Richard A. Burridge
King's College, London, England
The definition of rhetoric,has been a matter of dispute and discussion since its inception. As Kennedy points out,2 it is first used in Plato's Gorgias to describe the technique, or art, of public speaking. In a society like classical Athens, where public speaking was the main mode of communication in assemblies, law courts, formal state occasions and so forth, the “art of words”, was crucial. In its broadest sense then, rhetoric covers all that is involved in verbal communication including composition, style, form and content. On the other hand, Socrates and Gorgias define rhetoric more narrowly as the “work of persuasion”, (Org. 453a2). In its broadest sense, rhetoric applies to all forms of writing or speaking; in its narrower meaning, it applies to those works specifically intended to persuade or convince an audience. This distinction lies behind much of the debate about rhetoric from ancient times to today. Thus Plato tends to contrast rhetoric negatively as sophistic persuasion for personal gain rather than the purer pursuit of truth and knowledge through philosophy. On the other hand, Isocrates has a much broader concept of rhetoric, while Aristotle sought to explain and define it. The debate continued through the work of Cicero and Quintilian, while the teaching of rhetoric formed a major part of ancient education.
What is clear is that rhetoric had a tremendous influence through-
1 For fuller discussion of the genre and examples of ancient biography, see R. A.
Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1992).
2 In his Chapter 1, p. 3 above; see also G. A. Kennedy, A New History of Classical
Rhetoric (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 1.