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Greek Rhetoric
History of Rhetoric
This lesson is on the History of Rhetoric. It's intended to help provide an understanding of the past so we can better predict the future.

Added By: Ira Gorelick

June 29, 2020

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History of Rhetoric

This lesson discusses the Pre-Socratic philosophers to the emergence of the sophists, who, arguably developed the Science (or Art) of Rhetoric.

In intellectual terms, it was a period that marked the gradual shift from a mythological and cosmological view of the world to a more rational and man-centered interpretation. The question this raises for me is: What caused the shift in the first place?  Was the science of Rhetoric a cause of the shift or a result of the shift? I think the Rhetoric is a result of the invention of writing. Once we started to write things down, words could be studied and best ways to organize words could be developed.

 History of Rhetoric – Background

In Athenian democracy, sovereignty was vested in the assembly (Ecclesia), which was a body of adult male citizens comprising about 20% of the total population. This was a huge advance.  While it didn’t work well, the promise of better lives was very attractive.  Even Today.

It’s interesting to note, however, that as many of these potential attendees lived in outlying areas, and as others living within the Athens area were unwilling to become involved in politics, the Assembly consisted for all practical purposes of an oligarchy of city-dwelling males, with about 300 out of the possible 3,000 participating.

Below the Assembly was the Boule (Council), an elected body of 500: 50 men were returned from each of the ten Attic tribes. They saw that the enactments of the Assembly were carried out and administrative appointments made. Both the Assembly and the Boule were places where men had to defend themselves when challenged and render an account of their service. Administrative officials, for example, had to render an account of their services on retirement, and any male citizen could be openly accused in the Assembly. Hence the need for sound training in rhetoric.

As with the Assembly and the Council, the court system was open to all citizens. The appeal courts usually possessed a jury that could number up to 500 citizens at times of great public importance. Later the lower courts followed this model and instituted the jury system. As power did not rest with the magistrates but with the jury, citizens found it necessary to defend themselves in front of a large number of people. As any citizen could bring a prosecution against another, a tradition of political trials began, which meant that those who entered public life spent a lot of time, money, and effort in developing their rhetorical skills. One such school for rhetoric was that founded by Isocrates. His school was like a preparatory school for ambitious youths.

However, before discussing Plato’s dispute with the Sophists over their manner of teaching rhetoric, I would like to return to the evolution of the Sophists as the principal teachers of rhetoric.


Philosophy, which simply means a “love of wisdom”, can trace its roots to Miletus, an Ionian city in Asia Minor where the first known philosophers speculated about nature (physis).

They were concerned with the physical world and wanted to understand its substance. The most famous of these ‘Milesian’  philosophizers were Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximes. However, it must be pointed out that the ‘Milesian’ school were not teachers by profession but independent people who were curious as to the nature of the physical world. Later they were followed by Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and others who tried to move the emphasis away from the mythical view of the world to a more rational one. But their undisciplined approach to explaining the nature of the physical world may have partly led the next generation of thinkers towards ‘the rational examination of human affairs for the practical betterment of human life’This change in approach marked the beginning of the shift away from the mythological view of the world.

Another and more practical reason for this move towards a rational approach to human affairs was generated by the substantial rewards that could be gained from a rational education.

Many of this new generation of thinkers, who were mostly from outside Athens, and so had little patrimony and no wealthy patrons, found a source for their income in the education of young Athenians. According to one source, “The educational demand was partly for genuine knowledge, but mostly reflected a desire for spurious learning that would lead to political success”.

As Athenian democracy had developed more as a participatory than a representative process, a political career was within reach of all young male citizens of ability. Also, the Athenian system of democracy lent itself to litigation as a means not only of solving disputes but also of ensuring that those with privilege or in public administration were answerable to the courts. ‘Everyone had to be his own lawyer.‘ Consequently, a great need developed for people to be in a position to defend themselves.  But they needed to be trained in how to persuade large groups of people and argue, and the Sophists provided this training. The better one was at teaching persuasion, the more money one earned. The search for knowledge or truth, although of interest to a minority, was not their top priority. Many of the Sophists, Isocrates, for example, saw nothing wrong with the pursuit of political influence by way of the techniques of persuasion.

This group of freelance teachers, who traditionally taught rhetoric, grammar, mathematics, poetry, history, and, more especially, virtue (in the sense that they taught their pupils how to perform the state functions), began to focus on the teaching of rhetoric or the art of persuasion. They were basically seen by many as educators. The principal early Sophists were Protagoras of Abdera, Gorgias of Leontini, Prodicus of Ceos, and Hippias of Elis. But what did they believe? They believed that the physical world was controlled by nature, but that the laws of the Polis were man-made and therefore could be influenced by man. Likewise, they rejected the presocratic belief that their cities had received their laws from some deity. Consequently, they upset those who held that to be a ‘good’ citizen meant conforming to the laws (as they were divine and, so, eternal in nature). Also they didn’t accept the old idea that excellence (arte) was inborn. Likewise, they didn’t accept that aristocratic birth alone qualified a young man for politics. They believed that the ‘arte’ was the result of training rather than birth.


Although the Sophists began life by teaching excellence, they soon fell into questioning the very validity of the concept. How, they asked, could excellence be measured? There was no higher authority to appeal to. As there seemed to be no objective way, they went along with the idea that everything was relative and that persuasion to one’s point of view was all that there was.

As they didn’t accept the old explanations of the Presocratics and had no new certain ideas to offer, they became associated with the ‘doubting of certainty’. They doubted everything. “To them all things were relative, the logical concepts, the ethical values, religion, justice, the state and so on.4 Therefore, they found little problem in teaching their students both sides of an argument, which would help them greatly in the political and legal systems that they were expected to form part of. Which argument was correct depended on which side of the argument you stood. For many Sophists, there was no right or wrong answer. If there were no higher authority for morality, then surely it depended on each person to decide.

Protagoras, for example, taught his students to praise and blame the same thing. He boasted that he could turn any weak argument into one of strength. This greatly helped his pupils’ debating abilities. Protagoras, irrespective of his popularity as a teacher of rhetoric, became associated with ‘skepticism ‘ just as his fellow Sophist, Gorgias, became associated with ‘nihilism ‘.

Protagoras’s skepticism has been divided into three areas: phenomenalismempiricism, and relativism. The idea behind phenomenalism is that we can only know ideas present in our own minds and that we cannot make a true statement about anything outside our own minds. He taught that only those practical experiences we know through our senses (by way of observation) are our source of real knowledge (empiricism). Finally, regarding relativism, he held that truth had no independent existence. “Man“, he is reported to have written, “is the measure of all things“. This, in my opinion, had the unfortunate result of creating a situation where there were no objective standards to judge by. Protagoras answered this by saying ‘the standard of advantage (i.e. self-interest, expediency) is what is good. However, he qualified this by saying that in making judgments we naturally know what is morally correct and that this should be our guide. This could, in my opinion, have left many pupils with no guideline at all except to follow their self-interest and expediency. However, it must be pointed out that most commentators admit that not all Sophists were skeptics, although apparently, a good number were.

Regarding their view of society, there were many viewpoints. One group of Sophists held that man as a natural creature was subject to the laws of nature that he must obey (physis). On the other hand, a man was a member of the Polis and the laws under which he lived were governed by convention or custom (nomos). They were man-made laws. These did not command the same degree of obedience. The example used by a number of writers is the case of traffic lights. There is agreement that the red traffic light means ‘stop’ while the green light means ‘go’. If the government wished, it could change these to mean the opposite. Also, there are special circumstances when a traffic light can be ignored. Man, on the other hand, cannot change the law of nature.

Another view, which illustrates the Sophist’s position, is that put forward by Antiphon (480-411 B.C.) when he says that nothing really exists. By this, he means that reality, truth or objectivity don’t really exist. Another view taught by some Sophists was that men have the same human nature and, therefore, any distinction between them should be abolished. Others saw men as representative of the animal world, and human law as necessary to restrict their animal instincts. Protagoras, for example, believed that men left to their own natural instincts would destroy themselves. Therefore, for him, nomes were absolutely necessary for men to live in a civilized society.

With regard to religion, most Sophists fell into one of two categories: those who believed that man was created by the gods, and those who were atheistic or agnostic. Protagoras was an agnostic. He stated “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be. Many things prevent knowledge, including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life.” 5 This view caused a certain degree of distrust and, even, hostility with the ordinary population. Many conservative people still looked to the gods to provide absolute moral guidance, and, no doubt, they felt distrustful of the Sophist’s relativism. On the other hand, the Sophists were widely accepted by the young and had large numbers of followers. Most of the great figures of the time had been trained by the Sophists. Pericles, for example, had been associated with Protagoras. He epitomized the rationalistic approach to politics and the legal system, and he opened up Athens to teachers from all over Greece.


Finally, in forming our judgments on Plato’s procedure, we must not forget that Plato likes to argue against rhetoric and sophistry; and indeed that he is the man who by his attacks on the ‘Sophists’ created the bad associations connected with the word.” (Karl Popper)

Plato emerged as one of the chief critics of the Sophist movement and, perhaps, it is fair to say, that he saw his teacher, Socrates, as the restorer of values and morality. Plato openly condemned Sophistry as both dishonest and untrue, and Sophists as ‘being interested in appearance rather than in substance’. That Plato took his attacks on rhetoric seriously is evidenced by the fact that he devoted large sections of his books to this end; he argued his case in the Apology, Phaedrus, Gorgias (book), and in his most famous book of all, ‘The Republic’.

Plato based much of his philosophy on the idea of the immortality of the soul (Phaedrus). In ‘The Republic’, which deals primarily with justice, the soul is divided into three parts: appetite, reason and spirit. He further argued that we should obey human law and that the true nature of justice does not depend on human convention (nomas). He objected to the Sophists’ idea that man was a product of nature (physis) but that the society that we live in is artificial. He did not like, therefore, the notion that followed from this, that people must be persuaded to obey convention, as it is artificial, rather than his idea of justice.

Gorgias (485-380 B.C.), one of the Sophists, presents language as a tool of persuading and even, as Plato would probably say, of manipulating others. Gorgias, for example, wrote in The Praise of Helen, “The power of speech has the same relation to the order of the soul as drugs have to the nature of bodies. For as different drugs expel different humors from the body, and some put an end to sickness and others to life, so some words cause grief, others joy, some fear, others render their hearers bold, and still others drug and bewitch the soul through an evil passion.“.

Plato takes such a low view of rhetoric that he compares, in Gorgias (one of his dialogues), the art of an orator with that of a pastry-cook and equates rhetoric with flattery.  In Gorgias (the dialogue), Socrates adds, ” I sum up its substance in the flattery. The practice, as I view it, has many branches, and one of them is cookery, which appears indeed to be an art “…” rhetoric is another branch of it, as is also personal adornment and sophistry “.  “The orators “, according to Socrates, “like the poets are set on gratifying the citizens.

The assault on the oratory of the Sophists is often related to the topic of ‘Style’. This was basically because the Sophists taught their students the clever use of words and sentences, which would make a favorable impression on their audiences. To achieve this end, the rhetor had to be clear and put his points in such a way that the audience understood exactly what he wanted them to understand. Therefore, language, vocabulary, patterns of emphasis, and the use of metaphors all had to be studied. Understandably this skill of style became very important in ancient Greece with the introduction of democracy. Plato objected that neither the text books that were used, nor the teachers, paid much attention to the search for truth and gave too much attention to style. But Greek democracy was not like ours: we elect representatives to speak in our interests, but in 5th century Greece, citizens were required to speak for themselves, and so style, persuasion and effective public speaking were studied and taught out of necessity. However, as far as I can gather, the issue of style was really secondary as far as Plato was concerned. The real issue, for Plato, is basically his rejection of the idea of the polis and democracy.

In  Gorgias Plato scorns many of the great democratic leaders of the polis. He said of Pericles that he must be judged a failure as a statesman because he had left the human herd in his care “wilder than when he took them in hand”. Consequently, Plato’s objection to the huge emphasis that was placed on studying persuasion and effective speaking is in keeping with his ideas of the polis as a herd. According to I.F. Stone he “pictured the Golden Age of man as a time when the gods tended their human herds as men later tended their cattle”. Stone also adds, “The unspoken premise of the Socratic assault on oratory was disdain for the common people of Athens “.