A Short History of Rhetoric
Developed by Professor Mark Harris

The study of argument begins with rhetoric, a word that traces its roots back to the Old Greek and means, roughly, “the art of the orator” (Online Etymological Dictionary). Orginally, then, rhetoric applied to the skill with which a speaker arranged and presented his/her thoughts. Today, it applies to ways we use language, in speech and in writing, to influence others.

For a complete overview of rhetoric, from classical to modern times, please see Gideon Burton’s The Forest of Rhetoric. We are just scratching the surface here.

Early students of rhetoric divided the types of appeals that speakers could make into three categories: logical, emotional and ethical. While logical appeals might seem to be the most effective (and indeed, carry the most weight in legal and scientific arenas), effective writers and speakers often use a combination of appeals to influence their audience.

As with all the writing you have done in this course, the audience will help determine what appeals, or combination of appeals, you should use to accomplish your goal.

In the first example above, asking for a raise before your first performance review, you would not use your helpfulness around the house as evidence why you deserve a raise. Instead, you would cite your on-time completion rate and willingness to take on especially challenging tasks as evidence. Part of the knack of constructing and argument, then, is knowing which appeals work best for which audiences.



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Pieter Isaacsz' painting depicting the art of rhetoric. The painting, which was created for Rosenborg Castle, shows a lecture at a knight's academy. c. 1620s