What Is Rhetoric? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Rhetoric Definition


Rhetoric (REH-tore-ick) refers to the art of using language well, particularly in terms of written and spoken discourse. Effective rhetoric utilizes various tools to persuade, move, entertain, and please its audience.

The word rhetoric first appeared in English in the early 14th century. It derived from the Old French rethorique, which came from the Latin rhetorice and the Greek rhētōr, meaning “speaker, master speaker, orator; artist of discourse.”


The History of Rhetoric


Rhetoric played an important role in Mesopotamian Akkadian writings (2285-2250 BCE), as well as the Middle Kingdom period of ancient Egypt and the era of Confucius (551-479 BCE) in China. However, ancient Greece in particular prioritized rhetoric as a mode of civic life.

The Greeks, and the Romans after them, highlighted rhetoric as an important tool of political participation and viewed oratory as a form of art. Although rhetoric has moved beyond the realm of politics and now is analyzed in literature and advertising as well, the term continues to retain a political connotation.

There are many prominent philosophers who addressed the idea of rhetoric in their work.

  • Aristotle wrote his famous treatise Rhetoric in the 4th century. In it, he develops a system of rhetoric as a foundation of persuasion, highlighting the importance of three modes of appealing to an audience’s psyche: ethos, logos, and pathos.
  • Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was the author of The Rhetoric of the Image, which examined the way rhetoric plays out in visual language, particularly advertisements.
  • Cicero (106-43 BCE) wrote several influential texts examining rhetoric. His legacy is seen particularly through his declaration of the five cannons (or tenets) necessary for masterful rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.
  • Empedocles (early 5th century BCE) wrote perhaps the first analysis of the power of language and human knowledge.
  • Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher who believed the purpose of rhetoric was to understand its power and that language can be used to control and regulate.
  • Isocrates (436-338 BCE) was one of the 10 Attic orators and stressed the ability to use language to address practical problems.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche (19th century) believed rhetoric was a very human way to search for the truth. His theory was that people create perceptions, form beliefs about those perceptions, then translate it into language using metaphors.
  • Plato (425-347 BCE) believed rhetoric was merely a form of flattery that hides the undesirable nature of things by making them appear to be good.


Common Rhetorical Devices


There are many rhetorical devices authors and speakers use to make their language more effective and persuasive. The following are some of the most common.


This refers to the repetition of consonant sounds, particularly at the beginning of a word, to add musicality and emphasis. For example, the children’s tongue twister “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” is alliterative as it utilizes the repetition of the letter p at the beginning of most of the words.


This device occurs when a negative thing is balanced with a positive thing. For example, the phrase “April showers bring May flowers” is an antanagoge as it presents a negative thing, rain, in balance with a positive outcome, flowers.


This figure of speech substitutes a more pleasing phrase in place of an unpleasant or upsetting one. For example, people often say someone has passed on to indicate they died or, when discussing romantic breakups, they might say the couple parted ways.


When people use hyperbole, they’re making a deliberately exaggerated statement. Hyperboles aren’t meant to be taken literally. Saying “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” is hyperbolic. It’s meant to convey intense hunger, but the speaker isn’t actually suggesting they will eat an entire horse.


Opposite of a hyperbole is litotes, a deliberate understatement that is frequently constructed using double negatives. Much like its counterpart, litotes is meant to draw attention to what’s being discussed. If someone says “You’re not going to hate it” about a new film, they’re indicating that the film is enjoyable.


This occurs when a word represents the sound it references. The famous “Snap, crackle, pop” tagline of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies cereal is onomatopoeic; it references the sound the cereal makes when milk is poured over it. Words like bang, crash, whir, ring, splash, and click are all onomatopoeias.


This is a rhetorical device where something is given qualities of greater animation than it possesses. For example, James Wright uses personification in his poem “At the Slackening of the Tide” when he writes:

I bowed my head and heard the sea far off
Washing its hands.

In these lines, Wright attributes an act associated with humans—washing hands—to the sea.

Rhetorical Questions

These questions are asked for effect or to emphasize a point rather than elicit an answer. People use rhetorical questions frequently in daily life. Often, when someone asks “Who knows?”, they aren’t expecting an answer. Instead, they’re emphasizing that no one knows.


Rhetoric vs. Persuasion


People often conflate the terms rhetoric and persuasion, but they aren’t the same thing. Rhetoric is the art of using language well, and its goal is to persuade or convince. Because persuasion is often accomplished through rhetoric, it can be considered a function of rhetoric rather than an interchangeable term for it.

According to Aristotle, there are three modes of persuasion that must be used to shape words into effective rhetoric.

  • Ethos utilizes the credibility and reputation of the speaker or writer. The audience is persuaded by the speaker’s depth of knowledge and authority as they demonstrate their knowledge and trustworthiness.
  • Logos relies on logic and reason to persuade the audience. Arguments that foreground logos often include data and facts, as well as citations from credible experts, to convey their message.
  • Pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions. Speakers and writers who use pathos establish emotional connections with their audience to help sway them.

Each of these modes of persuasion appeals to a different component of the human psyche to influence the audience. The most effective rhetoric makes use of all three modes to fully convince their audience.


Rhetoric Outside of Literature


Because rhetoric’s goal is using language to entertain, move, and persuade its audience, it’s a fundamental component of effective politics and advertising.

Rhetoric in Politics

In politics, rhetoric is particularly found in speeches. Political figures utilize it on the campaign trail in hopes of persuading citizens to vote for them. It’s also an integral technique during crucial moments in a nation’s history, as politicians must attempt to comfort their citizens in times of need or inspire them to acts of bravery and self-sacrifice. When contemplating political rhetoric, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Infamy” speech are all famous examples of political rhetoric.

Rhetoric in Advertising

In advertising, rhetoric is a tool for persuading viewers to purchase whatever item is being advertised. Sometimes this is accomplished through catchy slogans, such as Nike’s “Just Do It,” Wheaties cereal’s “The Breakfast of Champions,” or L’Oréal’s “Because You’re Worth It.” Other times, the use of arresting images is what persuades a consumer to make the purchase; think of how movie theaters advertise concessions by projecting images of popping popcorn and soda being poured into a cup of ice. This use of visual rhetoric was analyzed in depth by Barthes in his book The Rhetoric of Image.


Examples of Rhetoric in Literature


1. William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

In Act I, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s famous play, the Jewish Shylock asks another Venetian a series of rhetorical questions:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Shylock’s questions are not meant to be answered; instead, the answers are self-evident as he illuminates that Jewish people are the same as Christians.

2. Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death—”

Dickinson uses personification in her famous poem:

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

Her use of this rhetorical tool allows the poem to portray the concept of death as a polite companion, rather than a terrifying event. This gives an additional eloquence and beauty to her poem.

3. Toni Morrison, Beloved

In Part 1 of her novel, Morrison describes how Baby Suggs ministers to fugitive and former slaves. The sermons emphasize healing and restoration of the bodies of these former slaves, rather than the kingdom of heaven. Baby Suggs says:

Love it. Love it hard…love your neck…And all your inside parts…The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.

Morrison uses alliteration, particularly of repeating l, d, and b sounds, to create an effective and moving music in Baby Suggs’s sermons. Morrison also uses repetition to emphasize the word love and amplify its thematic importance.


Further Resources on Rhetoric


Thomas O. Sloane and Chaim Perelman wrote an interesting overview of rhetoric in literature for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

SpeakerHub published a great introduction to Cicero’s five cannons of rhetoric and how using them can make you a more persuasive speaker.

Professors Stephen E. Lucas and Martin J. Medhurst compiled a great list of the 100 most significant American political speeches of the 20th century.


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