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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Aug 24, 2015

Canons of rhetoric




Today we’re going to talk about the canons of rhetoric (sound: boom). That’s silly. The canons of rhetoric (sound: pachabel’s canon). Okay, now this has just devolved into a morning show called something lik Zaph and the Pigman in the Mornings. The canons of rhetoric were the five parts of rhetoric that were emphasized in ancient classical rhetoric. They were canons the same way that people in literary studies might talk about whether Moby Dick or Huck Finn belongs in the canon—as essential to being an educated individual. They were the five elements that every good Roman rhetor had to study and develop as a student and also practice as a public speaker. The five canons are also kind of arranged in the order that you go through in working on a public speech. So without further introduction, here’s the canons:
















I like to remember these by a mnemonic: I always state my demands, just like I’m a bank robber. But












  Or, I always state my demands.




These canons of rhetoric


So let’s go through these 5 quickly:


Invention: this one is one of the controversial. There are some villains of rhetoric who will say that rhetoric doesn’t have any business dealing with invention. Soctrates, sometimes, is in this camp, saying invention, or coming up with what to say, is the business of philosophy. Or Francis Bacon who will say that you just need to figure out a tree of possibilities and don’t trust rhetoric, which is slippery with telling you how to get at knowledge. It’s true that invention wasn’t always anything under the sun and could be sticky. for example, commonplaces were these common…places from which you could argue. So a commonplace is a culturally accepted argument, like that pirates are stinky, could be a starting place to come up with your speech against a stinky person who is accused of being a pirate. Aristotle separated topics of invention into common topics, which work for any type of rhetoric and special topics which have to do with judicial, oratory or forensic speeches. Common topics include things like parts and the whole, compare and contrast, past fact and future fact, things like that. Once you explore the ways to come up with something to say, the next step in arrangement.




Arrangement is how you set up the argument. In Plato’s Pheadrus, which we’ve talked a bout in an earlier podcast, Socrates argues that a speech should have a head, a body and a conclusion. This is sort of the standard form that many pieces of western rhetoric begin to take Arrangement often took a very specific form in Classical rhetoric: introduction, statement of facts, division of parts, proof, refutation of the opponent and then conclusion.




Okay, once you have your argument and you’ve arranged it the next step is to write the actual words. What Style are you going to use? Although Hermogenes described many types of style, generally in Roman rhetoric there were 3 types




Roman Levels of Style

English Term

Latin Names

Greek Name

Rhetorical Purpose

High Style or Grand Style

supra, magniloquens


to move

Middle Style

aequabile, mediocre


to please

Low or Plain Style

infinum, humile


to teach




Every thing as style. Style isn’t something you add on because even plain style is a type of style




Memory and delivery were really important to classical rhetoricians, but these elements of the canon have been downplayed, even as invention has become more important in 21st century rhetoric. Memory was critical for presenting an oral argument in front of a judge or the senate without speech. There were several diff ways of looking t memory:


  • the degree to which a speaker successfully remembers a memorized oration
  • the facility with which a speaker calls upon his memory of apt quotations and thoughts that effectively meet the rhetorical intention
  • an analysis of the methods a speaker uses in order for the message to be retained in the memory of those hearing (mnemonics)
  • assessment of direct appeals to memory or the mention of it or related terms


In order to keep up memory, many rhetoricians used mind maps or mind palaces. You might have seen this on the BBC Sherlock: you place different information in a physical location and then imagine yourself walking through that space. For example, maybe in your speech against the supposed pirate you’ll put the things from the introduction, the sunk ships and lost gold, in the front room of a house. Then the statement of facts: the peg leg, the stinkiness, the eye patch, might be on stairs that you step over on your way to the next floor. Then you see the division of the parts of the argument in the bedroom. And so forth as you walk through the space it’s easier to memorize locations of physical things than the order of abstract things, although I’ve lost my keys enough time to know it’s no walk in the park.




Delivery is the other thing we don’t really talk about much any more. Again, back in the classical days this was all oral. Cicero and Quintilian emphasize the need for the orator to have big lungs to shout and good posture and hand gesture, stuff we don’t’ even think about in terms of rhetoric. And what about enunciation? Demosthenes the great orator who was able to incite a revolution with his words allegedly suffered from a speech impediment. So he put pebbles in his mouth and learned to speak around them. Through doing something unnecessarily hard he was able to learn to enunciate clearly. Allegedly when he was asked to name the three most important elements in oratory, he replied "Delivery, delivery and delivery! Classical orators were doing this sort of thing all the time. Many writers suggest things like doing to the sea short to shout against the waves or doing gymnastics to improve gesture and posture.




So those are the canons of rhetoric. Less dangours than canons of war, less wedding-associated than pachabel’s canons, but vastly important in the anceitn world. It’s funny to think how much rhetoric has changed. For all that we look back at ancent rhetoric to clarify rheteorical theory, we forget how oral a culture it was, and how much traditions and commonplaces figured in. If you have an idea of what the new canons of rhetoric are or how modern rhetoric would look if we recaptured some of the older canons, feel free to email me at Until next time [canon]