Rhetoric: ancient art or important skill of our time?

Everyone living with other people is inevitably a rhetorician. We may talk about “political rhetoric”, “campaign rhetoric”, courses in rhetoric which all have in common the aim of speaking effectively and persuasively. It was the ancient Greeks who were the first to engage in the systematic study and teaching of rhetoric and oratory. Before Plato coined the term in fifth century, tradition holds that the formal study of rhetoric began around 467 BC in the Greek city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Corax and Tisias were the first teachers of rhetoric who wrote a handbook and introduced the arguments of probability (eikos). Their art was introduced in fifth century Athens by the sophists who were supposed to educate the young citizens to be efficient both in private and public life. Notable was the contribution of Gorgias who introduced an elaborate style of expression using the known “Gorgianic figures” and declared that “logos is a great chief”.

Greeks loved debate and this is clearly understood by the development of rhetoric of fifth and fourth century in the persuasive discourse  of  assembly and law courts under the democratic political system. Famous Attic Orators as Isocrates, Demostenes, Lysias and Aeschines developed all three kinds of oratory -political, judicial, epideictic-  in a high level of eloquence setting an example not only  to the Roman followers  but also to all the students in the two thousand years in the history of rhetoric. This dialectic relationship between the past and the present of rhetoric appears in  President J. F Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961. In terms of classical rhetoric the speech could be classified as “epideictic oratory” given the style and the content which would move every Athenian or Roman spectator. As a result it seems that intertemporal practices and principles of rhetoric  remain relevant and useful for our time and that persuasion is an essential skill whether someone is a teacher, a salesman or a diplomat.

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