Greek Rhetoric Essay

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Laurent Pernot University of Strasbourg The word rhetoric comes from the Greek rhкtorikк, which means the art of speaking. In its full sense, the word rhetoric covers both the theory and the practice of speech. It is defined as the art of persuasion.

Rhetoric was developed in Greece, at Athens above all, during the classical era (fifth and fourth centuries bce). Subsequently, the elements put in place were never forgotten. They constituted a platform for the later history of rhetoric, not only during antiquity but right up until the modern era of European and American history.

The Athenian oratorical practice spread within a democratic context. By law, parties were obliged to plead their cause personally, without being represented by a lawyer. In politics, the main organ was the Assembly of people, who exercised the executive power. Added to that were the ceremonial speeches made on occasions such as national funerals and religious feast days, as well as ambassadorial speeches and all sorts of private conferences. Such a system supposed an effective commitment from the citizens. It was a question of making oneself heard in large crowds, in acoustically uncomfortable conditions, and with a view to real and immediate consequences.

 Oratorical practice relied on a vigorous teaching, which included theoretical lessons, case studies, the learning of exemplar speeches assigned by the master, practical composition exercises on real or fictional subjects, and verbal sparring matches between students, as well as gesture and voice training. The most important theoretical treatise is the Rhetoric by Aristotle (around 360–325 bce), which draws a distinction between two main forms of persuasion: logical persuasion through intellectual demonstration and moral persuasion through psychological means.


  1. Pernot, L. (2005). Rhetoric in antiquity, trans. W. E. Higgins. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.
  2. Vickers, B. (1988). In defence of rhetoric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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