Reclaiming Rhetoric

Nam eloquentiam quae admirationem non habet nullam iudico

Eloquence which doesn’t startle I don’t consider eloquence

Marcus Tullius Cicero, 48 BC


Pithanon tini pithanon

What convinces is conviction

Aristotle, 325 BC

At the 2013 Festival of Education at Wellington, one of the most startling and memorable talks was given by Sam Leith on Reclaiming Rhetoric. I rushed up to Sam afterwards and told him how inspiring I found his talk. I went out and bought his book, and I’ve read it twice since. Exploring the world of oratory, from Aristotle and Cicero to Lincoln and Obama, is fascinating. I’m increasingly convinced that teaching rhetoric as a powerful body of knowledge can transform the English curriculum.


As Sam explains, “for fifteen centuries or so, the study of rhetoric was at the centre of Western education. What has changed is that it has now all but vanished as an area of study.” Having fallen into disrepute, it is now disparaged: on a Google search, ‘just rhetoric’ has 102,000 hits; ‘only rhetoric’ 107,000; ‘mere rhetoric’ 160,000; and ‘empty rhetoric’ 431,000. Yet Sam says his book “seemed to touch off an appetite for this little-considered area of knowledge.” Practising what he preaches, he uses an epiplexis of explosive rhetorical questions: “What has rhetoric ever done for us? Well, it has brought us all of Western civilisation, for a start. What is democracy but the idea that the art of persuasion should be formally enshrined at the centre of the political process? What is law but a way of giving words formal strength in the world? What is a law court but a place where the art of persuasion gives shape to civil society?”

 What is rhetoric?

The study of effective speaking and writing, rhetoric is also “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”, according to Aristotle. It was the ‘major activity of civil life in the classical era, and the nucleus of the education system’; and ‘it is difficult to overstate the importance of rhetoric to medieval education’;by Renaissance times, rhetoric had become so centrally embedded in the culture as a habit of mind that it shaped the way all knowledge was approached. Rhetoric was the master-art of the trivium’. Francis Bacon wrote that ‘the duty of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.’ Rhetoric, then, is not merely the means by which ideas are expressed, it is also a means by which they are generated. Sam Leith continues: “Rhetoric is a field of knowledge: that is, something susceptible to analysis and understanding in the same way poetry is. The study of rhetoric is a systematic way of understanding how arguments prosper and founder”“Rhetoric is language that persuades and cajoles, inspires and bamboozles, thrills and misdirects, impresses and seduces, endears and justifies… The technical terms are simply a box of tricks that already exist and are being put into action all around us. Our commerce, our politics, our cultural and social lives are all rhetorical to an extraordinary extent.”

Ethos, Logos & Pathos: The Three Musketeers of Rhetoric


“Tous pour un et un pour tous”: Triumvir or chiasmus?

Rhetoric instruction begins with three approaches, which Leith cheerfully personifies as the Three Musketeers: not Athos, Porthos and Aramis but ethos, pathos and logos.

Ethos is the credibility of the speaker in connection with the audience: Antony’s appeal of ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears’ in Julius Caesar; or The Simpson’s send-up ‘Hi, I’m Troy Maclure, you may remember me from such TV programs as…’


Pathos is understanding the emotions of the audience: the abolitionists’ ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ or communists’ Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!’


Logos is the content of your argument: ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!’No taxation without representation!‘Labour isn’t working’ ‘We, the people, hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’


Delacroix’s Liberty leading the people

There are also three intertwining branches with overlapping foliage from the trunk of rhetoric: judicial, deliberative and epideictic.

Judicial or forensic rhetoric is focused on the past and in the courtroom, used by lawyers, detectives and reporters. The trials in To Kill A Mockingbird or A Time To Kill are excellent examples.


“I set out to prove a black man could receive a fair trial”

Deliberative rhetoric is focused on the future, used in advertising, elections, legislation, business decisions and war. The slogan ‘since 1366’ etc persuades consumers to buy the product through an ethos appeal of endurance.


Epideictic is the rhetoric of praise and blame, used in funeral speeches and wedding speeches, as well as by sports pundits, commentators and journalists. Shakespeare’s Antony disguises his seditious funeral oration in the disingenuous line: ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’. In the struggle for Irish independence, graveside eulogies of dead nationalists invoked support for the republican cause: ‘Here by the grave of this unconquered and unconquerable man, we ask each for himself such unshakeable purpose, such high courage, such unbreakable strength of soul as belonged to O’Donovan.’


Knowing the three appeals and the three branches is most useful when combined with the five canons of rhetoric according to Quintilian: invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery.


The classical structure for a speech is exordium, narratio, divisio, probatio, refutation and peroration:

Exordium: establish your connection with the audience and grab their attention

Narratio: set out your definitions and facts with brevity, clarity, plausibility

Divisio: summarises the agreements and disagreements with your opponents

Probatio: set out your arguments with authority, analogy and evidence

Refutation: smash your opponents’ arguments

Peroration: connect into your audience’s emotions


The technical terms of rhetoric are practical techniques that have proved effective for thousands of years, and are used all around us today. There are over four hundred listed on this online collection. Here are a few of my favourite rhetorical devices that I teach my pupils, and some of my favourite examples of them:

Anaphora: repetition at the start of clauses


“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today…


“Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi — from every mountainside.

Let freedom ring.”

“Sing in the words of the Old Negro Spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

Martin Luther King


Tricolon: three clauses or phrases, often in a crescendo


“We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.”

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”

Abraham Lincoln



“Told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve.”

“The partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long”.

“Because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America”.

“Built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause”.

 “Block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand”.

“The values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity”.

“A government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from the Earth”.

Barack Obama

Epiplexis: multiple rhetorical questions


‘You [Antony] will give orders to have bronze tablets engraved with the legal formula ‘the consuls by the right of law put the question to the people, and the people by right of law passed the measure.’ Which people? The ones who were shut out? And what right of law? The law which armed violence has obliterated out of existence?’


‘What was the kindness that you did me? Not killing me at Brundisium? But what sort of kindness is it, to have abstained from committing criminal wickedness?’

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Phillipics against Mark Antony


‘I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’

William Shakespeare, Shylock, The Merchant of Venice


Chiasmus: two clauses inverted in reversal (i.e. XYYX)


“Your gentleness shall force 
more than your force move us to gentleness.”

“The fool doth think he is wise,
but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.'”

William Shakespeare



 ‘All for one and one for all’

 Alexandre Dumas



 “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

“Let us never negotiate out of fear; 
but let us never fear to negotiate.”

J F Kennedy



“Now this is not the end.
It is not even the beginning of the end.
 But it is, perhaps,
 the end of the beginning.”

“An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; 
a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.”

Winston Churchill


What I like about these examples is that they show how interconnected rhetoric is as a body of knowledge. Obama draws on the tradition of Lincoln, Kennedy and King. Churchill drew on Shakespeare. All of them drew on Cicero. Cicero’s speeches and writing on rhetoric have ‘exerted a massive, prolonged and decisive influence on the culture of the western world over two millennia.’ Something this important should be taught, and taught cohesively.

These examples also show this: how much understanding great speeches depends on understanding the biographies of the speaker. As so often, it was Daisy Christodoulou who first helped me realise this. How can you understand Lincoln’s 2 minute, 250 word Gettysburg Address without knowing about his life and 8 failed elections? How can you understand Malcolm X’s firebrand rhetoric without knowing his father was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan when he was just 6? How can you understand Cicero’s lambasting of Antony without knowing of his enmity with the assassinated Caesar? Impossible.

So rhetoric as a body of knowledge includes the biographies of great orators. My list of greatest speakers ever to speak in English would include (but not be restricted to):

  • Elizabeth Tudor
  • John Bright
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Winston Churchill
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • John F Kennedy
  • Martin Luther King
  • Malcolm X
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Barack Obama


I have sequenced these in three units across Key Stage 3 in my ideal English curriculum. In Year 7, Classical rhetoric would range from Aristotle and Cicero to Shakespeare’s Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Cleopatra and Volumnia. In Year 8, English Rennaissance rhetoric would include Tudor She Wolves Anne Boleyn, Jane Grey, Mary I, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. In Year 9, modern rhetoric might include the American, African and Indian struggle for freedom, from Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, King, Malcolm X to Obama, as well as Mandela and Gandhi. This would go well with the rhetoric of Squealer, Snowball and Napoleon in Animal Farm, as well as Orwell’s 1984, as a way of interrogating the totalitarian propaganda of 20th century dictatorships. As Sam Leith says, “If knowledge is power, and rhetoric gives words power, so a knowledge of rhetoric equips you as a citizen both to exercise power and to resist it.” There is a lot in the third unit, so I am thinking of teaching Mandela and Gandhi’s biographies and speeches alongside Cicero and Caesar’s in Year 7, as an Introduction to Ancient and Modern Rhetoric.

For rhetoric is not just an ancient art; it is decidedly modern. As Martin Robinson’s in his book Trivium 21c puts it:

“In cyberspace, citizens of the world can meet together in a kind of virtual agora [or forum]. We are all rhetoricians now, and all the world is our stage, whether we are aware of it or not. You are only ever one tweet away from the rest of the world. We must give our children practice to prepare them for the rhetoricality of cyberspace.”


He suggests that if grammar (as a metaphor for subject knowledge) is our thesis, and dialectic (critical thinking) is our antithesis, rhetoric can be seen as our synthesis: combining knowing, questioning and communicating. Certainly it is good to see teachers like David Didau putting rhetoric into his English Key Stage 3 syllabus.

It is time to put rhetoric, the study of powerful speaking and writing, at the heart of English curriculum. To end with a chiasmus, learning rhetoric will help our pupils use words powerfully to influence others, and resist being overly influenced by powerful words.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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14 Responses to Reclaiming Rhetoric

  1. Karen says:

    Could you please tell me how old your students are? In the U.S. grade 7 students would be about twelve years old. What would it be in the UK?

  2. Thank you very much Joe for the mention for my book Trivium 21c. May I be so bold as to mention that it is currently available at a knock down price on kindle in their ’12 days of kindle’ sale? If anyone is interested here is a link: the paperback is also available from around a tenner… 😉

    Just a reminder that buying and selling goes on in the agora too…

  3. Graham Jones says:

    Really superb post, Joe, thanks so much for this! And it’s great to see Troy McClure up there! (Interestingly, Aristotle thought that ethos “should result from the speech, not form a previous opinion that the speaker is a certain kind of person”. In practice, however, ethos does also comes from the speaker’s previous achievements – which is, of course, why the Troy McClure joke so funny.)

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