“The communication of those thoughts to others falls under the consideration of Rhetoric.” – John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic

“And the perswasive Rhetoric That sleek’t his tongue.” – John Milton, Paradise Revived

Appearing in speech and writing, rhetoric is the method by which ideas are substantiated through linguistic conventions suggestive of proficiency and coherence. It can be defined primarily as a “body of rules,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which enables the speaker or writer to “express himself with eloquence” and “to persuade or influence others.” This body is constructed from rhetorical devices – a sanctioned series of phrasing, diction, metaphor, and other features of linguistic expression – encompassing, more or less, a vocabulary of written and spoken style. In this sense, rhetoric is a system of clarifying and homogenizing language with the object of qualifying content, being also defined as a means by which words are “expressed in terms calculated to persuade; hence (often in depreciatory sense), language characterized by artificial or ostentatious expression.” (OED) This further distinction conveys the negativity connoted by rhetoric–the intention to manipulate often associated with its use–while also making reference to the fundamental conflict between rhetoric and veracity, enveloped by the greater media theory relationship between representation and truth.

Historically the debate over the applicability of rhetorical expression has formed from this uncertainty of truthfulness. In essence, this has been a continual reconfiguration of the parameters of the “body of rules” which fulfill the standards of rhetoric. What rhetoric is and is not has been repeatedly outlined in an effort to find all its dimensions as a system within and functional to language. Both the Socratic and Aristotelian meanings of rhetoric derive from this critical debate, defining rhetorical language as being oral.

In Phaedrus, Socrates discusses the distinctions of truth and falsehood in rhetoric, asking, “isn’t the rhetorical art, taken as a whole, a way of directing the soul by means of speech, not only in the lawcourts and on other public occasions but also in private? Isn’t it one and the same art whether its subject is great or small, and no more to be held in esteem – if it is followed correctly – when its questions are serious than when they are trivial?”i (Plato, 261 A-B) Though associated with formality, rhetoric is more dynamically useful to the speaker or writer. If rhetoric is performed publicly and privately, its dimensions may then be expanded to the same lengths as language – spoken language, in this case. In The Rhetoric, Aristotle envisions his subject as “the counterpart of Dialectic,”ii distinguishing each as domains of public speaking and logical discussion. (Aristotle, 1354) There are three forms of oratory rhetoric for Aristotle, and accordingly three purposes: the political “urges us either to do or not do something”; the forensic has the aim of defending or attacking; the ceremonial “either praises or censors somebody.”iii (Aristotle, 1358b, 7-12) From this, there is another form to the “body of rules” in rhetoric, based on a relationship between speech, its subject, its speaker, and its audience. While Aristotle more systematically focuses on the dimensions of rhetoric, his definitions resemble, at least, the persuasive artfulness seen by Socrates in rhetorical speech.

Including practices of writing, rhetoric was identified as one of the seven liberal arts in the Middle Ages, “being comprised, with grammar and logic, in the ‘trivium.’” (OED) In 1580, Gabriel Harvey wrote, “To bring our Language into Arte, and to frame a Grammer or Rhetorike thereof,” defining rhetoric as a system of language – and therein as a system of a system. (OED) The distinction between language itself and rhetoric, with its inclusion into writing, allowed for a greater debate: is all language rhetorical?

What contests this conception of rhetoric is the system of value associated with its practice. Rhetorical expression is linguistic, but it is also “elegant” and “artistic.” (OED) Defining rhetoric is in this sense assessing these terms of quality. It is the art of rhetoric which places this into a more substantial discussion of artistic quality – is there a system of value in art? Is rhetoric a means of valuation in language? The OED cites Richard Whatley, in 1828, as explaining, “Some writers have spoken of Rhetoric as the Art of Composition, universally; or, with the exclusion of Poetry alone, as embracing all Prose-composition.” Meaning the art of composition, rhetoric has ambiguous applicability again, stemming from this question of value in art: is rhetoric, then, as the art of composing, the act of composing writing?

There are further definitions of rhetoric, as being “the expressive action of the body in speaking” or “the persuasiveness of looks or acts,” consequently deeming it a system of expression more generally, shedding from it even the confines of words. (OED) The constituent of persuasion, however, still exists here, but applying to the manner of gesturing, facial expression, and physical performance in oral rhetoric. In The Stones of Venice (1851), John Ruskin wrote of “themes for the exhibition of pictorial rhetoric,- composition and colour,” applying rhetoric to imagery and a greater plane of artistic domains – as a “body of rules” through stylized expression. (OED) Naming rhetoric the third branch of semiotics, Pierce, “in imitation of Kant’s fashion of preserving old associations of words in finding nomenclature for new conceptions,” observes that the task of “pure” rhetoric “is to ascertain the laws by which in every scientific intelligence one sign gives birth to another, and especially one thought brings forth another.” iv (Pierce, 99) Rhetoric is therefore applicable to both art and science – as a system by which units, ranging from all expressible signs, produce meaning, and interpretation. But the extent to which it provides implication is beyond phonetic and spoken demonstration, and can in fact direct the content of any form of communication.

Relating to rhetoric’s application to signs, and the manifold media for which there are signs, Yates insists that “for the rhetoric student ‘things’ and ‘words’ [have] an absolutely precise meaning in relation to the five parts of the rhetoric” as defined by Cicero, being first that “invention is the excogitation of true things (res), or things similar to truth to render one’s cause plausible; disposition is the arrangement in order of the things thus discovered,” thus pointing to the underlying conflict of truthful representation in rhetoric, and to its systematic expression. Cicero continues that, “elocution is the accommodation of suitable words to the invented (things); memory is the firm perception in the soul of things and words; pronunciation is the moderating of the voice and body to suit the dignity of the things and words.”v (Yates, 8-9) The student of rhetoric is obliged to these representational processes, in which the notion of “invention” is essentially the inclusion of new things into a preexisting system of thought and its articulation. As Yates explains, “‘Things’ are thus the subject matter of the speech; ‘words’ are the language in which that subject matter is clothed,”vi while both are comprised by the communicative rules of rhetoric, which govern the order and meaning of words, and correspondingly govern their implications of things. (Yates, 9)

This process of meaning through rhetoric has been in constant analysis for its correlation to both subject and truth. In Understanding Media, McLuhan writes, “it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action… Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.”vii (McLuhan, 9) This can be applied to all forms of the practice of rhetoric: it is a method of control, it is persuasion, and, as McLuhan says “typically,” it likewise is persuasive. But this is, according to McLuhan, also a general aspect of language: “The patterns of the senses that are extended in the various languages of men are as varied as styles of dress and art. Each mother tongue teaches its users a way of seeing and feeling the world, and of acting in the world, that is quite unique.”viii (McLuhan, 80) While language is a means of human association, rhetoric manipulates language as an art, placing it into a system of values.

Language can here be applied to the visual, aural, and textual domains: it can be seen, heard, or read. McLuhan explains, “The spoken word involves all of the senses dramatically, though highly literate people tend to speak as connectedly and casually as possible,”ix suggesting that the system of rhetoric is within multiple media, then later continuing that, “Civilization is built on literacy because literacy is a uniform processing of a culture by a visual sense extended in space and time by the alphabet… Phonetic culture endows men with the means of repressing their feelings and emotions when engaged in action.”x (McLuhan, 77-78, 86) This final association of repression with literacy is comparable to the negating association of dishonesty with rhetoric: while literacy is ostensibly enabling communication, it is consequently silencing; and while rhetoric is skillfully using language, it is inherently representational.

Rhetoric is understood politically as a sub-language of influential, and “correct” expressions, which can be applied to a range of media, from visual, textual, and performance forms of art. In politics, there is a separate vocabulary, including “liberal” and “conservative,” paired with even “left” and “right”: an entire system of homonyms belonging to rhetorical politics. Terms like “enemies of freedom” and “axis of evil” are products of rhetorical speech: they are eloquent implications, evident identifications made with an artful use of language, while they are also propaganda. The association with politics to rhetoric is from its intrinsic object of power: in political speech, the object is to persuade the audience (visually, aurally, and even textually) of an agenda. What distinguishes propaganda from rhetoric is its more limited applicability. Propaganda is rhetorical, while it is employed with a more specific purpose than the general use of rhetoric.

Beginning but not ending with its capacity for a political object, in its recent usage rhetoric has come to mean a system of terminology with an endlessly tentative relationship to power. Foucault describes a “language of power” inherent to rhetoric. Considering subjects absent from rhetoric, essentially, he explains that “the tightening up of the rules of decorum [likely produce], as a countereffect, a valorization and intensification of indecent speech.”xi (Foucault, 18) The “decency” of rhetoric is implied by its “eloquence,” and yet what is valorizing indecency is paradoxically rhetoric as well. It is a word’s insertion into the body of rhetoric which gives power to its idea: language represents an idea with a word, words convince of an idea with rhetoric. Lying beneath this line of reasoning is an ambiguity of wording – an ironic ambiguity – in that the transaction of identification through words itself is contained by rhetoric. In the act of assigning a word to an idea, is the idea subsequently assigned the value of rhetoric? Is making something a word, and therein enabling it to be spoken or written, axiomatically making it rhetorical?

The comprehensive, media-extensive modification of ‘rhetoric’ has progressively bracketed its meaning with language. The basic uncertainty of language is the extent to which it can accurately correspond to the ideas which it represents. In the OED, among the more recent citations is from J. Summerson in 1976, suggesting that “The rhetoric of treatment [be] replaced by the reality of treatment.” Though there is not necessarily a polar relationship between rhetoric and reality, as a medium rhetoric is a sub-reality – a representational reality, within the outspreading periphery of language. As a system of implied valuation, rhetoric has, in its broadening definition, become significantly approximated to all forms of linguistic expression.

Madeline Lane


i Plato, 261A-B

ii Aristotle, 1354

iii Aristotle, 1358b, 7-12

iv Pierce, p. 99

v Yates, pp. 8-9

vi Yates, p. 9

vii McLuhan, p. 9

viii McLuhan, p. 80

ix McLuhan, pp. 77-78

x McLuhan, p. 86

xi Foucault, p. 18


Aristotle. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle. Modern Library College Editions, 1984.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction Volume One. Vintage Books Edition, 1990.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. MIT Press, 1964.

Pierce, C.S. “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs,” Philosophical Writings of Pierce. Ed. Justus Buchler. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Plato. Phaedrus. Translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1995.

Yates, Frances. The Art of Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

The Oxford English Dictionary.