Rhetoric has had many definitions; no simple definition can do it justice. In fact, the very act of defining has itself been a central part of rhetoric: It appears among Aristotle's topoi, heuristics for rhetorical inventio. For Aristotle, rhetoric is the art of practical wisdom and decision making, a counterpart to logic and a branch of politics. The word is derived from the ancient Greek eiro, which means "I say." In its broadest sense, rhetoric concerns human discourse.
In eras of European history, rhetoric concerned itself with persuasion in public and political settings such as assemblies and courts. Because of its associations with democratic institutions, rhetoric is commonly said to flourish in open and democratic societies with rights of free speech, free assembly, and political enfranchisement for some portion of the population.
As a course of study, rhetoric trains students to speak and/or write effectively. The rhetorical curriculum is nearly as old as the rhetorical tradition itself. Over its many centuries, the curriculum has been transformed in a number of ways, but, in general, it has emphasized the study of principles and rules of composition as a means for moving audiences. In Greece, rhetoric originated in a school of pre-Socratic philosophers known as Sophists circa 600 BC. It was later taught in the Roman Empire and during the Middle Ages as one of the three original liberal arts or trivium (along with logic and grammar).
The relationship between rhetoric and knowledge is one of its oldest and most interesting problems. The contemporary stereotype of rhetoric as "empty speech" or "empty words" reflects a radicial division of rhetoric from knowledge, a division that has had influential adherents within the rhetorical tradition, most notably Plato in ancient Athens, and Peter Ramus in 16C Renaissance Europe. It is a division that has been strongly associated with Enlightenment thinking about language.
Most rhetoricians, however, see a closer relationship between rhetoric and knowledge. Researchers in the rhetoric of science, for instance, have shown how the two are difficult to separate, and how discourse helps to create knowledge. This perspective is often called "epistemic rhetoric," where communication among interlocutors is fundamental to the creation of knowledge in communities.
Emphasizing this close relationship between discourse and knowledge, contemporary rhetoricians have been associated with a number of philosophical and social scientific theories that see language and discourse as central to, rather than in conflict with knowledge-making (See Critical Theory, Post-structuralism, Hermeneutics, Reflexivity).
Contemporary studies of rhetoric address a more diverse range of domains than was the case in ancient times. While classical rhetoric trained speakers to be effective persuaders in public forums and institutions like courtrooms and assemblies, contemporary rhetoric investigates human discourse writ large. Rhetoricians have studied the discourses of a wide variety of domains, including the natural and social sciences, fine art, religion, journalism, fiction, history, cartography, and architecture, along with the more traditional domains of politics and the law.
Public relations, lobbying, law, marketing, professional and technical writing, and advertising are modern professions that employ rhetorical practitioners.
Rhetoric thus evolved as an important art, one that provided the orator with the forms, means, and strategies for persuading an audience of the correctness of the orator's arguments. Today the term rhetoric can be used at times to refer only to the form of argumentation, often with the pejorative connotation that rhetoric is a means of obscuring the truth. Classical philosophers believed quite the contrary: the skilled use of rhetoric was essential to the discovery of truths, because it provided the means of ordering and clarifying arguments.
The word "sophistry" developed strong negative connotations in ancient Greece that continue today, but in ancient Greece sophists were nevertheless popular and well-paid professionals, widely respected for their abilities but also widely criticized for their excesses.
See Jacqueline de Romilly, The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens (French orig. 1988; English trans. Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1992).
Plato (427-347 BC) famously outlined the differences between true and false rhetoric in a number of dialogues, but especially the Gorgias and the Phaedrus. Both dialogues are complex and difficult, but in both Plato disputes the Sophistic notion that an art of persuasion, the art of the Sophists which he calls "rhetoric" (after the public speaker or rhêtôr), can exist independent of the art of dialectic. Plato claims that since Sophists appeal only to what seems likely or probable, rather than to what is true, they are not at all making their students and audiences "better," but simply flattering them with what they want to hear. While Plato's condemnation of rhetoric is clear in the Gorgias, in the Phaedrus he seems to suggest the possibility of a true art of rhetoric based upon the knowledge produced by dialectic, and he relies on such a dialectically informed rhetoric to appeal to the main character, Phaedrus, to take up philosophy. It is possible that in developing his own theory of knowledge, Plato coined the term "rhetoric" both to denounce what he saw as the false wisdom of the sophists, and to advance his own views on knowledge and method. Plato's animosity against the Sophists derives not only from their inflated claims to teach virtue and their reliance on appearances, but from the fact that his teacher, Socrates, was accused of being a sophist and ultimately sentenced to death for his teaching.
In the first sentence of The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle says that "rhetoric is the counterpart [literally, the antistrophe] of dialectic." As the "antistrophe" of a Greek ode responds to and is patterned after the structure of the "strophe" (they form two sections of the whole and are sung by two parts of the chorus), so the art of rhetoric follows and is structurally patterned after the art of dialectic because both are arts of discourse production. Thus, while dialectical methods are necessary to find truth in theoretical matters, rhetorical methods are required in practical matters such as adjudicating somebody's guilt or innocence when charged in a court of law, or adjudicating a prudent course of action to be taken in a deliberative assembly. For Plato and Aristotle, dialectic involves persuasion, so when Aristotle says that rhetoric is the antistrophe of dialectic, he means that rhetoric as he uses the term has a domain or scope of application that is parallel to but different from the domain or scope of application of dialectic. In Nietzsche Humanist (1998: 129), Claude Pavur explains that "[t]he Greek prefix 'anti' does not merely designate opposition, but it can also mean 'in place of.'" When Aristotle characterizes rhetoric as the antistrophe of dialectic, he no doubt means that rhetoric is used in place of dialectic when we are discussing civic issues in a court of law or in a legislative assembly. The domain of rhetoric is civic affairs and practical decision making in civic affairs, not theoretical considerations of operational definitions of terms and clarification of thought -- these, for him, are in the domain of dialectic.
Aristotle's treatise on rhetoric is an attempt to systematically describe civic rhetoric as a human art or skill (techne). His definition of rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion," essentially a mode of discovery, seems to limit the art to the inventional process, and Aristotle heavily emphasizes the logical aspect of this process. But the treatise in fact also discusses not only elements of style and (briefly) delivery, but also emotional appeals (pathos) and characterological appeals (ethos). He thus identifies three steps or "offices" of rhetoric--invention, arrangement, and style--and three different types of rhetorical proof:
Aristotle also identifies three different types or genres of civic rhetoric: forensic (also known as judicial, was concerned with determining truth or falsity of events that took place in the past, issues of guilt), deliberative (also known as political, was concerned with determining whether or not particular actions should or should not be taken in the future), and epideictic (also known as ceremonial, was concerned with praise and blame, values, right and wrong, demonstrating beauty and skill in the present).
One of the most fruitful of Aristotelian doctrines was the idea of topics (also referred to as common topics or commonplaces). Though the term had a wide range of application (as a memory technique or compositional exercise, for example) it most often referred to the "seats of argument"--the list of categories of thought or modes of reasoning--that a speaker could use in order to generate arguments or proofs. The topics were thus a heuristic or inventional tool designed to help speakers categorize and thus better retain and apply frequently used types of argument. For example, since we often see effects as "like" their causes, one way to invent an argument (about a future effect) is by discussing the cause (which it will be "like"). This and other rhetorical topics derive from Aristotle's belief that there are certain predictable ways in which humans (particularly non-specialists) draw conclusions from premises. Based upon and adapted from his dialectical Topics, the rhetorical topics became a central feature of later rhetorical theorizing, most famously in Cicero's work of that name.
See Eugene Garver, Aristotle's Rhetoric: An Art of Character (University of Chicago Press,1994).
Latin rhetoric was developed out of the Rhodian schools of rhetoric. In the second century BC, Rhodes became an important educational center, particularly of rhetoric, and the sons of noble Roman families studied there.
Although not widely read in Roman times, the Rhetorica ad Herennium (sometimes attributed to Cicero, but probably not his work) is a notable early work on Latin rhetoric. Its author was probably a Latin rhetorician in Rhodes, and for the first time we see a systematic treatment of Latin elocutio. The Ad Herennium provides a glimpse into the early development of Latin rhetoric, and in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it achieved wide publication as one of the basic school texts on rhetoric.
Whether or not he wrote the Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero, along with Quintilian (the most influential Roman teacher of rhetoric), is considered one of the most important Roman rhetoricians. His works include the early and very influential De Inventione (On Invention, often read alongside the Ad Herennium as the two basic texts of rhetorical theory throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance), De Oratore (a fuller statement of rhetorical principles in dialogue form), Topics (a rhetorical treatment of common topics, highly influential through the Renaissance), Brutus (a discussion of famous orators) and Orator (a defense of Cicero's style). Cicero also left a large body of speeches and letters which would establish the outlines of Latin eloquence and style for generations to come. It was the rediscovery of Cicero's speeches (such as the defence of Archias) and letters (to Atticus) by Italians like Petrarch that, in part, ignited the cultural innovations that we know as the Renaissance.
Quintilian's career began as a pleader in the courts of law; his reputation grew so great that Vespasian created a chair of rhetoric for him in Rome. The culmination of his life's work was the Institutio oratoria (or Institutes of Oratory), a lengthy treatise on the training of the orator in which he discusses the training of the "perfect" orator from birth to old age and, in the process, reviews the doctrines and opinions of many influential rhetoricians who preceded him.
In the Institutes, Quintilian organizes rhetorical study through the stages of education that an aspiring orator would undergo, beginning with the selection of a nurse. Aspects of elementary education (training in reading and writing, grammar, and literary criticism) are followed by preliminary rhetorical exercises in composition (the progymnasmata) that include maxims and fables, narratives and comparisons, and finally full legal or political speeches. The delivery of speeches within the context of education or for entertainment purposes became widespread and popular under the term "declamation." Rhetorical training proper was categorized under five canons that would persist for centuries in academic circles:
This work was available only in fragments in medieval times, but the discovery of a complete copy at Abbey of St. Gall in 1416 led to its emergence as one of the most influential works on rhetoric during the Renaissance.
Quintilian's work attempts to describe not just the art of rhetoric, but the formation of the perfect orator as a politically active, virtuous, publicly minded citizen. His emphasis on the real life application of rhetorical training was in part nostalgia for the days when rhetoric was an important political tool, and in part a reaction against the growing tendency in Roman schools toward standardization of themes and techniques and increasing separation between school exercises and actual legal practice, a tendency equally powerful today in public schools and law schools alike. At the same time that rhetoric was becoming divorced from political decision making, rhetoric rose as a culturally vibrant and important mode of entertainment and cultural criticism in a movement known as the "second sophistic," a development which gave rise to the charge (made by Quintilian and others) that teachers were emphasizing ornamentation over substance in rhetoric. Quintilian's masterful work was not enough to curb this movement, but his dismayed response cemented the scholarly opinion that 2nd century C.E. rhetoric fell into decadence and political irrelevance, despite its wide popularity and cultural importance.
A valuable collection of studies can be found in Stanley E. Porter, ed., Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period 330 B.C. - A.D. 400 (Brill, 1997).
Although he is not commonly regarded as a rhetorician, St. Augustine (354-430) was trained in rhetoric and was at one time a professor of Latin rhetoric in Milan. After his conversion to Christianity, he became interested in using these "pagan" arts for spreading his religion. This new use of rhetoric is explored in the Fourth Book of his De Doctrina Christiana, which laid the foundation of what would become homiletics, the rhetoric of the sermon. Augustine begins the book by asking why "the power of eloquence, which is so efficacious in pleading either for the erroneous cause or the right", should not be used for righteous purposes (IV.3).
One early concern of the medieval Christian church was its attitude to classical rhetoric itself. Jerome (d. 420) complained, "What has Horace to do with the Psalms, Virgil with the Gospels, Cicero with the Apostles?" Augustine is also remembered for arguing for the preservation of pagan works and fostering a church tradition which led to conservation of numerous pre-Christian rhetorical writings.
Rhetoric would not regain its classical heights until the renaissance, but new writings did advance rhetorical thought. Boethius (480?-524), in his brief Overview of the Structure of Rhetoric, continues Aristotle's taxonomy by placing rhetoric in subordination to philosophical argument or dialectic. One positive consequence of the Crusades was the introduction of Arab scholarship and renewed interest in Aristotle, leading to what some historians call the twelfth century renaissance. A number of medieval grammars and studies of poetry and rhetoric appeared.
Late medieval rhetorical writings include those of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1294), Matthew of Vendome (Ars Versificatoria, 1175?), and Geoffrey of Vinsauf (Poetria Nova, 1200-1216). Pre-modern female rhetoricians, outside of Socrates' friend Aspasia, are rare; but medieval rhetoric produced by women either in religious orders, such as Julian of Norwich (d. 1415), or the very well-connected Christine de Pizan (1364?-1430?), did occur if not always recorded in writing.
In his 1943 Cambridge University doctoral dissertation in English, Canadian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) surveys the verbal arts from approximately the time of Cicero down to the time of Thomas Nashe (1567-1600?). His dissertation is still noteworthy for undertaking to study the history of the verbal arts together as the trivium, even though the developments that he surveys have been studied in greater detail since he undertook his study. As noted below, McLuhan became one of the most widely publicized thinkers in the 20th century, so it is important to note his scholarly roots in the study of the history of rhetoric and dialectic.
Another interesting record of medieval rhetorical thought can be seen in the many animal debate poems popular in England and the continent during the Middle Ages, such as The Owl and the Nightingale (13th century) and Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls (1382?).
One influential figure in the rebirth of interest in classical rhetoric was Erasmus (c.1466-1536). His 1512 work, De Duplici Copia Verborum et Rerum (also known as Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style), was widely published (it went through more than 150 editions throughout Europe) and became one of the basic school texts on the subject. Its treatment of rhetoric is less comprehensive than the classic works of antiquity, but provides a traditional treatment of res-verba (matter and form): its first book treats the subject of elocutio, showing the student how to use schemes and tropes; the second book covers inventio. Much of the emphasis is on abundance of variation (copia means "plenty" or "abundance", as in copious or cornucopia), so both books focus on ways to introduce the maximum amount of variety into discourse. For instance, in one section of the De Copia, Erasmus presents two hundred variations of the sentence "Semper, dum vivam, tui meminero". Another of his works, the extremely popular The Praise of Folly, also had considerable influence on the teaching of rhetoric in the later sixteenth century. Its orations in favour of qualities such as madness spawned a type of exercise popular in Elizabethan grammar schools, later called adoxography, which required pupils to compose passages in praise of useless things.
Juan Luis Vives (1492 - 1540) also helped shape the study of rhetoric in England. A Spaniard, he was appointed in 1523 to the Lectureship of Rhetoric at Oxford by Cardinal Wolsey, and was entrusted by Henry VIII to be one of the tutors of Mary. Vives fell into disfavor when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon and left England in 1528. His best-known work was a book on education, De Disciplinis, published in 1531, and his writings on rhetoric included Rhetoricae, sive De Ratione Dicendi, Libri Tres (1533), De Consultatione (1533), and a rhetoric on letter writing, De Conscribendis Epistolas (1536).
It is likely that many well-known English writers would have been exposed to the works of Erasmus and Vives (as well as those of the Classical rhetoricians) in their schooling, which was conducted in Latin (not English) and often included some study of Greek and placed considerable emphasis on rhetoric. See, for example, T.W. Baldwin's William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, 2 vols. (University of Illinois Press, 1944).
The mid-1500s saw the rise of vernacular rhetorics — those written in English rather than in the Classical languages; adoption of works in English was slow, however, due to the strong orientation toward Latin and Greek. A successful early text was Thomas Wilson's The Arte of Rhetorique (1553), which presents a traditional treatment of rhetoric. For instance, Wilson presents the five canons of rhetoric (Invention, Disposition, Elocutio, Memoria, and Utterance or Actio). Other notable works included Angel Day's The English Secretorie (1586, 1592), George Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie (1589), and Richard Rainholde's Foundacion of Rhetorike (1563).
During this same period, a movement began that would change the organization of the school curriculum in Protestant and especially Puritan circles and lead to rhetoric losing its central place. A French scholar, Pierre de la Ramée, in Latin Petrus Ramus (1515-1572), dissatisfied with what he saw as the overly broad and redundant organization of the trivium, proposed a new curriculum. In his scheme of things, the five components of rhetoric no longer lived under the common heading of rhetoric. Instead, invention and disposition were determined to fall exclusively under the heading of dialectic, while style, delivery, and memory were all that remained for rhetoric. See Walter J. Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958; reissued by the University of Chicago Press, 2004, with a new foreword by Adrian Johns). Ramus, rightly accused of sodomy and erroneously of atheism, was martyred during the French Wars of Religion. His teachings, seen as inimical to Catholicism, were short-lived in France but found a fertile ground in the Netherlands, Germany and England.
One of Ramus' French followers, Audomarus Talaeus (Omer Talon) published his rhetoric, Institutiones Oratoriae, in 1544. This work provided a simple presentation of rhetoric that emphasized the treatment of style, and became so popular that it was mentioned in John Brinsley's (1612) Ludus literarius; or The Grammar Schoole as being the "most used in the best schooles." Many other Ramist rhetorics followed in the next half-century, and by the 1600s, their approach became the primary method of teaching rhetoric in Protestant and especially Puritan circles. See Walter J. Ong, Ramus and Talon Inventory (Harvard University Press, 1958); Joseph S. Freedman, Philosophy and the Art Europe, 1500-1700: Teaching and Texts at Schools and Universities (Ashgate, 1999). John Milton (1608-1674) wrote a textbook in logic or dialectic in Latin based on Ramus' work, which has now been translated into English by Walter J. Ong and Charles J. Ermatinger in The Complete Prose Works of John Milton (Yale University Press, 1982; 8: 206-407), with a lengthy introduction by Ong (144-205). The introduction is reprinted in Ong's Faith and Contexts (Scholars Press, 1999; 4: 111-41).
Ramism could not exert any influence on the established Catholic schools and universities, which remained by and large stuck in Scholasticism, or on the new Catholic schools and universities founded by members of the religious orders known as the Society of Jesus or the Oratorians, as can be seen in the Jesuit curriculum (in use right up to the 19th century, across the Christian world) known as the Ratio Studiorum (that Claude Pavur, S.J., has recently translated into English, with the Latin text in the parallel column on each page (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2005). If the influence of Cicero and Quintilian permeates the Ratio Studiorum, it is through the lenses of devotion and the militancy of the Counter-Reformation. The Ratio was indeed imbued with a sense of the divine, of the incarnate logos, that is of rhetoric as an eloquent and humane means to reach further devotion and further action in the Christian city, which was absent from Ramist formalism. The Ratio is, in rhetoric, the answer to St Ignatius Loyola's practice, in devotion, of "spiritual exercizes". This complex oratorical-prayer system is absent from Ramism.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), although not a rhetorician, contributed to the field in his writings. One of the concerns of the age was to find a suitable style for the discussion of scientific topics, which needed above all a clear exposition of facts and arguments, rather than the ornate style favored at the time. Bacon in his The Advancement of Learning criticized those who are preoccupied with style rather than "the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment." On matters of style, he proposed that the style conform to the subject matter and to the audience, that simple words be employed whenever possible, and that the style should be agreeable. See Lisa Jardine, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse (Cambridge University Press, 1975).
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) also wrote on rhetoric. Along with a shortened translation of Aristotle's Rhetoric, Hobbes also produced a number of other works on the subject. Sharply contrarian on many subjects, Hobbes, like Bacon, also promoted a simpler and more natural style that used figures of speech sparingly.
Perhaps the most influential development in English style came out of the work of the Royal Society (founded in 1660), which in 1664 set up a committee to improve the English language. Among the committee's members were John Evelyn (1620-1706), Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), and John Dryden (1631-1700). Sprat regarded "fine speaking" as a disease, and thought that a proper style should "reject all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style" and instead "return back to a primitive purity and shortness" (History of the Royal Society, 1667).
While the work of this committee never went beyond planning, John Dryden is often credited with creating and exemplifying a new and modern English style. His central tenet was that the style should be proper "to the occasion, the subject, and the persons." As such, he advocated the use of English words whenever possible instead of foreign ones, as well as vernacular, rather than Latinate, syntax. His own prose (and his poetry) became exemplars of this new style.
At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a revival of rhetorical study manifested in the establishment of departments of rhetoric and speech at academic institutions, as well as the formation of national and international professional organizations. Theorists generally agree that a significant reason for the revival of the study of rhetoric was the renewed importance of language and persuasion in the increasingly mediated environment of the twentieth century (see Linguistic turn). The rise of advertising and of mass media such as photography, telegraphy, radio, and film brought rhetoric more prominently into people's lives.
Chaim Perelman was a philosopher of law, who studied, taught, and lived most of his life in Brussels. He was among the most important argumentation theorists of the twentieth century. His chief work is the Traité de l'argumentation - la nouvelle rhétorique (1958), with Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, which was translated into English as The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation, by John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver (1969). Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca move rhetoric from the periphery to the center of argumentation theory. Among their most influential concepts are "the universal audience," "quasi-logical argument," and "presence."
Henry Johnstone Jr. was an American philosopher and rhetorician known especially for his notion of the "rhetorical wedge" and his re-evaluation of the ad hominem fallacy. He was the founder and longtime editor of the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric.
Kenneth Burke was a rhetorical theorist, philosopher, and poet. Many of his works are central to modern rhetorical theory: A Rhetoric of Motives (1969), A Grammar of Motives (1945), Language as Symbolic Action (1966), and Counterstatement (1931). Among his influential concepts are "identification," "consubstantiality," and the "dramatic pentad."
Marshall McLuhan was a media theorist whose discoveries are important to the study of rhetoric. McLuhan's famous dictum "the medium is the message" highlighted the important role of the mass media in modern communication.
Rhetoric was part of the curriculum in Jesuit and, to a lesser extent, Oratorian colleges until the French Revolution. For Jesuits, right from the foundation, in France, of the Society, rhetoric was an integral part of the training of young men toward taking up leadership positions in the Church and in State institutions, as Marc Fumaroli has shown it in his foundational Age de l’éloquence (1980). The Oratorians, by contrast, reserved it a lesser place, in part due to the stress they placed on modern languages acquisition and a more sensualist philosophy (Bernard Lamy’s Rhetoric is an excellent example of their approach).Nonetheless, in the 18th Century, rhetoric was the armature and crowning of college education, with works such as Rollin’s Treatise of Studies achieving a wide and enduring fame across the Continent.
The French Revolution, however, turned this around. Philosophers like Condorcet, who drafted the French revolutionary chart for a people’s education under the rule of reason, dismissed rhetoric as an instrument of oppression in the hands of clerics in particular. The Revolution went as far as suppressing the Bar, arguing that forensic rhetoric did disservice to a rational system of justice, by allowing fallacies and emotions to come into play. Nonetheless, as later historians of the 19th century were keen to explain, the Revolution was a high moment of eloquence and rhetorical prowess, yet, against a background of rejection of rhetoric.
Under the First Empire and its wide ranging educational reforms, imposed on or imitated across the Continent, rhetoric regained little ground. In fact instructions to the newly founded Polytechnic School, tasked with training the scientific and technical elites, made it clear that written reporting was to supersede oral reporting. Rhetoric re-entered the college curriculum in fits and starts, but never regained the prominence it enjoyed under the ancien régime, although the penultimate year of college education was known as the Class of Rhetoric. When manuals were redrafted in the mid-century, in particular after the 1848 Revolution, care was taken by writers in charge of formulating a national curriculum to distance their approach to rhetoric from that of the Church seen as an agent of conservatism and reactionary politics. By the end of the 1870s, a major change had taken place: philosophy, of the rationalist or eclectic kind, by and large Kantian, had taken over rhetoric as the true terminal stage in secondary education, (the so-called Class of Philosophy bridged college and university education). Rhetoric was then relegated to the study of literary figures of speech, a discipline later on taught as Stylistics within the French literature curriculum. More decisively, in 1890 a new standard written exercise superseded the rhetorical exercises of speech writing, letter writing and narration. The new genre, called dissertation, had been invented, in 1866, for the purpose of rational argument in the philosophy class. Typically, in a dissertation, a question is asked, such as: “Is history a sign of humanity’s freedom?” The structure of a dissertation consists in an introduction that elucidates the basic definitions involved in the question as set, followed by an argument or thesis, a counter-argument or antithesis, and a resolving argument or synthesis that is not a compromise between the former but the production of a new argument, ending with a conclusion that does not sum up the points but opens onto a new problem. The dissertation design was influenced by Hegelianism. It remains today the standard of writing in the humanities.
By the beginning of the 20th century rhetoric was fast losing the remains of its former importance, to be taken out of the school curriculum altogether at the time of the Separation of State and Churches (1905) – part of the argument was indeed that rhetoric remained the last element of irrationality, driven by religious arguments, in what was perceived as inimical to Republican education. The move initiated in 1789 found its resolution in 1902 when rhetoric is expunged from all curricula. However, it must be noted that, at the same time, Aristotelian rhetoric, owing to a revival of Thomistic philosophy initiated by Rome, regained ground in what was left of Catholic education in France, in particular at the prestigious Faculty of Theology of Paris, now a private entity. Yet, for all intents and purposes, rhetoric vanished from the French scene, educational or intellectual, for some 60 years.
In the early 1960s a change began to take place, as the word rhetoric, let alone the body of knowledge it covers, started to be used again, in a modest and near confidential way. The new linguistic turn, through the rise of semiotics as well as structural linguistics, brought to the fore a new interest in figures of speech as signs, the metaphor in particular (in the works of Roman Jakobson, Michel Charles, Gérard Genette) while famed Structuralist Roland Barthes, a classicist by training, perceived how some basic elements of rhetoric could be of use in the study of narratives, fashion and ideology. Knowledge of rhetoric was so dim in the early 1970s, that his short memoir on rhetoric was seen as highly innovative. Basic as it was, it did help rhetoric regain some currency in avant-garde circles. Psycho-analyst Jacques Lacan, his contemporary, makes references to rhetoric, in particular to the Pre-Socratics. Philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote on Voice.
However, at the same time, more profound work was taking place that, eventually, gave rise to the French school of rhetoric as it exists today.
This rhetorical revival took place on two fronts. Firstly, in the area of 17th century French studies, the mainstay of French literary education, awareness grew that rhetoric was necessary to push further the limits of knowledge, and also provide an antidote to Structuralism and its denial of historicism in culture. This was the pioneering work of Marc Fumaroli who, building on the work of classicist and Neo-Latinist Alain Michel and French scholars such as Roger Zuber, published his famed Age de l’Eloquence (1980), was one of the founders of the International Society for the History of Rhetoric and was eventually elevated to a chair in rhetoric at the prestigious College de France. He is the editor in chief of a monumental History of Rhetoric in Modern Europe. His disciples form the second generation, with rhetoricians such as Françoise Waquet, Delphine Denis both of the Sorbonne, or Philippe-Joseph Salazar until recently at Derrida's College international de philosophie. Secondly, in the area of Classical studies, Latin scholars, in the wake of Alain Michel, fostered a renewal in Cicero studies, breaking away from a pure literary reading of his orations, in an attempt to embed Cicero in European ethics, while, among Greek scholars literary historian and philologist Jacques Bompaire, philologist and philosopher E. Dupréel and, somewhat later and in a more popular fashion, historian of literature Jacqueline de Romilly pioneered new studies in the Sophists and the Second Sophistic. The second generation of Classicists, often trained in philosophy as well (following Heidegger and Derrida, mainly), built on their work, with authors such as Marcel Detienne(now at Johns Hopkins), Nicole Loraux (d. in 2006), Medievalist and logician Alain De Libera (Geneva), Ciceronian scholar Carlos Lévy (Sorbonne, Paris) and Barbara Cassin (Collége international de philosophie, Paris). Sociologist of science Bruno Latour and economist Romain Laufer may also be considered part of, or close to this group. Links between the two strands, the literary and the philosophical, of the French school of rhetoric are strong and collaborative and bear witness to the revival of rhetoric in France.
Available online texts include: