ENG 530
Maureen Daly Goggin

Selected Definitions of Rhetoric


Gorgias:  “For that which is communicated is speech, but speech is not that which is perceived by the senses and actually exists; therefore the things that actually exist ,which are observed, are not communicated but [only] speech” (Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos 7. 84-86).

Isocrates:  “...oratory is good only if it has the qualities of fitness for the occasion, propriety of style and originality of treatment” (48).

Plato:  “Socrates: Is not rhetoric in its entire nature an art which leads the soul by means of words, not only in law courts and the various other public assemblages but in private companies as well?  And is it not the same when concerned with small things as with great, and, properly speaking, no more to be esteemed in important than in trifling matters?” (132).

Aristotle:  “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing [discovering] in any given case the available [appropriate] means of persuasion” (160).

Cicero:  “...the subjects of other arts are derived as a rule from hidden and remote sources, while the whole art of oratory lies open to the view and is concerned in some measure with the common practice, custom, and speech of mankind, so that, whereas in all other arts that is most excellent which is farthest removed from the understanding and mental capacity of the untrained, in oratory the very cardinal sin is to depart from the language of everyday life, and the usage approved by the sense of the community....But the truth is that this oratory is a greater thing, and has its sources in more arts and branches of study, than people suppose” (201, 202).

Quintilian:  “[O]ratory is the power of judging and discoursing on civil matters that are put before it with certain persuasiveness, action of the body, and delivery;” it is “the art of speaking well” and the true orator is “the good man speaking well.”


Augustine:  “There are two things upon which every treatment of the Scriptures depends: the means of discovering what the thought may be, and the means of expressing what the thought is” (386).

Boethius:  “By genius, rhetoric is a faculty; by species, it can be one of three: judicial, demonstrative, deliberative.…These species of rhetoric depend upon the circumstances in which they are used” (425).

Anonymous, The Principals of Letter Writing:  “A written composition is setting-forth of some matter in writing, proceeding in a suitable order.  Or, a written composition is a suitable and fitting treatment of some matter, adapted to the matter itself.  Or, a written composition is a suitable and fitting written statement about something, either memorized or declared by speech or in writing” (431).

Basevorn:  “[T]he form of preaching…is the system and method of preaching on every subject, as logic is the system of syllogizing in every field of knowledge” (442).


Erasmus:  “Elegance depends partly on the use of words established in suitable authors, partly on their right application, partly on their right combination in phrases.…style is to thought as clothes are to the body.  Just as dress and outward appearance can enhance or disfigure the beauty and dignity of the body, so words can enhance or disfigure thought” (507,508).

Ramus:   Ramus agrees with Quintilian that “rhetoric is the art of speaking well, not about this or that, but about all subjects” (573) but disagrees with him in arguing that “invention, arrangement, and memory belong to dialectic, and only style and delivery to rhetoric” (570).

Wilson:  “Rhetorique is an art to set furthe by utteraunce of wordes, matter at large, or (as Cicero doeth saie) it is a learned, or rather an artificiall declaracion of the mynde, in the handelying of any cause, called in contencion, that maie through reason largely be discussed” (589).

Bacon:  “The duty and office of Rhetoric is to apply Reason to Imagination for the better moving of the will” (629).


Locke:  “The ends of language in our discourse with others being chiefly these three: First, to make known one man’s thoughts or ideas to another.  Secondly, to do it with as much ease and quickness as possible; and, Thirdly, thereby to convey the knowledge of things: language is either abused or deficient, when it fails of any of these three.…But yet if we would speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness; all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats; and therefore, however laudable or allowable oratory may render them in harangues and popular addresses they are certainly, in all discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided, and where truth and knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the language or person that makes use of them” (707-08, 710).

Vico:  “What is eloquence, in effect, but wisdom, ornately and copiously delivered in words appropriate to the common opinion of mankind?” (726).

Campbell:  “The word eloquence in its greatest latitude denotes, ‘That art or talent by which the discourse is adapted to its end’” (749).    In his Preface, Campbell describes his goal: “to ascertain with greater precision, the radical principles of that art, whose object it is, by the use of language, to operate on the soul of the hearer, in the way of informing, convincing, pleasing, moving, or persuading” (xlii).

Blair:  “For the best definition which, I think, can be given of eloquence, is the art of speaking in such a manner as to attain the end for which we speak.…But, as the most important subject of discourse is action, or conduct, the power of eloquence chiefly appears when it is employed to influence conduct, and persuade to action.  As it is principally with reference to this end, that it becomes the object of art, eloquence may, under this view, be defined, the Art of Persuasion” (818).

Whately:  “in the present day…the province of Rhetoric, in its widest application that would be reckoned admissible, comprehends all ‘Composition in Prose’; in the narrowest sense, it would be limited to ‘Persuasive Speaking.”  I propose in the present work to adopt a middle course between these two extreme points; and to treat of ‘Argumentative Composition,’ generally, and exclusively; considering Rhetoric (in conformity with the very just and philosophical view of Aristotle) as an offshoot from Logic” (832).


Day:  “Rhetoric has been correctly defined to be the Art of Discourse.  This definition presents Rhetoric as an art, in distinction from a science.…An art directly and immediately concerns itself with the faculty of discoursing as its proper subject.…A science, on the other hand, regards rather the product of this faculty; and, keeping its view directly upon that, proceeds to unfold its nature and proper characteristics.…the method of Art is synthetic, constructive; while that of Science is analytic and critical” (864).

Bain:  “Rhetoric discusses the means whereby language spoken or written, may be rendered effective” (875).

Hill, D.:  “As an art, Rhetoric communicates ideas according to these laws; as a science, it discovers and establishes these laws.   Rhetoric is, therefore, the science of the laws of effective discourse” (880).

Hill, A. S.:  “Rhetoric may be defined as the art of efficient communication by language.…It is the art to the principles of which, consciously or unconsciously a good writer or speaker must conform.  It is an art, not a science” (881).

Getty:  “the art of Speaking in such a manner as to obtain the end for which we speak” (Elements of Rhetoric, qtd. in Kitzhaber, Rhetoric in American Colleges, 1850-1900, 57-58).

Genung:  “the art of adapting discourse, in harmony with its subject and occasion, to the requirements of a reader or hearer” (The Practical Elements of Rhetoric, 1).

Carpenter:  “the art of telling some one else in words exactly what you mean to say” (Exercises in Rhetoric and English Composition, 1).

Richards:  Richards calls for “a persistent, systematic, detailed inquiry into how words work that will take the place of the discredited subject which goes by the name Rhetoric.…The result is that a revived Rhetoric, or study of verbal understanding and misunderstanding, must itself undertake its own inquiry into the modes of meaning—not only, as with the old Rhetoric, on a macroscopic scale, discussing the effects of different disposals of large parts of a discourse—but also on a microscopic scale by using theorems about the structure of the fundamental conjectural units of meaning and the conditions through which they, and their interconnections arise” (975).  In short, for Richards rhetoric should be “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies” (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 3).

Burke:  Burke calls for “a ‘dramatistic’ approach to the nature of language,…[one] stressing language as an aspect of ‘action,’ that is, as ‘symbolic action’” (1034).  Elsewhere Burke defines rhetoric as a “symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (A Rhetoric of Motives, 43).

Weaver:  “Rhetoric seen in the whole conspectus of its function is an art of emphasis embodying an order of desire.  Rhetoric is advisory; it has the office of advising men with reference to an independent order of goods and with reference to their particular situation as it relates to these” (1048).

Perelman:  “All language is the language of a community, be this a community bound by biological ties or by the practice of a common discipline or technique.  The terms used, their meaning, their definition, can only be understood in the context of the habits, ways of thought, methods, external circumstances, and traditions known to the users of those terms” (1071).

Toulmin:  “If the purpose of an argument is to establish conclusions about which we are not entirely confident by relating them back to other information about which we have greater assurance, it begins to be a little doubtful whether any genuine, practical argument could ever be properly analytic [i.e., formal logic]” (1122).

Bitzer:  “a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action” (“The Rhetorical Situation,” 4).

Corbett:  “the art of the discipline that deals with the use of discourse, either spoken or written, to inform or persuade or motivate an audience” (Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 3).

Young, Becker, Pike: “is concered primarily with a creative process that includes all of the choices a writer makes from his earliest tentative explorations of a problem . . . through choices in arrangement and strategy for a particular audience, to the final editing of a final draft” (xii) “We have sought to develop a rhetoric that implies we are all citizens of an extraordinarily diverse and disturbed world, that the ‘truths’ we live by are tentative and subject to change; that we must be discovers of new truths as well as preservers and transmitters of the old, and that enlightened cooperation is the preeminent ethical goal of communication” (Rhetoric: Discovery and Change 9).

Foucault:  “in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off the powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality.…discourse is the power which is to be seized” (1155).

Bakhtin:  “The actual reality of language-speech is not the abstract system of linguistic forms, not the isolated monologic utterance, and not the psychopysiological act of its implementation, but the social event of verbal interaction implemented in an utterance or utterances” (939),

Derrida:  “There is nothing outside of the text” (Of Grammatology, 158).

**Note: Unless otherwise indicated, quotations and page numbers are from: Bizzell, Patricia and Bruce Herzberg (Eds.).  The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present.  Boston: Bedford, 1990.

Back to ENG530 HomePage

Goggin's Homepage