Pre-Socratic Rhetoric Essay

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Pre-Socratic Rhetoric is an overarching concept capturing both the traits of Hellenic rhetoric that were demonstrated by the sophists who immediately preceded Socrates, and the antecedent forces that shaped sophistic thought and its relationship to expression. Four primary forces shaped pre-Socratic rhetoric.

First, Homeric antecedents: Now recognized as inscribed oral  discourse, Homerica reveal emerging notions of rhetoric in two dimensions. The compositional patterns of the Iliad and the Odyssey reveal systemic formulae that served as both an aid to memory for early bards (aoidoi) and later for the more formal guild of rhapsodes (Homeridae). In addition, the characters themselves – such as Odysseus’ wily exploits used to trick the cyclops Polyphemus in Book 9 of the Odyssey – demonstrate techniques of persuasion that would one day be formalized by sophists and theorized by rhetoricians.

Second, the rise of logography: Greece’s evolution in writing from Bronze Age ideograms and syllabaries to an alphabet provided a technology for preserving the spoken word while facilitating abstract thought and prose composition. As literacy grew in popularity and importance logographers, or composers of discourse, evolved from chroniclers and narrative storytellers to specialized writers who composed discourse for such civic functions as forensic and deliberative rhetoric. Third, the emergence of pre-Socratic philosophy: Empedocles and other pre-Socratic philosophers – such as Parmenides and Zeno— reflected not only on the nature and function of the universe, but also on human understanding and expression. They maintained that knowledge was constrained by the limitations of our own sense-perceptions, arguing that knowledge is therefore probable and interpretative. The insights of pre-Socratic philosophy provided a foundation for sophistic rhetoric that would be based on oppositional thought (dissoi logoi’, senseperception, relativism and opinion (doxa)).

Finally the rise of the Greek city (polis) also played an important role in the emergence of pre-Socratic rhetoric. The archaic and classical periods of Greece witnessed the emergence of powerful political city-states, who aggressively promoted their hegemony through kinship ties and military conquest. In all such cities, even those that were not democratic, rhetoric in some form was a social activity as an art, an ambassadorial function, a topic for advanced education, and a process for civic deliberation.


  1. Enos, R. L. (2012). Greek rhetoric before Aristotle, revised and expanded edn. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.
  2. Schiappa, E. (1999). The beginnings of rhetorical theory in classical Greece. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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