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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown

Rhetoric:

From Aristotle (in Poetics and Rhetoric) to the present day, the art of persuading an audience (and, by extension, a reading audience), traditionally by means of oratorical (later, literary) devices used to emotional as well as intellectual effect: emphasis, juxtaposition, structure, figures of speech, and so on. The word derives from the Greek for one who practiced the art of public speaking, a rhetor. In the classical sense, rhetoric can be equated with oratory -- a skill in which proficiency was essential to the success of the Greek and later the Roman citizen-politician. A public discourse consisted of three parts: the invention (arguments, proofs), disposition (their arrangement within the discourse), and style (such as figures of speech or sentence structure). Three types of discourse were identified for different purposes: deliberative (to persuade an audience for or against a matter of policy), forensic (to persuade for or against a person's actions), and epideictic (to praise or blame, or to expand upon a point by means of a display of rhetorical virtuosity). The most famous classical rhetoricians include Plato (in Phaedrus), Aristotle (Rhetoric), Cicero (De oratore and Oratore, among other works), Quintilian (Institutio oratoria), and Longinus (On the Sublime). Rhetoric survived in the Middle Ages as one of the seven liberal arts, transmitted by such figures as Saint Augustine and Geoffrey of Vinsauf. Its modern association with written as opposed to spoken discourse came to full flowering in the Renaissance, when invention and disposition came under the purview of the philosophy of dialectics, and style, now the sole realm of rhetoric, was divided into "elocution" (devices, ornaments) and "pronunciation" (oral delivery). Rhetoric today retains its association with public speaking as well as literature, with the emphasis on figures of speech.


© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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University of Toronto English Library
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Last modified: March 31, 1997