Classical Rhetoric 101: A Brief History

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 30, 2010 · 47 comments

in Manly Knowledge

This is the second in a series on classical rhetoric. In this post, we lay the foundation of our study of rhetoric by taking a look at its history. While this post is in no way a comprehensive history of rhetoric, it should give you enough background information to understand the context of the principles we’ll be discussing over the next few months.

Humans have studied and praised rhetoric since the early days of the written word. The Mesopotamians and Ancient Egyptians both valued the ability to speak with eloquence and wisdom. However, it wasn’t until the rise of Greek democracy that rhetoric became a high art that was studied and developed systematically.

Rhetoric in Ancient Greece: The Sophists

Many historians credit the ancient city-state of Athens as the birthplace of classical rhetoric. Because Athenian democracy marshaled every free male into politics, every Athenian man had to be ready to stand in the Assembly and speak to persuade his countrymen to vote for or against a particular piece of legislation. A man’s success and influence in ancient Athens depended on his rhetorical ability. Consequently, small schools dedicated to teaching rhetoric began to form. The first of these schools began in the 5th century B.C. among an itinerant group of teachers called the Sophists.

The Sophists would travel from polis to polis teaching young men in public spaces how to speak and debate. The most famous of the Sophists schools were led by Gorgias and Isocrates. Because rhetoric and public speaking were essential for success in political life, students were willing to pay Sophist teachers great sums of money in exchange for tutoring. A typical Sophist curriculum consisted of analyzing poetry, defining parts of speech, and instruction on argumentation styles. They taught their students how to make a weak argument stronger and a strong argument weak.

Sophists prided themselves on their ability to win any debate on any subject even if they had no prior knowledge of the topic through the use of confusing analogies, flowery metaphors, and clever wordplay. In short, the Sophists focused on style and presentation even at the expense of truth.

The negative connotation that we have with the word “sophist” today began in ancient Greece. For the ancient Greeks, a “sophist” was a man who manipulated the truth for financial gain. It had such a pejorative meaning that Socrates was executed by the Athenians on the charge of being a Sophist.  Both Plato and Aristotle condemned Sophists for relying solely on emotion to persuade an audience and for their disregard for truth. Despite criticism from their contemporaries, the Sophists had a huge influence on developing the study and teaching of rhetoric.

Rhetoric in Ancient Greece: Aristotle and The Art of Rhetoric

While the great philosopher Aristotle criticized the Sophists’ misuse of rhetoric, he did see it as a useful tool in helping audiences see and understand truth. In his treatise, The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle established a system of understanding and teaching rhetoric.

In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle defines rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” While Aristotle favored persuasion through reason alone, he recognized that at times an audience would not be sophisticated enough to follow arguments based solely on scientific and logical principles. In those instances, persuasive language and techniques were necessary for truth to be taught. Moreover, rhetoric armed a man with the necessary weapons to refute demagogues and those who used rhetoric for evil purposes. According to Aristotle, sometimes you had to fight fire with fire.

After establishing the need for rhetorical knowledge, Aristotle sets forth his system for effectively applying rhetoric:

  • Three Means of Persuasion (logos, pathos, and ethos)
  • Three Genres of Rhetoric (deliberative, forensic, and epideictic)
  • Rhetorical topics
  • Parts of speech
  • Effective use of style

The Art of Rhetoric had a tremendous influence on the development of the study of rhetoric for the next 2,000 years. Roman rhetoricians Cicero and Quintilian frequently referred to Aristotle’s work, and universities required students to study The Art of Rhetoric during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Rhetoric in Ancient Rome: Cicero

Rhetoric was slow to develop in ancient Rome, but it started to flourish when that empire conquered Greece and began to be influenced by its traditions. While ancient Romans incorporated many of the rhetorical elements established by the Greeks, they diverged from the Grecian tradition in many ways. For example, orators and writers in ancient Rome depended more on stylistic flourishes, riveting stories, and compelling metaphors and less on logical reasoning than their ancient Greek counterparts.

The first master rhetorician Rome produced was the great statesman Cicero. During his career he wrote several treatises on the subject including On InventionOn Oration, and Topics. His writings on rhetoric guided schools on the subject well into Renaissance.

Cicero’s approach to rhetoric emphasized the importance of a liberal education. According to Cicero, to be persuasive a man needed knowledge in history, politics, art, literature, ethics, law, and medicine. By being liberally educated, a man would be able to connect with any audience he addressed.

Rhetoric in Ancient Rome: Quintilian

The second Roman to leave his mark on the study of rhetoric was Quintilian. After honing his rhetorical skills for years in the Roman courts, Quintilian opened a public school of rhetoric. There he developed a study system that took a  student through different stages of intense rhetorical training. In 95 AD, Quintilian immortalized his rhetorical education system in a twelve-volume textbook entitled Institutio Oratoria.

Institutio Oratoria covers all aspects of the art of rhetoric. While Quintilian focuses primarily on the technical aspects of effective rhetoric, he also spends a considerable  amount of time setting forth a curriculum he believes should serve as the foundation of every man’s education. In fact, Quintilian’s rhetorical education ideally begins as soon as a baby is born. For example, he counsels parents to find their sons nurses that are articulate and well-versed in philosophy.

Quintilian devotes much of his treatise to fleshing out and explaining the Five Canons of Rhetoric. First seen in Cicero’s De Inventione, the Five Canons provide a guide on creating a powerful speech. The Five Canons are:

  • inventio (invention): The process of developing and refining your arguments.
  • dispositio (arrangement): The process of arranging and organizing your arguments for maximum impact.
  • elocutio (style): The process of determining how you present your arguments using figures of speech and other rhetorical techniques.
  • memoria (memory): The process of learning and memorizing your speech so you can deliver it without the use of notes. Memory-work not only consisted of memorizing the words of a specific speech, but also storing up famous quotes, literary references, and other facts that could be used in impromptu speeches.
  • actio (delivery): The process of practicing how you deliver your speech using gestures, pronunciation, and tone of voice.

If you’ve taken a public speaking class, you were probably taught a version of the Five Canons. We’ll be revisiting these in more detail in a later post.

Rhetoric in Medieval Times and the Renaissance

During the Middle Ages, rhetoric shifted from political to religious discourse. Instead of being a tool to lead the state, rhetoric was seen as a means to save souls. Church Fathers, like St. Augustine, explored how they could use the “pagan” art of rhetoric to better spread the gospel to the unconverted and preach to the believers.

During the latter part of the Medieval period, universities began forming in France, Italy, and England where students took classes on grammar, logic, and (you guessed it) rhetoric. Medieval students poured over texts written by Aristotle to learn rhetorical theory and spent hours repeating rote exercises in Greek and Latin to improve their rhetorical skill. Despite the emphasis on a rhetorical education, however, Medieval thinkers and writers made few new contributions to the study of rhetoric.

Like the arts and sciences, the study of rhetoric experienced a re-birth during the Renaissance period. Texts by Cicero and Quintilian were rediscovered and utilized in courses of study; for example, Quintilian’s De Inventione quickly became a standard rhetoric textbook at European universities. Renaissance scholars began producing new treatises and books on rhetoric, many of them emphasizing applying rhetorical skill in one’s own vernacular as opposed to Latin or ancient Greek.

Rhetoric in the Modern Day

The rejuvenation of rhetoric continued through the Enlightenment. As democratic ideals spread throughout Europe and the American colonies, rhetoric shifted back from religious to political discourse. Political philosophers and revolutionaries used rhetoric as a weapon in their campaign to spread liberty and freedom.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, universities in both Europe and America began devoting entire departments to the study of rhetoric. One of the most influential books on rhetoric that came out during this time was Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres. Published in 1783, Blair’s book remained a standard text on rhetoric at universities across Europe and America for over a hundred years.

The proliferation of mass media in the 20th century caused another shift in the study of rhetoric. Images in photography, film, and TV have become powerful tools of persuasion. In response, rhetoricians have expanded their repertoire to include not only mastery of the written and spoken word, but a grasp of the visual arts as well.

Alright, that does it for this edition of Classical Rhetoric 101. Join us next time as we explore the Three Persuasive Appeals in rhetoric.

Classical Rhetoric 101 Series 
An Introduction
A Brief History
The Three Means of Persuasion
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Invention
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Arrangement
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Style
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Memory
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Delivery
Logical Fallacies
Bonus! 35 Greatest Speeches in History 

{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Poe November 30, 2010 at 5:07 am

Nice article. Rhetoric is one of the most important missing subjects in modern day classes.

2 Poe November 30, 2010 at 5:54 am

Still, some comment.

The picture under Rhetoric in “Ancient Greece: The Sophists” is ‘The Death of Socrates’ by Jacques-Louis David. Since Socrates was not a sophist, it’s a bit odd seeing this picture here.

Furthermore, Socrates was not merely executed because they thought he was a sophist. It’s still unclear what the exact charges against Socrates were, but it’s more likely he was executed for not honouring the gods and spoiling the youth and their moral with his mad ideas and appearance than for being a sophist.

3 Matthew R Jones November 30, 2010 at 6:42 am

I had the privilege of taking a course in college in rhetoric, from a very intelligent woman, and I realized rhetoric is like physics – it’s everywhere. Like physics, we are unaware of just how rhetoric permeates our daily lives. It is a hard subject to define, but it’s like quality; you know it when you see it.

4 Kyle E November 30, 2010 at 7:09 am

Great article! I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

5 Bill Carter November 30, 2010 at 7:16 am

Love the series and I am currently reading a series of books called The History of Philosophy. Dove tails nicely. There are about 8 paperbacks and you can see them on Amazon. I have a philosophy background (undergrad).

A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus [Paperback]
Frederick Copleston (Author)

6 John November 30, 2010 at 7:40 am

In the not-too-distant past, rhetoric (or the proper, structured use of language) was king. Now, as a society, we text message omg’s and lol’s with bff’s.

This is NOT progress.

7 Luis November 30, 2010 at 8:16 am

Great article! I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. (2)

8 Jacob Freeman November 30, 2010 at 8:54 am

Ask yourself, why isn’t an education in Rhetoric emphasized in today’s America? Because it’s enhances one’s ability to Reason, to engage in Independent thinking. It removes the cloak of deceit and opens the curtain on the Great and Powerful OZ and exposes him for what he is, a man or party that seeks to Control. Guard your children for they are not taught the Discipline of Reason, but only how to answer with what they have been told to say.

9 Thomas Mullins November 30, 2010 at 9:07 am

I want to echo one of the previous comments re: the death of Socrates. I was enjoying the series until you mentioned he was a Sophist and was put to death for being one of their party. One of the bases foe rhetoric is ethos, or believability. That slip caused me to question the validity of the rest of the article. It won’t stop me from reading the rest of it, but having your facts straight will help make this a more enjoyable series. Thanks for doing this, by the way. It is sorely needed.

10 Matt November 30, 2010 at 10:29 am

Regarding the comments about Socrates. The article did not call him a sophist. It merely mentioned that he was executed as a Sophist. Big difference there.

11 Don November 30, 2010 at 10:42 am

Good series. You’ve inspired me to research how I can work ‘rhetoric’ into my professional goals at work.

12 CoffeeZombie November 30, 2010 at 10:45 am

@Thomas Mullins That’s not how I read the statement. The author wrote,
“The negative connotation that we have with the word “sophist” today began in ancient Greece. For the ancient Greeks, a “sophist” was a man who manipulated the truth for financial gain. It had such a pejorative meaning that Socrates was executed by the Athenians on the charge of being a Sophist.”

It doesn’t say Socrates *was* a Sophist; it says he was *charged* with being a Sophist, as an example of how negatively Sophists were viewed at the time. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the topic would know that Socrates was not a Sophist, and that the Athenians pretty much wanted any charge that might stick so they could execute him.

Admittedly, the wording may have been a bit ambiguous, but, in that case, I tend to give the author the benefit of the doubt, especially on something so basic.

13 Brett McKay November 30, 2010 at 10:49 am

Yes, what Coffee Zombie said.

14 Kevin Daley November 30, 2010 at 11:58 am

One thing I must note is that the academic dialog in the middle ages was not universally theological or mystical; the late scholastics made tremendous progress in free-market economics (which, contrary to popular opinion, was not invented by Adam Smith whatsoever), and the early church wrote works which would form the precursors to enlightenment thinking regarding politics. Moreover, it can be argued that the phrases and rhetorical constructions you hear in any modern church were for the most part pulled straight from the Summa Theologica or the works of Augustine. The expressions and turns of phrase used by Thomas Aquinas in particular would define christian teaching for many generations to come. That’s just one example; i’m sure there are plenty more.

It’s easy to write off the entire middle ages as a period of history where nothing happened, but that is so far from the truth as to be utterly laughable. Yet it seems to be how everyone learns or interprets history for some reason.

15 Kevin Daley November 30, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Also, I think this article gives off the impression that rhetoric must be spoken. Might lead some to confuse it with “oration”, whereas the term rhetoric applies equally often to the written word.

16 Charles November 30, 2010 at 12:02 pm

@Jacob Freeman
“Ask yourself, why isn’t an education in Rhetoric emphasized in today’s America?”

One big reason is that we are seeing an overall shift away from the liberal arts toward professional training. “How will this get me a better-paying job” is winning out over “how will this make me a more highly-functioning human” (I am reminded of the scene in the 2002 movie “The Emperor’s Club” in which a student’s father denies the value of studying the Greeks and Romans and the character-forming aspect of education). Unless you are specifically training for a career in politics or advertising, rhetoric might be seen as irrelevant.

I am trying to counteract this in my psychology courses. Whenever we cover theories and research on the topic of persuasion, I make connections to politics and advertising, telling my students that the value here is that they will become better able to see the ways that they are being manipulated, and therefore better able to resist manipulation. I can see training in rhetoric having the same effect.

17 Elliot R. November 30, 2010 at 12:49 pm

excellent post. I actually just got back from my weekly Rhetoric class… good stuff. Very useful in pretty much any situation in which talking is involved.

18 Steve Harrington November 30, 2010 at 2:33 pm

As a longtime reader of this blog, I find the comments on posts humorously predictable. Whenever a post mentions things not progressing much during Medieval times, someone will ALWAYS jump in to declare this is bunk. Kevin and his like always miss the fact that it is a matter of degrees-things assuredly advanced during the Medieval period, but not in the same way, to the same degree as in other periods. The idea that the progress made with rhetoric during the ancient period, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment is any way on par with that made during Medieval times is positively laughable and doesn’t have an intellectual leg to stand on.

19 jay sauser November 30, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Man, what don’t we owe to the Greeks and Romans? :)

20 Rhetoricaster November 30, 2010 at 4:06 pm

For an engaging alternative to the “dirty sophist” perspective, I might recommend “Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured,” by Susan C. Jarratt.

21 James November 30, 2010 at 6:07 pm

Would Toastmasters be considered a step into rhetoric?

22 Ed November 30, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Brett, this is a fantastic start to a new series. This site really is getting better and better; I couldn’t ask for more. Keep up the good work my man!


23 CONSVLTVS November 30, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Very nice start on what looks to be a fine series. I’ve been a fan of AOM for a short while now. The overall site is great, but this post is a particular gem. As an attorney who majored in classics in college, I have used rhetorical techniques professionally in litigation. I’ve also taken plenty of trial advocacy courses. It’s interesting how the basic techniques track Cicero–without realizing it.

24 Paul December 1, 2010 at 1:27 am

I am certain that the charge against Socrates was, “Corrupter of Youth.,” not Sophistry

25 Andrew December 1, 2010 at 2:18 am

Yes, my post-reading of AoM has finally caught up to where the comments are not closed and I can voice my two cents!

First of all, great site, and terrific post–you did an excellent job of providing a succinct overview of the history of Rhetoric. I am looking forward to the future Rhetoric posts. I also enjoyed some of the comments. I have to take sides with Kevin against you, Steve: it may have been predictable, but it is necessary. The Middle Ages have been given a categorical, catch-all bum rap for far too long. Perhaps justifiably to an extent. But your condescension towards that era (never patronize the past; we, after all, will be some future era’s past, an era whose charges we will not be alive to defend ourselves against) is matched only by your condescension to Kevin’s very valid point.

Additionally, historians and lay people alike categorize the past into eras because it makes it easier to analyze and understand them; but let’s not forget the fact that time is a continuum and oversimplify things. It’s not as if some collective switch of reason and affinity for the arts was switched on during the Renaissance to light up the darkness that had been Medieval Europe. Come on! I mean, who flipped that switch? Dante? Petrarch? And as for his argument ‘not having an intellectual leg to stand on’–who are you kidding? Anyone who has spent a year or two in Academia knows how fickle thought and research trends are. An article today (or for that matter, a widely-held consensus) will be refuted tomorrow by another. You’ve clearly not been following the trend that seem to be moving towards a definite vindication of sorts for the much-maligned Middle Ages. I’m not saying it was on a par in advances with the successive ages. I’m simply pointing out the folly and absurdity of you making categorical and definitive statements about a period half a millennium ago that you only know about by what you were taught in very predictable (to use your word) high school/university curricula.

26 Gene December 1, 2010 at 5:30 am

We exist in an era where a majority of mankind has no understanding of the Elementary Lessons of Logic; Argumentation and Rhetoric… let alone what Consciousness and Its Implications might truly hold for humanity. It seems that the ‘great majority’ would rather be led [like sheep] by illogical, sociopathic liars that have no moral consciousness. I see a glimmer of light here. And an end to the usurpers. Truth can be hidden in darkness for only so long. Truth ultimately prevails. It’s like a Super Nova explosion that catches most in every sense unawares. Truth is a slap in the face! It is a wake-up call! It is the door-bell you hear going ‘ding-dong’ while in a half awakening state of slumber that makes you jump out of bed to see who is there… only to realize that no one was there at all. If you have ever experienced this [in one form or another] you are very fortunate. It is a sign of moral consciousness. P.S. Is it true that Socrates was ‘executed’ or did he choose his own death by drinking hemlock rather than being expatriated from his country of birth?

27 Dan December 1, 2010 at 5:44 am

Love Jacob Freeman’s deft use of the rhetorical question immediately followed by a succinct argument using an apt metaphor and persuasive justification based on the preservation of one’s childrens’ very souls.

28 ros December 1, 2010 at 11:10 am

thanks, very informative and interesting! great post! great work!!

29 Steve Harrington December 1, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Ah, it is your turn to be condescending now Andrew, is it not? My knowledge of the Medieval period comes not from “very predictable high school/college curricula” but from a very vigorous Ph.D program and from the fact that I now teach at the college level. No, it is actually the fact that I work in academia and have very much been following the trend to redeem the Middle Ages that I am so dismissive of Kevin’s point. As you say research trends are very fickle and swing back and forth. Right now, focusing on how very wrong past historians were about the Middle Ages is very “in.” Which is why I am so very tired of hearing people pipe up into every discussion with this “edgy” contrarian viewpoint, believing that they must save this period from the ignoramuses who are not up on the latest scoop. This fad too shall pass. And we’ll then hopefully be able to acknowledge the truth which is somewhere in the middle-the Medieval period was not the “dark ages” but neither was it a period where cultural advancements were made at the level of other periods. Hopefully the next academic trend will be to move away from dishonest relativism!

30 CoffeeZombie December 1, 2010 at 2:44 pm

@Steve Harrington Brace yourself; as I recall, by the time the general public is catching on to some “new” idea in any subject, academia has generally already passed through that fad, taken what can be learned from it, and, hopefully, moved on in a new helpful direction.

It’s currently my impression that the majority of the populace still tends to assume “Medieval” means “Dark Ages, backward, mass Ludditism” and so on. Then again, the majority of the populace also has little, if any, knowledge of the Eastern Roman Empire, or the East in general after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (with a slight nod in that direction for the Crusades, and, today, a bit of “Oh, yeah, and the Crusades kicked off the Rennaisance because the Muslims had preserved the Greek knowledge”–forgetting who had it between the Greeks and Muslims). So, jumping on that bandwagon can be somewhat justifiable–and is certainly still “edgy” in popular discourse.

All that said, while there were some significant advancements made in Western Europe in the Medieval Era, I’m not aware (though I’m no historian) of any advancements made in Rhetoric.

31 brendan December 1, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Don’t forget Richard Weaver’s “A rhetoric and composition handbook.”

There’s also his “The Ethics of Rhetoric.”

32 Magister Christianus December 1, 2010 at 6:45 pm

As a Latin teacher, I teach Cicero in my third year class every fall. It is not enough to have wonderful ideas. They must be communicated in a compelling way. Thanks for this post!

33 Kevin Daley December 1, 2010 at 7:56 pm

I didn’t mean to start a whole flame war on the subject of Medieval period. I also wasn’t aware I was being edgy by citing the work of the late scholastics. But since I like being edgy:

And Steve, I’m not sure how what you said was relevant. And AoM isn’t exactly the best crowd to spread your message. You’re making this article such an inhospitable place for newcomers who just want to compliment the article or add a point here or there. Besides, if you’re indeed a professor, shouldn’t you be busy right now?

But I digress. My real point here is not to argue these silly technicalities. My point was about the /article/; namely, that this is a slightly incomplete article inasmuch as it treats only the spoken portion of rhetoric and supposes there is a concrete measure of “advancement” separate from people just writing and speaking and stuff. And I have an admiration for the Medieval period because I’m a traditionalist Catholic, and we were winning. Plus, I /really/ like theology. So ultimately this argument boils down to the same logic as comparing years or decades (again, I’ll have to play the heterodox and put my money on early 1970s). In otherwords…relax guys.

But overall, I think Brett was trying to focus more on some tutorials, for the purpose of sparking a little academic interest in people who have less or none, so maybe if we could just calm down and let people read or comment on the article without being daunted.

34 David December 1, 2010 at 9:13 pm

I always recall a statement which was attributed to Aristotle—if it wasn’t his statement, it sounds like his—:”[proper] rhetoric is a good man speaking well.” This would be quite a different understanding of the tool than that employed by the sophists.

35 CONSVLTVS December 1, 2010 at 9:15 pm

“But overall, I think Brett was trying to focus more on some tutorials, for the purpose of sparking a little academic interest in people who have less or none….”

The stunning thing to me is that a group of American guys in 2010 is actually interested in this stuff. That alone is wonderful news.

36 Jeremy T December 2, 2010 at 1:34 am

Thank you so much for this article, It’s sad to see that most schools are not teaching such an important skill.

I’m interested to learn about rhetoric and also improve my public speaking skills, can anyone recommend me a book or a website where I can pick up some basics from?

37 George December 2, 2010 at 6:26 am

I’m sure these articles will be of great assistance to anyone. Looking forwar to the next one.

38 MNPilot December 2, 2010 at 7:37 pm

I’m simply reiterating prior comments when I say that this is likely to be one of the most needed, practical, and enlightening series on this website.

If I may, I’d like to toss a couple of names into the suggested-reading hat. The following have helped me maneuver through arguments and debates without letting emotions take control and drive my reasoning off a cliff.

First, “Thank You for Arguing” by Jay Heinrichs. Written in 2007, the book is an easy read that explains a wide variety of rhetorical principles with many pop-culture references. While the flow of the book could be accused of “jumping around” a bit too much, I found the book to be an easy place to start.

Second, “How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic” by Madsen Pirie is a must. Essentially a witty reference book of logical fallacies, the true highlight is in the author’s instruction on how to cunningly use these fallacies to win arguments when it is called for. Rhetorically unethical? Maybe. Rhetorically rewarding? Absolutely.

Lastly, while I haven’t yet read them yet, I’ve heard strong praise for “A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms” and “Encyclopedia of Rhetoric.”

39 Andrew December 3, 2010 at 1:24 am

Fair enough, Steve. I’ll gladly concede that, not only are you more qualified to comment on Medieval matters than I am (if your credentials are true, and I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that they are), but that I read your first post too fast and commented in haste.

But perhaps you’ll consider why these ‘fads’ spring up; why in this case the Medieval Vindicationalists have gone to the other extreme: they are tired of one era (or party as the case may be) getting short shrift and being immediately dismissed, especially if it happens to be of particular interest to them. In my case, as an English grad who had a penchant for both Medieval and Renaissance literature, your dismissal seemed peremptory at best, and yes, condescending at worst.

The clamor of voices trying to redeem the Middle Ages may be misguided and overblown, sure. You may find it annoying that people perceive themselves as edgy. I for one did not consider myself that, in the least. But if it leads to people stepping back and eyeing periods of history with a somewhat more critical gaze and questioning the tired cliches of their High School History books, isn’t that worth something? As Coffee Zombie says, they will become reacquainted with the truth a few years down the road; and if nothing else, the brief fad may have taught them to be less complacent about their study and appreciation of history.

40 Daryl December 3, 2010 at 4:43 am

Don’t disregard the influence of Mesopotamian and Ancient Egypt. The Greeks got allot of there ideology from the Egyptians and study under the Egyptians scholars by way of the University of Timbuktu. Which taught literature covering topics of science, math, medicine and other disciplines. The university had an average attendance of around 25,000 students. Surly, some Greek thinkers were in attendance.

41 Jacob Freeman December 5, 2010 at 7:52 am

Thanks Dan,

You compliment on my comment is, of itself, a lesson in structure and clarity.

42 Gustavo December 8, 2010 at 5:26 pm


the text is very useful, and the structure is excelent, a good text, which helps to regain interest in the social sciences.

43 Guy December 11, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Good stuff! really enjoying this series, an apple for Brett.

44 B Cole December 15, 2010 at 1:28 am

Great article, an enjoyable brief history straight to the point. Cannot wait to see the next post.

45 Jeffrey Smith March 3, 2013 at 8:04 am

Good article, good series. Worth spending the time to read. I have a Master’s degree, but just a passing familiarity with rhetoric, largely because it has been scorned, both by Socrates in the past, and by Pirsig in the present, in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was required reading in my Univ of Florida Intro to Philosophy class I took back in the 70s.

46 Rick White July 28, 2013 at 10:23 am

an eye opener

47 Shawn Burk August 3, 2013 at 6:49 am

I am not sure how I feel about this article. It was always my impression that rhetoric is what ruined the old empires. Overnight Philosophy (searching truth) was taken over by Rhetoric (Salesmanship). I see it too much today where a degree is everything and experience not so much. Instead of mastering educational disciplines, we seek to merely sound smart and sell the cliff notes version of life. Am I wrong in this thought process, because I’m hearing the opposite in other comments?

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