4 Introduction to Rhetoric

Melissa Elston

Learning Objectives:

  • Define the term rhetoric and consider its uses in different contexts
  • Learn the history of rhetoric and how it fits within the university system today

In order to be a proficient college-level writer, you will need a firm grasp of rhetoric.

You may have heard this word before, but it is important to understand that writing and communication teachers use it differently than it is frequently used by the general public. People often refer to a politician’s or an advertiser’s attempts to persuade as “empty rhetoric” — and it is generally meant as an insult: something akin to persuasion without substance. Indeed, a number of thinkers have viewed the word “rhetoric” as describing something potentially sinister. In the West, this dates back to the tensions between the Sophists — a group of rhetorical teachers and practitioners in ancient Greece — and their philosophical contemporaries, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Plato was especially distrustful of rhetoric, and he blamed it for Socrates’ trial and execution.

However, Aristotle (b. 384 B.C.E.) takes a more nuanced view than Plato, and his work, On Rhetoric, is largely responsible for our approach to the subject in American colleges and universities. Aristotle’s definition of “rhetoric” is the one you will want to pay attention to, as a college-level writer.

In On Rhetoric, Aristotle describes three basic means of persuasion: logos (logic, or the simulation of it), pathos (emotion), and ethos (a speaker’s reputation and/or the way their character is perceived). To Aristotle, the most skillful rhetoricians master these three elements, and deploy them in order to make the strongest case possible before their audiences.

Centuries later, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian (b. 35 C.E.) added an additional idea to the art of rhetoric, drawn from Cato: the notion that the ideal rhetor or orator was “a good man speaking well” — in other words, a person of good character. In Quintilian’s view, masterful rhetoric doesn’t just come from persuasive power; it comes from having one’s morals and ethics in order.

How does that apply to your college writing?  Like Aristotle, you will want to pay attention to the rhetorical situation surrounding your instructors, their assignments, and the intended audience(s) for those assignments; and use logos, pathos, and ethos appropriately when you write. And, like Quintilian, you will want to attend to the ethics of communication: Don’t steal ideas; don’t plagiarize information without citing it.

Adhering to these ideas is what college instructors mean when they ask you to practice sound rhetoric in your papers. It is a far cry from persuasion without substance. Rather, following the guidelines of ancient rhetoric add substance to your writing, as well as skill! The next few chapters will give you some additional tools to do so.



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From College to Career: A Handbook for Student Writers Copyright © by Melissa Elston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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