The History and Theory of Rhetoric
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The History and Theory of Rhetoric

An Introduction

James A. Herrick

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eBook - ePub

The History and Theory of Rhetoric

An Introduction

James A. Herrick

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About This Book

By tracing the traditional progression of rhetoric from the Greek Sophists to contemporary theorists, this textbook gives students a conceptual framework for evaluating and practicing persuasive writing and speaking in a wide range of settings and in both written and visual media.

The book's expansive historical purview illustrates how persuasive public discourse performs essential social functions and shapes our daily worlds, drawing on the ideas of some of history's greatest thinkers and theorists. The seventh edition includes greater attention to non-Western rhetorics, feminist rhetorics, the rhetoric of science, and European and American critical theory. Known for its clear writing style and contemporary examples throughout, The History and Theory of Rhetoric emphasizes the relevance of rhetoric to today's students.

This revised edition serves as a core textbook for rhetoric courses in both English and communication programs covering both the historical tradition of rhetoric and contemporary rhetoric studies.

This edition includes an instructor's manual and practice quizzes for students at

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Chapter 1

An Overview of Rhetoric

This chapter explores the history, theories, and practices of rhetoric. But, as literary critic Wayne Booth (1921–2005) suggested in the quotation above, the term rhetoric poses some problems at the outset because of the various meanings it has acquired. For some people, rhetoric is synonymous with empty talk or even deception. We hear clichés like, “That’s mere rhetoric” or “That’s just empty rhetoric,” which are used to undermine or dismiss a comment or opinion.
Meanwhile, rhetoric has once again emerged as an important topic of study, and its significance to public discussion of political, social, religious, and scientific issues is now widely recognized. Scholars and teachers express great interest in the subject; colleges and universities offer courses in rhetoric; and dozens of books are published every year with rhetoric in their titles. Clearly, rhetoric arouses mixed feelings—it is a term of derision and yet a widely studied discipline, employed as an insult and still recommended to students as a practical subject of study. What is going on here? Why all the confusion and ambiguity surrounding the term rhetoric?
Negative attitudes toward rhetoric are not of recent origin. In fact, one of the earliest and most influential critical discussions of rhetoric occurs in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, a work written in the opening decades of the fourth century bce when rhetoric was popular—though also highly controversial—in the Greek city-state of Athens. The great philosopher, as his dialogue makes clear, takes a dim view of rhetoric, at least as practiced by some teachers of the day called Sophists. The character Socrates, apparently representing Plato’s own perspective, argues that the type of rhetoric being taught in Athens was simply a means by which “naturally clever” people “flatter” their unsuspecting listeners into agreeing with them and doing their bidding. Plato condemns rhetoric as “foul” and “ugly,” a judgment that has haunted the discipline ever since.1 We will discuss his specific criticisms of rhetoric in Chapter 3, note that Plato was involved in an ongoing debate about the topic, and consider that he apparently changed his perspective on rhetoric later in his life.
Ever since Plato’s Gorgias first appeared, rhetoric has struggled to redeem its tarnished public image. Rhetoric bashing continues in an almost unbroken tradition from ancient times to the present. In 1690 another respected philosopher, John Locke (1632–1704), advanced a view of rhetoric not unlike, and likely influenced by, Plato’s. The following quotation represents Locke’s writing in his highly influential book, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:
Locke does acknowledge that one aspect of rhetoric, what he calls “order and clearness,” is useful. However, he rejects the study of “artificial and figurative” language as deceptive. As we will see in Chapter 7, Locke was immersed in a debate about figurative language when he expressed this opinion—so he was hardly a neutral witness. He was also aware that the greatest English language master of rhetoric—William Shakespeare (1564–1616)—lived just a few decades earlier.
The nineteenth-century German philosopher and classicist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)—who made a serious study of rhetoric—wrote, “We call an author, a book, or a style ‘rhetorical’ when we observe a conscious application of artistic means of speaking; it always implies a gentle reproof.” A “gentle reproof” certainly reflects a more measured assessment than Locke’s “perfect cheats.”
But, Nietzsche was aware of something else, something deeper and more fundamental, lurking in the realm of the rhetorical:
What does Nietzsche mean by the curious phrase, “the artistic means already found in language”? Is he, perhaps, suggesting that language itself possesses an irreducible artistic or aesthetic quality that rhetoric merely draws out? He continues:
If Nietzsche is correct that nothing in the realm of language is purely “natural” and unmarked by “rhetorical arts,” that rhetoric is “the essence of language,” then rhetoric is certainly a matter that deserves our attention. Few disciplines can make such a comprehensive claim regarding their consequence for both public and private life.

Re-evaluating Rhetoric

Opinion about rhetoric has always been dramatically divided. In recent decades a number of prominent writers have re-evaluated rhetoric, sometimes arriving at surprising—and potentially paradigm-shifting—conclusions.
Wayne Booth, whom we have already encountered, was one of the twentieth century’s leading literary critics. Booth affirmed that rhetoric held “entire dominion over all verbal pursuits. Logic, dialectic, grammar, philosophy, history, poetry, all are rhetoric.”4 Entire dominion? All verbal pursuits are rhetoric? What could Booth have had in mind in making such sweeping assertions regarding rhetoric?
Nevertheless, Booth is not alone in maintaining such a stunning view of rhetoric. Another important twentieth-century literary scholar, Richard McKeon (1900–1985), expressed virtually the same opinion. For McKeon, rhetoric was best understood as “a universal and architectonic art.”5 Rhetoric is universal, that is, present everywhere we turn. But what about architectonic? McKeon meant that rhetoric organizes and gives structure to all the other arts and disciplines, that it is a kind of master discipline that orders and lends form to other undertakings. This is because rhetoric is, among other things, the study of how we organize and employ language effectively. Thus, it becomes the study of how we organize our thinking on a wide range of subjects.
In apparent agreement with Booth and McKeon, Richard Lanham (b. 1936) of the University of California has called for a return to rhetorical studies as a way of preparing us to understand the impact of digitization on how we read and write. Rather than developing a completely new theory of literacy for the digital age, Lanham argues that “we need to go back to the original Western thinking about reading and writing—the rhetorical paideia [educational program] that provided the backbone of Western education for two thousand years.”6 For Lanham, the study that originally taught the Western world its approach to education and communication—rhetoric—can still teach us new things, like how to adapt to the emerging world of digital communication.
Professor Andrea Lunsford (b. 1942), Director of Stanford University’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, is among a growing number of scholars who, like Lanham, have returned to rhetoric as providing guidance in understanding how the digital revolution is shaping our reading and writing habits. After analyzing thousands of students writing samples—including blogs, tweets, and classroom assignments—Lunsford and her colleagues concluded that students today expect their writing to change the world they live in. For today’s students “good writing changes something. It doesn’t just sit on the page. It gets up, walks off the page and changes something.”7
Rhetoric scholar Laurie Gries brings a rather different—and highly consequential—perspective to rhetoric, writing: “By rhetorical, I refer to something’s ability to induce change in thought, feeling, and action; organize and maintain collective formation; exert power, etc.; as it enters into relation with other things (human or nonhuman).”8 Notice that Gries refers to “something’s” rhetorical capacity, broadening rhetorical agency beyond human beings and thus beyond language.
Booth, McKeon, Lanham, Lunsford, and Gries find much to commend in the study that Plato condemned as “foul and ugly,” and ask us to reconsider those elements of eloquence that Locke referred to as “perfect cheats.” It appears that we are at a point in our cultural history where rhetoric is re-establishing itself as an important study with insights to offer about a surprisingly broad spectrum of human—and even non-human—communication activities.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that the practice of rhetoric maintains its Jekyll and Hyde quality, shifting without notice from helpful and constructive to deceptive and manipulative. Why does this study of the effective uses of language and other symbols prove so difficult to evaluate, eliciting as it does such sharply opposed judgments? A complete answer to this question requires some knowledge of rhetoric’s long history, which is the subject of this book. But almost certainly, rhetoric’s mixed reviews have a lot to do with its association with persuasion, that most suspect but essential human activity. A brief digression to explore this connection between rhetoric and persuasion will be worth our while.

Rhetoric and Persuasion

Though there is more to the study of rhetoric than persuasion alone, rhetoric traditionally has been closely concerned with linguistic techniques for gaining compliance. This long-standing association with persuasion has been at the heart of the conflict over whether rhetoric is a neutral tool for bringing about agreements, or a dubious activity that ends in manipulation.
Rhetoric’s intimate connection with persuasion has prompted both intense suspicion and broad interest. After all, we all are leery of persuasion. Who has not had a bad experience as the object of someone else’s persuasive efforts? Think of the last time you knew you were being persuaded by a high-pressure sales technique, a religious advocate, a politician, a professor, or simply by a friend or family member. Something in you may have resisted the persuasive effort, and you may even have felt some self-protective irritation. But you may also have felt you were being drawn in by the appeal, that you were, in fact, being persuaded. If the person doing the persuading was employing rhetorical techniques, you might conclude that you had some reason to distrust both rhetoric and the people who practice it. So, most of us have developed a healthy suspicion of persuasion, and perhaps a corresponding mistrust of rhetoric.
At the same time, a moment’s thought suggests that all of us seek to persuade others on a regular basis. Many professions, in fact, require a certain understating of and capacity to persuade. Persuasion can even be understood as an important part of economics and the world of work. Economist Deirdre McCloskey (b. 1942) has argued that “persuasion has become astonishingly important” to the economy.9 She estimated, for example, that one quarter of the work force depended on skill with words to do their work. What has she concluded? “I gradually realized that the economy … is rhetorical. An economy is continuously negotiated with words.” McCloskey adds, “an economy is a conversation.” She explains: “The point is that the economy is very largely about persuasion, because it is negotiated and innovative and above all because it is about a future to which we are vulnerable.”10
But, what about in our private lives? It seems we remain perpetual persuaders in our personal relationships. Who does not make arguments, advance opinions, and seek compliance from friends? Moreover, we typically engage in these persuasive activities without thinking we are doing anything wrong. In fact, it is difficult not to persuade; we ...

Table of contents

Citation styles for The History and Theory of Rhetoric
APA 6 Citation
Herrick, J. (2020). The History and Theory of Rhetoric (7th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Herrick, James. (2020) 2020. The History and Theory of Rhetoric. 7th ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Herrick, J. (2020) The History and Theory of Rhetoric. 7th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Herrick, James. The History and Theory of Rhetoric. 7th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.