Ancient Greece

The Rise of Democracy

An enormous, ancient library.

“Biblioteca” by queulat00. CC-BY.

In order to understand what contemporary public speaking is, we first must understand the genesis of public speaking. We begin with the Greeks and rhetoric. Rhetoric, as defined by Aristotle, is the “faculty of discovering in the particular case all the available means of persuasion.”[1] For the Greeks, rhetoric, or the art of public speaking, was first and foremost a means to persuade. Greek society relied on oral expression, which also included the ability to inform and give speeches of praise, known then as epideictic (to praise or blame someone) speeches. The ability to practice rhetoric in a public forum was a direct result of generations of change in the governing structures of Attica (a peninsula jutting into the Aegean Sea), with the city of Athens located at its center. The citizens of Athens were known as Athenians, and were among the most prosperous of people in the Mediterranean region.

Speech is the mirror of action. – Solon

It was in the Homeric Period, also known as “The Age of Homer,” between 850 B.C. and 650 B.C., that an evolution in forms of government from monarchy to oligarchy, and tyranny to eventual democracy, began in ancient Greece. Homer was the major figure of ancient Greek literature and the author of the earliest epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the year 630 B.C., the last tyrant of Attica, Ceylon, seized the Acropolis, which was the seat of government in Athens, and established himself as the ruler of all Attica. He didn’t rule for long. Ceylon was overthrown within weeks by farmers and heavily armed foot soldiers known as hoplites. Many of Ceylon’s followers were killed, and the few that escaped death fled into the mountains. Thus, Athenian democracy was born.

In 621 B.C., the citizens of Athens commissioned Draco, who was an elder citizen considered to be the wisest of the Greeks, to sort their laws into an organized system known as codification, because until that time, they simply remained an oral form of custom and tradition and weren’t written like the laws of today. Draco was concerned only with criminal offenses, which until this time had been settled through blood feud (an eye-for-an-eye type of revenge between families) or rulings by the King. Draco established courts, complete with juries, to hear cases of homicide, assault, and robbery. By conforming the codes for criminal offenses into standards of practice, Draco began the tradition of law, where cases were decided on clearly enunciated crimes and penalties determined by statute rather than by the whims of the nobility. His laws helped constitute a surge in Athenian democracy.

In 593 B.C. Draco’s laws were reformed by Solon, an Athenian legislator, who introduced the first form of popular democracy into Athens. Solon’s courts became the model for the Romans and centuries later for England and America. Murphy and Katula argued: “It is with Solon’s reforms that we mark the unalterable impulse toward popular government in western civilization.”[2] The Athenian period of democratization included legislative as well as judicial reform.

It was during the reign of Pericles, from 461 B.C. to 429 B.C., that Athens achieved its greatest glory. Some of these accomplishments included the installation of a pure democracy to maintain, a liberalized judicial system to include poor citizens so that they could serve on juries, and the establishment of a popular legislative assembly to review annually all laws. In addition, he established the right for any Athenian citizen to propose or oppose a law during assembly. Pericles’ achievements far exceeded those mentioned. Because of his efforts, Athens became the crossroads of the world—the center of western civilization—and with it came the need for public speaking.

Pericles' Funeral Oration

“Discurso Funebre Pericles” by Philipp Foltz. Public domain.

“Persuasion is the civilized substitute for harsh authority and ruthless force,” wrote R.T. Oliver.[3] Oliver said that the recipients of any persuasive discourse must feel free to make a choice. In a free society it is persuasion that decides rules, determines behavior,and acts as the governing agent in human physical and mental activities. In every free society individuals are continuously attempting to change the thoughts and/or actions of others. It is a fundamental concept of a free society. Ian Harvey suggested that the technique of persuasion is the technique of persuading free people to a pattern of life; and persuasion is the only possible means of combining freedom and order.[4] That combination successfully achieved is the solution to the overriding problems of our time. Rhetoric (persuasion), public speaking and democracy are inextricable. As long as there is rhetoric, and public speaking to deliver that message, there will exist democracy; and as long as there is democracy, there will exist rhetoric and public speaking.

I believe that the will of the people is resolved by a strong leadership. Even in a democratic society, events depend on a strong leadership with a strong power of persuasion, and not on the opinion of the masses. – Yitzhak Shamir

The Nature of Rhetoric

Socrates Statue

“Socrates” by Coyau. Coyau / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Pericles’ democracy established the need for training in public speaking. Greek assemblies debated old and new laws on a yearly basis. The courtrooms that Solon reformed now bristled with litigation. Pericles’ juries numbered between 500 and 2,000 people, so speaking at a public trial was similar to speaking at a public meeting. And to speak at a legislative assembly required serious, highly developed, and refined debate, because at stake generally were issues of peace and war. Murphy and Katula stated that the Athenian citizens realized that their very future often depended on their ability to speak persuasively.[5] Public speaking was an Olympic event where the winner received an olive wreath and was paraded through his town like a hero. Thus, Athens became a city of words, a city dominated by the orator. Athens witnessed the birth of what we know today as rhetoric.

To say that rhetoric played an important role in Greek and Roman life would be an understatement. The significance of rhetoric and oratory was evident in Greek and Roman education. George Kennedy[6] noted that rhetoric played the central role in ancient education. At about the age of fourteen, (only) boys were sent to the school of the rhetorician for theoretical instruction in public speaking, which was an important part of the teaching of the sophists. Public speaking was basic to the educational system of Isocrates (the most famous of the sophists); and it was even taught by Aristotle.”[7]

Dialectics and Logic

It is important to note that rhetoric and oratory are not the same, although we use rhetoric and oratory synonymously; nor are rhetoric and dialectic the same. Zeno of Elea (5th century B.C.), a Greek mathematician and philosopher of the Eleatic school, is considered to be the inventor of dialectical reasoning. However, it is Plato, another Greek philosopher and teacher of Aristotle, and not Socrates, that we attribute the popularity of dialectical reasoning. Dialectic can be defined as a debate intended to resolve a conflict between two contradictory (or polar opposites), or apparently contradictory ideas or elements logically, establishing truths on both sides rather than disproving one argument. Both rhetoric and dialectic are forms of critical analysis.

Among the most significant thinkers of the fifth century B.C. were the traveling lecturers known as sophists. They were primarily teachers of political excellence who dealt with practical and immediate issues of the day, and whose investigations led in many instances to a philosophical relativism. Unlike Socrates and Plato, the sophists believed that absolute truth was unknowable and perhaps nonexistent, especially in the sphere of forensics and political life, where no universal principles could be accepted. Courses of action had to be presented in persuasive fashion. Unlike the sophists, Socrates taught that truth was absolute and knowable and that a clear distinction should be made between dialectic, the question and answer method of obtaining the one correct answer, and rhetoric, which does not seem interested in the universal validity of the answer but only in its persuasiveness for the moment. Plato developed this criticism of rhetoric to such an extent that he is the most famous and most thorough-going of the enemies of rhetoric. Plato preferred the philosophical method of formal inquiry known as dialectic.

In making a speech one must study three points: first, the means of producing persuasion; second, the language; third, the proper arrangement of the various parts of the speech. – Aristotle

The Rhetorical Approach

Plato and Aristotle cropped from The School of Athens

“The School of Athens” by Raphael. Public domain.

Aristotle wrote that rhetoric is the faculty of discovering in the particular case all the available means of persuasion. He cited four uses of rhetoric: (1) by it truth and justice maintain their natural superiority; (2) it is suited to popular audiences, since they cannot follow scientific demonstration; (3) it teaches us to see both sides of an issue, and to refute unfair arguments; and (4) it is a means of self-defense. For Aristotle, rhetoric is the process of developing a persuasive argument, and oratory is the process of delivering that argument. He stated that the “authors of ‘Arts of Speaking’ have built up but a small portion of the art of rhetoric; because this art consists of proofs alone—all else is but accessory. Yet these writers say nothing of enthymemes, the very body and substance of persuasion.”[8]

Aristotle said that rhetoric has no special subject-matter; that is, it isn’t limited to particular topics and nothing else. He claimed that certain forms of persuasion come from outside and do not belong to the art itself. This refers to, for example, witnesses, forced confessions, and contracts that Aristotle said are external to the art of speaking. He considered these to be non-artistic proofs. Aristotle identified what he considered to be artistic proofs which must be supplied by the speaker’s invention (the “faculty of discovering” that Aristotle used in his definition of rhetoric); and these artistic means of persuasion are threefold. They consist in (1) evincing through the speech a personal character that will win the confidence of the listener; (2) engaging the listener’s emotions; and (3) proving a truth, real or apparent, by argument. Aristotle concluded that the mastery of the art, then, called for (1) the power of logical reasoning (logos); a knowledge of character (ethos); and a knowledge of the emotions (pathos).

In summary, Plato had opposed rhetoric to dialectic; Aristotle compared the two: both have to do with things which are within the field of knowledge of all men and are not part of any specialized science. They do not differ in nature, but in subject and form: dialectic is primarily philosophical, rhetoric political; dialectic consists of question and answer, rhetoric of a set speech. Both can be reduced to a system and thus are properly called “art.”

Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men. – Plato

Aristotle became the primary source of all later rhetorical theory. Eventually, the dispute between rhetoric and philosophy in the time of Aristotle had ended in a compromise in which philosophy accepted rhetoric as a means to a goal. The rhetoric of not only Cicero and Quintilian, but of the Middle Ages, of the Renaissance, and of modern times, is basically Aristotelian.

  1. Kennedy, G. (1963). The Art of Persuasion in Greece. Princeton: University Press. p. 19
  2. Murphy James J. and Katula, R.A. (1995). A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric. 2nd ed. Davis: Ca. Hermagoras Press.
  3. Oliver, R.T. (1950). Persuasive Speaking. New York: Longmans, Green and Co. p.1
  4. Harvey, I. (1951). The Technique of Persuasion. London: The Falcon Press.
  5. Murphy and Katula 1995
  6. Kennedy, G. (1963). The Art of Persuasion in Greece. Princeton: University Press.
  7. Kennedy 1963, p. 7
  8. (Book 1, p. 1)