Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Rhetoric, or the art of speech, was developed by the ancient Greeks (traditionally discovered by the Sicilians Corax and Tisias) in the context of city-state debate and court procedure. As a comprehensive program of "liberal education," rhetoric is associated with the Isocratean school in Athens. By the end of the fourth century B.C.E., however, it was construed more narrowly as the art of "sophistical disputation" or the use of verbal strategies to win an argument irrespective of issues of truth and falsity. The Platonic critique of rhetoric continues to inform the modern use of the term (as in "mere rhetoric"). Throughout the Middle Ages, these two understandings coexisted—the general art of discourse and the technique of false reasoning.

The link between classical and modern rhetoric lies in the work of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), whose thought straddles the Hellenic culture of philosophy and rhetoric, and the concerns and practices of Christian faith. With Augustine and the Augustinian tradition, classical rhetoric is redirected into the more practical concerns of Christian teaching, the composition of sermons, and related doctrinal practices. It is important to note that many of the classical techniques and tropes of Greco-Latin rhetorical education were redeployed in the training and instruction of priests. Rhetoric thus witnessed something of a new lease on life both in the oral culture of everyday sermonizing and casuistry and in the increasing importance of persuasive literacy that became a marked feature of the spread of Christianity during the so-called Dark Ages.

During the early modern period, rhetoric experienced a rapid decline as a serious discipline and only recently has it shown signs of revival through the influence of modern linguistics, literary criticism, postanalytical philosophy, and various kinds of text theory and cultural theory. Today, however, the field of rhetoric, communication, and language has reemerged, through the impact of writers such as Kenneth Burke, Chaim Perelman, Hayden White, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and others. The overlapping field of "discourse analysis" and "rhetorical theory" raises a range of fundamental questions for all disciplines concerned with meaning, understanding, and interpretation.

Barry Sandywell


Aristotle, Rhetoric; K. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley: University of California, 1969 [1950])

Cicero, De inventione; T. M. Conley, Rhetoric in the European Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990)

J. Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976 [1967])

P. de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984)

Plato, Gorgias; Quintilian, De institutione oratoria

H. White, Metahistory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

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