Rhetoric: What It Is, What It's Used For, and Some Examples

Rhetoric refers to the art of creating aesthetic and persuasive speeches. Let's see what this discipline consists of and some applications.
Rhetoric: What It Is, What It's Used For, and Some Examples
Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati

Written and verified by the philosopher Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati.

Last update: 01 August, 2022

Rhetoric is the discipline that creates effective speeches to delight, persuade, or move the people listening using different language techniques. In other words, it studies and systematizes a set of language procedures to embellish speeches (either spoken or written) and persuade through them.

It’s usually used to win a debate, sell a certain product, or transmit knowledge. Therefore, it’s present in many different fields of knowledge, such as literature, politics, advertising, journalism, law, music, etc.

The origins of rhetoric

Rhetoric emerged in Ancient Greece and was understood as the technique of expressing oneself adequately in order to persuade addressees.

In this case, the sophists were its greatest exponents, since they were in charge of teaching the art of speech to citizens so that they could intervene and participate in the public affairs of the city. At first, rhetoric dealt with spoken discourse, but its knowledge transcended the written word and influenced the development of literature.

It also occupied an important place in the ancient and medieval educational system. Until Romanticism, its significance was crucial within the humanistic disciplines.

Today, we can see how rhetoric has transcended into many fields that seek to communicate and persuade. For example, we can see how its techniques are used in advertising, academia, politics, as well as in the defense of the different points of view during civil trials.

In fact, thanks to new technologies, we can also speak of a rhetoric of the image. An audiovisual representation is loaded with rhetorical figures and aims to persuade an audience.

Publicidad en internet usa la retórica.
Images can also make use of rhetoric, especially in this age of viral messages and social networks.

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Phases of discourse

Rhetoric contemplates different phases in the elaboration of an aesthetic and persuasive discourse:

  1. Inventio: This refers to what to say and includes the search for ideas that will underpin the speech.
  2. Dispositio: Once the ideas have been identified, they’re ordered and organized in such a way that the speech is strong enough to achieve its purpose.
  3. Elocutio: The next step is to determine how the ideas will be expressed in order to convince and seduce the receiver. For example, this may include tones of voice and gestures.
  4. Memory: On the one hand, this refers to the ability to retain what’s going to be said and how it’s going to be said. On the other hand, it refers to the ability to improvise.
  5. Actio: Rhetoric involves delivering the speech and the correct use of the previous phases.

The uses of rhetoric

Rhetoric was a very important discipline throughout history, to such an extent that it was taught in the academies of the Middle Ages. Today, it’s still a very useful tool and can be applied to various fields of knowledge.

Rhetorical figures

Also called literary figures, these are language resources that enhance the beauty of the speech and are intended to highlight an idea, persuade, delight, or arouse an emotion in the recipients.

They’re widely used in literary language, so they abound in poetry and drama. However, it’s also possible to use them in everyday speech in order to add some style and originality to our communication.

There are many types of rhetorical figures:

  • Metaphor: This is one of the most used and consists of the expression of a concept by means of another that is similar. For example: “your gaze is as deep as the ocean” or ” time is gold.”
  • Hyperbole: This consists of the exaggeration of quantities, qualities, and characteristics. Its most common purpose is to provoke strong feelings and impressions. In addition to the literary field, it’s usually common in colloquial language, advertising, political propaganda, and humorous speeches. Some examples are: “I’ve told you a million times,” “I’m dying of love for you,” or “a smile from ear to ear.”
  • Irony: The aim of irony is to convey the opposite of what’s really being stated. For example, saying “thank goodness I followed your advice!” after regretting doing so. Or saying something like “see how I tremble with fear” to reject a threat.
  • Rhetorical questions: This is the expression of a question without expecting an answer in return, since the intention is to reinforce or reaffirm one’s own point of view. For example: “How many times do I have to tell you that this isn’t going to work?” or “Where have you ever seen anything else like this?”

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Image rhetoric

Image rheto is one of the most novel scopes that rhetoric as a discipline has had. It consists of the study and application of procedures and techniques to transmit a visual message in an effective, aesthetic, and persuasive way that convinces and moves a specific audience.

That is why it’s a discipline that’s widely used in the area of audiovisual communication, mainly in the fields of advertising and propaganda.

Retórica ayuda en los discursos.
Learning rhetoric can improve public presentations of those who are afraid to speak in front of others.

The negative connotation of rhetoric

Rhetoric was highly criticized by Plato and Socrates. They argued that the essence of philosophy was dialectics, a method in which reason and discussion lead to the discovery of important truths little by little.

In this sense, Plato criticized the sophists and accused them of not seeking the truth with their teachings, but of teaching the way to convince others, regardless of the truth or falsity of what was being transmitted.

This Platonic criticism is still valid today, especially when we point out the improper or inopportune use of the art of rhetoric for unethical purposes, such as the empty speeches of some politicians, whose purpose is nothing more than to convince citizens.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.