used for evil or good, by the self-interested as well as the ethical, civic minded rhetorician.

. . . of discovering. . .

The concept of discovery (inventio or invention) is essential to its power as an art. The rhetor holds within himself the knowledge necessary to complete the artistic proofs of ethos (character, credibility, goodwill), logos (logic), and pathos (passions, emotions) in ways that are uniquely his own. In other words, the arguments and examples available to the rhetorician are not available equally to all rhetors but are uniquely discoverable by individual rhetors based upon knowledge, experience, etc. Only a few categories of argument are universally available. Known as the inartistic proofs, they include witnesses, evidence given under torture, written contracts, and laws. Aristotle notes that while the former are particular modes of persuasion belonging to rhetoric, the latter are not.

. . . all of the available means of persuasion. . .

In part, it makes reference back to the previous conception of the deductive and inductive arguments possible for advancement by a rhetor. Topical thinking allows the rhetor to discover premises linking his claims to audience positions. In other words, we create significance. Additionally, invention is linked to the ends of rhetoric; forensic appeals are concerned with justice and injustice, deliberative ends with expedience and inexpedience or persuasion and dissuasion, and epideictic or ceremonial ends with praise or blame. By knowing one’s subject matter one has access to particulars. Concerns of invention are threaded through each of the remaining canons as the rhetor examines disposition, style, delivery, memory.

. . . in any given situation.

Rhetoric is concerned with the realm of human affairs rather than questions of the nature of man. It is concerned with the probable rather than the absolute. A situation is a complex collection of events, people, and objects in relation to an issue, problem, crisis, or call for action. Rhetoric itself is action and results in further actions based upon a situational definition. The situated nature of rhetoric has led many to teach that rhetoric is immoral, that higher or universal principles have no place in its practice. This is simply not the case. Universal principles are operative in the contingent world of rhetoric as are universal topics. The rhetor has the capacity to make use of these principles or not.

The Roman orator Quintilian provides a second glimpse at the complexity of the rhetorical tradition. His definition is often put forth by classical and liberal arts institutions and educators due to its connection to virtue. Quintilian defines rhetoric as the science (or art) of the good man speaking well in his work on the subject, the Institutes of Oratory. Quintilian, like Aristotle, views rhetoric as containing both form and practice; he conceives of it as a civic art. He is clear that it is irreducible to a series of rules. Further, he contends that its scope extends beyond persuasion. He continues to make full use of Aristotle’s system of rhetoric and the five Canons of Rhetoric as they were codified by Cicero, but his greatest concern is with the rhetor. For Quintilian, the ideal orator (rhetor) was a man of high moral character, learned in all subjects, and schooled finally, completely in the art of rhetoric. This definition reflects the Roman consideration of ethos as tied to the citizen directly, over time, and across situations; it relates directly to any consideration of intent. Unfortunately, it is this focus on the rhetor rather than the art that is deficient, and that undermines the force and content of Quintilian’s definition. As Quintilian himself notes, the rhetor cannot be taught virtue and character directly through the art of rhetoric. It is outside of its purview. The art of rhetoric is inclusive of intellectual virtue, but not moral virtue. As a de nition, the art of the good man speaking well says little of the content of the art, but much about Quintilian’s concern for the interaction of the substance of an argument with the character of the orator.

Contemporary definitions of rhetoric have further exacerbated the general perception that rhetoric is immoral, empty of substance, and ripe for abuse. In good part this is due to academic trends towards deconstructionism and the study of technique in place of art. The emergence of a solid, singular definition of the art of rhetoric has failed to take shape. A study of twentieth century rhetorical theory and public address criticism does, however, offer the teacher of rhetoric a set of core terms that allow for a renewed and contemporary under- standing of the art of rhetoric in form and practice that can co-exist with more traditional definitions: Rhetoric is intentional, situated, symbolic action.

What does this mean? First, rhetoric is intentional; it is pragmatic. It seeks to influence choice. As such, it is reflective of Aristotle’s concern with the available means of persuasion. Second, rhetoric is situated; the number of situations and contexts may have grown, but the constraints upon the rhetor remain similar to those of the past. Contemporary rhetorical scholars claim access to an adapted three contexts/ends of rhetoric–informative, persuasive, and ceremonial, apply the same concepts of artistic and inartistic appeals in similar ways, and continue to examine ways to affect change in real audiences present in actual rhetorical situations. Third, rhetoric is symbolic. A rhetor must engage with others to generate a shared meaning that may result in a shared interpretation and/or a shared action, either real or symbolic. In order to engage with others, the rhetor must engage in the inventive nature of rhetoric, organize the message in keeping with contextual and audience expectations, and utilize appropriate style and delivery. Finally, rhetoric is action and results in action. It continues to be practiced in the realm of human affairs where social action is required.

The growth of rhetorical contexts beyond the classically conceived contexts of the courtroom, assembly, and public sphere has added complexity to the rhetorical realm. An understanding of Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as dynamic, comprised of form and practice, inventive, seeking all of the means of persuasion open to the rhetor within a given situation, provides the contemporary rhetorician the tools necessary to practice the art in full. Quintilian reminds the student of rhetoric that the art is forever tied to considerations of virtue, and that it reaches its greatest potential when it is practiced by a virtuous rhetor who holds knowledge of his subject and acts, not for himself, but for the betterment of society. The unifying terms of contemporary rhetoric reify the art, grounding it for study in the classroom and the public sphere. A re-engagement with the art of rhetoric allows the student to challenge the prevalent notions that rhetoric is, and necessarily must be, empty, self-serving, or even violent, and to replace them, knowing that the best of rhetors are men of high character and knowledge engaged in rhetorical action for civic good.


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