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The Art of Rhetoric

{Or, How We’ve Redefined What Those Words Mean and Caused a Cultural Catastrophe}

RHETORIC is a liberal art, but all three of those words (‘rhetoric’, ‘liberal’, and ‘art’) have come to mean something different than they meant in the Christian classical era.

Therefore, let me suggest that we explore the meaning of each word and how the change in meaning affects our approach to teaching.


In his work Sidney and Spenser: The Poet as Maker, S.K. Heninger explains that “For us in the post-Romantic era, ‘art’ most likely implies originality, imaginativeness, a heightened response to the world – something out of the ordinary. It doesn’t at all mean what its etymology suggests.” In other words, since the late 18th and early 19th centuries we think differently about the very idea of art. In general, we have lost the meaning applied within the Christian classical tradition.

He continues, “Ars for the Roman meant first of all a skill that could be mastered after proper instruction and sufficient practice, so there was an ars medica, an ars militaris, and an ars grammatica, as well as an ars poetica…. For Sidney, as for the Romans, the word ‘art’ indicated a skilled discipline, such as logic or astronomy.”

The Latin word ars, our source-word for “art,” translated the Greek word techne, from which we derive our word technique.

We may need to make fine distinction, however, because “technique” has tended to be swallowed up in “method,” but these words are not the same. Technique or art, classically understood, is more like a way than a method – imprecise and requiring judgment. One can become a master of an art. Method, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate judgment. One repeats the same task identically in order to eliminate variation and gain the same result.

Method more nearly applies to modern science than to a liberal art. A.N. Whitehead captured spiritus mundi when he said, “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of a method of invention. A new method entered into life. In order to understand our epoch, we can neglect all the details of change, such as railways, telegraphs, radios, spinning machines, synthetic dyes. We must concentrate on the method itself; that is the real novelty, which has broken up the foundations of the old civilization.”

Method has replaced art in almost every domain, giving rise to scientific management, replacing the headmaster with the administrator, and reducing the classroom to drudgery without the redeeming value of knowledge.

Rhetoric, however, is not a method but an art, and this matters for many reasons, of which I mention two.

First, since an art cultivates judgment in the apprentice it is taught differently than a method. A method is simply memorized and repeated. An art is practiced, adapted, and haltingly applied in various situations. An art can only be authentically learned through apprenticeship. Perhaps you can see how the conventional classroom is structured, not for art, but for method.

Second, widespread mastery of the art of rhetoric is a pre-condition for a free community. So we turn to the term liberal.


Just as “art” has been redefined by conventional though, so “liberal” has come untethered from reality. If redefining art has led to pedagogical problems, redefining “liberal” has contributed to a cultural catastrophe.

The word liberal comes from the Latin word liber, free. It gives us the word liberty. However, modern notions of liberalism and freedom are rooted in a naturalistic worldview in which man has been reduced to, at best, a highly evolved animal. The Progressive has been floundering about, trying to come up with some means by which a naturalistically determined animal without a will can be free.

With humanity reduced and freedom redefined, the liberal arts have been displaced as well. To the best of my knowledge, the displacement seems to have followed this sequence:

First, humanity was reduced to something less than the divine image, eliminating the very possibility of freedom.

Second, early in the 19th century, German educators, under Hegel’s influence, shifted the focus of the curriculum from cultivating virtue through the arts to knowing the “progress” of man through history.

Next, math was removed from the liberal arts to serve science and technology instead of virtue, and science was exalted as the only reliable means of discovering truth.

The liberal arts, having been reduced to the verbal arts of the trivium, then began to be treated as “general knowledge.” Perhaps as a consequence, rhetoric came to be a specialized study and, shortly thereafter, despised as the art of manipulation. Logic, the second of the verbal arts, was converted into a mathematical art early in the 20th century, leaving only grammar. Grammar, however, was first formalized (reduced to the study of parts of speech), then neglected, then resented.

Thus, the liberal arts, which were the essence of a pre-collegiate education for hundreds of years, are now splintered and neglected, undiscoverable even by earnest students because the curriculum has been blown to smithereens.

The consequences of this explosion lie all around and within us, but can be summarized in the observation that it has produced a nation of highly dependent people who do not have the means to know themselves and who lack confidence in their reason and will, neither of which have been honored or cultivated.

In the Christian classical tradition, freedom was seen as the fruit of discipline, the reward for self-control. It was the capacity and opportunity to govern oneself. The liberal arts were means to that self-governance. But with the reduction of man, the liberal arts no longer serve a normative purpose. If we are going to recapture our freedoms, we must master the liberal arts, including and guided by rhetoric.


We must always remember that rhetoric is one of the seven liberal arts or we won’t teach it or think about it correctly. Rhetoric is not a specialized subject studied for its own sake. It is not really a subject at all. It is an art and that a liberal one. Rhetoric needs to be studied to help us realize our human potential as free people.

Remembering this, we see that talk of freedom and humanity is not ideology or even idealism. It is the fruit of discipline, and it can be approached practically through this art.

Plato had his problems with rhetoric, but he also may have given us its finest definition when he called it “the art of leading the soul.”

Aristotle defined rhetoric as the art of “observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” He developed a handbook on Rhetoric that is nothing short of astounding in its range and depth of insight, covering such matters as the place of rhetoric in the curriculum, its definition, its basic divisions and kinds, the subjects that come under each kind, how to measure badness, an analysis of the emotions and types of character, the forms of argument, the parts of a speech, the tools to develop each part of a speech, virtues and faults of style, how to arrange a speech, and how to develop each part.

When Quintilian, in the first century AD, expressed the goal of his widely used curriculum he said:

“My aim, then, is the education of the perfect orator. The first essential for such an one is that he should be a good man…. The man who can really play his part as a citizen and is capable of meeting the demands both of public and private business, the man who can guide a state by his counsels, give it a firm basis by his legislation and purge its vices by his decisions as a judge, is assuredly no other than the orator of our quest.”

Rhetoric is not a specialized study. It is an art that serves as organizing principle for other studies. It absorbs grammar and logic, literature and history, politics and ethics, even philosophy and theology.

You might say that Rhetoric serves as the formal trunk of the curriculum, containing grammar and logic in its core, then spreading out and giving life to the branches of knowledge it sustains. Nevertheless, rhetoric is also an art with distinguishing elements. It is a verbal art that draws all knowledge and experience together to lead and persuade others. To that end, as Cicero showed, the rhetorician is called upon to master five skills or “canons” specific to rhetoric:

Invention – discovery of matter

Arrangement – ordering of the matter discovered

Elocution – appropriate expression of the matter

Memory – retention of the matter in the speakers mind

Delivery – the oral presentation of the matter

The man who masters these five canons has progressed on the path of wisdom.

The liberal art of Rhetoric plays a crucial role both in the curriculum and in a free society. It trains us to think, to organize our thoughts, to judge rightly, to make decisions, and to communicate with others. No mere subject, it is the capstone of the arts of a free people.

[This article was originally published in journal of The Society For Classical Learning]

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