Classical Rhetoric 101: The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Invention

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 26, 2011 · 19 comments

in Manly Knowledge

Welcome back to our series on Classical Rhetoric. Today we’re kicking off a five-part segment on the Five Canons of Rhetoric. As you remember from our brief introduction to classical rhetoric, the Five Canons of Rhetoric constitute a system and guide on crafting powerful speeches and writing. It’s also a template by which to judge effective rhetoric. The Five Canons were brought together and organized by the Roman orator Cicero, in his treatise, De Inventione, written around 50 BC. 150 years later in 95 AD, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian explored the Five Canons in more depth in his landmark 12-volume textbook on rhetoric, Institutio Oratoria. His textbook, and consequently the Five Canons of Rhetoric, went on to become the backbone of rhetorical education well into the medieval period.

Enough with the history. What are the Five Canons of Rhetoric? Glad you asked.

The Five Canons of Rhetoric 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. They also form the foundation of many composition courses.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a look at each of the Five Canons separately and exploring how we use them in everyday situations to be more effective communicators. Ready, to get started? Let’s kick things off by talking about the first Canon of Rhetoric: Invention.

What Is Invention?

Invention, according to Aristotle, involves “discovering the best available means of persuasion.” It may sound simple, but Invention is possibly the most difficult phase in crafting a speech or piece of writing as it lays the groundwork for all the other phases; you must start from nothing to build the framework of your piece. During the Invention Phase, the goal is to brainstorm ideas on what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it in order to maximize persuasion. Any good orator or writer will tell you they probably spend more time in the Invention step than they do any of the others.

Take Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Yeah, the man is polarizing and a lightning rod for controversy, but lawyers and jurists across the political spectrum recognize him as one of the best legal writers in the history of the Supreme Court. He’s able to take complex issues and arguments and distill them into short, powerful, and often witty sentences and paragraphs. Even if you don’t agree with the outcome of his opinions, you’re often left thinking, “Damn, that was a really good argument!”

What’s the secret to Justice Scalia’s rhetorical ability? Spending lots and lots of time in the Invention Phase. In an interview about his writing process, Scalia explained that he goes through “a lengthy germination process” for ideas before he puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Scalia brainstorms in his car while driving home from work and at the gym while exercising. This germination process lasts anywhere from a few days to even a few weeks. But the time invested in simply thinking and brainstorming pays off when he finally gets down to writing. I find this to be the case in my own life as well; my best posts are those which I allow to percolate in my brain for a long time, months, even years. I’m kicking around ideas when I’m brushing my teeth and taking a walk. When I finally sit down to write, the ideas come tumbling out, already nicely aged and seasoned.

Things to Consider in the Invention Phase

So what sorts of things should you be thinking about during the Invention Phase? Without some direction and guidance, brainstorming can often be fruitless and frustrating. Pondering the following elements can increase the effectiveness of your Invention sessions.

Your audience. One of the key factors in crafting a persuasive piece of rhetoric is tailoring your message to your specific audience. Find out to the best of your ability the overall demographics and cultural background of your audience. What does your audience fear? What are their desires? What are their needs? This information will help you decide what sorts of facts to incorporate into your rhetoric as well as help you determine which means of persuasion would be the most effective to employ.

Your evidence. When planning your speech or writing, collect any and every type of evidence you can find. Evidence could be facts, statistics, laws, and individual testimonies. It’s always good to have a nice blend, but remember different audiences are persuaded by different types of evidence. Some people need cold, hard facts and statistics in order to be persuaded. Others find the testimony of peers or a reputable authority to be more convincing. Part of getting to know your audience is figuring out what kinds of evidence they will find most credible and compelling.

The means of persuasion. You remember the three means of persuasion, right? Pathos, logos, and ethos? This is the time when you want to determine which of the three persuasive appeals you’ll use in your speech. Ideally, you’d have a nice mixture of all three, but again, different audiences will be better persuaded by different appeals.  Using pathos (appeal to emotion) to convince a room full of scientists that you have discovered cold fusion probably won’t get you very far. A focus on logos would work much better. Again, it’s all about suiting your rhetoric to your audience.

Timing. People are receptive to certain ideas at different times depending on context. People often advise couples not to go to bed angry, to work out their problems before hitting the sack. But at night we’re tired and cranky; our defenses are down. Trying to convey your side of things at this time frequently results in a small issue blowing up into something much bigger. On the other hand, a good night’s sleep often helps put things in perspective. You’ll likely find your spouse more willing to hear you out in the morning. As it is in marriage, so it is with everything in life; the importance of timing cannot be underestimated. Present a cost-cutting idea at work the same day five of everyone’s favorite employees were laid off, and you’ll get a icy, hostile reception. Present it six months later and people will actually listen.

Another aspect of timing is the duration of your speech or writing. In some instances a long, well-developed, and nuanced speech is appropriate;  other times, a shorter, and more forceful presentation will be more effective. Again, it often depends on your audience and the context of your speech.

Abraham Lincoln was a master of timing. His Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in history. Many people don’t know that Lincoln actually wasn’t the keynote speaker that day; rather, that honor fell to renowned orator, Edward Everett. Everett delivered a two hour speech that displayed some of the finest skill in oration and rhetoric; he held the audience in rapt attention. Lincoln took to the stand and delivered his address in less than five minutes. While the contemporary audience was not overly impressed, Everett knew he had been witness to greatness. He wrote Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” And of course, 150 years later, no one quotes Everett or even remembers he spoke at Gettysburg, but everyone remembers Lincoln and are familiar with his words. Timing matters.

Format of argument. So you have a vague idea of what you’re supposed to write or talk about. The hard part is taking that vague idea and organizing it into a concrete theme or thesis. Without some guidance on how to do this, a man can rack his brain for hours and not get anywhere. Fortunately for us, the ancient rhetoricians left us some nifty little cheat sheets on developing the format and theme for our arguments, which is where we turn next.

Ancient Helps for the Invention Phase

Stasis. Stasis is a procedure designed to help a rhetorician develop and clarify the main points of his argument. Stasis consists of four types of questions a speaker asks himself. They are:

  1. Questions of fact: What is it exactly that I’m talking about? Is it a person? An idea? A problem? Does it really exist? What’s the source of the problem? Are there facts to support the truth of this opinion?
  2. Questions of definition: What’s the best way to define this idea/object/action? What are the different parts? Can it be grouped with similar ideas/objects/actions?
  3. Questions of quality: Is it good or bad? Is it right or wrong? Is it frivolous or important?
  4. Questions of procedure/jurisdiction: Is this the right venue to discuss this topic? What actions do I want my reader/listener to take?

These questions may sound completely elementary, but trust me, when you’re struggling to get your mind around an idea for a speech or writing theme, stasis has an almost magical way of focusing your thinking and helping you develop your argument. Don’t skip out on it.

Topoi (Topics of Invention). Topoi, or topics,  consist of a set of categories that are designed to help a writer or speaker find relationships among ideas, which in turn helps organize his thoughts into a solid argument. Aristotle organized the different rhetorical topics in his treatise The Art of Rhetoric. He divided the topics into two large categories: common and special. We’ll focus on common topics as they’re more general and applicable to every day rhetorical situations. (If you’d like more info on special topics see here.) Below, I’ve listed a few of the common topics that are especially helpful in forming arguments.

  • Definition. My classics professor crammed it into my head that in any rhetorical debate, definitions are vital. Whoever can dictate and control the meaning of a word or idea, will typically win. Politicians know this and spend a lot of energy working to frame and define the debate in their own terms and with their own spin. The topic of definition requires an author to determine how he would classify the idea, what its substance is, and to what degree it has that substance.
  • Comparison. You’re probably familiar with this one from your middle school days when you had to write compare and contrast essays. It’s a great way to explore and organize. But the real power of comparison lies in its ability to help you develop powerful analogies and metaphors that stick with your audience.
  • Cause and Effect. Perhaps you’re in a city hall meeting arguing against a new ordinance that requires restaurants to display nutrition information on all their food. You could use cause and effect as an effective way to persuade your listeners that it’s not a good idea. Using strong, factual evidence, present some of the possible detrimental effects of implementing the ordinance. (i.e. expensive for businesses, extra costs to city government to regulate, etc.)
  • Circumstance. This topic looks at what is possible or impossible based on circumstances. With the topic of circumstance, you can also attempt to draw conclusions on future facts or events by referring to events in the past. “I know the sun will rise tomorrow because it has risen every day for thousands of years,” is a very simple example of the topic of circumstance in action.

Stasis and the topoi are just starting points in helping you organize your thoughts and arguments.

That does it for today. I hope you learned something you could apply in your own life. Next, time we’ll be discussing the canon of arrangement.

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

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew January 27, 2011 at 12:09 am

Love this. How have I never encountered things of this nature before? Keep it coming!

2 Joe Styles January 27, 2011 at 2:06 am

This is really good stuff I have been accused of using rhetoric and of being an orator but never had any training on the subject. I have been interested in learning more and this is a good starting place. I have always been able to argue a point well but have lacked the discipline to debate in a civilized manner :) As I read this I learned that I have used some of this before including a good germination time for my ideas and concepts. I collect quotes to use in arguments like some people collect coins or stamps. The formal use of rhetoric is definitely on my list of things to learn and I intend to use this knowledge to good purpose in my life.

3 Manuel January 27, 2011 at 7:00 am

very interesting read as always. Comes in very handy because i have to write my diploma soon and i could get a few ideas already by reading your article!


4 Tsosamotse January 27, 2011 at 10:59 am

Knowledge is power. Persuasion is power. Skill is power. Art is power. Success is knowledge, skill and art. Men need power. These sessions are giving us all that power is . We can actually use these skills to also analyse great speeches of all time. I’ll be waiting for the recommended books on rhetoric to study persuasion in more detailed. Good luck Brett and Kate on the Art of manliness. You inspire me with hard and creative work. From Tsosamotse Marvin Hlabi in South Africa, Johannesburg, Vereeniging

5 Jonathan Sutton January 27, 2011 at 11:26 am

This is a very crucial topic for my life. Thanks for the time and discipline you and your wife are putting into this site. AOM is truly a classroom for men. Even the most difficult topics are explained with ease and yet they do not lose their depth. Thank you.

6 Jeff Boss January 27, 2011 at 11:34 am

Thanks for the post Brett and Kate. An important topic that has never been needed as badly as it is now.

I can tell you from my perspective as a high school teacher that the majority of students these days have no idea how to form and effectively communicate an argument; either orally or on paper. Countless studies shown the same thing; university and college professors are lamenting the extremely poor writing that they are seeing in their incoming students these days.

The biggest problem (in my mind) is that we don’t teach rhetoric as we used to in schools. Heck, we don’t even stress writing conventions the way we used to. Instead we focus on letting students express themselves in whatever way they wish. Rather than teaching them how effective communicators have been doing it for thousands of years, we continue to let them write garbage as long as they spell correctly and include periods at the end of their sentences.

I think that in order to improve we need to rethink our philosophy of education here in North America. Sure most of my students want to be doctors and pharmacists rather than politicians, but nobody trusts a doctor that can’t string together a coherent sentence. Until we break with the idea in schools that rhetoric is something that used to be taught in a classical education and that it is only useful for Harvard debaters and people trying to get elected to office, we are going to continue to produce bad writers and poor arguers.

While I work with my students to help them develop their writing/debating skills and written voice as much as I can (I teach history, geography and religion, not English) I find it frustrating that I often seem to be doing it alone and that most of our time spent on simple literacy skills (preparing them for mandatory standardized literacy tests) rather than actually teaching them to read critically and write effectively.

I don’t know if their is an immediate solution to the problem but I do know that more and more of my colleagues are beginning to feel the same way I do. Unfortunately in education we tend to jump on bandwagons and build our curriculum around whatever the latest and greatest educational study suggests. I have faith that in the future we will swing back to a more traditional way of doing things (as we do) and find a way to incorporate the lessons of past great educators with the best information about education we have today. Here’s hoping anyway…

7 John January 27, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Outstanding. All of these points, simply put, are useful in developing winning arguments. Keep them coming.

8 Theodus January 27, 2011 at 3:10 pm

@Jeff – I agree that we need rhetoric in schools. However, before children even encounter rhetoric, they would do well to learn Logic. Lamentably, most publicly-educated students won’t encounter a course on Logic until college (and more often than not it’s an elective course).

Rhetoric is almost impossible for the developing mind to grasp if they have not learned both the process and the importance of sound reasoning. Reemphasize Logic in education, and we may hear more stirring speeches and fewer foolish arguments.

9 MNPilot January 27, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Your point about logic as a prerequisite to rhetoric is a good one. A member of the wandering generation Y, the majority of “arguments” I encounter are simply naked assertions. I’m sure this is something all of us encounter on a daily basis.

A quick read on the subject of logic that will benefit everyone is A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston. Intended as an introductory rulebook – as opposed to a bloated textbook – it offers simple everyday rules in an easy to understand manner.

MN Pilot

10 Chad January 27, 2011 at 9:33 pm

This is great. I am a junior in college and have just started my senior thesis. These rhetoric posts will definitely help me organize and portray my thoughts with ease.
Thank you, so much.

11 Kyle January 28, 2011 at 3:05 pm

I loved this article. You lay out the substance of good rhetoric quite delightfully. I have a feeling I’ll be referring to this article on a regular basis.

12 Valentin January 30, 2011 at 3:32 am

Thank you for the article. I find this a very good summary of the basics.

Ttere is one important topic I would like to raise. Whenever you do the talk there is always a message you want to bring across. Your arguments, their sequence or presentation depends on that.

Out of this point there are two types of talks. One where message is in line with the audience, their beliefs or knowledge. This the kind of talk Linkoln delivered in your example. It is the talk to reinforce the message that is already in someones head.

However another one, and far more challenging, is when message says something alien to the people listening. It can range from pure novelty of the subject to pure anger at the matter.

If I see that I need to deliver “first type” of talk I always consider if I can do something instead of it. Talking the same message to the people already agreeing to it is a waste of audience and my time. If I need to do a reminder I will probably choose more subtle form or talk directly with the key people only.

If it the second… Now that’s the most fun part. One thing I do often is try to prepare a talk as a dialog with an opponent. Another — try to think about different plans of delivering the same message. Even if I will only choose plan A, preparing plans B C or even D gives me a room to maneuver in case I see the audience not responding. This is also important because in reality none of your plans will stand the real encounter with the audience :)

Political speeches far too often are “first type” talks. Mainly because scaring your voter in the middle of an election campaign is a Bad Thing.

13 Drew January 30, 2011 at 10:59 am

This series on classical rhetoric is excellent and deserves to be read widely.

Justice Scalia may owe some of rhetorical prowess to his four years as a member of the Philodemic Society of Georgetown University, one of the oldest collegiate oratorical clubs in the United States and an environment in which the art of classical rhetoric is practiced weekly.

For any who may be interested, the links below lead to the Philodemic’s website and to a Wikipedia article on the society:

14 Guy Miller January 31, 2011 at 11:51 am

Kudo’s to Brett for another score!

15 Bryan January 31, 2011 at 12:58 pm

This series seems to have neglected what should be the first consideration in rhetoric:

“Ought I make this speech in the first place? Why do I want to convince? What are my true motives, devoid of pleasant self-deception. Are these motives virtuous? Are they base?”

Far too many times, “men” try to learn “how” without bothering to contemplate the far more important question of “why”. Arete is fundamental to manliness. Without it, we merely have civil beastliness.

16 Jarett S February 23, 2011 at 3:29 am

Great stuff! Making rhetoric slightly more cool is a good thing. Could you two maybe slide in an “extra” about the canon of memoria? That’s just such a fascinating canon especially with our modern situation of “cloud” memory and electronic everything, the fact that people in ancient times could recite entire books seems genius or godlike today. At the very least a sideshow act. In any case, keep up the good work!

17 trevor October 15, 2012 at 4:24 am

Quite brilliant.Should be a compulsory subject in the world’s schools

18 riadh February 20, 2013 at 2:59 am

very interesting ,actualy i am doing a research on this topic .rhetoric and persuasion were thought to be deceptive but i think that when we use these techniques in a good manner ,we manage to enhance communication and logical persuasion.cicero’s five canons represents the best demonstration of a very well established rhetoric and as it folllows certain codes ,it gives our lives a good flavour for communicating. we use rhetoric in our daily life :politicians ,doctors ,engeneers ,etc… let s use it in a good way and learn how to persuade with arguments .

19 Tim December 1, 2013 at 6:11 pm

I sought out this article series when rhetoric was recommended by my wife. (always nice to have someone to motivate you). Great and concise series on the topic. I remember studying some of this stuff in college, but it was not as well presented as you have explained here. Thanks again and keep it up!

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter