If means of persuasion.’ Aristotle placed an

If you don’t read this lesson, you’ll never understand what rhetoric means! That may or may not be true; it’s probably just hyperbole. Read about the different definitions of rhetoric and some of its most popular means of persuasion.

The Great Thinkers on Rhetoric

Sometimes one word can mean a lot of different things. Rhetoric is one of those words. Throughout history, many of the greatest minds had different things to say about this concept.For example, ancient Greek philosopher Plato defined rhetoric as ‘the art of winning the soul by discourse.’ He thought that rhetoric was a philosophy rather than an art and that it was actually an unnecessary tool.

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Plato was concerned with the truth, not the ability to persuade.Greek philosopher Aristotle, a student of Plato, argued that ‘rhetoric is the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.’ Aristotle placed an importance on discovering the possible means of persuasion, not the actual effect of persuasion.Roman rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintilianus had an entirely different take from the two Greek philosophers. He thought that rhetoric was the art of speaking well. He faulted Aristotle because he didn’t believe that he took into account the simple fact that anyone could persuade, even a liar or a charlatan.

Quintilianus felt that to achieve true rhetoric, a speaker must have a high moral character, be knowledgeable about the subject that he’s speaking about, and above all be ethical.Most of us have heard of Aristotle and Plato. Many of us have not heard of Quintilianus. However, it should be noted that it is his work in rhetoric that dominated English schools in the 16th-18th centuries.

Definition of Rhetoric

Okay, so rhetoric is one of those words that can mean a few different things to different people. So, how do we define something like that? We need to simply strip the word down to the basics. Let’s agree that rhetoric is the art of using language where at least one person is trying to change the thinking of at least one other person. This can be done either orally in something such as public speaking, or in the written form, such as in a thesis paper.For some, there will always be a negative connotation that comes along with the idea of rhetoric. Rhetoric can be seen as meaningless or empty language that is exaggerated in order to impress.

Of course, if a politician is trying to persuade you to vote for him, and if he’s a Republican politician and you are a Democrat, you may call his speech ‘rhetoric.’ Here, the connotation would be that he is trying to trick you or is otherwise being dishonest.

Rhetoric Devices and Examples

Politicians try to get you to vote for them. Companies want you to buy their products. Maybe you just want to win the argument with your friend that the Yankees are a better baseball team than the Red Sox. There are hundreds of different rhetoric devices used to help in the art of persuasion.

But first, it should be noted that rhetoric is not just about what you’re saying, it’s also about how you’re saying it. Things like the pace of your speech, the tone of your voice, and your overall body language are just as important as the words you recite.

  • Alliteration: repetition of the same consonant sounds beginning several words in a sequence

‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ or Veni, vidi, vici.

– Julius Caesar

  • Hyperbole: use of exaggeration for emphasis

‘The shot heard ’round the world’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson in his poem ‘The Concord Hymn’, which referred to the beginning of the American Revolution

  • Antistrophe: repetition of the same word or phrase

‘In 1931, ten years ago, Japan invaded Manchukuo – without warning. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia – without warning. In 1938, Hitler occupied Austria – without warning. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia – without warning.

Later in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland – without warning. And now Japan has attacked Malaya and Thailand – and the United States – without warning.’ – President Franklin D.


  • Irony: expression of something other than the intended meaning, the opposite of the literal meaning

‘Two households, both alike in dignity…’ by William Shakespeare in his play Romeo and Juliet is an example of irony because at first the word ‘dignity’ would lead us to believe that the two families are refined.

But later in the play, we learn that both families are alike in their violence, or lack of dignity.

  • Euphemism: substitution of an agreeable/non-offensive word or phrase for one that can be considered offensive or unpleasant

An example of this might be a parent telling his overweight son that he’s going to ‘image enhancement camp,’ because a harsher term like ‘fat camp’ might be too unpleasant.

  • Metaphor: word or phrase that is used for comparison in a figurative sense

An example of this would be when Shakespeare said ‘All the world’s a stage’ in his play As You Like It.

  • Oxymoron: apparent paradox achieved by the juxtaposition of words which seem to contradict one another

Comedian George Carlin pointed out an apparent oxymoron when he asked ‘How is it possible to have a civil war?’ Obviously, we know that there are two different kinds of civil, but when we think of civil as meaning polite, and then use it to describe a war, we’re left with an oxymoron.

  • Paradox: a statement that seems to be absurd but may actually be true

In Animal Farm, George Orwell uses a paradox by saying, ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

‘ Because equality naturally means that things are even, it doesn’t make logical sense that someone could be more equal than another, and this creates a paradox.

  • Antithesis: opposite or contrast of ideas or words in order to juxtapose

In the novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens begins with ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ In this quote, Dickens is using two contrasting ideas.

  • Apostrophe: interruption in order to directly address a person or an object

Here is an example of apostrophe from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: ‘Oh! Stars and clouds and winds, ye are all about to mock me; if ye really pity me, crush sensation and memory; let me become as nought; but if not, depart, depart, and leave me in darkness.’

Lesson Summary

Rhetoric is the art of using language where at least one person is trying to change the thinking of at least one other person.

Plato defined it as the art of winning the soul by discourse, while Aristotle defined it as the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion, and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus thought that rhetoric was the art of speaking well.There are many rhetorical devices, including alliteration, hyperbole, antistrophe, irony, euphemism, metaphor, oxymoron, paradox, antithesis, and apostrophe.

Learning Outcomes

When you are done, you should be able to:

  • Recall some of the historical opinions regarding rhetoric
  • State the standard definition of rhetoric
  • Identify and describe some of the rhetorical devices

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