Greek Oratory and Rhetoric

Greek Oratory and Rhetoric
Greek Oratory and Rhetoric
Oratory and rhetoric were key components of Greek culture. The Hellenistic world was primarily an oral culture—as was most of the world prior to the invention of the printing press—with public lectures and performances being the primary literary form of the time.

The orator (rhetor) was a celebrated figure in the society, and rhetoric (rhetorike), the art of the spoken word, was a strongly valued element of the classical education, with the most highly educated receiving particularly strong rhetorical training.

Before the fifth century b.c.e. rhetoric was not directly taught as a subject in itself; rather, students memorized important texts, usually poetry and especially the Homeric epics, which they would then perform at festivals. Stock phrases, proverbs, and maxims were memorized and employed when needed to make a speech more persuasive.

Compositional and rhetorical skill was thus obtained by imitation of the features of classic texts rather than through direct instruction. This changed by the latter half of the fifth century b.c.e.—the dawn of sophism.

The study of rhetoric as a subject can be attributed in part to the necessity created by the fifth-century b.c.e. Athenian judicial system, which required the prosecuting party and the defendant to give formal speeches arguing their cases.

Well-organized and - executed speeches were more persuasive, a fact that led to the proliferation of handbooks of judicial rhetoric to give assistance to those preparing such speeches.

Eventually, the system allowed a litigant to hire a speechwriter (famous speechwriters of this era include Lysias, Demosthenes, and Antiphon) to write a speech that the litigant would then memorize and deliver before the court.

The structure of Athenian democratic government, which was easily influenced by smooth-talking political leaders, also helped lead to the study of rhetoric, since it could be employed as a tool with which the citizens (and thus Athens itself) could be swayed.

It was at this time that the Sophists of the fifth century b.c.e. (such as Gorgias and Protagoras, who were immortalized by Plato’s dialogues) came onto the scene, offering to teach argument and rhetoric to those willing to pay—often a great deal—for their services.

The Sophists were a group of thinkers from all over the Greek world who, through their mastery of the spoken word, were regarded as masters of argument and debate. They emphasized that two contradictory arguments can be made about any given issue and that, at any given time, the weaker argument could be made the stronger, meaning that knowledge could never be absolute and debate should always remain open.

Sophists acquired a reputation for being able to effectively and persuasively argue both sides of any given issue—as Protagoras’s Antilogies (Opposing statements) and the late fifth-century b.c.e. Dissoi Logoi (Double arguments) show.

Above all, Sophists were interested in eristic, the art of refutation and verbal conflict. Rhetorical contests were staged on occasion, such as on a feast day, with the audience enthralled by the skills of the best sophistic orators.

Plato and Aristotle took an antagonistic stance toward the Sophists, regarding them as deceivers more interested in verbal sleight of hand and debate than in truth or reason, a view that has more or less remained to this day.

The contributions of the Sophists to the art of oratory made an indelible mark on Hellenistic culture, as rhetoric as a skill in itself came to be emphasized and taught as a part of a standard education. After a child had learned to read and write (at seven or eight years old), he or she progressed to study with a grammaticus (grammarian).

The handbook of Dionysius, Thrax, written in the early first century b.c.e. and used as a textbook for the next 15 centuries, outlines this training in literature, which focused on grammar and basic literary criticism. At around 12 to 14 years old, the student would then begin the study of rhetoric taught by a rhetorician.

Rhetorical instruction was made up of three fixed elements. The first two elements included the study of rhetorical theory and the study of models from prior literature (such as Homeric speeches, the dialogues of Plato, or the speeches of Demosthenes).

After completion of the first two elements, the student progressed to declamation exercises in which, after listening to speeches by the rhetorician, the student would receive an assigned topic on which he would write, memorize, and perform a speech based on a fixed pattern for that type of speech and subject matter.

Speech Categories

Types of speeches were commonly divided into three categories. The deliberative speech was concerned with a decision to be made about the future, usually in political context, such as whether a given law should be passed or whether a war should be waged. The judicial speech was a speech that argued concerning the truth about past events and was typically used in the courtroom.

The epideictic speech was typically for show or entertainment and dealt with topics such as beauty, credit and blame, or praise. As democratic city-states were replaced by imperial rule, its overall importance faded somewhat, as did the importance of judicial oratory.

On the other hand, epideictic speech became the most common exhibition of trained oratory, often being used to celebrate military victories or feast days. Deliberative oratory continued to have some function in ambassadorial relations, military decisions, and management of local governments.

Rhetorical art was usually divided into five skills also called canons: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Invention involved the process of finding something to say; this skill was trained by learning conventional categories, topoi (common-places), which dealt with the main rhetorical possibilities for nearly any theme.

For example, for an encomium (speech of praise), a person’s noble birth, parentage, noble deeds, education, friends, and courage (among other things) would be included among the possible topoi. This greatly aided the speechwriting process by giving concrete starting points for brainstorming.

Each speech was organized based on four elements. The prooemium (introduction), sometimes called the proem, is not only to introduce the issue at hand but also to stir the feelings of the audience or (in the case of a judicial speech) to dispel prejudice.

The diegesis (narrative or statement of facts) tells the speaker’s side of the story; the subjects involved should be characterized positively or negatively, depending on the goal of the speech. The pistis (proofs) section provides evidence for the case—by statement of fact, logical, ethical, or emotional appeals—in order to sway the audience.

This section also included refutations of the opposing side’s anticipated arguments; later orators (such as Cicero or Quintilian) sometimes considered this refutation a separate section (the refutatio) of the speech directly following the pistis.

The final element of a speech is the epilogos (epilogue), in which the speaker reinforces his prior statements, attempts to reinforce a positive attitude in the audience toward himself and his argument, and closes with a forceful conclusion.

After a slow decline in importance as Greek democracy gave way to the Roman Empire, classical Greek rhetoric experienced a revival of sorts in the Second Sophistic period of the mid-first through the mid second centuries c.e.

This in turn had a great impact on Christian literature and oratory, as can be seen in Luke-Acts or figures such as Augustine of Hippo or John Chrysostom. As a result, the impact of Greek rhetoric continues today, with modern public speaking and literature heavily based on the principles of oratory produced in the Hellenistic Period.