Aristotle’s Rhetoric: A Brief Overview

How should one argue to be as persuasive as possible? What is effective communication? Aristotle discussed this in his major work, the Rhetoric.

Nov 20, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

aristotle rhetoric


This article aims to explore Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric. We begin by exploring the role of rhetoric in the Ancient World. Afterward, explores the structure of Aristotle’s seminal work, the Rhetoric, and the relationship between rhetoric and dialectical philosophy. Finally, the article concludes by considering Aristotle’s influence on Cicero, arguably the most renowned ancient rhetorician and orator.


What is Rhetoric? 

Rhetoricians at a Window by Jan Steen, 1658-1665, via the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Rhetoric, in its essence, is the art of effective communication, particularly in the context of public speaking (although it is common to discuss a writer’s “rhetorical prowess,” for instance). It involves utilizing language and employing various techniques to persuade, inform, or entertain an audience. The study of rhetoric holds significant philosophical importance, as philosophy is deeply concerned with examining the uses of language and its limits. Both philosophy and rhetoric approach the question “what can language do?” albeit from different directions.


During the classical period, rhetoric served as the formal art of using persuasion to influence public opinion and decision-making. It was deemed an essential skill for politicians, lawyers, and other public speakers. Rhetoric was an academic discipline to be learned, studied, and organized. While present-day discourse often portrays rhetoric as a matter of personal preference, tied to an individual’s public speaking style, ancient rhetoric was far more didactic and rigid in nature.


The study of rhetoric typically encompasses an exploration of rhetorical devices, such as figures of speech, logical reasoning, and argumentation strategies. Aristotle played a major role in the development of this discipline through his treatment of rhetoric. His work extends beyond technicalities, delving into the fundamental principles and objectives underlying effective communication.

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Aristotle’s Categorizations of Rhetoric: Tools for Persuasion and Kinds of Speech

Martin Luther King speaking at the March on Washington, photo by Rowland Scherman1963, via the National Archives.


Philosophical interpretations of Aristotle’s work on rhetoric have emerged relatively recently, especially within the broader context of Aristotelian scholarship. This development can be attributed in part to a growing recognition of the intricate relationship between Aristotle’s rhetoric and his theories of logic, language, and argument. It is also fueled by a heightened interest in the notion of philosophy as rhetoric, challenging the idea that philosophy solely concerns necessary or objective truths and instead highlighting its involvement in the construction of meaning through discourse.


While Aristotle’s primary work on rhetoric resides in the appropriately titled Rhetoric, other works of his also hold significant importance in comprehending his theory of rhetoric in its entirety. The structure of the Rhetoric, as succinctly summarized by Christof Rapp, consists of two main sections, each further divided into three parts. The first division primarily focuses on the means of persuasion available to rhetoricians: the character of speech, the emotional state of the listener, and the argument itself.


Aristotle, Paolo Veronese, 1560, via the WGA.


The second division aims to analyze the various genres of speech. First, there is the speech given in a deliberative assembly, which generally attempts to warn or advise, and so is oriented around advocating for a specific kind of collective action. This genre predominantly concerns the future and potential future events.


The second genre encompasses judicial speeches, which adhere to the highly structured courtroom format where speeches serve as pivotal events in legal proceedings. Judicial speeches address past events rather than the future.


Finally, there are epideictic speeches, a term now employed in English to denote speeches of notable rhetorical or oratorical resonance. Aristotle’s usage of the term implies that these speeches fall within the realm of pure rhetoric, distinct from assembly or courtroom speeches. For example, a funeral oration exemplifies a form of epideictic speech.


The Relationship Between Rhetoric and Dialectic

Aristotle with a bust of Homer, Rembrandt, 1653, via The Met Museum


Understanding rhetoric in Aristotle also means understanding its counterpart, which is dialectic. What dialectic is for a private or academic setting, rhetoric is for the public setting. Where dialectic involves defending your own argument or attacking that of another, rhetoric involves defending oneself or attacking another person.


Of course, much of the time, there is no clear distinction to be drawn between attacking a person and attacking their argument, and so there is no clear distinction to be drawn between rhetoric and dialectic. Often, the same act of speaking involves both.


Aristotle’s definition of dialectic strictly confines it to the examination of particular claims or the testing of the consistency of a particular set of propositions, which is closely related to the more formal practice of logic. Both rhetoric and dialectic are concerned with the study of things that do not belong to a definite genus or are the object of a specific science. That is, there are not dependent on the principles of scientific knowledge that Aristotle is attempting to establish. They rely, rather, on premises that are not true prima facie; they rely on agreement, and more specifically, the form of semi-compulsory agreement that is the function of proper argumentation. They are concerned with the resolution of oppositions.


Given that oppositions are not a matter of necessity but are, in the context of public opinion, utterly dependent on circumstance, both rhetoric and dialectic participate in a contingent form of knowledge that sets them apart from scientific understanding, which in Aristotle’s view is objective. Science is here defined partly in terms of the definite nature of its subject matter and partly by virtue of the kind of knowledge that counts as scientific knowledge.


The Key to Rhetoric: Channeling Preexisting Beliefs and Emotions

Aristotle, Jusepe de Ribera, 1637, via Google Arts & Culture.


While there are no strict limitations on the subject matter of either rhetoric or dialectic, it is possible to develop a consistent methodology for both. Both rhetoric and dialectic operate within the realm of accepted ideas, and so they do not necessarily produce entirely novel concepts. This is another thing that sets them apart from science: scientific observations regularly lead to the introduction of novel and surprising ideas.


What sets rhetoric apart from dialectic is its utilization of commonly held views, channeling them effectively, whereas dialectic allows for appeals to expertise and engages with more informed interlocutors (and not, necessarily, the general public). Nevertheless, both rhetoric and dialectic share an interest in establishing a connection between accepted beliefs and the insights derived from the analysis of these already accepted beliefs.


Furthermore, rhetoric can draw upon dialectic and construct arguments rooted in philosophical methodology. This is one of the similarities we can find between Aristotle’s and Plato’s conceptions of dialectic: the idea that philosophical arguments possess relevance beyond themselves and can actively impact public affairs.


One question that remains open regarding Aristotle’s treatment of rhetoric is the purpose of studying it. Various plausible answers arise. Is it to provide a guide for those engaging in public speaking? Is it an analysis of the constituents of a good speech? Or does it delve into the ethical dimension of what constitutes morally virtuous speech?


Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Its Impact on Cicero 

Cicero and the Magistrates Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes by Benjamin West, 1804, via Yale University Art Gallery.


Aristotle’s profound influence on later Roman rhetoricians is undeniable. Cicero, arguably the most renowned among them, drew heavily from Aristotle’s ideas. To grasp how Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric impacted subsequent rhetoricians and orators, it is worth summarizing Cicero’s own conception of rhetoric and examining its relationship with Aristotle’s theory.


Cicero assigned paramount importance to inventio, considering it the initial and crucial step in the rhetorical process. Inventio entails discovering and selecting compelling arguments and ideas to support one’s case. Note the stress this puts on the notion of discovery: just as Aristotle emphasized the necessity of engaging with the pre-existing assumptions of the audience, Cicero highlighted the significance of thorough research and analysis to uncover the most persuasive arguments for a given audience.


The Rhetoricians by Jan Steen, ca. 1655, via Wikimedia Commons.


Additionally, Cicero stressed the importance of organizing and structuring arguments in a logical and coherent manner. He proposed a five-part framework known as the “canons of rhetoric”: introduction (exordium), statement of facts (narratio), division (partitio), proof (confirmatio), and conclusion (peroratio). This systematic approach facilitated the organization and writing of speeches for many orators that came later.


Cicero believed that eloquent and persuasive language played a crucial role in effective rhetoric. For example, he emphasized the importance of fluency in speech delivery. He also advocated for the use of various rhetorical devices, such as metaphors, similes, and rhetorical questions; these “tricks” are supposed to heighten the impact of otherwise ordinary speech.


We can now draw parallels with Aristotle’s view. There is an analogy between Aristotle’s understanding of rhetoric as transforming commonly accepted beliefs into extensive and compelling arguments and Cicero’s understanding of rhetoric as transforming ordinary speech into heightened forms suitable for public discourse.


Overall, Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric left a profound imprint on later rhetoricians, with Cicero being a notable example, as evidenced by his emphasis on the role inventio, logical organization, persuasive language, and the heightened use of rhetorical devices.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.