What Is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the art of using language for persuasion, in speaking or writing, especially in oratory, by mastering a number of different manners of expression or persuasion. The term “rhetoric” comes from the Greek rhētōr, which meant “speaker in the assembly.” Therefore, the notion was first used to characterize speech, and only later was it applied to written literature.

As a result of the diversity of its means of production, scholars cannot agree on its boundaries, as rhetoric encompasses countless means and devices, from grammatical or inflectional techniques to rational discourse, and it has been the favorite tool of poets, philosophers, and politicians. Aristotle, in Rhetoric, defines rhetorical discourse as the “faculty of discovering all the available means of persuasion in any given case” and focuses his discussion on the instruments and resources that an orator uses in order to achieve intellectual and emotional effects on an audience so that they are persuaded to consent to the orator’s viewpoint.

Rhetoricians have differentiated between three types of rhetoric:

  • Deliberative, which is used to try to persuade an audience to do something, such as vote for a particular candidate or go to war
  • Epideictic, or “display rhetoric,” which is used on appropriate and often ceremonial occasions to praise or blame a person or group of persons, and in doing so, to display the orator’s own talents and rhetoric skill
  • Forensic, which is a kind of speech oriented toward legal demonstration, designed to win a case before a jury

Aristotle established the three essential rhetorical methods:

  • Logos­—the appeal to reason
  • Pathos—the appeal to emotion
  • Ethos—the ethical appeal, exemplified by the orator through his character

The postmodernist view on rhetoric, first expressed by Nietzsche, is that all words are metaphors and all language is rhetorical.


Rhetoric Examples

Rhetoric in a Sentence

  1. “The president uses the White House as if it were his personal playground.” – This simile would be used by the opposition to persuade people that the president is incompetent and/or behaves inappropriately while in office.
  2. “Moms who love their children buy only VivoFit.” – This strategy is often encountered in ads to persuade people to buy a certain product.
  3. “Jennifer Lawrence only wears Prada.­” – This technique, disguised as a statement, means to imply that people of certain value and stature wear a certain brand and aims to convince the audience to purchase the brand in order to feel valuable.
  4. “Wear your seatbelt; your loved ones are waiting for you back home safe.­” – This is an example of using pathos to convince someone who doesn’t usually wear a seatbelt while driving to do so.
  5. “Your Honor, my client is an outstanding citizen, who has never had problems with the law.” – This sentence may be used in the opening speech of a lawyer to persuade the judge that the criminal offender is either innocent or has made a one-time mistake, which can be forgiven. This is an example of forensic rhetoric.

(Further Reading: Top 10 Examples of Rhetoric in a Sentence)

Rhetoric in Poetry

Rhetoric in Paradise Lost

The characters in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost are often portrayed through acts of speaking, which feature a rich variety of classical rhetorical figures and devices. For example, Satan’s first speech in Book I, addressed to Beelzebub, is arranged according to classical rules: Satan begins by establishing his character (ethos), then continues with logical arguments (logos) and, finally, appeals to emotion (pathos).

“If thou beest he—but O how fallen! how changed

From him who, in the happy realms of light

Clothed with transcendent brightness, didst outshine

Myriads, though bright!—if he whom mutual league,

United thoughts and counsels, equal hope

And hazard in the glorious enterprise

Joined with me once, now misery hath joined

In equal ruin; into what pit thou seest

From what height fallen…”

Satan begins his speech by expressing shock and grief at the sight of his fallen comrade: “If thou beest he—but O how fallen!” He goes on to compare Beelzebub’s new condition to his former, glorious self, by using anamnesis (from Greek, “reminiscence”), which means calling something to mind, considered a figure of ethos. By recalling Beelzebub’s former glory, Satan ensures his position as a reliable companion, but he also reminds Beelzebub of his position as Satan’s ally. Satan describes their “equal hope / And hazard in the glorious enterprise.” The alliteration, the repetition of h in “hope” and “hazard,” is meant to emphasize the equality between the two. Satan argues that their togetherness in their revolt against God had them “joined / In equal ruin.” The repetition of the words “equal” and “joined” underlines their equally distressing situations. The exclamation “but O how fallen! how changed” is used by Satan to play the role of the concerned friend. Furthermore, Satan says, “into what pit thou seest / From what height fallen,” utilizing another instance of repetition. Through his speech, Satan aims to persuade and impress Beelzebub, convincing him that they are both on the same side because, as the reader can see later in the poem, Satan needs Beelzebub’s help. While Satan’s speech starts with an emphasis on his own character to establish the fact that he is trustworthy, he also appeals to his audience’s emotions, through pathos.

Rhetoric in the Divine Comedy

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, in the first canto of “Purgatory,” the narrator and his guide, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, are stopped in their path by the Roman statesman Cato of Utica, who questions them. Virgil’s speech, which persuades Cato to let them pass, is a famous example of rhetoric that uses the three classical methods, ethos, logos, and pathos, in this order. Virgil first explains who he is, a guide sent by a lady from Heaven to help the narrator on his journey:

“Not of myself I come; a Dame from heaven

Descending, him besought me in my charge

To bring.”

Virgil then appeals to Cato’s reason, stating his purpose, that he was sent to rescue the narrator, and explaining that there was no other path to take but that one along which they had come:

“Then, as before I told, I was despatch’d

To work his rescue; and no way remain’d

Save this which I have ta’en.”

After a short account of their experiences through Hell, Virgil attempts to flatter Cato, implores him to let them pass, and uses the name and memory of Marcia, Cato’s love while he was alive, saying that he would send her word from Cato to show his appreciation:

“Then by her love we implore thee, let us pass

Through thy seven regions; for which, best thanks

I for thy favour will to her return,

If mention there below thou not disdain.”

Although Cato answers that there was no need for flattery, since Virgil had been sent by a heavenly figure, he is convinced and lets them pass after giving them a few pieces of advice.

Rhetoric in Power

A contemporary poet, Audre Lorde, uses her poems as manifests in her fight for equal human rights for the African American minority and women. Such is the poem “Power,” in which she employs as a background the trial of Thomas Shea, a police officer who had killed a 10-year-old African American boy and was consequently found innocent of the crime, to appeal to the audience’s emotions and make them aware of the injustice suffered by minorities.

“I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds

and a dead child dragging his shattered black

face off the edge of my sleep

blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders

is the only liquid for miles

and my stomach

churns at the imagined taste while

my mouth splits into dry lips

without loyalty or reason

thirsting for the wetness of his blood

as it sinks into the whiteness

of the desert where I am lost

without imagery or magic

trying to make power out of hatred and destruction”

In this first part of the poem, Lorde utilizes imagery to create strong visual, gustatory, and tactile images in the reader’s mind. Thus, we can “see” the “whiteness of the desert,” the “black face” of the dead child, and the redness of the blood spilling from the “raw gunshot wounds” and “his punctured cheeks and shoulders”; we can imagine the taste of blood and feel its wetness, which will make our stomach churn. The goal of the poem is expressed by the line “trying to make power out of hatred and destruction”: Lorde wants not only to transmit to the readers her feelings and emotions but also to give them power, to persuade them to take action against racism.

Rhetoric in Literature

Hamlet’s Rhetoric

Shakespeare’s characters are well-known for the use of rhetoric in their speeches, and Claudius’s speech from the play Hamlet is an iconic example:

“Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death

The memory be green, and that it us befitted

To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom

To be contracted in one brow of woe,

Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature

That we with wisest sorrow think on him

Together with remembrance of ourselves.”

In his inauguration speech, Claudius maintains refined diction, elevated style, and complex sentences. Claudius pretends to join his courtiers in grief over the death of the late king, a fellowship underlined by the repetition of the pronoun “our.” He claims to mourn together with the whole nation, which is all “contracted in one brow of woe.” In the last three lines, introduced by the adversative conjunction “yet,” showing a change of heart, he quickly turns away from the sorrow and reminds the audience that they need to carry on with their lives after showing due grief over the death of Hamlet’s father. His style is assertive, and his tone demonstrates confidence. He wants to persuade his subjects to continue with their lives and convince them that they have fulfilled their duty of mourning their previous king.

Modest Rhetoric

In A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift uses satire and hyperbole as forms of rhetoric. He mocks the heartlessness of the British government and its neglect of the poverty-stricken Irish people by suggesting people begin eating poor children for meat.

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”

Rhetoric in Two Cities

Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, utilizes parallelism and contrast side by side to highlight the differences between the French and the English societies at the time, as well as the disparities between the upper and lower classes within the two nations. The repetition of parallel sentence structures makes the reader deeply consider the time period that is illustrated:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Rhetoric in Speeches

President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is the best-known example of epideictic rhetoric and considered one of the most famous speeches in American history, although it was only two minutes long. The purpose of the speech was to dedicate a plot of land to become Soldiers’ National Cemetery to honor the fallen soldiers, but since America was in the middle of a bloody civil war, Lincoln also aimed to inspire people to continue to fight. In the 10-sentence speech, Lincoln managed to amass a great number of rhetorical devices, among which we can find:

  • Referencing authoritative texts: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”­ – This opening sentence contains a reference to the Declaration of Independence, which had been signed 87 years before and also includes the famous line “that all men are created equal.” By referencing the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln establishes a relation of trust with the audience.
  • Tricolons (“…we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground” and “government of the people, by the people, for the people”) are a powerful public speaking technique that can add strength to one’s words and make them memorable by combining three words, phrases or sentences.
  • Antithesis: “…those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live”, “The brave men, living and dead”­ – In these two phrases, Lincoln uses the most powerful contrast, that between life and death, to create an impact on the audience. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”­ – By contrasting remembrance and forgetfulness, the president both emphasizes the sacrifice of the soldiers and ensures that his words will be remembered.
  • Repetition: In the Gettysburg Address, the pronoun “we” (the American nation) is repeated 10 times, the adverb “here” (the ground of Gettysburg) 9 times, the verb “dedicate”/“dedicated” (the official purpose of the speech) 6 times, and the noun “nation” (representing unity and a higher purpose) 5 times. Repetition is a great device used to imprint words on one’s memory and to attach significance to them.

(Further Reading: Top 3 Examples of Rhetoric in a Speeches)

Rhetoric in Songs

As Rhetoric Falls

In “As the Ruin Falls,” Phil Keaggy set to music the lyrics of C.S. Lewis’s poem of the same name. It is a moving song that talks about love, love for the self, love of God and, some critics say, Lewis’s love for his late wife. The first two stanzas are an admission of Lewis’s, and by generalization, humanity’s, self-centeredness and his being imprisoned in it:

“All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.

I never had a selfless thought since I was born.

I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:

I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.


Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,

I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:

I talk of love –a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek–

But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.”

Noteworthy is the repetition of the first-person pronouns “I,” “my”, and “self.” Another rhetorical device Lewis uses here is self-irony by indirectly comparing himself with a scholar’s parrot, meaning to tell us that when he writes of love, he simply repeats what others before him have said, without him actually being aware of the meaning of the word. In these two stanzas, Lewis uses rhetoric to convince his audience how thoroughly self-absorbed he is and perhaps make them become aware of this issue themselves.

When Rhetoric Falls Hard

Bob Dylan’s folk ballad “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” presents a conversation between a mother and her son, which gives us a picture of a bleak world. As rhetorical devices, Dylan uses allusion, alliteration, allegory, repetition, antithesis, intertextuality, and imagery. The title and the chorus are an obvious allusion to the Biblical Great Flood. Dylan uses many powerful allegories, changing the images and the setting. For example, the image of the “new born baby with wild wolves all around” is an allegory of egoism, greed, and violence. By contrasting the one person who starves with “many people laughing,” Dylan illustrates the discrepancies in society between the starving poor and the carefree rich. The line “I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest” references Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which the narrator has to go through the dark forest to get to his first destination, Hell, where, in the seventh circle, he meets suicides, who are punished by being encased in bleeding trees, the same ones we encounter in Dylan’s song. Among the images of despair, the only positive one seems to be that of the girl offering him a rainbow, which is a sign of hope and another reference to the Bible. When the Great Flood ended, a white dove came carrying an olive twig while a rainbow was spread across the skies.

(Further Reading: List of Rhetorical Devices and Examples)

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